WMF Watch

Watch 2012 UK sites

Ruins of the former Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry

After Coventry Cathedral was gutted by incendiary bombs during World War II, a conscious and collective decision was taken after the war to build a new cathedral and to preserve the ruins as a constant reminder of conflict, the need for reconciliation, and the enduring search for peace. First constructed as a chapel for the Earl of Mercia’s tenants in the twelfth century, the former Cathedral Church of St. Michael was significantly expanded during a time of prosperity in the fourteenth century, and eventually became the largest parish church in England. It was elevated to the status of cathedral in 1918. It was the second church on the site, the first being the vast Benedictine Priory of St. Mary, founded by Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva in 1043 and dissolved in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

Today, the excavated remains of the priory and the post-war cathedral coexist alongside the ruins of St. Michael, linking past to present, though there is limited interpretation of the former cathedral and all it represents. It is still used as a gathering place and site of reflection, the weathered medieval sandstone of the ruined tower, apse, and outer walls framing the open air space. However, exposure to the elements over time has eroded the ruins, and significant water infiltration problems and structural deterioration require immediate action. Stabilizing the ruins will be a first step in preserving this important landmark and renewing this sacred space.

Quarr Abbey

The ancient, now-ruined Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary’s at Quarr was founded by Baldwin de Redvers in 1132 A.D. on the windswept cliffs and ancient woodland of the Isle of Wight. The monastery survived as both a religious institution and defensive structure, until its destruction in the sixteenth century during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The modern Quarr Abbey was constructed in the early twentieth century by architect Dom Paul Bellot after the arrival of an order of French Benedictine monks. The monastic buildings, considered some of the most important twentieth-century religious structures in the United Kingdom, were constructed from Belgian brick in a medieval style combining French and Moorish architectural elements. The complex is surrounded by a beautiful landscape of gardens, fields, farm buildings, medieval ruins, and the ocean.

The medieval ruins are in need of repair, as are the monastic buildings and surrounding infrastructure. Monastic life is fundamental to the living tradition of the complex, but the shrinking community of monks has been challenged by the maintenance of the abbey and its cultural resources. Increased awareness about the significance of the monastic complex and the surviving spiritual life within its walls will hopefully help to garner support for the repair, maintenance, and management of the structures, as well as improve visitor facilities and public engagement. It may also shed new light on a problem faced by many historic religious institutions the world over, where thinning congregations and dwindling communities impact ways of life as well as the structures so integral to their practice.

Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey is best known today as the ancestral home of Lord Byron (1788–1824). The original Newstead Abbey was founded by Henry II as an Augustinian priory in the twelfth century. In 1540, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the property was offered to the Byron family by Henry VIII and converted into a residence. The estate grew over time, but a large proportion of the original medieval fabric survived, including the west front, constructed in 1274, and the fifteenth-century cloisters. Later extensions were built out of stone quarried from the main church building.

The main building suffered from neglect and deterioration before being inherited by the Romantic poet, who lamented “Thou, the hall of my Fathers, art gone to decay” in the poem “On Leaving Newstead Abbey” (1807). Lord Byron sold the property in 1818 to his childhood friend Thomas Wildman, who spent much of his wealth to restore and redecorate it, and opened it to visitors. After subsequent changes in ownership, it was donated to the city of Nottingham in 1831.

Though the surrounding parklands and gardens are well visited, opening hours for the house museum have been limited due to insufficient resources. Newstead Abbey has suffered significant deterioration, and a strategy for its conservation and long-term maintenance is greatly needed. Restoration and renewed interpretation would benefit the local community and other visitors and could reinforce the historical connections to one of the world’s greatest poets.

British Brutalism

The term “brutalism” is derived from the French “betón brut,” meaning “raw concrete,” and refers to a style of late modernist architecture that emerged during the second half of the twentieth century. The inclusion of three British buildings on the Watch underscores the risk to modern architecture around the world, especially to the underappreciated legacy of brutalism. Characterized by bold geometries, the exposure of structural materials, and functional spatial design, brutalist architecture was an expression of social progressivism and became a favored style for public architecture of the time. Often monumental in scale, these structures symbolize an era when government had both the resources and the political will to contribute major civic buildings to the public realm.

When it opened in 1976, London’s South Bank Centre was deemed a visionary combination of performance spaces and an art gallery, but lack of heritage status puts the architectural complex at risk. The Preston Bus Station is a daring concrete structure housing an integrated car parking, bus, and taxi facility. Upon its completion in 1969, it was the world’s largest bus station. Birmingham Central Library is a monumental hub in the civic center of the city and the largest non-national library in Europe. Both the station and the library are threatened by demolition due to redevelopment schemes.

These three buildings, dramatically sited, are uncompromising in their stark use of concrete and powerfully sculptural forms. They brought a sense of the monumental to the British urban landscape at the time of their construction and remain architectural icons. Over the past decade the Twentieth Century Society has been a constant advocate for these three buildings, but none has achieved protective national status. With two scheduled for the wrecking ball, there is an urgent need to raise awareness, appreciation, and local pride in the significance of brutalist architecture in general and in the value of these particular sites. It is hoped that inclusion in the Watch will prompt a dialogue about protection and alternatives for adaptive reuse.