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Coventry Phoenix Initiative

Location: Coventry, UK

Artists: Alexander Beleschenko, Christine Browne, Jochen Gerz, Susanna Heron, Françoise Schein, David Ward, Kate Whiteford.

Poet: David Morley


The Coventry Phoenix Initiative was instigated in the early 1990s by Coventry City Council as an ambitious plan to regenerate the central area of the city around the Cathedral, the University and the Museum of British Road Transport. It was then taken forward as a venture between the City Council, Advantage West Midlands and the Millennium Commission. In 1997, architects and urban designers MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (MJP) won a limited competition for the masterplanning for the project. MJP’s proposals included major art commissions as an integral element, which would be produced by collaboration between artists and the design team. At this point, however, no artists had been selected for the project. MJP’s proposal also indicated key roles in delivering the masterplan for Robert Rummey, Landscape Architects and Public Art Commissions Agency (PACA). Coventry City Counci lenthusiastically grasped the opportunity to restore Coventry to its place as one of the country’s leading art cities. Artists subsequently commissioned as part of the masterplan include Christine Browne, Alexander Beleschenko, Jochen Gerz, Susanna Heron, Françoise Schein, David Ward, Kate Whiteford and poet David Morley.

Masterplan Brief

The brief for the project was to create a metaphorical journey, and an actual pedestrian route, through the centre of the city with the theme of reconciliation between history and the future. Beginning with the past, represented by the bombed-out shell of the Cathedral, with the new Cathedral rebuilt alongside, the journey would pass through the fringes of the town centre and end near a new Garden of International Friendship, symbolic of the anticipated future. At this stage, the City Council was highly ambitious and envisaged a National Centre for Human Achievement at the core of the initiative.

Soon after the master planning contract was awarded, ambitions for the project had to be scaled down following discussions with the Millennium Commission over available funding. This led to plans for the National Centre for Human Achievement being dropped. Furthermore, as negotiations progressed with owners of key sites along the proposed route, it became clear that a major supermarket could not be persuaded to move from its premises at a pivot allocation within the overall plan. MJP had to revise its proposals radically to accommodate these factors and came up with a sensitive master plan which loosely weaves together a newly revealed archaeological site, refurbished historical buildings previously obscured by later buildings, two newly created civic squares and two new public gardens.

Commissioning Process

Richard MacCormac of MJP has long been an advocate of collaboration with artists in the public realm as well as demonstrating his convictions in successful projects. In this project, his commitment to close collaboration between his team and the artists means that the art works themselves shape the spaces, rather than being simply placed within them. He sees the role of artists as adding a further dimension of thought within the masterplanning process, dealing with the site as subject matter, getting beneath the physical appearance to deeper levels of resonance. Thus the artists’ input extends the work of the design team in a truly integrated way and creates works specific to that site alone.

Whilst artists had not been identified in MJP’s proposals for the masterplan, their essential role and input was conceived from the start. Vivien Lovell, Director of PACA, wrote a public art strategy for the Phoenix Initiative based on the theme of communication, alongside a public art strategy for Coventry City Council as a whole. The strategy for the Phoenix Initiative proposed that work should be commissioned from a mixture of local and international artists. Soon after MJP won the contract, PACA recommended an artist selection procedure for the project. As the masterplan was developed in detail, the design team identified potential opportunities and locations for artists’ work as part of the design process. It was Vivien Lovell’s proposal that artists should be invited to address entire spaces rather than simply commissioning works for agreed locations. The choice of artists was facilitated by PACA working with a selection panel,which made recommendations for artists’ appointments to the Millennium Forum and thence to the City Council.

PACA’s role ended when the artists’ proposals were sufficiently developed for formal contracts to be drafted and signed. The artists were contracted directly to Coventry City Council. Thereafter, the ongoing development and installation of the artists’ projects has been managed by MJP and Robert Rummey Design Services, under the project management of Ashgate Development Services. By 2002, the works of five artists have been completed; the remainder were completed in 2003.

The Route and Commissions

The pedestrian route leads through four main areas startingfrom the Cathedral:- The Priory Garden and Cloister; a new square surrounded by shops, housing and cafés at Priory Place; the fan-shaped open space of Millennium Place; and finally, the new Garden of International Friendship.

Priory Garden and Priory Cloister

The removal of a 1950s church hall built over the mediaeval St Mary’s Priory has enabled the remains of the Priory to be revealed in a new garden. Taking this contemplative space as its inspiration, Christine Browne’s mosaic, Cofa’s Tree, representing the growth of Coventry, was installed in 2001. For the adjacent Priory Cloister, artist David Ward has created a sound and light piece which washes the walls with light and transmit a subtle sound track of voices and song from speakers amongst the lime trees planted to mark out the cloister.

Priory Place

The route from the Cloister through Priory Place to Millennium Place has been created by opening out what were service areas and car parks. At the entrance to the triangular Priory Place, Susanna Heron has designed a water piece incorporating a 12 foot high waterfall, a still pool and streams, referring to the former surface water courses which now flow underground.

Millennium Place

The two triangles of Priory Place and Millennium Place are joined by steel arches at one apex, marking a significant crossing point of well-used pedestrian routes. Millennium Place itself is designed as a new open space to host large-scale public events. Françoise Schein’s monumental international clock, 50m long by 15 m high, based on the 24 hour time zone diagram found on the front of short wave radios, animates the area. Bars of LED light set into the Chinese black granite paving are illuminated to mark the hours, with dials at the end of each bar to indicate minutes and seconds.

Curving around the edge of Millennium Place, Jochen Gerz’s People’s Bench, made in coloured acrylic, provides seating and has allowed residents to leave their own permanent trace in the form of a small engraved metal disc embedded in the surface. Gerz has also created the Future Monument, an obelisk in glass surrounded by texts about people’s reactions to past enemies, made by working closely with groups of local people.

Garden of International Friendship

A ramp of sandstone which becomes a floating spiral and then a bridge leads out of Millennium Place. Alexander Beleschenko has designed the blue etched glass fins which encloses the bridge and is spectacularly lit up at night.

The new Garden of International Friendship was designed by Robert Rummey Landscape Architects. It incorporates work by artist Kate Whiteford who has created a fragment of a huge maze in white marble chippings and planted box hedges, based on a pattern take from a mediaeval floor tile. In front of it, a wall is inscribed with lines of text from newly composed Coventry carols by poet David Morley. He has also worked with local people and schoolchildren and some of the text is incorporated into pavements and walls elsewhere in the initiative.

Key Issues

  • Shared vision

    The time which the members of the design team – architect, landscape architect and public art consultant- gave to developing a trusting relationship, was essential in giving rise toa shared vision and allowing for a free interchange of ideas.

  • Early inclusion of artists

    Artists were an integral element of the masterplanning framework from its inception. Whilst MJP and PACA already had some ideas where artists might make interventions, generally the locations for artists’ work evolved through discussion and collaboration with the artists.

  • Selection of artists

    Selection was through invited shortlist or competitive interview, and included an open submission for local artists. PACA worked with a selection panel including local residents, artists, and representatives of the Cathedral, university, art college, the City Council and the design team. The panel’s recommendations then went to the Millennium Forum representing the different business and political interests in the city, which was managing the whole project. Vivien Lovell, PACA, identified a German conceptual artist, Jochen Gerz, who had worked for many yearson the subject of monuments, as particularly appropriate for the reconciliation and remembrance theme of the Phoenix Initiative. She recommended that he should be invited to give a presentation and was delighted when his appointment was formalised.

  • Collaboration – Richard MacCormac is convinced of the extra dimension of thought and significance which artists bring to buildings and places. His key advice to architects planning to collaborate with artists for the first time is that collaborations do take a lot of time and that this should be recognised in the fee arrangements.
  • Links with other bodies

    The artists’ commissions have been further integrated into the fabric of the city through strong links with a number ofcity institutions. The Cathedral was particularly involved in and supportive of the whole process. Two artists, Jochen Gerzand Françoise Schein, were given Fellowships by Coventry University Fine Art Department. Jochen Gerz also contributed to the history of art course at Warwick University and writer David Morley taught on the creative writing course there. The Henry Moore Foundation made an award of £15,000 towards the Jochen Gerz commission following an applicationby PACA.


Further details, with progress reports and an archive of images, are at

© Copyright Joanna Morland, 2002.