Beast of Burden?
In defence of Coventry’s wonderful elephant building – currently facing extinction.
As loved and hated as Coventry's ringroad, its equally iconic modernist leisure centre, the "elephant" building, is set for demolition, to be replaced with a new multi-million pound pool as an ongoing part of the city's regeneration project. Much like the proverb of the blind men and the elephant, each party disagrees as to its constituents parts and upon its appearance - all arguing from their own point of view (so to speak).
The elephant was initially marked for destruction several years ago as the leisure centre makes a loss of £2000 running costs per day. The news that only a 25m pool would be constructed to replace the original 50m Olympic size pool (legacy?) sparked new controversy. Alongside this, attempts to have the building Grade-II listed by the Coventry Society with support from West Midlands 20th Century society (C20 WM), were unsuccessful as the construct was deemed "not architecturally significant" enough to warrant protection. As a consequence, the elephant was recently added to the C20's buildings at risk register.
All the compound cliches have been rolled-out; that of the site becoming an embarassing white elephant-in the room - setting it up to fail - an expensive, overblown and old-fashioned carcass of dead weight impeding the city's progress towards becoming a hyper-franchised, neo-liberal mecca for companies looking to relocate to an affordable centralised UK city - like trying to draft a business plan for the Rennaissance.
But I don't think this is fair. The elephant is one of the most vital symbols for the city, it reaches back into its medieval past of heraldry, but is a post-war construct that reimagines this symbol for the future. If it were not part of a leisure centre, the building could house numerous artistic and cultural projects that would be to the benefit of everyone, and act as a central lightning rod for different groups to mix, cooperate and exchange ideas and influences. It would also prove an excellent site for food and music, located right next to the central university campus.
As with Coventry ringroad, I see the elephant as another form of superstructure - it dominates both the eye and the mind - as well as taking-up a significant footprint of accessible (public) space, in what can feel like a shrinking city occupied by various private interests - such as student accomodation and chain restaruants - the elephant is anything but alienating and disenfranchising.
Buildings like the elephant challenge you; the way so much modern architecture doesn't. As with many architectural movements; modernism, brutalism, the conditions of entry, beyond histroy, are vague - but for me - it is very much about the potential force of its suspended mass; the verve and gravity it projects. The elephant is a brute with cheekbones, all jutting interference of angles and intersecting surfaces, hard and complex like diamond, it resists interpretation. As if in reaction to the clashing, stark lines and armoured carapace of the elephant, projected images for the new pool are typical modern shiny steel and glass twist of spiralling orbital said to represent the city's weaving tradition and, I guess watery-ness...sort of Olympic Park Stratford-style; a bit vague and very corporate.
Fair enough, it's nice to have a new pool, and more often than not, architectural value is determined by the beholder, the citizen - I love the elephant most of all for its aesthetic value, it is both quite mad and very brilliant - utterly unique - but once it is gone, and the ubiquity of beige-minded developers move in - we will not see its like again.