There has always been more to Coventry than car plants. Now the city council and architect MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard are using its thousand-year history to stimulate the regeneration of the city centre.
Lady Godiva could have told you that Coventry has a proud history that goes back the best part of a millennium before the days of car plants, the post-war shopping precinct and Sir Basil Spence's cathedral. Now, that history is being mobilised to regenerate the heart of the city – and not just as an extended heritage centre.

Before Christmas, bulldozers started clearing ground for an ambitious £24m scheme to provide a visitor centre and a linked series of intensively landscaped gardens and public piazzas in Coventry city centre. This scheme, christened the Phoenix Initiative, is being carried out by Coventry City Council with a £10.25m grant from the Millennium Commission. In addition, one of the scheme's central piazzas is bounded by a proposed five-storey commercial development of shops and student residences that is the subject of bids by two private developers.

The masterplan, which won outline planning permission before Christmas, is by architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard and landscape architect Robert Rummey Associates. They brought in a retinue of public artists nominated by the Public Art Commissions Agency.

The scheme is a cut-price version of one that won the same design team a selected competition in June 1997. However, the underlying concept has changed little. Ian Logan, associate of MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, explains: "We saw the sequence of spaces as representing a journey through 1000 years of Coventry's history. It starts in the ruins of a medieval monastery next to the cathedral – where archaeological excavations will be shown in a new visitor centre – and progresses northwards to the Museum of British Road Transport and beyond that to the ring road. But we also see this progression as going from the past through the present and into the future, with Coventry as a go-ahead modern place, so we have designed a thoroughly modern scheme." The scheme is notable for the way architecture, landscaping and public art have been seamlessly spliced together. Next to the cathedral, for instance, stands a low, extensively glazed visitor centre that fits between a garden within the monastery ruins and a "cloister" of trained trees. Beyond that, the piazza bounded by shops and student residences features a contemporary waterfall designed by Susanna Heron.

Next, the route passes beneath a dramatically curving steel arch. At this point, the pedestrian route and the arch cross diagonally over a road intersection, which has now been severed and closed to traffic. The double arch then opens up to form Millennium Place, a fan-shaped space that will be paved in black slate to symbolise a millpond on the River Sherborne that once ran through there. From there, a slender, lightweight glass bridge spirals up and round to a new modern garden next to the ring road. The bridge is designed by artist Alexander Beleschenko and structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane with a steel spine and treads and curving glass sides.

The sequence of gardens and piazzas should be buzzing well into the evening, thanks to the new student housing and café-bars. They are the bait to entice the half a million tourists who visit Coventry Cathedral to explore the other attractions the city has to offer. Such a well-embellished ceremonial route would no doubt have appealed to Lady Godiva, too.

Project team

client Coventry City Council architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard landscape architect Robert Rummey Associates public artists Alexander Beleschenko, Susanna Heron, Francoise Schein, David Ward, David Morley, Jochen Gerz project manager Geoff Brown Associates structural engineers Babtie Group, Dewhurst Macfarlane cost consultant WT Partnership