The story is likely apocryphal — and so disgraceful I almost hesitate to tell it — but it goes like this. On the night of 14 November 1940, as more than 500 Luftwaffe rained bombs on the people of Coventry, the newly appointed city architect Donald Gibson was watching the fires.
Gibson had been appointed to the newly created position of ‘city architect’ three years earlier by the radical Labour council that had come to power in a local election. His job was to modernise what was then Britain’s best-preserved medieval city, and build the ideals of social justice and equality into the city’s brick and mortar.
That night, as swathes of the old city fell, Gibson was supposedly hurrying back and forth between the window and his architectural models to see which parts of his plan he could now put into place, the last logistical obstacles having been blown to convenient smithereens.
I should stress again that this probably didn’t happen. But the story illustrates neatly — probably a little too neatly — the old accusation that 20th-century architects and urban planners cared about their own grand designs far, far more than they cared for the people meant to live in them.
Things are rarely so simple, as I discovered listening to How to Rebuild a City, another stellar edition of Radio 3’s Sunday Feature. This weekly documentary slot remains one of the most consistently interesting programmes being broadcast. Among its other merits, it makes a lovely change from Auntie 3’s dish-dull weekend broadcasting slate of beardy jazz, spoken word and Desert Island Discs rip-offs. This weekend I heard not one but two classical singers perform treacly, testicle-wrenching covers of the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. (Two, as the saying goes, begins to look like carelessness.