Elephant, Cat, Eagle, Phoenix

by Gethin Thomas October. 23, 2020 200 views

This is a photo essay on one building in Coventry, England. The essay also branches of into related areas, like Heraldry and the symbolism of animals in myth and culture.

The Elephant is not the official name of this building, it's a nickname which stuck. When I first saw this building I didn't really see it at all, which may hint at one of the reasons why it failed to gain protected status and became endangered. You could say more endangered than an actual elephant as there is only one of these.

It is a real slow burn of a building, because most people who are not from Coventry probably see it for the first time in their peripheral vision when they drive under it, assuming it to be some sort of bridge or elevated walkway rather than a building in it's own right.

Designed to mimic Coventry’s coat of arms, the Elephant sits alongside the grade II-listed 1966 Olympic-sized swimming pool designed by city architect Arthur Ling which is set to close once the ‘iconic’ new replacement structure opens in 2019. A bid to win listed status for the 1970s leisure centre in Coventry failed.

Known as The Elephant, because of its shape, the city's civic society had lodged the appeal in an attempt to safeguard its future. Keith Draper, chairman of the Coventry Society, said the group was "disappointed" at the Secretary of State's decision. He said it would put the building at risk, once a new swimming pool was completed.

Mr Draper said the fact that The Elephant was designed by a team from the city council, rather than a named architect had counted against it. "Its location near the ring road also appears to have been a negative factor," he said. The Elephant, completed in 1976, is linked to a 1960s building, which is already Grade II listed.

Many of the older buildings in Coventry were destroyed during World War Two and Mr Draper said it was important to preserve as many of the city's current "landmark" structures as possible.

Like it or loathe it you have to admit it is a statement piece and it was obviously planned and designed at a time of great self-confidence. It is no shrinking wallflower. The main problem with design which is new and breaks with tradition is that quite often it is not appreciated in it's own time and if as a result it does not survive, then by the time it is appreciated it is often too late.

Despite the ruling from the Department for Culture Media and Sport, he said there was a strong case for retaining The Elephant and possibly reusing it as a concert and conference venue, rather than demolishing it.

The Coventry Coat of Arms were granted according to history by King Edward III in 1345. The present arms are identical to the old arms, with the addition of the supporters either side, and were granted on February 10, 1959.

Edward III transformed the Kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. His fifty-year reign was the second-longest in medieval English history, and saw vital developments in legislation and government, in particular the evolution of the English Parliament, as well as the ravages of the Black Death. He outlived his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, and the throne passed to his grandson, Richard II.

The elephant is seen, not only as a beast so strong that he can carry a tower - Coventry's castle - full of armed men, but also as a symbol of Christ's redemption of the human race. The elephant is also seen as a dragon slayer in Medieval thinking. There is a now forgotten tradition of dragon-slaying in this neighbourhood - and Coventry to be the birthplace of St. George, who slew the dragon. In the early seals of Coventry, from which the arms are derived, are shown, on one side, the combat between another dragon-slayer, the Archangel Michael, and the dragon. On the other is the elephant and castle. The shield is coloured red and green, the traditional colours of the city dating back at least to 1441.

The crest, a cat-a-mountain, or wild cat, is generally considered to symbolise watchfulness. The helmet is that of an esquire with the visor closed, as with all boroughs.

The Supporters, granted in 1959, comprise the Eagle of Leofric (husband of Lady Godiva) and the Phoenix. The Black Eagle of Leofric recalls the ancient Coventry and the Phoenix arising from the flames represents the New Coventry reborn out of the ashes of the old. Coventry was heavily bombed and nearly completely destroyed during the second world war.

The motto "Camera Principis" (the Prince's Chamber) is held to refer to Edward, the Black Prince. The Manor of Cheylesmore at Coventry was at one time owned by his grandmother, Queen Isabella, and eventually passed to him.

Eagle- Leofric (died 31 August or 30 September 1057) was an Earl of Mercia. He founded monasteries at Coventry and Much Wenlock. Leofric is most remembered as the husband of Lady Godiva.

Most people familiar with Coventry will know who Lady Godiva is. She was the lady who rode through the city on horseback while naked. Or so the story goes. There is a statue of her in the city centre, I'm not sure if there is one of her husband.

Lady Godiva was a late Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who is relatively well documented as the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and a patron of various churches and monasteries.

According to the typical version of the story, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride on a horse through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Just one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in what is the most famous instance of voyeurism.

Elephant and Castle- A derived symbol used in Europe is the "elephant and castle": an elephant carrying a castle on its back, being used especially to symbolize strength. The symbol was used in Europe in classical antiquity and more recently has been used in England since the 13th century, and in Denmark since at least the 17th century.

Today the symbol is most known from the Elephant and Castle intersection in south London, which derives its name from a pub, using the old site of a cutler's, who had used the symbol of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers. The Cutlers, in turn, used the symbol due to the use of ivory in handles. The elephant and castle symbol has been used since the 13th century in the coat of arms of the city of Coventry.

The Cat and it's symbolism- In Heraldry the Cat-a-mountain should always be represented full-faced like the leopard. It is a symbol of liberty, watchfulness, vigilance and courage. The charge of the cat can trace its history to the Roman goddess of Liberty who is represented holding a cup in one hand, a broken scepter in the other, and a cat lying at her feet. Not only was the cat idolized by the Romans but by the ancient Egyptians too. It is no wonder that Charles IV, of Luxemburg, Emperor of Germany, adopted the lynx (a form of a wild cat) for his seal, with the motto, "Nullius pavit occursum" which means, "He fears not meeting with any one."

The Phoenix- is a mythological bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with fire and the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Some legends say it dies in a show of flames and combustion, others that it simply dies and decomposes before being born again. Most accounts say that it lived for 500 years before rebirth.

Coventry's iconic 'Elephant' building could be transformed into a new community arts space. Designers are proposing that the old sports centre is turned into a new venue based on the success of the CET building pop-up in Corporation Street. With the CET pop-up coming to an end later this year for work to start on a 50's themed boutique hotel, AWD Restorations are hoping a new similar venture called 'The Cov Elephant' could be just as successful.

The community enterprise scheme would see the Coventry Sports and Leisure Centre building on Fairfax Street turned into a new free to use and visit cultural hub for the city centre , showcasing art displays, heritage exhibitions and workshops.

Development plans

The plans are subject to a purchase arrangement, but AWD says it is in a position to fund the project itself. The development would be split into three phases:

1. A pop-up style makeover and takeover of spaces for art displays, heritage exhibitions and workshops.

2. Including the potential for shared use e.g. term-time dance and theatre rehearsals for Coventry University.

3. Full transfer into private ownership and the conversion of the upper sports hall space into 'New York style' loft apartments.

As of September 2020

Coventry’s iconic Elephant building will not be demolished with discussions for its future use still on-going, the city’s regeneration chief has assured.

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There are 4 comments , add yours!
Camellia Staab 1 month ago

Not loathing it, but not liking it either. Somehow in the same category as Stella's sculpture for me smile

1 month ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Camellia Staab 1 month ago

You're definitely not alone in that view. The trouble is that in the past no one considered knocking down a building until it was at least a hundred years old, now we are happy to demolish after thirty years. That means the true value of a building is not really appreciated now until it is gone in many cases. Buildings do not exist for long enough for us to evaluate them. So whereas now we can look back at our cities and see buildings from every decade in history up to the sixties there is a danger that we are leaving a massive hole in our history from the sixties onwards. Will we end up with cities that reflect architecture of only two periods, pre 1960's and today, whenever today is.

1 month ago Edited
Camellia Staab Replied to Gethin Thomas 1 month ago

Interesting point you brought up. The last two days I went up to Chicago again ( and of course took a ton of pictures) this time my goal was to locate some of the old, old buildings, where the "BIG WIGS" live. I found the buildings, they were all constructed in the 1880s and they are gorgeous. Fortunately, they are considered a landmark and so they will not be demolished anytime soon, unless some idiot ( and there are a ton of them coming out of the wood work lately) decides that these buildings were used for slavery or some bull like that and start requesting that they be torn down, just like some of the statues and such that have been brought down because they do not fit our recent standards......and so just as you said, we end up with architecture that only goes back so far and historical artifacts become obsolete.

1 month ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Camellia Staab 1 month ago

I couldn't agree more. Smashing things just proves a baseless argument in my view.

1 month ago Edited
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