Volgograd Place lies under a motorway ring road surrounding Coventry city centre. The road was designed by Donald Gibson, an architect who rebuilt the city after most of it was destroyed during a twelve-hour air raid by the German Luftwaffe in 1940.
Gibson’s highway lifted cars into the sky, redirecting drivers from the ruin that lay below into space as though flying or exhumed. The monument on the road’s underside had been constructed in honour of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Coventry’s new partnership: the first two cities in the world to acquire ‘twin’ status. Many in Coventry had been moved by the destruction wrought by the Battle of Stalingrad, evidence of which fed into the UK via staggering death counts on the radio and jagged black-and-white photographs of nothingness in the newspapers. In its newly churned earth, dismembered buildings and shattered glass, Stalingrad now seemed to share an internal resemblance to their hometown: as though it bore not the same face but the same essential organs, the same splayed guts. Eight hundred and thirty Coventry residents gathered together money to send Stalingrad a tablecloth in response, a reminder of a shared home life lost. Little help is better than big sympathy, the message with it read. Shortly afterwards, Coventry was also twinned with Dresden, for similar reasons: aerial bombing by Britain’s RAF forces had left the city’s medieval centre in ruins.
While wartime destruction has been woven into the mythology of Dresden, Volgograd and Coventry, their respective efforts at restoration have differed. Many of Dresden’s old landmarks have recently been faithfully restored. The process is ongoing: the city’s ‘old town’ has been divided into eight areas of restoration by the state, government investment poured into the new development of old designs.
Coventry’s ring road instead splices what little evidence of the former city remains, cutting across Spon End, the city’s only remaining medieval street. An old weaver’s house lies on Spon End’s outer periphery — described in a poster on its front door as restored to ‘how it would have been’ in 1540. In a side room, the setting of a portion of the 2019 Coventry Biennial The Twin, the house conversely appears in disrepair. The ground floor ceiling is missing, revealing a fragile staircase which ends at an empty doorway six feet above ground. Damp walls are half covered in successive layers of wallpaper, yellow, then floral, cracked and blistered to reveal various stages of decay. A tapestry by Nilupa Yasmin, said to be a recreation of a contemporary British Bengali living room, spills from the window onto the floor like a loose bandage.
At the tapestry’s edge is a bench by Mathew Parkin based on a design by Enzo Mari. Visitors may stand on the tapestry, or sit here. Mari is an Italian designer understood to have longstanding communist sympathies, best known for Autoprogettazione, a set of simple, freely reproducible furniture designs published in 1974. He intended these models to be modest and accessible enough for the poorest families to make, balancing the look and feel of the finished product with the labourer’s ease in producing it in his mind. The bench somewhat resembles the Mari daybed in Danh Vo’s current show Untitled at South London Gallery, the Soviet Union prominent former allies of Vo’s birthplace, Vietnam. Untitled is outlined in the exhibition guide as a show combining, among other things, ’personal biography and imperial dissolution’. Vo’s daybed, unlike Parkin’s plywood bench, is made out of blackened cedar, lying under dripping oil-covered mirrors, next to fractured Roman statues pinned together with glistening brass hooks.
Much of the postwar reconstruction in Stalingrad was undertaken by hand. The performance was as significant as the result: the tireless labour of workers re-laying the foundations of the city being a palliative demonstration of Stalinist zeal, community identities rebuilt around the sensation, demand, of building. Today adorning the side of Dresden’s Palace of Culture is a Soviet mural honouring postwar reconstruction, one of the few traces of GDR rule left in the city. In it, a young woman swings a huge red flag in front of workers and revolutionaries wielding rifles, holding children and burying the dead. The subjects’ hands look inflated, depicted in more detail than anything else: they clutch, and dig, clench and push.
Volgograd is overlooked now by Mamayev Kurgan, a memorial complex headed by a giant statue of a woman brandishing a raised sword. Set on a hill where much of the battle’s dead were buried, its foundations are now slipping away, bones rejoining the earth under her weight.
Volgograd Place, tucked under the Coventry ring road, is made up of round concrete basins which rise and fall around a winding path like waves. Now defunct, these were once water fountains, the absence of movement now reinforcing the space as one arrested in time — a moment of spoiling. Above the grey stones that rise from the feature’s dry bed are a set of murals. The first, two hands, joining across the ocean to shake. In another Biennial event a party at this site commemorated 75 years of friendship between Coventry and Volgograd, alongside the 29 other cities the former is twinned with. A celebration of shared beginnings, of underlying resemblances, of ruins and their repairs.
Esther Draycott is a writer based in Glasgow. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Twin is on until 24 November 2019, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, noon-5pm, 121 Upper Spon Street, Coventry CV1 3BQ. More information on the 2019 Coventry Biennial, held until 24 November at locations across the city, can be found by clicking here.