25 Sept 2011

Glasgow - city of misguided ambitions

The power of the grid - St Vincent Street

I find geology hard to grasp – those incomprehensible time scales all in three dimensions. But I have just about got the concept of continental drift, which tells us that Scotland used to be part of North America. If you go to Glasgow this looks obvious. It has the feel of an American city – the grid, the scale, the dynamism, the self reliance. Visiting in August Brad Pitt was also there filming with Glasgow as a stand in for Philadelphia. Glasgow architecture and design up to the mid C20th ran on a quite different, more progressive, tangent to that of London and England.

Dear Zaha, this city doesn't need you - Botanic Gardens

Glasgow, the second city of the Empire, was once the fourth largest city in Europe and is still, inevitably after London, the most exciting city in Britain. Ian Nairn wrote ' Glasgow was a shock to me' and probably having just read that I persuaded my older brother who had no interest in architecture but had just passed his test to drive up there. After a fairly hair raising journey without a map we found ourselves at night in a townscape of wide streets and soot blackened tenements. We were in the Gorbals just before the wrecking ball. I had never seen anything like it. However crowded and mean the housing, these tenements had magnificent presence as streetscape. But that was a Glasgow in the 60s, more than half a century after its heyday and then determined to be part of the brave new post war world. This exceptional city with its unique style has for decades sought to restore prosperity and status by becoming more and more like every other big international city. So obviously it needs iconic new museums, hence the specific purpose of our visit. We went to see Zaha Hadid’s recently opened Riverside Museum, otherwise known as the Glasgow Transport Museum.

Fancy a picnic?

There is not much further that can be said about the building after that fantastic blog by Douglas Murphy well before the museum opened or the incisive review by Steve Parnell in BD. The AJ took a rather more star struck line. Clearly the museum is very popular. When we were there it was rammed, evidently mostly local people, often families with children and grandparents. Were they there because of the iconic building? I rather think not. Few people seemed to be looking at the architecture and no one else was taking photographs. The punters were totally absorbed in the exhibits which are a celebration of Glasgow, Glasgow engineering, Glaswegian skills and Glasgow of a bygone age. There is an awful lot here to be proud of and Glaswegians are rightly proud of it.

Cardiff Bay again

But what can you make of the building and more importantly its brief and its location?
Well one thing is certain - the location is crap, about as bleak and inaccessible as you could possibly imagine. Don’t think South Bank promenade - think Clyde Expressway. Its location at the confluence of the Clyde and the Kelvin famously or fatuously inspired the twisted architectural concept of the building. To either side are vast areas of dereliction with some apartment blocks in the distance, presumably the first phase of yet another vibrant waterside chimera which promises to provide a Clydeside walkway and a new bridge across the Kelvin to the museum. Back towards the city centre, if you could reach it, is that other icon – the Scottish Exhibition Convention Centre Armadillo by Norman Foster. This too is stranded on the wrong side of the Clyde Expressway and surrounded by car parks. The Riverside Museum stares at Govan on the opposite bank across a surprisingly narrow Clyde. (How on earth did they launch those huge ships? I think the answer is sideways.) Govan is of course home to Rab C. Nesbitt. His views on his new view are not yet known but can be imagined from his hilarious take on Glasgow’s stint as European City of Culture in 1990.

The ominous pedestrian approach beneath the expressway

Partick is the nearest station – about 10 minutes walk away, served by suburban trains and the famous 'Clockwork Orange' Subway, a circular line which makes the London tube seem generously proportioned. (It manages to miss the main line Central station and is a very bumpy ride but frequent, cheap and fun.) However signage from the station is so discreet we were lucky to find a very helpful Big Issue seller to direct us – across the expressway, alongside the expressway and then across the dereliction to the car park. It was a gloomy day, but the approach is really dismal. The museum looks lost and insignificant set in this wasteland. The arrival square is as bleak and utilitarian as it is possible to imagine, animated only by burger vans. The building looks blank – black glass entrance and acres of zinc panels. A ‘fuck off’ building if I have ever seen one. However it does look much better from the riverside where the drama of the crumpled roof is helped by viewing it from closer quarters whilst the tall sailing ship moored alongside reflects in the black glass. But basically this is a shed and, despite the interest of the squiggle, a pretty hostile one.

A parametric paradigma of the wheelie bins. 

Internally the overwhelming impression is of clutter and crowds, making it difficult to enjoy the space. The drama of the roof is best seen from the narrow gallery leading to the Tall Ship entrance and from the mezzanine bridge. The choice of near universal pistachio for the walls is daring but I thought effective although Chris said it made him visually sick. Overall the impression is of a pretty basic building with little evidence of the architects’ care and commitment such as you find in, say, Benson and Forsyth’s wonderful Museum of Scotland or Adam Caruso’s Nottingham Contemporary or indeed Barry Gasson’s 1983 Burrell Collection in nearby Pollock Park. There are a few nice touches like the seats on the deep window reveals, some of which frame good views along the river, and the art deco-like stairs. But overall you get the feeling that the starchitect, having had the iconic idea, moved on to some more lucrative project and didn’t really bother with the detail. Hence the wheelie bins for litter outside the main entrance, ruining my shot.

Cramming it all in

There is no doubt that the building does what is asked of it – which is to attract attention. But in the long term how suitable is it as a transport museum? Well the squiggly shape does at least inject some element of movement which is fairly important for a transport museum and is conspicuously lacking in the displays themselves. The main problem is that this expensive shed is just not big enough for the exhibits. Some of these things are huge – like the railway engines and the tramcars – but they are all crowded in on top of each other. The star attraction, the South African locomotive, particularly needs some space but is not given any. It is jam packed next to a Glasgow double-decker tram which itself is worthy of a bit more dignity. Vintage cars are perched on shelves up a wall. The bikes are displayed as an aerial sculpture, which is good as art but might you not want to look at the bikes themselves?

Ego before social history

There is a huge issue with the brief for the museum - Stephen Greenberg explains why in BD and it is fairly chilling. A deliberate decision to go for the iconic building which hobbles the exhibits rather than re-using an original ship building shed which would have provided the space and opportunity to explore Glasgow’s transport, engineering and social history expansively.

Ever wondered what a still skateboarder looked like?

Apart from the lack of space and the confines imposed by Zaha’s building there is a real problem with the unimaginative approach to displays. Actually the excellent artefacts were much beter displayed in the old, unassuming, transport museum where you could get a decent look at them. There is a real lack of the kinetic – everything is static apart from the brilliant models of all those ships launched on the Clyde which pass on a conveyor bringing up just the right amount of information as they pass. You could watch all day. But nothing else moves. There is even a tableau of skate boarding for God’s sake – have they never thought of video?

Nuff said

The thing is there are just so many good here which is not properly explored. For example Glasgow’s public transport never really recovered from the abandonment of the tram network – the largest outside London and the last to be scrapped in the 60s. There is a fascinating film by Kevin Brownlow about the last days of the ‘caurs’. Apparently the women tram drivers lost their jobs – they could drive trams but not buses, a fact which suggests there has been some progress in the last 50 years. I nearly missed a breathtaking Stanley Spencer panel on shipbuilding (or shipbuilders) commissioned as part of the war effort. It is there but has not space or prominence, nor does it lead us to those amazingly potent narratives behind the paintings.

Transport policy outside City Chambers

There is a sense that this project exemplifies a City that has lost its way and especially lost its way in how it deals with its transport, connectivity and the public realm. It is a city, even more than most others in Britain, in love with the car. Ironically Glasgow is still a compact, dense city but its structure is mutilated by motorways and its fine streets largely given over to the dominance of cars. The building of the M8 across the city centre in the 60s was self harm on a massive scale, and in some ways the destruction south of the river (near Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School) is even worse. But Glasgow is still doing this today with the M74 only just completed through the south east of the city – ‘a violently imposed fissure on the urban grain’ as Ellis Woodman beautifully describes it. Why would you do this in a city with one of the lowest car ownerships in the country and the largest suburban rail network outside London? It is psychopathic self harm to one of the greatest cities of Europe.

Move aside Manchester - Bank of Scotland

And that is the point. Glasgow is undoubtedly the finest city in Britain other than London, even surpassing Edinburgh. There is no doubt that it is a hard city, and one that has seen hard times as well as greatness. No Mean City indeed. The wind whistles down the grid iron streets. But actually Glasgow has reinvented itself around its exceptional artistic and cultural heritage as well as its commercial and engineering achievements. This new economy also needs to find expression in the public realm as a more relaxed place less dominated by traffic where pedestrians and cyclists can relax too, as they already do in the Merchant City. It shouldn’t be such a hassle to cross the street.

More life than the riverside - Necropolis 

Glaswegians are right to be proud of their achievements and what’s in the Riverside Museum but the building is not up to the exhibits. Certainly the idea that iconic architecture like this will kick start regeneration along a Clydeside dominated by motorways is quixotic. Glasgow has a magnificent urban structure still to work with and more than enough iconic architecture already. The priority is to make sure it keeps its character and distinctiveness. And I’m talking of the Egyptian Halls for starters.

Tenement design - more progressive than Victorian London/England


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a fair and frank assessment of our city today. While I agree the Egyptian Halls should be saved, I regret signing the current petition that can only envisage it being saved if converted (with a lot of public money) into another generic chain hotel.

CSQTown Planner said...

You are absolutely right that Glasgow is undoubtedly the finest city in Britain other than London, even surpassing Edinburgh. There is no doubt that it is a hard city, and one that has seen hard times as well as greatness. Using the best available science and methods for adaptation planning is essential. Thanks for share this post.

Town Planners Melbourne

sambeau said...

No one other than a 1980s marketing pamphlet and every guide-book ever printed since has called the Glasgow Underground "The Clockwork Orange".

I'm fairly sure that those words have never been spoken aloud by anyone, let alone aloud in a Glaswegian accent.

Jones the planner said...

Yeah that's probably true Sambeau but still a brilliant ride.

Gordon said...

Thanks for the write-up.

Pretty much all the Clydeside developments have been sterile, by-numbers wasted opportunities - as you say, Cardiff Bay-lite.

Such as shame as these opportunities only come up once every few generations.

When I first saw the designs for the Hadid Riverside I was mildly enthused, assuming that this would give space to the exhibits crammed into Kelvingrove and those languishing in storage. Plus, I assumed that the building was to be given high quality context, bringing life to that stretch of the Clyde.

The second may yet happen (I'm an optimist!), but the ridiculous 'cars on walls' pish shows the curators have little but contempt for their visitors, thinking that a flashy building and some artefact acrobatics are what we want to see.


owen hatherley said...

Sambeau - when I first went to Glasgow my friend Rosie who is Glaswegian described it as the Clockwork Orange - although she may have been doing so only in her capacity of guiding English newbies around town.

Ruth said...

an amusing and provocative write-up; made me laugh out loud in places (eg the "fuck-off building"), but making a very fair point. liked the photos too, thanks for an interesting piece.

Anonymous said...

A great read, except I think you comment far too heavily on the Riverside Museum (to the detriment of others – why not comment on some of the interesting social housing schemes and masterplanning around the Gorbals or Govan?) I am a little agnostic about it, but do understand your thinking behind it.

For me, as a Glaswegian, the M8 is ugly, bewildering, odd but not a boring addition to the city. This must be admitted, it actually can be quite a thrilling experience walking over the motorway from Charing Cross to the West End. Don't ask why, but it is quite a raw experience and the way it jarringly disrupts the grid only for the grid to resume a few 100 yards later.

Now that the M74 is complete – something I don’t agree with but at the very least it relieves the heavily congested M8 meaning less traffic going through the centre of the city. What I find funny is that you don’t mention the main streets in Glasgow, the golden Z as some overzealous members of the City Chambers sometimes like to call it, are for the most part pedestrianised; and as you say, the Merchant City, particularly around the Candleriggs is almost free of traffic. It is not that in throng to the car as you like to suggest.

Though a more enlightened transport policy – and a more effective local government – is definitely required going forward. Let’s hope this happens in the local government elections next year, the Labour party for far too long have performed civic destruction.

Chris Matthews said...

Cheers Anonymous #2,
The article was really centered on the Riverside but then looking at how this connects (or disconnects!) with the wider history of the city. But you're quite right - there's more plenty more besides - I shall return.

The pedestrianized high street bit you mention is really about shopping and not about commuting, which is more important in terms of having a sustainable transport. For example two cyclist friends of mine moved to Hill Head in Glasgow from Mapperley in Nottingham over a year ago but now very rarely use their bikes because the provision is so poor and quite frankly dangerous. I could say the same with Leicester - beyond the High Street there is nice paving, new traffic calming measures, removal of pedestrian guardrails, plenty of cycle lanes etc. If Glasgow is making two East Midland cities look like Copenhagen then there's something wrong.

David said...

Yes, I understand that is the main shopping thoroughfare - although it stretches a bit towards the Trongate - was just an observation as I feel it more than that, for me at least. Walking is how most people get about the city - walking through Kelvingrove park to get to West End from Charing Cross, etc.

Next time you go to Glasgow you should check Gillespie, Kidd & Coia modernist churches, the 'Glasgow style' tenements of John Campbell McKellar (he did most of the tenements in the Hyndland area and also the brilliant Camphill Avenue in Langside, south of the river) and some of the social housing projects (some modernists may find its softness a problem but it has much better masterplanning than, say, the Leith docks...)

Anyway, thanks for the article.

Traveler said...

Glasgow is undoubtedly the finest city in Britain other than London, even surpassing Edinburgh.

Unknown said...

Liverpool's been left out of this list of greatest British cities. In the wider context needed for pre-WWI of the geographical rather than geopolitical context of the Isles, Dublin would also have to be taken account of. This notion of Glasgow having ever been the fourth (most populous) city of Europe is misplaced, unless the area of Europe under consideration goes no further east than the river Elbe. After London and Paris came first Vienna and Berlin, followed by St Petersburg and Moscow, while by the end of the C19 Warsaw and Budapest need also to be taken account. Top ten, then, no doubt, top five almost certainly never, unless modern-day administrative area is counted for late-C18 city or something of that kind.

Moomo said...

A great article. I agree that Glasgow surpasses any other provincial UK city, although Liverpool pushes it close. It was certainly true that Liverpool lacked coherence in the decades after WW2, but in recent years it has handled its renaisance with considerable success and now feels, if anything, less buggered-about and more coherent than Glasgow. It's probably true to say that the relative paucity of "KIBS" jobs has spared the city from the worst kind of bland, megalomaniac commercial development, but then again, some of the new student tenements are a disgrace. Hey ho...

Anonymous said...

American feel but where are Skyscrapers? Where is multiculturalism? To be honest Rotterdam is more American.

Unknown said...

Glasgow has a fair amount of multiculturalism, yes it needs more, but Scotland has a devolved nation has no control over immigration. The city doesn't need skyscrapers. They can be monolithic structures that are both dehumanising and alienating- although the new city administration plans to redensify with tall structures in the Broomielaw/Argyle Street area- and this is where they have to be placed (not centrally in the Victorian/Edwardian Conservation area), but around the motorway corridors to bring people back into the central core. The city is becoming busier outwith business hours but its no Copenhagen, Berlin, or even Dublin, never mind a Spanish city- we need to entice people back into the city and reconnect the central core (which is essentially an historical island) to the great suburban (urban) area in the Southside such as Battlefield, Shawlands, Mount Florida etc- as well as Dennistoun on the East.
Glasgow is probably the one city outside London to realistically have the potential to be a proper urban landscape on a fairly large scale, if as I say, we can reconnect the centre to the very large densely populated southside, the West End, and the East End at Dennistoun and Parkhead/Shettleston/Tollcross areas- what other British city has the scale of a Govanhill, Queens park, Dennistoun or Byers Road in its 'suburbs'?