22 Jan 2012
You can stick your Englishman's castle - Camphill Avenue
With Scottish secession a distinct possibility we face the horrifying prospect of a permanent Tory Westminster. Even worse, the ex-industrial Midlands and North (and Cornwall) will be the only remnants of Empire left to the incompetence and condescension of the Establishment. Emigration to Scotland seems a very attractive option especially with the dividend of global warming (I may be wrong about that). Scotland with its wonderfully urban cities and towns, boundless countryside and wilderness, magical coast and islands – who would not want to live there? Well of course there are some deep seated social and economic problems too, and these are especially pronounced in Glasgow and Strathclyde. There is a real danger that the new Scotland will reflect the English north/south split in a Caledonian west/east divide with the capital city of Edinburgh, like most European capitals, dominating political, financial and creative life to the detriment of its larger neighbour.
A city where this is ordinary
I love Glasgow – I just get such a buzz from being there. The only place I know which can compete is Chicago, a city which shares many similarities although not the skyscrapers. Glasgow is so American in feel, but also so European, actually so British as opposed to Scottish or English. It is so much its own place. The sadness is that with most new development it is becoming less distinctive, more second rate. Glasgow must be sick of all this advice. Fifty years ago Gomme and Walker’s tome captured the city in all its splendour but just when it was losing so much of it. Ian Nairn pronounced ‘unless the city wakes up to a sense of its greatness Glasgow is heading for disaster’. Thirty years ago local historian Francis Worsdall published ‘The City that Disappeared’ (a bit of an exaggeration).Twenty years ago the Buildings of Scotland catalogued Glasgow’s outstanding architectural legacy. Gavin Stamp spent years raging against the iniquities of the City Council and its neglect of Greek Thompson and the rest of its extraordinary heritage and many, probably most, Glaswegians supported him. Most recently Owen Hatherley told the city it was looking for the future in all the wrong places – but I don’t think the Glasgow authorities are listening.
Pioneers of the Modern... well actually it's 1927 but still
Certainly the decline of manufacturing and especially of shipbuilding meant Glasgow was in a difficult position. The very fact that it had been such an enterprising and innovative city meant that the decline was steep when world conditions changed. Glasgow had to reinvent itself and this helps explain, even if it does not justify, its often philistine approach to new development. However, despite the needless self harm to its fabric, Glasgow remains largely a very coherent city – far more so than other big British cities and especially its nearest rival, Liverpool. It is far grander and culturally richer than Manchester, Birmingham or especially Leeds. And Glasgow is a proud place, proud of its achievements and its special identity, which makes it all the more puzzling that it is not as passionate about its architecture.
New tenements and per cent for art near Caledonia Road
Of course there have been big achievements. Perhaps the most important has been the reinvention of the tenement block after decades of clearance. Tenements, despite their often negative connotations, are the glory of Glasgow - the real WOW factor. Across great swathes of the city they create rich, diverse and intensely urban townscapes, reinforcing the street as a public, legible and social place. The West End provides one of the most attractive, congenial and consistently urbane urban environments in Europe. The extent and quality of tenements is quite staggering, in middle class suburbs like Hyndland and south of the river at Queen’s Park as examples, but also in working class districts like Govan as we shall see. Since the 1980s new tenement buildings are again achieving this quality of urban coherence, albeit with somewhat less quality of design and materials than the pre 1914 originals.
Welcome to Glasgow, twinned with Chicago
The city centre is also successful - notably lively and the biggest shopping destination outside London. The decline of Sauchiehall Street is sad – once an upmarket destination, now the shabby former Willow Tea Rooms face a closed Pound-Mart. The Buchanan Galleries are boring but the splendour of Buchanan Street makes up for this and whilst the destruction of St Enoch’s station was unforgivable the St Enoch’s Centre, a huge 1980s steel and glass tent, is arresting although internally bland and confusing.
The striking thing about the city centre is not just how grand the buildings are but how so many of its buildings are so technically and stylistically adventurous. On Jamaica Street there were fine early iron framed buildings, some shamefully demolished quite recently. On Argyle Street you see this amazing Chicago like confidence with proto skyscrapers rising amid more modest scale, built with the expectation that everything was going to be like that, but WW1 intervened. On St Vincent’s St you find the fin de siècle inventiveness of buildings like the Hat Rack designed by James Salmon with Beardsleyesque and Gaudiesque features. Between the wars commercial confidence was asserted in the grandest neo-classicism. Post war commercial architecture was also confident if often insensitive, but so much recent development is just dim and dreary. The Clyde end of Jamaica Street is now a disgrace – Jury’s Inn one of the main culprits as usual. It actually manages to be worse than its Nottingham namesake. Fronting the river at Broomielaw, new offices could be anywhere. They are not absolutely awful, just so bloody boring and lacking in life. Interestingly plans to build new restaurants on the wide quayside opposite have sparked a big local protest, suggesting this space is valued although in December it is maybe not seen at its liveliest.
Jury's Inn: the canny ability to downgrade any townscape
Across the river from Broomielaw there is an immediate Chicago-like transition from the dynamic city centre grid to an urban wasteland with a few buildings rising out of the debris. The new M74 thunders through. On Eglinton Street a Greek Thompson terrace was needlessly demolished as late as the1980s. Carlton Place fronting the Clyde opposite the Suspension Bridge is a fine Georgian enclave providing an elegant screen, but there is urban chaos behind. This is of course the Gorbals, in the post war years a byword for appalling slum housing. The demolition of the fine tenement terraces of the Gorbals was meant to exorcise the injustices of the past and even the name of the area was temporarily expunged. Now most of this urban renewal scheme has itself been cleared, including the highly sculptural Basil Spence flats, although some monumental tower blocks remain. In places a third Gorbals has risen from the ashes seeking to learn from the past and at least in part succeeding.
Great stuff: the Gorbals facing the Clyde
Down Gorbals Street, past the massive Norfolk Street flats and the Citizens’ Theatre, on through a wasteland and beyond the railway bridges you will see the magnificent ruin of Greek Thompson’s Caledonia Road church. The neglect of this masterpiece, gutted by fire in 1965, epitomises the Glasgow problem of not realising its own greatness. But even as a ruin and in the middle of a traffic gyratory it is absolutely compelling and fundamental to creating a sense of place and identity in the adjacent third Gorbals development. This is broadly based on the tenement tradition with four or five story blocks flanking broad, legible streets and crescents. Car parking is largely in the streets, at times in right angle parking, so there is not the usual fussy and confusing domination of layout and design by cars. The tenements themselves, although of the right scale and massing, are a bit fussy, trying too hard at variety within order and not always succeeding. The artworks – I think flying angels – are certainly OTT. However there is certainly a sense of place and the numerous views of Greek Thompson’s church create very satisfying compositions. The biggest problem is the ridiculous barriers against Laurieston Road which make it virtually impossible to get to the bus stop. The concept of the multi functional street is obviously not fully re-embraced in Glasgie.
Black Hole Sun
Two miles downstream from the city centre, past Foster’s Armadillo and its hinterland of car parks, is Zaha Hadid’s new Riverside Museum, the focus of our Glasgow blog last summer. Great exhibits, shame about the location and the unsuitability of the building for them. However in its first six months the museum has attracted a million visitors which is one hell of an achievement – so well done. But visiting again in December my reservations were reinforced; indeed the greyness and bleakness of it was overpowering in a howling gale and driving rain. This is the problem with the global warming thing. Extreme weather seems to be here already, which is why an exposed riverside location is not such a good idea for regeneration, especially in Scotland.
This is Govan
The best view of the zinc icon is actually across the Clyde from Govan, although few visitors will see this. Govan – that redoubt of anarchic working class resistance to global capitalism as embodied in Rab C. Nesbitt (although in the latest series he seems to have become a pillar of the community rather than the scourge of it). The place is not quite as I had imagined. It is almost a town in its own right - and was until 1912 - with its own monumental Beaux Arts town hall in red sandstone, built around 1900, the time of greatest prosperity based on the shipyards. There are other fine buildings of this period, like the Pearce Institute, a working people’s club disguised as a C17th Scottish town house whilst churches, schools, libraries and grand banks all attest to Govan’s heyday.
Govan - side streets and shipyards
Despite these dignified buildings however, on arrival by Subway (apparently not to be called the Clockwork Orange) Ian Pattison’s inspiration is immediately apparent. The irregular space of Govan Cross is the visual centre. The Govan Centre opposite sums up the poverty not just of its architecture but also of many of the shoppers. Appropriately it was built in the early years of Thatcher and illustrates her visionfor Scotland – I don’t think Meryl Streep quite catches that. But turn west along Govan Road towards the Fairfield shipyard and you cannot fail to be impressed. This is a fine street lined with four storey tenements, interestingly showing the transition from the earlier light sandstone and square bay to the red sandstone and bow window model which is so quintessentially Glasgow at its zenith. Majestic side streets of similar red sandstone tenements lead down towards the river with the cranes of the old shipyards still in view – thrilling townscape.
No artifical colours?
The long monumental offices of the Fairfield Shipyard (later Glasgow Shipbuilders) built in 1890 of red sandstone in an Italian Renaissance style utterly dominate Govan Road. Although empty they are apparently being converted into offices and community space funded by Europe and the Scottish government. There are other heartening signs of renewal nearby with new flats nearly completed – not exactly new interpretations of the tenements but of the right scale and reinforcing the life and urbanity of this part of Govan. The block on Golspie Street feels the need for a Smartie assortment of coloured bays, which actually look ok. Back towards Govan Cross another nice touch is the palimpsest image of the original 1937 Lyceum Cinema on the curved façade of the husk of the old building which bingo could not save.
Intimacy - the back of Govan Road
Behind Govan Old Church is the ferry to the Riverside Museum, if you are lucky, but anyway you get the good view. There is a bleak Clydeside promenade, part of a featureless low rise 1970s redevelopment. The east side of Govan is really very depressing. The urban fabric has been blown apart by demolition without any apparent thought, leaving an utter wasteland. The saddest thing is the recent destruction of Napier House designed in 1899 by the little known W.J. Anderson. At once precocious in its steel frame and concrete floor construction and wilful in its eccentric version of art nouveau, it still exists on Google street view but all I found was a hole in the ground, which is what Govan needs like a hole in the head. The only encouraging development nearby is Collective Architecture’s scheme for the Govan Housing Association. The curved façade of the 6 storey block to Govan Road is unpromisingly defensive but has the good sense to embrace the fine sandstone bank building at the corner of Orkney Street. Here a crescent of linked 2 storey houses, brick with gold panels, creates an attractive, intimate environment. Opposite, small scale industrial buildings have been nicely converted into an Enterprise Centre.
New Govan Tenements
I had intended to walk back to the city centre through the Clydeside redevelopments but despair set in as I trudged through the ugliness, anomie and sheer misery of the alleged regeneration of the old Govan Docks. I got as far as the titanium clad spheres of the Glasgow Science Centre at Pacific Quay, designed by BDP and interesting in an ascetic way. Opposite is the RIBA award winning new BBC Scotland HQ by man of the moment David Chipperfield. Although a serious, carefully considered, scrupulous and elegant building, the bleakness of the site and the heavy security serve to alienate if you are in the cold outside its magnificent atrium. Why the BBC has chosen quite such hostile locations for its various new studios God only knows. I bottled out and took a cab from the luvvies’ taxi rank.
The city centre doesn't care what the weather man says...
The ride back to the city centre is through identikit acres of regeneration, no different, no better, no worse than much of London’s Docklands, Salford Quays – you name it. Maybe it is unfair to review the Clydeside version in the wind, rain and snow of December, but really that is the point. How does it work as a place? Well it just doesn’t. Despite the involvement of Foster, Chipperfield and Zaha Hadid there is no coherence, no hierarchy, no enclosure, no diversity, no street life, no shelter. These are all fundamental to successful place making. Glasgow city centre is thronged in the downpours. I walked round Hillhead and Langside in the snow and they are really civilised places with cafes, shops, libraries, parks. They are designed for the reality of the climate.
Woulda coulda shoulda been
I still love Glasgow, but maybe I’m in love with the image of Glasgow as it could have been – should have been; the finest, most adventurous, most ambitious, most exciting of British cities. I wish it were so today.