22 Jan 2012

Glasgow Revisited

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.

Boring Broomielaw

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.


Stephen Evans said...

As a Glaswegian I appreciate your wish for our city and welcome many of your comments. Locally controlled community housing associations operate in New Gorbals, Govan and throughout the city(38 at the last count). Their invention saved most of the tenements in the 70/80's and commission most of the urban new build housing.

Allen McLaughlin said...

An interesting couple of articles on Glasgow as we know it today. I appreciate the opinions offered and agree the city has lost it's way a little in it's attempts to be something dynamic, modern and 'nu'.

My place of work is within one of the new shiny chrome and glass, Clydeside offerings but I do travel around and recently spent some time working within Salford Quays. Dear god at least Glasgow still has time to avoid becoming like that particular 'Emerald City'.

I wonder if you'd care to turn your attentions to my particular home town, nearby Paisley ? Scotland's largest town, Glasgow's near neighbour and often described as a microcosm of it's bigger brother 7 miles to the east. A former Victorian industrial powerhouse, chock full of urban tenement walls, medieval splendour and post industrial lag.

And hey... a river runs through it too.

Your opinions would be interesting and welcome.

Grant said...

A long-time reader, first-time commenter here. Thank you for articles on the state of the urban landscape across Britain today. I find myself in constant agreement with your assessment.

The terrace house and the tenement are practical tools in the creation of humane, dignified and vibrant communities; they tend to have right balance of coherency and order and latitude for human expression. It's little wonder that the stock of older districts have been become desirable places to live as people crave a sense of belonging.

With this in mind I was wondering what your thoughts are on an initiative to create a new model of terrace or tenement founded on proven principles once disregarded? It's called Rational House and it seems to be an interesting project to create a template for multipile use and reuse with the scope for regional vernaculars.


(I have no personal affiliation with this project. I've merely been observing it's progress. The actual progress of the prototype can be observed on Flickr. There's a link from their page)

Jones the planner said...

Thanks for your various comments. Allen - we would love to blog Paisley at some stage. I have never been there despite dozens of visits to Glasgow but have read it has some serious problems of decline and neglect. It is exactly the sort of place that needs more respect and attention.
Grant - from what I can deduce from the Rational House web site it seems like a potentially very useful initiative and I look forward to reading the research commissioned by RIBA. Given the scale of the housing crisis and present costs of construction system building must be the way forward providing quality can be effectively managed and the product has the scope for adaptation and personalisation, which it seems the Rational House is aiming at. Basically the terrace house is the same thing endlesly repeated but with important ofen subtle variants. I worry that schemes like Chimney Pots and Kevin McCloud's Swindon development are potentially very limiting on future flexibilities and lifestyles.

David said...

Great article. I am hopeful the cronies in the Labour party will finally be turfed out of power in May. Hopefully, some sort of coalition of the Greens and SNP would shake up the place.

Still, the West End of Glasgow and up-towards Maryhill/North Kelvinside alongside large swathes of the Southside are so architectually beautiful, and coherent, I sometimes just close my eyes when I look at that ARMADILLO construct. Urgh.

Same with Broomielaw...

Incidentally, there is a lovely man called Norrie who has painstakingly photographed large streetscapes of Glasgow over the years here and kept updating them (he's particularly in love with the tenements):


Anonymous said...

Part 1
I recently discovered this excellent blog when hunting for information about the Glasgow tenements of my youth. I have always loved Glasgow and from childhood I admired its traditional architecture. During my teens I went to school in the Gorbals (we didn't live there) and really loved the wide streets, the severe, plain tenement facades. Everything was black, of course, and not pretty to look at, but so were London and Paris at the same time. I was very upset in the mid/late 50s when it was decided to demolish the whole lot and replace it with a "vision of the future" which turned out to be cheap looking tower blocks (the Basil Spence tower blocks were demolished, as we know, after only 30 years – (1965 to 1993) - when the 19th century tenements had stood for 100 odd). One reason for demolition was that a lot of the flats were "single-ends"; ironic when we know how many people today are living alone and need "studios" or one bedroom flats. To be fair, probably the majority of the flats had common lavatories on the half landings, and the concept of renovation/restoration had not yet emerged, blinking, into the daylight.
By the late 50s I was a student. I wrote and illustrated a thesis about Glasgow architecture, which ended by saying that one day Glasgow's 19th century architecture would be considered as important as that of Edinburgh's 18th century architecture. I said that the sandstone of the buildings was itself valuable and could never be replaced if ground down to make roads. The thesis was ignored because the idea of Glasgow architecture being important was thought to be totally preposterous. It is difficult for younger folk to realise how out of favour Glasgow was at that time, and how the ruling elite were dominated by the idea that everything old had to be replaced. The city's industries were declining rapidly, there was poverty, and Glasgow's future was not at all clear.
I taught briefly in a school in Castlemilk where the high hills were covered by huge tower blocks, and where the displaced inhabitants of the Gorbals had been sent to live. There were children from very poor families, and there was plenty of fresh air to keep them fit, but it was grim in winter. There were practically no shops, no pubs, no amenities of any kind, no neighbourhood networks and huge windy spaces between the towers. The bus service into the centre, necessary in order to do any decent shopping, was terrible.
I had left Glasgow by the time "they" wrecked Charing Cross (demolition of fountain and Grand Hotel – was there any particular reason for that, apart from the love of demolition?). The half-built motorway still stands, wrecking views in every direction. There has never been an explanation of this catastrophe.
A whole series of disatrous architectural decisions were made at that time. Why has no one been punished?
To be continued.

Anonymous said...

Part 2
The power of Glasgow is the energy of its people. Even in the 60s individual people were trying to contain the destruction. In the late 60s my aunt managed (somehow) to organise a change to the back court of her block of tenements and transform it into a communal garden, the first of its kind, I believe, and a little later she helped to form a housing association which managed to save the block that she lived in (where she lived until she died 3 years ago). That housing association went on to save other important (architectural) areas. What is interesting is that my aunt and others like her were not trying to save their tenements because they were "beautiful examples of architecture", but simply because they were very good, practical flats to live in, with nice proportions, with shops not too far away. A lot of housing associations sprang up, and now, encouragingly, there are a large number of conservation areas. Hope springs eternal.
About the new Transport Museum: on my visit to Glasgow last year a cousin wanted me to see it. It is true that the museum was very busy – but I don't know how they got there. We had to go by taxi, since, for a 73 year old there didn't seem to be any way of getting there by public transport. Jonestheplanner's blog about the building itself says everything that needs to be said.
I visited Glasgow again a few weeks ago, with the fantasy of living the last bit of my retirement in my favourite city. I left feeling very discouraged and decided against moving back. A week is not long, of course, but it seemed to me that the city fabric had degenerated even more during one year. There are still magnificent areas on the South Side and the West End, but even there I noticed signs of slow decay – spalling stonework, gutters with foliage, unpainted and damaged windows. There was a general a lack of maintenance, due, I think to the fact that the stone buildings were built to last, which they have, and the owners take it for granted that maintenance needs are minimal. In Paris, where I live, there is a legal requirement that facades of all buildings, back and front, (and most buildings are of the tenement type, like Glasgow) must be cleaned/painted/renovated at least every 10 years. Although this means there is scaffolding everywhere most of the time, it does mean that the buildings stay up. And the planning regulations here are very tough, and the local associations very vigilant.
The preliminaries to a facade cleaning in Paris are rigorous, and include: two correctly filled-in documents, the location of the building on a map of Paris, detailed design of any part of the building which it is desired to alter, details of roof coverings etc, coloured photos of the facades in question, detailed description of the work envisaged, with colour swatches, where necessary. These preliminaries are for all Parisian buildings. Rules for conservation areas are stricter. (This is not to say that everything is perfect).
Two weeks ago, in the very centre of Glasgow, there were derelict 19th century blocks, holes where there had been buildings, more and more hideous shiny "modern" high blocks, with colours, with odd shapes, neglect everywhere. Is there no planning department? Have they abdicated? Have they no visual sensibility? What kind of training have they had?
In spite of all I have just said, I still love Glasgow and I prefer it to Paris, but I worry about the direction it is taking.

Anonymous said...

Part 3

I forgot to leave my name and mail address:

Warwick MacCallum


Anonymous said...

Dear Jones,
I don't know if you ever read any of these comments; nonetheless I was hoping to to make you aware that the magnificent Victoria Infirmary Hospital ( now defunct)has been bought by property developers & have requested demolition- it seems only the entrance facing onto Queens Park is listed & so all else can be raised without much resistance. Unfortunately we all know only too well Glasgow city councils appalling track record of short-sighted incompetence & corrupt avarice. It does not look good for this spectacular structure. Maybe local protest via political channels may prevail. One can only hope. Why this general area is not an architecturally protected conservation area is also something of a mystery.


Craig Devine