Rory Olcayto’s assessment of the Glasgow problematic is highly controversial and has been doing the rounds and garnering much critical attention. The straight-talking, complacency-busting analysis and vision for a metropolitan city cannot possibly please everyone, and that, it seems, is precisely the partisan, feather-ruffling intention of the former Architects Journal editor. It was, indeed, first delivered as a talk to the Royal incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Here it is now as a readily accessible text: a provocation to civic and urban action.
Scotland is so obviously an urban nation that it’s pointless to argue otherwise. Around 80 per cent of the five-million strong populace live in towns or cities. And around 80 per cent of Scots live in the central belt. So we’re packed in as well. And it’s been this way for a few hundred years at least.
None of this should be a surprise. Scotland was the second country in the world to industrialise – harder and faster than its southern neighbour. Scotland, you might argue, is more urban than anywhere else.
Today, Glasgow has more asylum seekers than any other council area in the UK and Edinburgh is the fourth largest financial centre in Europe. Both cities, famed for their set-piece urbanism and townscapes, have billions of pounds of regeneration planned.
Nevertheless, the tendency to think of Scotland as rural is strong. Most annoyingly, even urban Scots think this way. Especially politicians – and sometimes architects – if it suits them. Together, in 2008, they promoted fictional regional architectural culture centred in the Highlands with a book and Lighthouse exhibition called Building Biographies. It was, as far as I am aware, the last time Scottish elites sought to fashion a romantic image of the nation as a kind of rural paradise. Perhaps to avoid the very real challenges facing urban Scotland.
This Scottish government-funded study featured buildings – designed, mostly, by central belt architects – offered ‘evidence of an emerging Highlands and Islands regional architectural culture and community’. But the ‘emerging regionalism’ thesis includes two ‘southern’ Scottish housing schemes, one urban(!) – a housing project in a run-down Edinburgh estate, and a later living scheme in Berwickshire, on the English border. It was an unfortunate – but accurate – implication that good buildings in the Highlands are hard to find.
It also featured six projects from the mountainous regions of Norway, Austria and Switzerland, that Building Biographies implies is representative of a more honest and pure architecture than that resulting from the ‘standardising forces of globalisation’. This would have played well with First Minister Alex Salmond’s desire to align Scotland with successful small countries across Europe. In short, it was a fiction and the grouping together of unrelated projects under a ‘rural Highland vernacular’ banner diminished the complexity, the dynamism of the Scottish experience of architecture.
In the ‘00s, Scotland’s architectural culture was cosmopolitan, global and urban, home and away. At the time, RMJM’s work for Russian energy giant Gazprom – designing Europe tallest skyscraper – and Sutherland Hussey’s archaeology museum for the Chinese government, offered more interesting national narratives. David Chipperfield had just completed his still under-discussed BBC building in Govan. Miralles and Tagliabue’s parliament was bedding in. Zaha’s first UK job – a Maggie’s in Kirkcaldy had completed and another, the Riverside Museum, in Glasgow, across and downstream from the BBC, was under construction. And Foster was plotting another vast leisure building in Glasgow’s reborn docklands to pair with his Armadillo.
Starchitects loomed large. Scots (SMC’s Stewart McColl and RMJM’s Peter Morrison) twice rescued England’s faltering showman Will Alsop. And who would have thought that Frank Gehry’s then only permanent British commission – for a Maggie’s Centre – would be in Dundee?
And peers and friends of mine, Alan Pert with Nord, and Gordon Affleck with RMJM and then 10 Design, were making waves with the first completed Olympic building in London and vast projects in China and Hong Kong. Again, this was part of the Scottish architectural experience: travelling to design. A decade earlier, for example, Kieran Gaffney of Konishi Gaffney, had teamed up with Thomas Heatherwick. Kieran is pretty much patient zero of the Heatherwick virus circulating right now. Blame him 😉
It was also a time when visionary architect Kathryn Findlay was returning to UK practice, after years fronting the original Scots-Japanese studio, this one based in Japan. Her work there was profoundly urban, but her East-coast farming roots had seen her formulate an entirely unique aesthetic, evidenced in her thatched-roof pool houses. Her joyful buildings fused contemporary and medieval technologies. We jokingly called it Future-rustic….an amazing woman. I was lucky to be her friend.
If any new Scottish vernacular was to be found, it would surely emerge from this urban, often global, condition. The truth is Scotland, because of its urban character, has been cosmopolitan and global in it outlook, for so long, it’s fundamental to who we are. Think of Scottish Ghanaian architect and novelist Lesley Lokko’s recent curation of the Venice Biennale. Or me – an Irish Turkish Scot, living in London, soon to start whinge-ing about Glasgow – in Glasgow – at the RIAS Convention.
Because the other truth is this: no other urban landscape matters to Scotland like Glasgow matters to Scotland. Edinburgh is where Scotland celebrates its past. Glasgow is where Scotland dreams about its future. Scotland without Glasgow would have no worldly dimension.
Scotland is pretty much Luxembourg without Glasgow. No offence Luxembourg! Glasgow is our only Metropolitan artefact. Nearly 1 in 5 people living in Scotland in mid-2020, lived in Greater Glasgow. We’re lucky to have such a thing in a small country like Scotland. The scale of Glasgow is overwhelming to some. It can seem a strange and frightening place. That’s why we need to talk about it.
2 LIKE A BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY PLAYED OVER 150 YEARS
This drawing – ‘Notable High Buildings’ – in the 1896 Universal Atlas of The World, shows how through sheer hard work, Glasgow found its way into the champion’s league of cities in the last decade of the 19th Century. Only one British building makes the top ten –the Townsend stalk in Glasgow. At 454 feet, the Port Dundas chimney – the only industrial structure featured – is in 7th place, behind the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument, Philadelphia City Hall and the great cathedrals of Europe. Quite an achievement really. The tallest building in England – St Paul’s – is ranked eleventh.
For a period of 30 years it was the tallest chimney stalk in the world. It was only surpassed in height in 1889, by the Langer Emil chimney in Mechernich, Germany. ‘So what?’, you might ask. ‘Isn’t it a bit macho to be so concerned about the length of one’s chimney?’ Yet 1889 was the year that Germany began to outpace the UK in terms of industrial growth. How tall your chimney was, mattered economically.
Designed and built by Robert Corbett of Belltield Terrace, Duke Street, Glasgow, the chimney stood at Jospeh Townsend’s chemical works on Crawford Street and was part of the thriving industrial economy present in Port Dundas at that time.
But the Townsend chimney was not the only Glasgow skyscraper. There was another – a Chrysler to Towsend’s Empire State – a few minutes’ walk away. Nearby St Rollox chemical works boasted the previous world record holder: the Tennant’s Stalk, a 435 feet ‘lum’ named after chemical works founder, Charles Tennant, the Scottish industrialist who discovered bleaching powder. St Rollox was sold in 1926 to form ICI – and the Tennants bought the island of Mustique with the profits, and vanished for good from the city that made their wealth.
Both chimneys continued to cast long shadows over Glasgow well into the 20th century. Tennant’s Stalk lasted until 1922 when it was struck by lightning and subsequently dynamited to the ground with Townsend’s stalk demolished six years later.
But how did Glasgow find itself in this gilded league? Most of its rivals accrued power and people over centuries – Glasgow did it in mere decades. Slavery made Glasgow. The foundations of the city’s wealth depended on the labour of west African slaves in sugar and tobacco plantations in America and the West Indies. As a graduate, twice, of Strathclyde University, part crowdfunded by slavers, I am a beneficiary. There’s a good chance you are too. How we address this legacy is beyond the scope of my argument today but for too long, I personally at least, haven’t properly acknowledged this fact when discussing Glasgow.
The city that slavery enabled however – Victorian Glasgow – was a phenomena. There really was nothing quite like it, not in the old world anyway. The American historian Sydney Checkland describes its heyday as a period ‘of cumulative and self-reinforcing growth in which an amazing congruence of circumstances produced the greatest of Britain’s provincial cities, a regional metropolis, the second city of the British Empire, and, on the European scale, a ranking in terms of population and productivity within the first six.’
“Like Venice,” Checkland wrote, “Glasgow had her empires da mar and terra firma, each part of the other; in Glasgow’s case they were wedded together by the steam-engine.” This inspired new industries in civil engineering, metal work, and locomotives drawing upon an extraordinary level of local engineering skill. Glasgow was a wonder city: exploding into life like a chemistry experiment, an urban-scaled petri dish bubbling with culture.
When the city grew, it did so at an American pace – and in the process, provided a template for stateside mayors and entrepreneurs. For them, Glasgow represented the theory and practice of effective, efficient municipal government. Policing, social housing, and an impressive tram network under professional control but responsible to an elected council, seemed tailor made for America’s emerging cities
In 1871 the population of Glasgow was just over half a million. Fifty years later it hit the one million mark. And it caught the imagination of the world, with its shipbuilding verve earning Glasgow a special brand image – ‘Clydebuilt’. In the process Glaswegians built a garden of urban delights to house all this activity – the ever-flexible tenement, the grids serving the commercial centre. Glasgow was a city of statues, carvings, sculpture, and stained glass, and vast public buildings, too many to mention.
Ian Nairn, on his first visit in 1960, when the Victorian city was still mostly intact, called it a ‘topographical epic . . .like a Beethoven symphony played over 150 years’.
But Glasgow was a horror show too. The industrial landscape was hellish and its bottom-rung housing, was the worst in Britain. The Glasgow slum would become a brand image as enduring as ‘Clyde-built’. In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s words: ‘In Glasgow there are over a hundred and fifty thousand human beings living in such conditions as the most bitterly pressed primitive in Tierra del Fuego never visioned.’
These were the surplus workers and their families that private industrial enterprises were unable to provide work for – even in good times. ‘They live five or six to the single room’ Gibbons writes. ‘It is not a room in a large and airy building; it is not a single-roomed hut on the verge of a hill…it is a room that is part of some great sloven of tenement – the tenement itself in a line or grouping with hundreds of its fellows, its windows grimed with the unceasing wash and drift of coal-dust, its stairs narrow and befouled and steep, its evening breath like that which might issue from the mouth of a lung-diseased beast.’
This shocking reality still lingers – and helps us understand just why the transformative remaking of the built environment that Glasgow undertook postwar – a violently-scaled Modernism – was so extreme.
Too extreme. It was a vision that would shatter the coherence of the both epic and human-scaled Victorian city – and the lives of generations of Glaswegians forced to inhabit the strange hybrid landscape that replaced it – a landscape drained of meaning, as we shall see.
Currently, the tallest free-standing structure in the city is the Glasgow Science Centre Tower, which opened in 2001. At 417ft, it is also the tallest building in Scotland, and quite a bit shorter than the Port Dundas chimneys that once dominated the Glasgow skyline. It was designed by London architect Richard Horden for somewhere else: St Enoch’s Square in the city centre, to be precise. It was an entry for a competition, run by Building Design (newspaper), in 1992. There were hundreds of entries, many by Glasgow architects. (Ironically, one of them, by former RIAS president Gordon Murray, reverses the journey of Horden’s tower, by relocating the Finnieston Crane to St Enoch Square.)
Horden’s tower is open to visitors today, but for most of its life, it’s been shut, bedevilled by technical problems. It’s meant to spin around as well – the tallest, fully-rotating, freestanding structure in the world, says the Guinness Book of Records. It hardly ever does though – because it can get windy by the Clyde! And herein lies the problem. Glasgow doesn’t work properly anymore because nobody knows what it’s for.
3. WELCOME TO THE SHIPWRECK
Do we live in a shipwrecked timeline in which our Glasgow is neither one thing or another?
Not the Victorian capital of planet Earth, a living story carved in stone, and not the Bruce-planned Modernist boot camp, a kind of Caledonia Logan’s Run.
Do we live in their collision?
Yes. We do.
We live in the overlap of two maps – the intersection – of The Sulman Map and the Bruce Plan.
We live here. I call it the shipwreck.
Psychologically Glasgow is paralysed.
It can’t imagine a future for itself. It’s confused – literally in two minds.
Sulman and Bruce…It can never decide.
What is Glasgow in 2023?
Why is it here?
What does it do?
What does the future hold?
This Glasgow doesn’t know.
And sometimes it doesn’t care.
Everything is wrong here.
Back to front.
Welcome to the shipwreck!
In the shipwreck, the Bruce Plan still provides a guiding hand. Motorways are still being driven through viable, long-lived places, and the demolition of working class homes deemed ‘in the way’ is pretty much an art form round here. Sulman’s Glasgow, the Victorian miracle, is still with us too. Just.
But in this utterly wrong Glasgow, Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art is empty – a twice-burnt-out shell and George Square is tarmacked over.
In our Glasgow – AKA #theshipwreck – we dynamite a Greek Thomson just a few years after celebrating the architect’s work at the Lighthouse during the city’s reign as the UK’s City of Architecture and Design. And then the chairman of The Alexander Thomson Society, in this back-to-front Glasgow, designs a new building on the plot where it had stood. Really. (We got rid of the Lighthouse too, by the way.) And the few Thomson edifices that do remain – Egyptian Halls? Caledonia Road? St Vincent Street? They are literally falling apart.
In the shipwreck, the city will get dressed up as somewhere else for the price of a few drinks – if you ask nicely. New York? Sure! Philadelphia? Can do. London? ‘Well, I suppose we could use the Wyndford?’ (No kidding. The well-made, well-planned Modernist housing scheme in Maryhill that Wheatley – Glasgow’s social landlord – is desperate to demolish, doubled as a slice of London – you can see Canary Wharf in the background – in a recent edition of Shetland, the BBC detective show).
But Glasgow rarely plays at being itself these days. Not on screen anyway. Incredibly, given Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things is a story about Glaswegians and is set in Glasgow, Glasgow and Glaswegians play no role whatsoever in a new and much feted movie adaptation. Sure, blame the director. Shouldn’t he have known? (Yes, he should.) But shouldn’t the City of Glasgow, which has been pimping its streets for screen time for years now, have been a more vocal lobbyist here?
While Gray’s Poor Things puts a liberated female centre stage, in shipwrecked Glasgow, the role women play in shaping the city is forever hidden from view. Why couldn’t we have had Elspeth King (a friends of Gray’s who appears as herself in Poor Things incidentally) as Glasgow’s museum and gallery boss? The finest curator the city ever had – she made the People’s Palace come alive when no-one knew what to do with it – was pushed out by Labour’s Pat Lally, who feared her intelligence and can-do skills. No international kudos for Glasgow’s museums without Elspeth King.
And we rarely speak of Margaret Brodie – the superstar site architect of the 1938 Empire Exhibition. Imagine a Brodie plan instead of a Bruce one. The gulf in talent is vast. No Andy MacMillan – an awestruck child at Bellahouston – without Margaret Brodie.
We never hear of Deputy Lord Provost Constance Methven – who, in the 70s, planned to bring the Olympics to Glasgow, years before Michael Kelly’s Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign. No City of Culture without Constance Methven.
Here in shipwrecked Glasgow, swathes of coherent and structurally sound townscape – and a citywide tram network – was binned for a vast tentacled motorway, for the people in Britain least likely to own a car. These people, displaced by the motorway, were bussed out to the edges of shipwrecked Glasgow. They’re still there.
They are the ‘150,000 people living in desolate schemes’ – that number again one hundred and fifty K –in Brendan McLaughlin’s Glasgow’s Not For Sale essay, published in The Reckoning, during 1990, the fabled year of culture.
Here in shipwrecked Glasgow, we whoop and cheer a middling pedestrian bridge over a motorway, which, fifty years too late, links a housing scheme with somewhere closer to town – and we call it progressive planning.
You know the story.The comedy horror called Glasgow.
Where wealthy residential suburbs and towns in the metro zone are hived off from the city and pay nothing towards its free culture.
Where 46,000 tenement flats – built pre-1919 and deemed dangerous – will cost north of 3 billion to fix.
Where drive-thru Burger Kings and Starbucks are waived through planning weeks before Cop 26 rolls into town.
Where a promised rail link to the city’s airport was axed by Holyrood in 2009, despite it being integral to Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games bid.
Were a tram line linking Easterhouse to the city centre was mooted in the mid-90s, then nothing. Still nothing.
Where public transport costs a bomb and night buses don’t run anymore.
Where demolition is the city’s structure of feeling – a wrecking ball looming behind every move the city makes, every thought it has about its future.
Everyone in the shipwreck knows that:
Easier said than done. But say it anyway. The more of us the better.
The shipwreck has 784 derelict sites. The shipwreck’s council charges just £70 on average for one of those sites. But at least that’s five times higher than the £14 it charged on average in 2020! Shipwrecked Glasgow is home to 36% of all Scotland’s derelict plots, but just 0.5% of the total taxable value of all derelict land. In other words, shipwrecked Glasgow is worth next to nothing.
This city is seen by the Scottish old school as an internal ‘other’, too vast and sprawling and strange for Scotland – and a relentless source of political inconvenience. But Shipwrecked Glasgow is spent. There are no more neoliberal ‘City of’ baubles to collect. No more Games to bid for. No more slogans. Apart from People make Glasgow of course. In the Shipwreck, don’t worry about the buildings falling apart around you, or going on fire, or the ones being boarded up, don’t worry because, here in the Shipwreck, People make Glasgow.
In shipwrecked Glasgow, the council leader says: ‘I’d love to be able to solve the privately owned Egyptian Halls issue & believe me we’ve tried. But much more important to me was the Bellgrove Hotel, a site of human misery & a blight on a community for years. Soon to be confined to history.’ And partially demolished of course. It’s only B-listed. Nae bother.
In the shipwreck, an SNP source can claim that Glaswegian ‘people are getting all wound up over old, crumbling, buildings’, and damns their ‘radical nostalgia’. Labour is much the same. It is always this way in the shipwreck. In the shipwreck, the council launches a competition to redesign George Square, then scraps it, saying that’s what the public would have wanted.
In the shipwreck, the art school elders launch a competition to rebuild the famed exemplar then scrap it when it messes up the selection process – it picked one winner, then another – leaving the school in limbo five years after the fire. But if we follow the council leader’s logic here, saving the art school is a waste of time and money. Nobody died. Move along. Isn’t there a hostel we could reclad instead? Resource against resource. How wrong can you be?
This city – its buildings, its people – are bound together. If you can’t see this now, think of the disorientation, the loss of community, caused by postwar redevelopment. It’s specious to set people and place against each other. Make green jobs that protect both. People, townscape, community. Interlinked.
As a slew of Twitter accounts posting images of the city’s amazing Victorian (and sometimes older) townscape proliferate, more of us realise what has been lost: the consistency, the solidity, the sheer there-ness of 19th century Glasgow looks increasingly like one of world architecture’s city-making high points.
Which only makes The Secret History of our Streets: Duke Street – the companion piece to Dee Dee’s dream of a shipwrecked Glasgow – all the more remarkable. It tells the story of the founding of Reidvale Housing Association (now swallowed by a corporate housing giant) and the ordinary Glaswegians who helped retain and remake the 19th Century townscape, binding people to place, and inventing modern co-design in the process. People who invested in the city long term, with no time for cheap thrills, a common trait among the city’s civic leaders, with one, Labour this time, saying that dynamiting vacant high-rise housing – live – for a worldwide audience, to kick off the Commonwealth Games, was, ‘a wonderful thing to do’.
Those Duke Street pioneers engineered a new kind of placemaking: a new structure of feeling, shaped by co-design, retrofit and strategic infill and forged here in the calamitous 1970s. Their approach to placemaking: repairing, upgrading, maintaining, adding new stuff carefully, stitching and weaving, keeping it local and co-designing – this was a Glasgow idea. Today this approach is evangelised as progressive development, vital to the climate change challenge. It is Glasgow’s gift to the world of urban design. It shines a light on a possible new future for this secretly gentle city.
We’ll salvage this shipwreck yet.
4. AN ULTRAPRACTICAL ARCHITECTURE
I want to end on a positive note. A shipwreck that has been salvaged. There are some pointers for Glasgow here – regarding how we think about its condition and what we might do about it. Specifically, I want to talk about the Hill House box in relation to the dilemma the Glasgow School of Art faces. The failure to appoint Hawkins Brown or John McAslan or whoever recently, is in fact a relief. And an opportunity. Because if you don’t know what you’ve lost – Mackintosh’s building transcends architecture – how can you replace it?
There has been a failure of the imagination in the art school’s bid to appoint an architect. The scope of the project was so limiting, that whoever landed the job would ultimately fail to deliver what the city truly needs. A whole new experience of the Glasgow School of Art. Such a circle is not easily squared. Yet Carmody Groarke have done exactly that with another flailing Mackintosh: this one drowning rather than burning, Hill House. The architect cites an imaginative, unwavering client, and I cite the architect’s lateral thinking.
If both of these things coincide at the art school, we could have a deal – so, here’s a little story about the Hill House in Helensburgh, which is basically the westernmost suburb of Glasgow, and how by treating it as a complex space-time object, instead of a nervous wreck of a building, Carmody Groarke created Scotland’s most important architectural work of the 21st century, so far.
It is one of the most unusual sites, and sights, in world architecture: two intriguing, very different buildings occupying the same plot of land in Helensburgh, a small town on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. The first is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 20th Century domestic masterpiece, Hill House: a Scottish castle on the outside, an Art Nouveau dreamscape on the inside. The second is Carmody Groarke’s box, a colossal, see-through shed whose purpose is to shelter and dry out Hill House, where water trapped behind its famous grey render or ‘harling’, is dissolving its aging structure.
The effect, at first, is shocking, in the same way a Christo-wrapped building is shocking, but it doesn’t take long before the pleasing asymmetry of the box’s form, its sparkling surface and the sheer heft of the overall composition wins you round. With its muscular steel frame and fine chainmail ‘wrapping’, this box, which also houses a two storey visitor centre and café (with a rooftop terrace), has another trick. Its network of galleys and steps provide startling new views of the world-famous house, bringing fresh perspectives to our understanding of Mackintosh’s craft.
It looks outwards too, across grid patterned streets, a square mile of mighty rubble walls, supple hedges and soaring dark-leaved trees, of villas in every style you can think of, Greek, Italian, French and Gothic, Scottish Baronial and English half-timbered. From this box, the first building in Helensburgh this century to hold its own among the impressive Edwardian and Victorian villas in the town, you can sense it: this gridiron is an ensemble piece, an urban artefact in and of itself, as distinct as any of the homes within it.
It is also Helensburgh’s raison d’etre. Hill House couldn’t exist without it.
The plan Colquhoun commissioned for the gridiron seemingly incorporates ideas from an earlier layout, a ‘designed landscape’ by Charles Boutcher from 1732, conceived for the previous landowner, Sir John Schaw of Greenock, which lies directly across the firth from Helensburgh.
Boutcher’s plan, twice the size of the actual town today, shows wide tree lined avenues which intersect at belvederes – ‘in-the-round’ viewing places – in commanding positions overlooking landscape and features of interest. Intriguingly, the plan shows one of these belvederes – a roundel of planted trees – coinciding with the Hill House plot. Clearly the site, with its deep connection to the surrounding landscape, had long been identified as an ideal place to linger and dwell. Like Hill House itself, Carmody Groarke’s box acknowledges this.
The box exemplifies an ultrapractical* architecture: which both intensifies the Hill House experience, and goes beyond it too, creating a transcendental relationship with Helensburgh.
By providing views of the building in-the-round and across the gridiron, and over the surrounding countryside, this is architecture that chooses to celebrate and enhance its context as well as the precious artefact it gift-wraps for its own good.
It also harks back to Boutcher’s original plan for Helensburgh, more fully realising the potential of the belvedere the 18th century landscape designer located on this very site, than Mackintosh’s house does.
In this respect, the box itself is a Belvedere, one fit for the 21st century, and a design deeply in tune with Helensburgh’s – and ultimately Glasgow’s – deep history of planning.
WHAT CAN WE DO?