Welcome to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

‘Our once-beautiful Glasgow looks like a bomb hit it’

Marc Horne
Saturday April 06 2024, 6.00pm, The Sunday Times

The Lion Chambers on Hope Street

Stuart Robertson, of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, says Scotland’s biggest city, a Victorian treasure, is falling into ‘third world’ decline, and the council is not helping.

In 1967, Sir John Betjeman, the English poet and writer, declared Glasgow to be the “greatest Victorian city in the world” as he lavished praise on its exquisite architecture.

Sixty years later, heritage leaders insist Scotland’s largest city looks as if it has been “bombed” and resembles a developing nation.

Stuart Robertson, the director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, which protects the legacy of Glasgow’s greatest architect and designer, claims key parts of the city have been allowed to fall into decay and disrepair.

Heritage leaders say the city has fallen into an even worse state since the pandemic.

He is particularly scathing about the state of Sauchiehall Street, once a bustling, showpiece avenue filled with department stores and restaurants. “It looks as if it has been bombed,” Robertson said. “It’s depressing and it’s got even worse after Covid. There has been a massive decline, and the council is not maintaining buildings on a regular basis.”

Large numbers of retailers have left the street in recent years and two fires that devastated the Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh’s masterpiece, in 2014 and 2018 have rendered areas derelict.

Last year, just before the Christmas shopping season, the council felled a number of trees in the heart of Sauchiehall Street and dug 10ft-wide trenches that it surrounded with fencing. It is part of a longer-term council plan, The Avenues, which aims to create a network of “attractive, accessible, safe and sustainable routes throughout the city centre”. Months later, the barriers remain, with little work appearing to have been done.

Robertson is equally concerned about neighbouring streets, which he claims are starting to look like a “third-world country”. He said: “When you come out of Central Station, it is grubby and depressing. You wouldn’t want to be a woman walking along there alone at 10 o’clock at night. Parts of Argyle Street are pretty poor as well.”

Robertson called on city leaders to learn lessons from those who shaped Glasgow’s historic skyline. “We have a wonderful city with incredible buildings, but we need to look after them,” he said. “We can learn a lot from the way that Victorian architects and philanthropists tackled a rapidly emerging crisis in working-class housing.

“The council seem to have completely forgotten that and have gone from disaster to disaster. They seem determined to stop people from coming into the city centre in cars, but they don’t have a great bus service.”

He believes the city should replace the crumbling fire-damaged façade of the former ABC music venue in Sauchiehall Street, and a neighbouring former nightclub, with a Mackintosh design centre and visitor attraction, rather than erecting yet more student flats.

“It would be something new that would bring people from across the UK and around the world,” he said. “There are lots of Mackintosh pieces that are in archives and are not on show. You have also got the Mackintosh at the Willow tearooms just across the road, so it could be a focal point for taking people on tours of his buildings around Glasgow.”

Robertson, whose organisation saved and maintains Queen’s Cross Church, claims some businesses are tarnishing Mackintosh’s reputation. He singled out the Rennie Mackintosh Station Hotel in Union Street. “It has no connection to Mackintosh whatsoever,” he said. “People who are travelling to Glasgow to see his work are being misled. It’s my opinion that they shouldn’t be allowed to use the Mackintosh name.”

Robertson has invited Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, to address a symposium on the future of Glasgow’s heritage buildings in June. “Manchester has been really dynamic and we can learn a lot from what they have done,” he said. “Having Andy Burnham deliver a keynote address would really shake things up.”

Robertson is far from alone in expressing concern about the city. Stuart Patrick, chief executive of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, said in December: “Anyone who wanders down Sauchiehall Street is not going to leap for joy at the sights they see.”

Glasgow city council, which is run by an SNP and Green-led administration, stressed that it had contributed almost £273 million to maintenance and restoration of historic and heritage buildings between 2013 and 2023. A council spokeswoman said: “Like many city centres in the UK and around the world, Glasgow city centre has been affected by the economic and structural changes that were accelerated by the pandemic, most notably in retail and people now working from home more often.

“In recognition of these changes and the need to respond, programmes of work, such as the Golden Z [regeneration] plans and the Avenues project, have been developed and implemented to ensure that the city centre adapts to those changes and thrives in the future.

“Key to this will be bringing a new mix of uses for property in the city centre, for example the conversion of empty or underused office and retail space to meet the needs of the growing number of people living in the city centre.”

The Rennie Mackintosh Station Hotel did not respond to a request for comment.