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The demolition of Glasgow’s architectural swagger

With buildings either being blown up or neglected, how can the city centre be preserved?

© Leonie Woods

Back in 1998, on what you might call the eve of Scottish devolution, I was working in Glasgow on a year-long festival of architecture and design. From the windows of my 10th-floor office, I could look out over a swaggering 19th-century metropolis of grandiloquent stone architecture, built to a North American grid plan, that was once home to more than 1million people.

The city felt then like an international model for culture-led renewal. Fact-finding delegations were constantly touring the streets, looking for lessons to apply at home. A garden festival and Glasgow’s status as European Capital of Culture had made a real difference to the way the world saw it, and how it saw itself: confident in its status as Scotland’s world city.

It feels different now: like a city unsure about what to do with its history — and still worryingly addicted to blowing up bits of itself.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s former Glasgow Herald building, carefully restored as the Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture and Design, closed at the start of the pandemic and is yet to reopen. Five years after the shocking destruction of the fire that tore through Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the art school that produced eight Turner Prize winners is still a blackened ruin. The facade has been propped up by a giant scaffolding pincushion while the school works out how best to rebuild it for the second time since a first fire in 2014.

Glasgow’s other great architect, Alexander “Greek” Thomson, is in no better shape. His once magnificent Egyptian Halls on Union Street sprouts shrubs from its decayed facade, which festers behind a giant advertising hoarding. The Buchanan Galleries, a hulking stone-faced 10-acre shopping centre, opened only in 1999, is slated for demolition.

Every city has had to deal with the rise of the digital economy and the impact of increased homeworking. But Glasgow has an additional problem: a decisive shift in the balance of power and prestige between itself and Edinburgh — an unintended result of the decision to re-establish Scotland’s parliament 25 years ago.

Since then, the number of people living in the capital has increased 25 per cent; Glasgow’s population is down to around 630,000. There are another million people who live in the hinterland beyond the city’s boundaries, but since the Strathclyde regional administration was abolished in the run-up to devolution, the political muscle and tax income that came from those numbers has gone.

Here’s another measure: for decades, Glasgow had been home to Scotland’s busiest airport. Edinburgh surpassed it in 2007 and today it is the international gateway by some margin: some 15million passengers passed through its airport in 2019, compared with 9million in Glasgow.

Glasgow might succeed in holding back the erosion of its centre, but it can’t entirely reverse it. As one vacant building comes back to life, it seems, another is threatened.

The 18th-century Sheriff Court was rescued from decades of neglect when it became the home of the Scottish Youth Theatre in 2006, but last year Marks and Spencer pulled out of its Sauchiehall Street building, which the new owners are planning to demolish. The massive Victorian General Post Office on George Square has found a new life and the old cheese market on Albion Street has been turned into a restaurant. But Rogano, the historic Art Deco oyster bar — which, according to legend, is equipped with carpets and fittings smuggled out of the Clydebank shipyard that launched the Queen Mary — hasn’t reopened since the pandemic.
In fact, dynamite has become an essential part of Glasgow’s urban agenda. In the past 20 years, the Wheatley Group, part charity, part social enterprise and part commercial entity, has blown up thousands of the 81,000 homes given to it by Glasgow City Council in 2003 — a video montage on its website proudly edits together some of its biggest bangs.

After the revulsion at Wheatley’s plans to televise the explosive demolition of eight Red Road high-rises as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2014, it is no longer considered acceptable to celebrate destroying such properties. But Wheatley is pressing on with plans to demolish four more high-rises in Maryhill. Protesters call it a profligate waste of resources that runs counter to the city’s sustainability rhetoric.
Along with the Buchanan Galleries, Glasgow is planning to demolish the St Enoch mall, at the other end of Buchanan Street, the hinge around which Glasgow’s centre works.

Both redevelopments are based on a new orthodoxy: covered malls are a thing of the past; old-style streets are the future. It’s a bold view to take in Glasgow, where it’s dark by 3.30 on a winter afternoon and rain is a fact of life all year. Norman Foster’s ambitious plan for the Buchanan Galleries envisages less shopping, demolishing a 2,000-space car park and creating more office space, some housing and a concrete raft over the tracks into Queen Street station to repair the rupture in Glasgow’s street grid.

If you pick a spot carefully today, say the corner of Ingram Street and Queen Street, where my office used to be, you will see Glasgow swagger. When I was there last Christmas, I saw a terracotta-coloured Ferrari cruise past a group of well-groomed Glaswegians from the affluent west end who were up in town, perhaps, to buy their children a new Burberry for Kids outfit, then drop in for a cocktail at a Korean-themed bar.
Look the other way and you see another Glasgow, the one with street sleepers on Argyle Street and the boarded-up shopfronts stretching down to the Clyde.

Glasgow is governed from the City Chambers, a building grand enough from which to run an empire. The Greens hold the balance of power, supporting a minority SNP administration. They have appointed a city urbanist, which suggests a welcome awareness of the issues the city faces, and are embarking on a public consultation to steer a strategy for its future.

Finding an effective way to reconnect the city politically and economically with its hinterland, where so many former Glaswegians now live, would be the best place to start.

Deyan Sudjic is director emeritus of the Design Museum in London

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