GLASGOW: HOMES FOR THE FUTURE
Architect: Elder and Cannon (8 and 9) and Rick Mather Architects (10)
Developer: John Dickie Developments
Elder and Cannon and Rick Mather Architects have collaborated to design a linked pair of seven-storey apartment blocks joined by a 'skydeck' that gives access to a row of penthouse apartments. The bold modelling of the facades defines the southern edge of the site and overlooks Glasgow Green, giving the scheme its distinctive character, while the apartments also face south over fine views. At first-floor level, the left-hand building provides a link to Elder and Cannon's smaller-scale terrace. Compact apartments define the western edge of the site, backing on to the existing St Andrew's Square development.
Today's Glasgow is a somewhat messy amalgam of successive unfinished attempts at drastic reinvention. In actuality, the Victorian contribution of Neo-Classicism and a practical grid-iron has proved the most enduring, robust and admired. In spite of ruthless further attempts at reinvention, something of a Glasgow hobby, it remains essentially a Victorian city of streets and blocks with continuous stone facades. At its best, it provides a balanced and humane interface between public and private realms.
The deceptively simple grid-iron and consistent stone construction have allowed a remarkable uniformity, and have both encouraged and subsumed the typical individuality and even eccentricity of Glasgow's past architects. The grid's geometry equally accepts the residential terraces, tenements, offices and commercial buildings with ease and elegance. And, by using local distortions such as topographical modifications for squares, public buildings (typically Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic churches) are also easily integrated. Appropriately sized carriageways, pavements, service lanes and back courts complete the ensemble, actively participating in the creation of the very pleasing urban environment.
The beginning of this period can be conveniently, if not entirely accurately, associated with Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, whose importance is finally being recognised, and its end with the now world-famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Inevitably, their pre-eminence has overshadowed great architects such as James Salmon, J Gaff Gillespie, John Burnett, John Campbell, William Leiper, James Miller, Honeyman and Keppie and numerous others whose contributions have been of vital importance to the making of central Glasgow.
This overshadowing has in turn endangered the hitherto-untouched built form of Glasgow's business core. Erosion by demolition, suspicious fires and neglect is rampant, resulting in clumsy replacements and facade retentions. Even worse, the grid-iron, whose existence and perpetuation has softened the impact of unsympathetic replacement, is now being attacked by street bridging and closures. The exceptional size of recent developments - notably the new Buchanan Galleries shopping centre, which forms a huge lump suspended over Bath Street, and is both out of scale and antithetical to the street pattern - are putting the whole texture of the inner city in jeopardy.
More encouraging though, the aborting of the post-war reinvention/destruction of the city by urban motorways, tenemental disfavour and comprehensive redevelopment areas, has given opportunity for a sympathetic look at the future of terraced, tenemental and commercial properties. The particular value of the tenement in city life and form has at last been recognised, and the advent of grass-rooted energetic housing associations, has proved invaluable in stopping demolition and promoting re-use.
The essentially middle-class terraces, which have never been seriously threatened by reinvention, continue in viable mixed commercial and residential use. Encouraged by the new-found respect for and popularity of the tenement, Glasgow architects have enjoyed designing contemporary versions, mostly as infill, to various degrees of success. The best of these are optimistically seen as possible prototypes for wider use in bigger developments.
Although not directly connected with the renewed interest in Glasgow's urbanism, the relatively recent commercial and residential rehabilitation of the Merchant City is also grounds for hope. Its regeneration is not only sympathetic to the existing urban form and density, but comes directly from a new appreciation of its worth, and familiarises designers with the problems of caring re-use of existing buildings.
Unfortunately, of late this promising search for a new and relevant urbanism within the context of housing - addressing issues of street, grid-iron, density, historical and physical continuity, and consistency within diversity - appears to have been diverted.
Recent urban infills and the 'Homes for the Future' contribution to Glasgow 1999 appear to regress to an earlier, and generally regarded as unsuccessful, agenda. As with the redevelopment of the Gorbals in the 1950s and 60s, when eminent architects, such as Sir Basil Spence, Sir Robert Matthew and Sir William Holford were employed, the new development breaks with existing urban values to create buildings which compete for showcase status.
These fragmented, developer-driven, 'signature architect' proposals are also vaguely reminiscent of previous German exhibition models. It is both redolent of the 1927 Weissenhof greenfield project, and refers to aspects of Berlin's post-war iba scheme (which admittedly has comparable brownfield similarities). However, both these projects are unlikely models for the new urbanism Glasgow should be searching for.
The idiosyncratic 'Homes for the Future' site next to Glasgow Green does not suggest opportunities for prototypical demonstration relevant to Glasgow's grammar of built form. As the designer of the only existing building on the site, the former Our Lady and St Francis School, I find the apparent inability of the zoo of projects to relate to the existing building, never mind to each other, both ominous and sad.
This repeatedly naive reliance on the unifying effect of clearance, and the use of admittedly talented architects, is likely to be counter-productive, as has been evidenced by the destroyed work of previous prima-donna architects. Sir Basil Spence's once-widely admired, Unite-inspired Hutchesontown housing slabs were dynamited in 1993, in a deliberately poignant display of Glasgow's reaction to such reinvention.
Clearly, Glasgow won the accolade of City of Architecture and Design both for past performance and future promise, and it would be unfortunate if that promise were not fulfilled in the most public and ambitious of the Glasgow 1999 projects. That promise should arise naturally from Glasgow's past achievements in architecture and urbanism, rather than merely being superimposed.
Good architecture and urbanism is better founded in the present, which connects the future with the past. A wild rush towards the future is no shortcut, but a mere cul-de-sac.
Isi Metzstein is an architect and teacher