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Seeking a sense of place

technical & practice

As part of the regeneration of Glasgow's Merchant City, an artist and an architect set out to determine the essence of the area and to make proposals for its future On the side of the former Sheriff 's Court in Glasgow's Merchant City is a large placard with a picture of a judge's gavel suspended in mid-air. 'An Arresting Development' is its slogan.

'Coming soon - an excellent mixture of residential, commercial, leisure and retail', explains the accompanying text.

The court - mid-19th-century, Neo-Classical, and monumental - is scaffolded at present as its new identity emerges; one of several signs of current commercial health. Just a few doors away, for instance, is a branch of Emporio Armani, while restaurants seem to multiply. Round every other corner is a plate of seared scallops or lamb shank with olive mash.

Beginning in the 1980s but stalled for much of the 1990s, development in the Merchant City once more has momentum. Selfridges is the latest recruit, with the promise of a huge new store that will open in 2007. This renewed activity makes a recent project there called Fieldwork - an almost year-long artist-architect collaboration - all the more pertinent. It included the creation of a (temporary) artwork but has primarily been a matter of research, leading to an exhibition, a publication, and a set of proposals.What exactly has it meant for the Merchant City, and might it offer a model for elsewhere?

Fieldwork was the joint initiative of Liz Davidson, project director of the Merchant City Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI), and Julia Radcliffe, director of Visual Art Projects, an organisation that is used to working with artists and architects on urban regeneration. In a £3.1 million, five-year programme, the main focus of the THI is on building restoration in the Merchant City, with grant aid to owners of specific properties. But, says Davidson: 'We wanted to go a wee bit deeper and look at things in a different way. We wanted to have someone coming in completely from left field - someone who would see the underlying grain and spirit of the area, and give a new perspective on its development.'

Davidson and Radcliffe envisaged a collaboration across disciplines: 'A research exercise that allowed an artist and architect to spend time analysing the Merchant City and arriving at ideas. An opportunity for them to explore, think, walk, consult - and generally discover layers of meaning.'

Applications were sought from individuals, not just those who had already worked together, and it was an artist and an architect unknown to each other who were chosen. 'I introduced the two of them with my heart in my mouth - 'I do hope you like each other', ' says Radcliffe; but the risk paid off.

The artist was Louise Crawford, based in Glasgow since 1989 but working in other cities (Paris, Budapest, Berlin), especially with photography and film. She impressed the interviewing panel with 'many small acts of observation which were so perceptive, amounting to something much greater than the sum of their parts'.

The architect was Ian Alexander of the young Glasgow practice McKeown Alexander, recently shortlisted for the new RIAS award for its Graham Square housing (AJ 26.9.02). He impressed with his 'firmly architectural account of the area's strengths, weaknesses and key planning issues', and his sensitivity to historical layers, which were often overlooked - for example, the sign that survives on a wall when a business is long defunct, perhaps the reminder of a trade that once was central to the district's economy.

So both were insiders, Alexander having known the Merchant City since he was a child. But, as Crawford points out: 'When you get an opportunity like this, you find that you don't know a place as well as you think you did. You often go through areas just to get from A to B, not really noticing things. You don't make detours, but stay on your regular route. This was a chance for us to look more closely and to make some discoveries.'

The two collaborators wandered round the Merchant City separately and together. They traced its evolution on old maps, explored its closes and alleys, made sketches, took photographs, swapped stories and observations. And simply loitered.

Alexander, familiar with 'architects' artists' like Donald Judd, was introduced to other artists' ways of looking; Crawford engaged with Alexander's 'urban-design approach' to analysing space.

References from outside art and architecture were important too - writers such as Robert Walser and Georges Perec. In his short (often very short) stories, Walser, who died in 1956, was a lyricist of directionless wandering, whether in the country or the city; his writing more profound than its casual surface suggests.

'We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much, ' says Walser in A Little Ramble (1914). But do we really see it? For Crawford and Alexander, there was an obvious implication. Whatever new additions might be made in the Merchant City, perhaps one task was to make more legible what already exists there (the traces, the layers), so that passers-by could see and 'read' the area more acutely.

Twenty years after his death, Perec (essentially a novelist) has a growing readership of architects. He was fêted in a special double issue of AA Files this summer, and his Species of Spaces crops up regularly on student reading lists. In connection with this Glasgow project, one might remember Perec choosing a site in each Parisian arrondissement and describing, as neutrally and factually as possible, all that happened in front of him during the course of a day. The rhythm of life in particular spaces of the Merchant City was another of the Fieldwork collaborators' concerns.

Signs of life I met Crawford and Alexander one morning last month to walk round the Merchant City and see some of the key sites they had identified during their research. We began at the entrance to Tontine Lane, which runs north from busy, shabby Trongate. In his Central Glasgow architectural guide (RIAS Publications), Charles McKean says Trongate was once 'the principal thoroughfare of the city's tobacco lords - Glasgow's Rialto.'Not any more.

Connecting via a gloomy courtyard and enclosed passage with Bell Street beyond, Tontine Lane could be a pedestrian option in navigating the Merchant City, but - unalluring as it is, especially at night - it is rarely used.

But this spot is of considerable significance in Glasgow's history because a Bronze Age dug-out canoe was found here in 1781; the flood plain of the River Clyde once extended this far.

'One thing that interests us is how people - both residents and visitors - can be helped to read the city without the usual plaque-on-the-wall scenario, ' says Alexander. So Tontine Lane became the site of the one actual piece of art which he and Crawford made during Fieldwork: a three-part neon work with the simple outline of a canoe in triplicate and the basic facts beneath. It was inspired in part by neon signs that Crawford saw in Budapest, dating from the 1960s, when only commodities could be advertised, not brands. She was struck by their linear economy and grace.

For the period of its installation, the neon canoes cast a blue light on the white glazed bricks in their immediate vicinity, illuminating a usually sombre entrance and enhancing a sense of security while bringing an archaeological dimension to the scene. To judge by the phone calls received by Visual Arts Project, certainly some passers-by were provoked to find out more. Crawford and Alexander see this as a pilot for similar neons elsewhere in the Merchant City; the site of a former banana auction house in Patrick Thomas Court would be perfect for such a sign.

From Tontine Lane we moved on to Wilson Street and stopped at the intersection with Brunswick Street by the Sheriff 's Court. 'The heart of the Merchant City: really a plaza, enclosed on all sides. Despite great changes, it is still magnificent to be in, ' says McKean in his guide. But scarcely anyone was around that morning to enjoy the 'magnificence' - Wilson Street was deserted.

'As is usually the case, ' says Crawford, who thinks its scale and sporadic grandeur are almost a deterrent. She made a dawn-to-dusk photographic record of the street one day early this year, and even in the sunlit midday images it is almost empty - as if waiting for something to happen that never does.

How to animate it? 'It is not a place for permanent artworks but for events, for festivals, ' says Alexander.

'There could be markets here. You could have an orchestra play.'

Demountable structures would be called for, so he has sketched ideas for temporary roofing - a large automated canopy. Shelter, of course, is no small matter, given the Glaswegian climate; and, in this vein, as they analysed the Merchant City, Crawford and Alexander also had in mind the 19th-century covered arcades of Paris: diverse shops and businesses side-by-side, quite stylishly housed, accessible whatever the weather.

We continued west to Virginia Street: 'In its name, scale, privacy and in the use of its buildings, it recalls - more than anywhere else in Glasgow - the tobacco lords, their wealth and their operations, ' says McKean's guidebook. Here, above a passage leading to enclosed Virginia Court, and invisible to all but the initiated, is a delicate late-Georgian brick vault; while on the flanking wall is a redundant sign, 'To Alehouse'. Light from the courtyard filters in at the far end, but the passage is otherwise dim.

'This simply needs to be lit, ' says Crawford. 'Again, there doesn't have to be an artwork here - what exists is enough. But at present it isn't seen.'

'You can bring things back into the public domain without the full 'Historic Scotland' treatment, ' adds Alexander.

Time out These three sites give some idea of Fieldwork's approach. Crawford and Alexander don't propose another Birmingham, littered with condescending 'public art', nor any grand gestures from architects. They urge instead a series of modest, localised interventions, at times no more obtrusive than lighting the Virginia Street vault.

Their recommendations can be found in the publication which accompanied the Fieldwork exhibition at Glasgow's Lighthouse (£6, from 0141 552 6563). It amplifies the themes touched on during our walk - the neon signs, provision for events, varied strategies for lighting - while introducing others, such as a greater 'greening' of the Merchant City.

Old maps reveal it as a place of orchards and cornfields; today trees are sparse. Crawford and Alexander suggest several ways of bringing vegetation back in among the stones - a rose garden, roof gardens, perhaps a small park or reconstituted orchard.

'Trees and plants guide us through the seasons - they add another layer of time to the city, ' they say. 'A coherent greening policy would unify the area and define an identity for this part of Glasgow.

That identity could either be drawn from the past or created anew.'

The proposals in the Fieldwork document are precisely linked to points on a street-plan of the Merchant City, but it has wider relevance in gathering a range of references - artistic, architectural, literary - that could inform any project of urban regeneration.

But there are other possible lessons from this artist-architect collaboration. 'One of the principal things about it, ' says Alexander, 'was the luxury of time - the opportunity to really look and think. As an architect, you get so used to dealing with short time frames, making quick analyses. Here there was a chance for second thoughts.'

So the time factor allowed Crawford and Alexander to move beyond their habitual responses; something which the process of collaboration itself should encourage, of course.

They could explore every cul-de-sac and close in the Merchant City, not restrict themselves to a few sites determined in advance, and could revisit them, seeing patterns of use at different periods of the day or year.

But, in this enviable respect, was Fieldwork rather self-indulgent, very much a 'one-off '? Julia Radcliffe is adamant that it was not. 'What we've done here should be closer to the norm. It should filter through to other development agencies, ' she says. 'Any collaboration is of course dependent on personalities, but also on the right systems being put in place - the time and space for all parties to get their view across. If you look at what happens in Europe or North America, there are all sorts of initiatives, aspects ofpatronage, that go beyond the necessary. If you aren't prepared to do that, then quality responses get lost.'

That phrase 'go beyond the necessary', is a good one; in that respect, Fieldwork is exemplary. Nor could its cost be considered excessive: the total figure was £36,000 (including the publication and the exhibition). But having gone beyond the necessary on this occasion, what happens to the insights and suggestions that have emerged? For once, it seems that some of them at least may be acted on.

Liz Davidson explains that, in addition to the five-year THI initiative, Glasgow City Council has now allocated another £1.2 million to be spent between 2002 and 2007 on lighting, signage, public art, infrastructure, etc, in the Merchant City - so Crawford and Alexander may be among those commissioned as part of this new programme. Davidson also mentions an international architecture competition for much-needed improvements around Glasgow Cross, at the eastern edge of the area. This might be announced before the end of the year.

At a time when the Merchant City is faced with development - 'arresting' or otherwise - the Fieldwork project also highlights what should not be lost. It is not just the global spread of chains (whether Starbucks or Prada) that erodes distinctions of place - whatever the name on the fascia, the fixtures and fittings of Richard Rogers' 'café society' are so often sadly uniform.

Tucking into a bowl of noodles beneath a hologram of Chairman Mao, surrounded by blonde wood, etched glass and Jacobsen chairs, you could as well be in Manchester or Soho as Glasgow's Merchant City.

This means that signs on the wall outside from a century before begin to matter; the building opposite that will never be listed has a value nonetheless. They help to make it a place, not any place.

The revamped Sheriff 's Court may be as vibrant as its placard promises, but just as important for the future of the Merchant City, I suspect, are small adjustments and additions of the kind that Fieldwork has proposed. They offer continuity and identity, a thread that can bind together these old commercial streets.

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