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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

AGENDA

Poor old Cumbernauld. Once the darling of '50s and '60s Modernists; now the nemesis of almost every lay planner and wannabe architectural expert in Scotland.

Poor old Cumbernauld. Its town-centre shopping precinct overwhelmingly voted to the top of the poll in Channel Four's Demolition series last year.

Poor old Cumbernauld.

Now on the receiving end of a depressingly average Keppiedesigned retail box that seems likely to suck out what's left of the town's life.

And yet it could have been so different. Just five months ago there was heady talk of transforming the town, of taking advantage of the publicity that surrounded the Demolition programme.

'Bring in a design team', people said. 'Masterplan the whole thing. Use Scotland's architectural talent.' Gordon Murray would be involved. So would Gareth Hoskins. It all looked so promising.

Programme-makers had facilitated a meeting between residents, the council, and the design team. Possibility was the name of the game.

In the intervening period - just five short months later - oh how different it all seems. Not only is the Keppie scheme, called the Antonine Centre, coming out of the ground, it is rather amazingly being hailed as the future of the town.

Last week this town's dignitaries, including leaders of North Lanarkshire Council, gathered at the site to celebrate the erection of the shopping centre's steel frame. What then followed was a scattergun publicity campaign that told anyone who'd listen that this was the new dawn - this was the future of Cumbernauld.

That's not exactly the impression that one gets talking to Scotland's architectural talent, both those involved closely with the Demolition meeting and those who are mere seasoned watchers.

One such observer is journalist Penny Lewis.

Her experience watching developments - especially Keppie's scheme - at Cumbernauld makes for extremely depressing listening.

'It seems like this is a just a retail box. They say that it will create places within it - but from what I understand this will be in the second phase, and who knows how long that will take to come about.

'Planners at South Lanarkshire have always said that they do not care what the design experts say.

'Their point is that they are not bothered about the idea of a masterplan. Their attitude has always been that it was the design experts that got them into this mess in the first place in the '50s.

'The council said after the Demolition programme that they would be more strategic, but it seems that all they are interested in is getting more good shops.'

And Lewis warns that there is also a problem with landownership in the town. 'The place has no centre and it is a dormitory town. It needs a new centre. They have no public money at all to fund this work.

'Also, the middle area of the town - which is the existing shopping centre - is owned by private companies; it is always going to be very difficult, ' she adds.

One of the members of the design team brought in by Demolition was Gordon Murray of Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop Architects. He is clearly devastated by the direction the town is taking.

'There is a difficulty here - every time anyone tries to talk to them [the planners] about design they clam up.

'They seem to be hypersensitive whenever anyone wants to talk to them about design. For example, North Lanarkshire [council] was very dismissive of the idea of a masterplan.'

Differing slightly from Lewis, Murray optimistically believes that there are some positives to take from recent council comments. 'They now seem to be trying to understand place-making, but it seems a bit of a case of too little far too late.

'But with the private-landownership issues it is difficult to see where they can take it.

'If you're going to replace the centre of the town with a massive great box, where are you going to go from there?'

Good question. Over to the council. The -ne burghers of Cumbernauld surely deserve more than they are currently getting.

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