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George Square debacle has roots in 80s 'City of Culture' campaign

[From the deputy editor] Glasgow’s failure to embrace bold, imaginative urban design led to this George Square debacle, says Rory Olcayto

What’s more depressing: the fact that Glasgow City Council has scrapped its £15 million plan to redesign George Square, or the fact that nobody who knows the city well is in any way surprised? As Chris Platt, Head of School and Professor of Architecture at the Mack, says, the result is ‘a catastrophic loss of nerve and failure in civic leadership’. Too true. Yet we’ve been here several times before.

In 2006 the council asked designers to go back to the drawing board after scrapping Richard Rogers’ 2003 competition-winning scheme for a bridge in the city centre to kick-start its riverside regeneration plans. But, when it came in over-budget, it was retendered and a low-grade design – with no architectural input – was eventually built.

A year before, in June 2005, another landmark competition for the city, to design a café in George Square, was axed by then council leader Stephen Purcell, who cynically announced: ‘The expenditure on the George Square café over three years could build us one new primary school.’ In a city still plagued by severe poverty, it was a clever way for Purcell to align himself ‘with the people’ but it played fast and loose with the truth about how council funds are allocated.

At the time, Purcell’s design champ, Gerry Grams, said the council had been given a ‘reality check’ by the café competition. Like this latest farcical attempt to improve Glasgow’s public realm it, too, was exhibited at the Lighthouse for a minimal period, but, said Grams, it had ‘opened a wider debate’ about city centre public spaces, because many of the shortlisted schemes, such as those by Richard Murphy and Platt’s Studio Kap, proposed a complete reorganisation of the square. To seasoned Glasgow-watchers, this latest, albeit rushed, badlypublicised and ineptly managed international competition seemed to have resulted from that ‘reality check’. Maybe Glasgow was serious this time.

No such luck. Once again, a mendacious explanation has been rolled out by the council leader, Gordon Matheson, who has used public outrage over concurrent council plans to remove the square’s statues to deflect inquiry into yet another embarrassing U-turn by Scotland’s biggest city. ‘The people of Glasgow have made it clear that they do not want a radical redesign of the square,’ he said, rounding on the shortlisted hard landscape designs most evident in John McAslan’s winning scheme.

No doubt about it, Glasgow has a leadership crisis. Matheson’s position has been seriously weakened by news – which emerged two days before the competition was scrapped – that he had been caught by police allegedly performing a sex act on another man, not his partner, in a car park. And let us not forget his predecessor Purcell resigned amid rumours of a cocaine-gangster-blackmail plot in 2010. No wonder Platt, in our lead story, is calling for a mayor.

Yet, as these hapless bids to enhance the public realm prove, Glasgow City Council has failed to develop a bold urban design culture to match those in London or Manchester. It is a problem rooted in the ‘Miles Better’ and ‘City of Culture’ revivals in the ’80s and ’90s which, although they were ostensibly cultural, were in fact retail-led, and which have had the unfortunate effect of conflating, in the minds of city leaders at least, shopping space with public realm.

It is why the truly awful Buchanan Galleries, at the junction of Glasgow’s two main boulevards, Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street, an important civicspace, is hailed a ‘world class’ shopping success, while the steps outside the Leslie Martin-designed Concert Hall, where city workers gather for lunch, are to be removed to make way for the mall’s extension.

The arrogance, the stupidity – it’s painful.

rory.olcayto@emap.com

Readers' comments (1)

  • At the time of the 'miles better' and 'city of culture' campaigns some (but far from all) of the city centre streetscape was overhauled, with prominent use of fine Caithness flags and Brazilian granite setts. There has been considerable wear and tear, with flags left damaged and broken by vehicles and cack-handed 'restoration' of areas after excavation. No sign of reasonable care in maintenance.
    Some of the central streets - let alone the spectacularly sleazy back alleys - were never given the 'treatment'.
    More recently large advertising panels have been installed on many pavements, obstructing pedestrian movement and creating hazards for the disabled, blind and infirm.
    Meanwhile the city council has been led by people who've proved themselves devoid of integrity.
    'All fur coat and no knickers' could be a fit description - and it's a rat-eaten fur coat.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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