The former director of the Lighthouse Stuart MacDonald calls for mass public participation in any new vision for Glasgow’s George Square
‘Unable firstly to find a winner for Glasgow’s George Square competition, then obliged by procurement rules to do so, followed by an announcement scrapping the project because of public criticism about the lack of consultation, council humiliation is complete. Against that degrading backdrop and even although the council has indicated a ‘modest’ facelift for the square, possibly with a more radical re-design later, there is still the opportunity for democracy to prevail. You have to see the George Square climb-down as part of a wider trend. Changing economic behaviours and the rise of user-participation has revived interest in public realm.
Aberdeen’s recent debacle over the cack-handed approach to its divisive City Gardens Project, and now George Square, highlight a demand for more citizen involvement – for greater democracy. With the demise of the High Street the only thing in our cities that offers belonging and identity are the few civic spaces left. What politicians don’t get is that people want to be part of the story – a new narrative with the need to embrace meaningful participation that goes beyond mere consultation.
What politicians don’t get is that people want to be part of the story
The clue lies in the City itself. Even though the council envisages a light touch makeover for the Square, it nonetheless presents the opportunity to re-think public engagement; reappraising Glasgow as a people-centred place and rediscovering its capacity for citizen involvement in large-scale, public consultation events. There was a time not so long ago when Glaswegians, political leaders and the architecture and design sector could come together and animate debate and activities focussed on issues of common concern. Securing the accolade of Glasgow UK City of Architecture and Design was predicated on this approach. The necessary capability is still here. Last year four young Glasgow practices represented Scotland at the Venice Architecture Biennale. What they showcased wasn’t buildings but community engagement, all based on experiences honed in Glasgow’s urban environment with local communities.
Going back to square one should mean recapturing the participatory ethos that was and could still be the hallmark of Glasgow design. People talk of George Square as the City’s ‘living room’. Why not exploit this theme by inviting users of the Square - young people, seniors, women, ethnic groups - indeed, whoever wants to participate, to work alongside architects, planners and designers to co-create amazing street furniture, picnic areas, meeting places, play furniture, temporary art installations, signage? The Commonwealth Games is as good a time as any. In preparation for this, the Square could become a vibrant urban laboratory taking participation to a new level with hundreds of people. As well as providing a template for doing things differently it could make Glasgow again world-leading in a field that was once its own. Chaotic maybe, but it is a significant and more transparent advance on polls, focus groups and referenda. It could also be great fun.
Stuart MacDonald is the emeritus professor at Gray’s School of Art and was founding Director of the Lighthouse
Critical Dialogues: Scotland + Venice, an exhibition of the four Glasgow practices from the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale opens at the Lighthouse 15 February.