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Architects could ruin UK’s finest gridiron townscape with lazy urban design

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Don’t wreck one of Britain’s finest gridiron townscapes with gimmicky urban design, pleads Rory Olcayto

One of Britain’s finest towns is under threat by well-intentioned architects who have completely misread the nature of the place they are lucky enough to be dealing with. The culprit is Austin Smith: Lord. The town is Helensburgh, at the mouth of Gare Loch on the Clyde.

Earlier this week residents voted on public realm works planned for the town’s Colquhoun Square. Not on whether or not they should go ahead – that’s a given – but which of three AS:L schemes should be built. The tragedy here, is that none of them are any use.

Helensburg plan

At the moment, the square is divided into four greens by a crossroads. The basic AS:L move is to pedestrianise the north side (with sub-Gross Max twaddle) and bend the east-west road southwards, Home Zone-style, away from the square’s exact centre to “enable pedestrians to safely enjoy the four way vista of the Helensburgh grid; the only location this can be achieved in the town”. Two of the three proposals centre on providing this money shot moment. The third, which offers the same duff landscape but with no bendy road, warns: “No safe place for pedestrians to enjoy the four way vista of the Helensburgh grid.”

Yet, as residents will attest, and I was one for many years, the roads within the grid are calm. You walk in the middle of them most times because the paths can get muddy. Every day, every night, people wander the grid: teenagers looking for parties, parents strolling with kids, joggers, dog walkers, mountain bikers, postmen. There are plenty of “four way vistas” to safely enjoy.

The grid itself is one of the largest in Britain. Google map it, then open another page for central Glasgow and you’ll see they are a proportional match. Helensburgh would, in fact, have made for a more practical Glasgow than Glasgow itself, if the original 1750s plan for the town, as a centre of manufacturing, had taken off. You could imagine a city here, given the grid’s scale and the easier topography to build on. It’s better positioned on the Clyde in terms of transport links, too.

But, instead, it developed as a residential town for wealthy city merchants. So the grid has wide grass verges on either side and cherry blossoms lining long vistas that stretch westwards towards the Highlands and south down a gentle slope to a shingle shore with views across the Firth of Clyde. Massive villas occupy each of the plots, “embosomed soft in trees”. Yet it feels urban: the town centre has tenements, the churches are big and there is an impressive Victorian rail terminal with a barrel-vaulted roof.

It’s hard to overplay Helensburgh’s significance within British architectural and urban design culture. At least that’s what Hermann Muthesius thought, during his reconnaissance for the German government at the turn of the 20th Century. He wrote widely about the town in Das Englishe Haus, recognising the residential designs of William Leiper for their blend of French and Scottish vernacular sources. And he chose two of the town’s best villas, Mackintosh’s Hill House and Baillie Scott’s White House, as exemplars for his seminal book.

There’s another Mackintosh in the town, a red sandstone elevation among the parade of shops on Sinclair Street, a ‘Greek’ Thomson Villa down on the shore, and three miles away in Cardross lies the crumbling Modernist ruin of St Peter’s Seminary. The grid, however, trumps them all in terms of architectural vision. It deserves more than childish ideas.

Since time of writing Helensburgh’s residents have thankfully chosen the least bad option.

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