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Black box: At the movies in Glasgow

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Next time you see the streets of San Fran, Philly or NY at the flicks, it’s probably Glasgow, writes Rory Olcayto

We were in Glasgow last week for the AJ100 lunch club, and the night before the event, a bunch of us were having a drink in the lobby of the Radisson Blu Hotel on Argyle Street. Some had never been to Scotland, let alone its biggest metropolis. ‘It looks like Gotham City,’ said Nick Roberts, AJ business development manager, mesmerised by a partially lit Victorian sandstone facade across the way. ‘It’s like New York!’ Nick’s a north London lad, very proud, but he was loving it.

He’s not the only one who thinks Glasgow, a grid-iron of proto-skyscrapers, inner-city highways and verdant parkland, is a little piece of America in Britain. Hollywood does too. Last year, the city doubled as Philadelphia in forthcoming Brad Pitt zombie blockbuster World War Z. (The crew went on to film at Grangemouth, whose oil refinery skyline is a dead ringer for the opening scenes of Blade Runner.)

In September, a German production of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas saw Halle Berry in Glasgow to shoot a scene in ‘San Francisco’. The city’s Montrose Street and other locations around the University of Strathclyde were used. I know it well. I studied there – and had to climb the steep streets up to the architecture department on Rottenrow. Google map and Street View it – you’ll see why the German location scouts thought Glasgow was a suitable drag act for the famously hilly Californian city.

It’s a quality Owen Hatherley touches upon in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, in a passage that describes the very buildings that had Nick dreaming of Batman. ‘The area around Glasgow Central Station – which itself has a Futurist moment with the glass bridge that barges across Argyle Street – is absolutely full of what would have been extremely advanced architecture for its date; appropriately, it’s sometimes used as a double in film sets for Edwardian Chicago or New York, just before they make their leap into the stratosphere.’

Glasgow feels tall because of how it uses its height says Hatherley, stretching ornamentation upwards and placing arrays of tall windows across the facades – they soar in comparison with the ‘lumpen rusticated solidity’ of London’s Edwardian equivalents.

Off-grid, Kelvingrove Art Gallery masqueraded as New York’s Grand Central Station in The House of Mirth. But sometimes Glasgow is Moscow as well. (They even sound similar the way locals say it: Glesga and Moskva). In An Englishman Abroad, the Alan Bennett-penned play about double agent Guy Burgess who ended his days living in a small flat on a Moscow housing estate, the City Chambers was used as the Kremlin.

And while Batman has yet to grace Glasgow’s mirror-wet streets, the writer who brings the masked vigilante to life in the pages of DC Comics was born and bred there: Grant Morrison hails from Rab C Nesbitt’s Govan. Holy Bampot Batman!



This is the mid-century classic I’m staying in this week during a stay in New York – The Standard, in the Meatpacking District. Except it was built in 2009 to designs by Todd Schliemann of Ennead Architects. The concrete frame structure stands on monolithic columns that lift it above Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s High Line, the influential urban park that has revitalised an elevated railway.

Corb, Jacobson, even British Brutalism are all touchstones. The Standard’s developer, André Balazs, says its design spans and expands on a century of modern architecture. The 1950s Modernism link is clear, but there are other references too. ‘The ground floor relates to early last century. The hotel floors are mid-century, while the top floor, a double-height, glass-enclosed space, is a homage to Warren Platner, a protégé of Saarinen’s.’ Nice.

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