You could do a lot worse than look to the concrete new town of Cumbernauld for inspiration, writes Rory Olcayto
Despite its ‘unrivalled aggression about the disarray of modern Britain’, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain is ‘a book about unlikely successes’, in which author Owen Hatherley ‘finds signs of the hopeful country Britain was and hints of what it might become’. For Scots, at least, says Hatherley, the answer is a seemingly hated Lanarkshire new town.
Verso picked a winner when they backed Hatherley and published A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain in 2010, a compilation of his blog posts and Urban Trawl articles for a rival publication. The popular hardback ‘skewered New Labour’s architectural legacy in all its witless swagger’ and introduced a new term to describe the kind of rainscreen dreck most commercial architecture ends up looking like: Pseudomodernism.
Yet clearly Verso felt the offer of another angry stomp around Britain’s cities, taking in the delights only the likes of Chapman Taylor and Broadway Malyan can offer, was not an easy sell the second time around, hence the nudge to say something positive.
It has not gone down well with other critics. A bullying review by The Daily Telegraph’s Igor Toronyi-Lalic, reads: ‘The conclusions Hatherley draws are mad. He seems to wish us to look to the concrete new town of Cumbernauld for architectural inspiration.’
Ahh, yes, ‘glorious’ Cumbernauld, as The Mad Hatherley would have it. The same Cumbernauld that in recent years has won RIBA president George Ferguson’s public vote for its town centre to be blown up on his hit TV show Demolition, as well as Urban Realm magazine’s Plook on a Plinth award – twice. For Hatherley, though, Cumbernauld is ‘a model for the new settlements of an independent, leftist, intensely local Scotland’, which he makes clear in a chapter that contrasts the fortunes of Glasgow’s Govan with the 60,000-strong new town. That this point, made in a sentence or two at the end of the chapter, feels like a last-minute effort to please the publisher is not important. Because he’s right.
Hatherley’s descriptions of the place are enough to convince you that there’s another reality to experience in the town beyond the narrative of new town failure that the likes of Ferguson happily bought into in his own bid to popularise architecture. ‘You take some stairs up onto a ridge,’ he explains. ‘A path leads off it, lined thickly with trees – a forest planted just next to the town centre, coursing between the estates.’
If you’ve seen Gregory’s Girl, you’ll know Cumbernauld has gentle, suburban charms. The teenage romantic comedy – best described as the precise opposite of Trainspotting – dates from 1981, when Cumbernauld new town was still quite … new. In an essay entitled ‘Modern Girls, Modern Boys: How Gregory’s Girl Promised a New Scotland’, Alistair Braidwood writes: ‘[Director] Bill Forsyth’s Cumbernauld is clean, new, desirable and safe. A place where teenagers could walk, and dance in the park and the only worry was bumping into the lecherous school photographer and his mini-me assistant.
These were images of a Scotland that would be unrecognisable to an outside audience, who were used to the contrasting images of No Mean City and Brigadoon, but to those living in Scotland, this was an area and time they could place, and here were characters who were recognisable, but not stereotypical.’
So Hatherley’s proclamation is nothing new. Cumbernauld’s gentle green townscape, by landscape architect GP Youngman, ‘a place that an Alvar Aalto or a Sven Markelius would recognise as kin’, has always had its admirers. It’s nice to be reminded, though.