Who is responsible for the disgrace that is being heralded as the “regeneration” of the Clyde?
I was pondering this while on an office trip up the river on a high-speed bouncy castle (they call it a rib) straight in to a force 8. Our knuckles were white and the water was as brown as a Mars Bar; the captain was some mad Willie Wonka who claimed he hadn’t lost anyone- yet.
We were passing big shiny standalone buildings where formerly there had been a series of shipyards. More big shiny housing. Vast car parks. More big shiny buildings. Big gaps. Remaining shipyard. Another standalone building with vast car park.
And hardly a soul on the bank to be seen.
As my life flashed before my eyes, I remembered my grandmother’s stories of the bustle and endeavour of the Glasgow of the 1930s – when the working men of Clydeside had purpose in their stride and pushed out their chests, knowing that they were the best in the world.
Economics and politics largely destroyed their industry. The legacy is lost skills, unemployment or call centre jobs. The ships of the world are now being built in France, Sweden, Poland – where politicians had a vision of the expanding global economy.
OK, so we lost out – but think of the riverbank opportunities.
I then pictured the South Bank in London. A walk down there you will find cafes, shops, offices, theatres, houses, parks, and street entertainment. Like the man lying on his shoulders playing Joe Satriani on an electric guitar behind his back as he clamped a beach ball between his knees with a sign balanced on his bottom demanding a kiss.
Not just talent, but talent with an audience.
Back on the Clyde, there was none of this life and vitality. The attempts at resuscitation were not working. Instead I was having more flashbacks as I desperately did a head count on the staff members (they’re a nuisance to replace).
I remembered a lecture by the larger-than-life architect Gordon Murray at the RIAS convention in Govan a couple of years back. He claimed that the reason his practice Murray and Dunlop was designing tower blocks on the Clyde was because they mirrored the height of the cranes opposite, and that they lined through with the top of the tenements up the brae in Maryhill.
He, maybe surprisingly, reminded me of the professor of linguistics at Harvard University who was lecturing a packed theatre of undergraduates.
“In the English language, there are many examples of two negatives making a positive, but there are no examples of two positives making a negative.”
From the back of the room, a voice with a Scottish accent.
“Aye, right” is what I thought of Mr Murray’s argument, and I’m sure a lot of the audience thought the same. The cranes are light ethereal lattice structures, and Maryhill’s miles away. I imagined what Izzi Mepstein or Andy MacMillan would have said if you fed this line at a crit at the Mac. In Govan it translates as “yer arse in a handbag.”
But, the planners were persuaded, the developer built his towers with lots and lots of apartments, and Mr Murray is now head of Strathclyde University School of Architecture.
And right enough, when I whizzed by them, I saw beautifully detailed flats with floor to ceiling glazing giving a stunning view of the Govan shipyard. What you’d expect from one of Scotland’s leading architecture practices.
I’m told they’re selling like hotcakes – despite the concerns of some of the purchasers. Apparently one new owner of an exclusive penthouse phoned the shipyard opposite and asked when they would be getting bulldozed. “The estate agent assured me that you were due to close and I’d like to know when this will happen, as you’re spoiling my view.”
Exclusive apartments for the discerning then – the fact that you may have to travel by car to a service station to buy a pint of milk is no inconvenience if you’re in a BMW 3 series.
And to the credit of the architect, he’s delivered high quality accommodation for the developer, probably on budget and on time.
And maybe that’s the problem. The architect has done his job – probably better than most of us could achieve, and exceeded the expectations of his client.
The responsibility for the development lies with the politicians, whose planners have drawn up the development plan, and whose accountants have checked the figures.
Maybe there’s no coherent and convincing vision for the Clyde, but hey, the boxes are ticked and millions of pounds of private investment for the city can be splashed across the Evening Times.
What more could the people want?
Back on dry land I shook off these depressing thoughts as I tried to assure the team that this was fun. It was time to receive an education on one of the tourist open-top buses, which took us round the West End and in to town. I don’t know if the guide was entirely accurate when she said that Lord Kelvin ‘invented zero’ and was famous for the Kelvinator fridge, but we saw a Glasgow that was not only about great architecture, but great streets, great public spaces, and its great people.
And when the tour guide pointed out the remnants of the tramlines that are still attached to the blond stone tenements of Dumbarton Road, I remembered another lecture by another Glasgow architect.
Gordon Benson spoke about his journey by tram from the far west end of Glasgow in to the city centre as a boy – he showed us images of a Glasgow long gone – when Charing Cross was a bustling crossroads, and the hotel at St Enoch was the backdrop to a fantastic civic square.
He spoke passionately about the architect’s role of stitching the city back together after the destruction of the 60s and 70s. Of having a vision of the city as a living organism which needs care and nourishing.
It wasn’t a lecture about architecture, but about the journey through the spaces which buildings define.
His speech received thunderous applause – if he had been a politician he’d have been elected by a landslide.
And maybe that’s the problem. He was talking to a bunch of students, not an electorate. If architects can talk with such passion and such vision in a college, why can’t they stand up as an elected representative in the city chambers and use their power to make the vision a reality.
Who speaks with such clarity and commitment on the built environment in the Scottish Parliament? No one, as there isn’t a single architect’s bottom parked on any of the members’ carefully designed oak and ash seats.
Back on the bus, we passed the Merchant City, which is now a vibrant centre with great streetscapes and architecture – on down Renfield Street, where a new guide, who was a bit more on the ball, told us tourists about the great Alexander Greek Thompson, and the plans to renovate the Egyptian Halls. And we passed the stunning Raddison hotel – designed by Murray and Dunlop.
Finally we were back at the Clyde, along the expressway and down to the SECC. There the guide told us a more sombre story.
“The Clyde used to have tons of shipyards and industry – it built ships for the world. But the air was a filthy smog, and my dad said he had to count his steps home from school, as he couldn’t see his length.
“But although most of the yards have gone, the air is clean, and I think that must be a good thing.”
Right enough, I could see for miles. Car parking in all directions, but still no vision.
No vision from a politician, and it’s all our fault.