Monday, August 17, 2009

Glasgow High-Rise Addenda

1. Transatlantic City

Though I'm sure I could be upbraided here for rather too pat links between the base and the superstructure, you can follow in the recent history of architecture the passing of the baton of advanced capitalism through Britain, through to Germany and/or the USA, and today to the ultra-developmentalism of China - which at least in the style rags shows a malevolent, unforgiving confidence which is rarely to be seen in Europe. Whether that's a good thing or not is extremely doubtful, given the necessary correspondent of extreme exploitation, but there it is. So, if you want an explanation of the decline of British capitalism and its supersession by less technologically conservative, more industrially fervent countries at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, architecture is a fantastic place to start. The reign of vainglory and tedium, of E Berry Webber, E Vincent Harris, Reginald Blomfield, various lesser lights - Edwardian Baroque, almost-deco, etc: an escape into solidity and tradition while both were being thrown overboard on the other side of the Atlantic, or at least being stretched and distorted into something unrecognisable. There are some exceptions to this in England - the Liver Building most of all - but Glasgow architecture threatens the entire theory. 'By 1914, Glasgow had the most American city centre in Europe.'

The area around Glasgow Central station - which itself has its 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, and appropriately it's apparently used sometimes as a double in film sets for Edwardian Chicago or New York, just before they make their leap into the stratosphere. But funnily enough it isn't a question of sheer height, but the use of that height. First of all, many of the most impressive buildings are fairly low iron-framed warehouses, their unambiguous technological expression something that would never be allowed on Piccadilly. Meanwhile, a building of eight stories in Edwardian London would usually make a big play of its own lumpen rusticated solidity, but their Glasgow equivalents stretch out their ornamentation, and their high windows and unashamed repetition give them that upwards! momentum that is as important to skyscraper design as the steel frame. There are some oddities also, such as the concrete Lion Chambers, which is one of the nearest things in Britain to the ultra-congested multi-functional 'delirium' Koolhaas claims as the foundation of Manhattanism. An artists' studio, chambers for lawyers, a traditonalist castle and a skinny jugendstil confection mashed together. So it's odd how Glasgow doesn't have a cluster of office towers post-war, as it was surely the natural place for such a thing to emerge. But with the odd exception, what did eventually emerge instead was...

2. The Glasgow Bloc

There is a Flickr Group called 'Glasgow Bloc'. Now while I would usually be unimpressed with the easy links between tower blocks in the ex-Eastern Bloc and those in Europe (because they're both so totalitarian, yeah?), here it makes sense. It would be silly to argue that the relative popularity of Stalinism in Scotland - Fife being one of only two places in Britain, along with Mile End (something to remind Michael Collins of, that) to have elected Communist MPs who were opposed by Labour candidates - had an influence on the extremely stark turn of Glasgow's municipal architecture, but certainly there genuinely is a stylistic kinship implying that the city picked the other side in the Cold War. Only partly, of course - in fact, the uninspired zeilenbau boredom of American 'projects' has more in common with the worst Glasgow 'schemes' than either has with the ambitious civic modernism of post-war London or Sheffield. Interesting that the most architecturally bespoke, if by all accounts appallingly built, of Glasgow Blocks, Basil Spence's Hutchesontown C, were demolished while hundreds of more straight-up slabs survive. Not all of them are awful, and most of them need care and decent facilities rather than clearance and demolition, but there is something bracing and cold about Glasgow's municipal modernism. It's sad especially that the natural peaks and dips of the topography seldom seemed to be used, in the way they were in Sheffield - instead it's usually slab, slab, slab.

The slabs of all slabs are in Red Road, erroneously but regularly claimed to be the highest housing blocks in Europe (they aren't, not even in Glasgow) and there was a sense of shame, certainly, about visiting the place camera in hand, after the example of Andrea Arnold's eponymous film - a tale of surveillance and paranoia which builds up an extraordinary tension, only to collapse into a morass of ITV humanism in its last ten minutes. The Wikipedia page on Red Road is an interesting thing, in that someone has, rather angrily but with much justification, blasted the way that the flats have turned from people's homes into alternately a cinematic location or a political football, and it links to a sadly dormant residents' campaign site. It is an extraordinary and atmospheric place, with echoing voices reverberating around the central burnt-out ex-playground. In Ian Nairn's essay on Glasgow in the mid-60s, he prefaced his praise of the tenements with 'I know you're thinking 'right, this man Nairn has gone too far this time, defending the Gorbals!' He contends that they were decent buildings, spoiled by overcrowding, that were nonetheless easily converted into something better, but architecture provided a convenient scapegoat for political ills. As it is the tenements went, and their replacements are going too, and for a seeming amalgam of Barratt homes and soft, sensitive mild Modernism, both of which miss the sense of bombast and scale that makes the place seem akin to an imaginary turn-of-the-century American megacity that has somehow coexisted with an eastern Bloc plattenbau expanse, the two parallel versions of high-rise modernity never really intersecting despite often occupying the same space, as in the Beszel and Ul Qoma of China Mieville's terrific The City and The City. To that can be added another unnoticed, hidden city, one which is determined to resemble an exurban Americanism of retail parks and speculative cottages, rather than flats and skyscrapers.

(incidentally this, from an excellent website, tells another story about US-Scottish architectural links, albeit of a more conservative sort.)


Blogger RenterGirl said...

Glasgow is a beautiful city. I stayed in a sixties block in Thornhill, and they had no eye-level windows in the bedrooms. Other than that, they were a good size, sturdy and fit for purpose.

7:15 pm  
Blogger Lang Rabbie said...

I'm ashamed to say that - although I thought I recognised a familiar voice in the Now, I can just hear you thinking “right, this time he’s gone too far, praising Red Road!” reference in the original BD article, I failed to spot it was a little homage to the great Iain Nairn.

I must try harder.

10:30 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ha - you were one of about two people I thought might get the reference! Arrogant of me in the extreme to even dare the comparison, for which I apologise.

It's from Britain's Changing Towns, which along with J.B Priestley's English Journey and Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Space is a regular semi-hidden reference point in the articles. It's damn hard to find - I read the copy in the British Library - but is of course excellent. I wish he'd finished the Nairn's Industrial North he promised. Have you read Nairn's Paris? Was going to buy on eBay but restrained myself cos er, I've still not been there...

10:46 pm  
Anonymous Dancing Priest said...

At there is a splendid set of old photographs of what remained of the Gorbals in the 1970s, with redevelopment well under way but much of it still intact. It is striking how much better it looks than what's there now (i.e. nothing much). Clearly the area was very run down and partially derelict, but to be fair most of central Glasgow was like that well into the 1990s.

Whether the tenements of the Gorbals could have been saved we shall never know; one of the reasons always given for redevelopment rather than modernisation is that the buildings themselves were structurally unsound, but Glasgow's city fathers have a sorry record for saying that about anything they want rid of.

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