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Sunday20 August 2017

Should we be celebrating or lamenting Glasgow's 'renaissance'?

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Glasgow once built more tower blocks than any city in Britain. In a demolition programme of similar ambition, a third have have been lost in the last decade. It’s time to reappraise the whole enterprise, says Johnny Rodger, co-author of a new book on the subject

As a young man in the late 1980s I spent a lot of time living abroad in various countries: Spain, Italy, France, Sweden and the USA. Until I arrived in Hungary in 1989 – just before the wall came down – I hadn’t seen any urban realm similar to the one I grew up in, namely that of the industrial central lowlands of Scotland. I most certainly hadn’t struck out on a search for another place resembling the city of Glasgow and the towns of Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Dunbartonshire, West Lothian, and so on, but I was struck by the Hungarian built environment in its similarity to the one I’d left behind. The strong stone-built 19th-century tenement town centres surrounded by estates of 20th-century public housing in grey concrete-walled modern versions of these four-storey tenements, and tall point and slab blocks dominating the horizons.

I figured at the time that one explanation for the similarity to communist Hungary lay in the strong municipal socialist traditions of west central Scotland whose local politics had been dominated by Labour Party stalwarts for half a century or so. It was only in retrospect, however, that I was able to substantiate and, indeed, quantify the extent to which the similarity in urban conditions could be explained in terms of such political history.

Readings from such historians as Miles Glendinning (Tower Block) and Thomas Devine (The Scottish Nation: A Modern History) put flesh on the bones of my socio-political intuition. Devine shows us that 86% of housing built in Scotland between 1945-65 was in the public sector, and he confirms the above comparison with the comment that “Scotland by the 1970s had probably the largest share of public housing of any advanced economy outside the communist bloc”. Meanwhile Glendinning points out that Glasgow in particular built more and higher multi-storey flats than any comparable city in England, with proportionately three times the number of blocks over 20 storeys than in London, and 18 times Birmingham’s tally.

The statistics thus backed up the subjective look and feel of the Scottish towns. But of course much has changed in the built environment both in Scotland and Hungary since the 1980s.  Scottish towns now look and feel like a very different sort of place. The raft of 80s Thatcherite policies aimed at reducing the UK public sector – including Right to Buy and Stock Transfer – may have taken longer to take effect in Labour-dominated Scotland.  Ultimately, though, and along with the running-down of traditional industries, the change in work patterns, and introduction of new “lifestyle” choices, the result has been the reduction of the proportion of social housing across Scotland to around one-fifth of the total. Large-scale demolition of modern high-rise estates (famously begun at Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis in 1971) also took longer to begin in Scotland than in either England or the USA. But just as in the 60s Glasgow boasted a bigger programme of building tall blocks than anywhere else, so its demolition programme made similar claims (legend says it is the biggest such programme in Europe…). Chris Leslie points out that since 2006, “over 30% of Glasgow’s tower blocks have been demolished”, and that “entire communities have disappeared”.

When the demolition programme began in 2006, Glasgow City Council claimed that this was not the end but the start of something new – “Glasgow is enjoying a real renaissance”, they said. The city might look quite different from its 1980s version, but is such a positive outlook on housing conditions and the spirit of the city really sustainable when so much of the built environment has been removed and so many homes recently demolished?

Such sudden change and the rapid bringing down of so many tall buildings has been occasion to raise many vital historical questions. How are we now to view that short, frenetic history of multi-storey housing? Was it a social failure or a management and letting failure? Was it a failure at all? Should it be seen as a successful tenure of transition between the old tenement slums and something even better (home ownership)? Or was it in itself a potentially successful form of urban living which was not given the proper investment and care, and was killed off by inefficient bureaucracy and the commercial corruption of those involved in the design and construction? Others still will maintain that it was not the building type that failed, but the notion that the state could or should get involved in the complexities of such large-scale provision of housing which was itself politically and civically flawed. The range of issues raised is thus fundamental to the political story of the 20th century. But that history is not quite over yet for, as Chris Leslie’s photographic documentation and the texts in Disappearing Glasgow both show us, the debates over high-rise housing will carry on for years to come.

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It was always a management and letting failure - architecture is rarely an issue, except in the eyes of architects. Alice Coleman was plain wrong.

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