It is now an axiom that if you want to see the glories of Glasgow you look up the way. Generations of Glaswegians knew full well that their city was jam-packed with wonders in stone though few others did. There was a tendency to dismiss Britain's most Victorian city and certainly its most American one because of the dreadful reputation of it. A sort of dreich northern Naples. Slums and despair without the sunshine. True, a very large number of architects throughout the world knew that Glasgow housed a splendour of buildings. Sir John Betjeman, as early as the 1930s, extolled the city itself for its amazing adventures in ashlar and sandstone. To the cognoscenti Scotland's only real city was an amazing place.
Calling Glasgow American is a bit of a cliché too. Arnold Kemp, the former editor of the Glasgow newspaper, the Herald, himself an Edinburgh man, recounts the story of his early days in Glasgow when he asked for a particular restaurant as his destination and the cab driver told him he knew where it was. 'Corner of Hope and Bath' said the hack driver, as if it was out of a New York movie.
In fact there is an American feel to Glasgow for a variety of reasons. One is that the population are as polyglot as many an American city. Nearly half the population are of Irish origin, 40% are of Highland origin. There are 12,000 of Italian background, even more Asian people mainly from the Punjab, though there is a vibrant Chinese community too. Poles and Lithuanians abound. Up till the early 1970s Glasgow had the largest Jewish community in Britain outside of London.
It was also, like American cities, a very young one. Starting off as a small settlement on the banks of the Molendinar (not the Clyde as most people think), it remained a small and well-set out town until the astonishing expansion in the 19th century when industrialisation, rising out of the proximity of iron and coal and the widening of the Clyde itself, made Glasgow prosperous. And then the building began. It began simply because it was young and there was trade and minerals and especially there was water. The opening in 1859 of the astounding feat of engineering that was the Loch Katrine project by which pure water was transported 35 miles away into this now sprawling city meant that Glasgow was virtually free of cholera and typhus. In a nation in which epidemics were annual throughout every city in the land, one which wasn't susceptible was bound to grow and Glasgow did.
Edinburgh has justifiably the New Town to be proud about but Edinburgh is an old city. In many ways Glasgow was the new way forward for world architecture. Like the emerging American (and Australian) cities, Glasgow went towards a grid street system which to this day makes it an easy city to understand. And it created an entirely new way of building called the steel frame method. Glasgow wasn't the first city to do this but it was the first to be systematic in erecting its buildings in this way. It was to be copied throughout the world and led to the skyscrapers of New York and especially Chicago.
There is a reason for bringing Chicago into this. It is the first thing a Glaswegian remarks upon when he visits the Windy City in the US: that it looks awffy like Glasgow. This countered by any Chicagoan if and when he visits Glasgow. Chicago in Scotland, he thinks bemusedly. There is a reason for this too and that is that it was Glasgow architects who were brought to Chicago. The steel frame building (actually there was a wee bit of a precedent for this: there exists in Glasgow the very first prefabricated cast-iron building in the world, Gardeners Warehouse in Jamaica Street, copied by a number of Chicago architects) was to revolutionise building everywhere.
The most influential firm of architects was the Glasgow company J and J Burnett, a firm later to employ Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which had many commissions in America but chiefly in Chicago. But long before then there had been a plethora of gifted architects in Glasgow. The Adam brothers had been here and, of course, there was Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, now gratefully increasingly recognised by a larger public, James Gillespie Graham who designed much of the Blythewood area, and the Galts, and many more. The fact was that Glasgow was teeming with architects for more than a century up until the disastrous inter-war years of the 20th century and the even more calamitous post second world war decades when municipal zeal, penury, stupidity, arrogance, and watchchain socialism put paid to a great many glories of the Victorian munificence.
But every Glaswegian knows this. Even young children are aware of the vanished city for their parents and grandparents too have told them. It is good to dwell on the subject not least because there is hardly a Glasgow councillor who will ever admit to any malefaction on the part of themselves or their predecessors. Sometimes they come out with lame excuses such as 'after the war the priority was housing' or 'the money wasn’t available' or 'we listened to the architects and the planners'. In the latter case they may have had a point for many of the same architects and planners were only too anxious to meet the brief of building cheap and building plenty. And building high.
Especially building high in residential accommodation. Glasgow has more municipal housing than any other city outside of the then Eastern bloc of Europe and almost every imaginable folly was put into place. There had been some housing schemes such as Knightswood and Mosspark built during the wars on the Garden City model, terraced houses with green space, but after the second war another folly was put into place. That was to get rid of the tenements, and create a wasteland of the inner city residential areas. Nothing can better exemplify the stupidity of the policy of decantation than the horror of the Gorbals.
Gorbals was, in my childhood, a livid scar, a jumble of decaying hovels amid buildings of considerable character, a maze of sewage-strewn wynds and wide and spacious streets. No matter. The old Corporation destroyed it all, or as much as they could before the money for their vandalism ran out. As late as the 1970s they had pulled down a world-admired Greek Thomson terrace in Eglinton Street for no other reason than, 'Why, it was old: it was Victorian'. An empty shell of a Greek Thomson church yet lies not far away, a rebuke in itself, and now an eyesore worried over by architects and aficionados.
A tragic irony is that in the Gorbals itself, part of the 'miracle of the Gorbals', the decision had finally to be made to demolish, to blow up, the so-called award-winning Queen Elizabeth flats designed by the so-called greatest architect of his age, Sir Basil Spence. The tragedy is that in blowing it up a bystander, a middle-aged local resident, was killed by flying fragments of concrete. The flats had been uninhabitable since they had been constructed. Following complaints by the tenants about insufferable dampness, a councillor once famously countered this by telling the hapless residents that it was their fault. He said the tenants were, and I quote, 'breathing too hard'.
Yet the city has survived – though most inhabitants, save the architects and councillors who appear to remain unrepentant over their misdeeds of the past, are dreadfully conscious of what the city has lost over the years of architectural carnage. No other city in Scotland had the wealth of Victorian architecture which Glasgow possessed; no other city in England either. But no other city has been able to retain as much of it because Glasgow ran, thankfully, out of steam and money and put an end to the wanton destruction though much had been lost. Later in the 1980s, thank heavens, sense prevailed and refurbishment started. I live myself in a listed terrace which was saved at the last moment from demolition and is now one of the most magnificent tenemental terraces in Europe (it is a rather unlikely little piece of Parisian elegance), but that would have gone in the 1970s had the money not run out.
The city survived to become the City of Architecture last year and almost deserved the accolade. I say almost because the complacency is still there, embedded in the City Council consciousness. The Year of Architecture should have been a triumph. It wasn't. Overseen by a gifted administrator (and architect), Deyan Sedjic, the celebrations were muted by lack of cash, lack of insight, lack of vigour.
A number of buildings and projects have fired the imagination in the last decade or so and this, combined with the marvels of the Victorian and Edwardian builders, gave a legitimacy to the title which Glasgow had won, in the same way that Scotland's largest city was surely entitled to bask nine years previously in the award of the European City of Culture. But in much the same way that the city fathers dismantled the achievements of that proud year (as they had dismally dismantled the site of the Garden Festival, another scene of temporary triumph), the Year of Architecture proved a damp squib, a sputter instead of a cracker. If you had talked to most architects in Scotland in 1999 they would have told of their frustrations over the year, one which should have signified much. True, there has been very little actual building, or at least much of large scale significance, though architects were designing some spectacular interiors from re-scaping older, once derelict, buildings from loft conversions to the still excellent Princes Square, to a great many new pubs and restaurants. There is plenty of imagination being shown by architects (though not as yet town planners in Glasgow), but what should have been a showcase year for Glasgow did not take place.
Perhaps this is yet another sign of the malaise which has befallen a city which less than a decade ago was undeniably leading every other city in the UK and at which the old rival, Edinburgh, cast such envious eyes. Certainly the optimism and the enterprise we saw in the late 1980s in Glasgow has receded beyond what one could have believed possible nine years ago. We know that government funding has had much to do with that, as well as the new Edinburgh parliament and the effects of such suzerainty. We know too that the dead hand of the resurrected corpse of the old Glasgow Corporation has much to do with it. But a few years ago there was the Mayfest and folk festivals, the Art Fair, many another durbar ongoing.
Today, the only sign of life engendered by this council is the ever increasing barriers on roads, for both drivers and pedestrians. There is, it is true, a great deal of scaffolding going up, new hotels and office blocks being built. What for?, you may ask. Who is going to come here anyway? As result of the lack of foresight and a reluctance to promote commerce, much of Glasgow is also awash with For Sale and To Rent signs on shopfronts. The roads policy, designed to deter car drivers from entering the city, has created empty shops almost everywhere outside of the city centre itself.
And here lies the paradox of last year's City of Architecture. We didn't show much of it and we didn't celebrate it. There was practically no coverage of it despite the best efforts of architects themselves, let alone that of a lot of citizens only too anxious to tell visitors of the riches of the city's buildings.It has often been said by commentators that Glasgow has a capacity for re-inventing itself. Former Lord Provost Pat Lally took every opportunity to tell all and sundry that. He also never failed to tell you to look up when in Glasgow and discover the edifices which surround you. You would be as well – for there is not much to see on the ground in Glasgow these days.
Next month in the second instalment of this series on the west of Scotland, Jack McLean looks at sectarianism