Regular readers will know the high regard I have for Sir Basil Spence's magnificent Gorbals blocks. Others may want to have a look at the Glasgow 1999 and Beyond page before reading on.
Anyway, my bemoaning the destruction of the blocks generated quite a lot of heated debate. If you'd like to contribute, please join in.
Danny Lauder writes:
I am for the flats as I also lived in them, first of all on the top floor (ninth) and then on number one. One of my most memorable memories was the storm of '68 these flats swung like a swing, while boards around six foot by ten foot flew by my bedroom window. As a kid, I did not think that something could go so high so I did not have any fears. I live in Oban now and in a middle class home, but I still reminisce about the times we had in the corridors going along on my bike. It did not matter if it was wet or not, you had somewhere safe to play. These flats should not have been demolished. I often think it's disgusting that they went up and down in my life span and I am only forty three. It was one of the city's most beautiful landmarks, and if no one else does, I miss them when I visit Glasgow.
Wayne Howatt writes:
I actually lived in Queen Elizabeth Square, unlike most of your correpondents, who for some strange reason know what it was like for us "poor folk", while they were sitting in their middle class homes outside the Gorbals. I now live in a middle class home myself and can honestly say that it did me no harm at all growing up in a tower block, especially one that was so modern and well equipped. In the 1970's there was a great community spirit, one which does not exist today in middle class communities, because everyone is so self sufficient. That to me is a great loss to humanity. I have a lot of fond memories of my childhood my friends and neighbours were kind lovely people, and block caretakers like Mr Mellon and Jimmy Robertson who kept the place spick and span and knew every single tenant were pillars of our community. The buildings had great long corridors that children could play along for hours and hours and we never felt scared or were aware of danger the way children are today. The truth of the matter is that the building design was not the enemy, it was left to decay by local authorities who did not know what maintenance was, and by the local authorities policy on letting. It is people who bring a building to life or destroy it, not the building itself. In conclusion, if you did not experience living there you don't know how it was, so please do not insult us with your self-righteous comments.
Marion Gibson writes:
I loved your bollocks approach. I'm a Glaswegian married to an architect who worked with Basil Spence in the 60's on some of the buildings you mention. We share your sentiments! We fell about at the "recognition of design excellence is inherent ......" So inherent in fact that before the Burrell Collection had a permanent home, the glorious City Fathers housed bits of the collection all over the place. My mother's joiner 'guarded' something precious in a wee garage lock-up off Byres Road!!!
Great fun. I have sent it to all my 'Wegian' friends.
I must admit to having feelings of amazement when I saw you defending Spence's monolithic eyesores that he foisted on the good burghers of the Gorbals. I suppose that looking back through your nostalgia spectacles, the destruction of something that so dominated an area is bound to invoke a few tears. However, for the residents unfortunate enough to be incarcerated in their 'bleak house' the demolition of the biggest shoe-box in Glasgow would have been a day of rejoicing. Having to live in the damp-riddled hutches that the city's fathers were attempting to pass off as housing must have been on a par to appearing on an endless series of "Help! I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here". Except, of course, that in the Gorbals version, Uri Geller would've carried a chib.Ê
Robert Kelly writes:
Calum, I saw your letter on the web site about Glasgow architecture [see below]. Thank goodness your letter was there, as I was getting really angry at the bullshit those "folk" were spouting. I have already written to a number of people I am informed were involved in the destruction of community life in Glasgow in the 60's and 70's.
One thing that strikes me is there complete arrogance and complacency regarding the subject. They regard their "works" as relevant and functional, instead of the edifices of misery and desperation and loneliness that they were and are. We grew up in high rise flats, and the experience of living in such a cynical and cold place still haunts me at times.
I remember so fondly going to the olde victorian primary school, in Royston and feeling what a warm and brightly lit place it was, constructed by people in a kinder age, who considered their fellow human beings with some god given rights, such as the right to view their entire internal environment with expansive classical architectural spaces. The whole cataclysm of tearing down beautiful buildings that were in need of an overhaul, is something I feel Glasgow never recovered from, as they were built with the community in mind, rather than the architect's ego.
One thing to bear in mind also Calum, is that similarly neglected buildings in the west end and south end of the city, by and large escaped a similar fate, due to the simple fact, that the councillors and planners responsible lived in these areas. Anyway: I write as a tower block survivor, and I say survivor, as so many of my peers didn't make it in life, due to the isolation and desperation of living in such void filled communities and buldings. Drugs were their ultimate escape. It was so important to me to see someone who understood the reality of the situation, as I thought I was going mad as I was reading their smug and comlacent diatribes. Oops, getting bitter in my olde age. Robert Kelly
He also writes:
Hi Marion [see left hand column], I grew up in the tower blocks you speak so proudly of, and wonder if your husband has any feelings of guilt, for destroying buildings of architectural merit and longevity? But most importantly eradicating a wonderful community and making many, many people lonely and isolated. Myself included. I survived, but without the heart of our community many of my peers did not make it, due to the desperation of the loneliness and cynicism of the "community" these "buildings" formed. Drugs alleviated the horrors of their surroundings somewhat. I'm sorry if I sound negative, but I grew up in such a place, and believe me, it offered many horrors to the imagination of a child.
I love Glasgow dearly, and I am increasingly thinking of the tragic waste of so many wonderful buildings that could have been renovated that were constructed in a kinder age of community, rather than the one of snobbery and elitism and social arrogance that the one Monsieur Basil Spence et al, inhabited. None of the similarly neglected buildings in the west end, or Shawlands were ever pulled down, or any of the places the well lunched Glasgow councillors called home. It's ok to experiment with people who don't have much, and experiment they certainly did. There are no calculations that could evaluate the unhappiness and loss of architectural merit that Basil Spence and others inflicted upon a city with a once strong heart. A heart they well and truly crushed. I wonder if anyone remembers the once proud Main Street in Bridgeton? or the wonderful place that was once Springburn? It is such a tragedy, and one I will forever regret, not being old enough to try and stop. Bye
Mr Kelly clearly had a bad
experience living in the Gorbals. However, one of my neighbours a few
floors down - an architect - tells an interesting story which I think
provides evidence against the idea that it's buildings which corrupt people
rather than vice versa. Apparently at the opening ceremony of the Robin
Hood Estate, the wonderful concrete Smithson construction in East London,
before the local dignitaries could even get in the lift, someone had already
urinated in it.
I find it hard to believe that you thought "Lord Spence" did the Gorbals a favour with his "architecture". If you had researched further instead of being "one dimensional" and examined the human side of the equation, you would have discovered that most of those "high flats" had been constructed with reject concrete, which ultimately caused molds and fungus to appear on the walls of people's homes. Furthermore, I know that an innocent pedestrian died as a result of falling concrete. I remember walking home from school when they built those ugly "architectural monstrocities". And surprisingly!!! I actually knew people who had been uprooted from their established communities, to live in the "giant match boxes". People are not matches and are not novelty toys to be "tucked" away, because of some "pompous assed" individual's view of the world. I suggest that you take a holiday and visit "Williamsburg" in Virginia U.S.A. or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, U.S.A. Both towns were once "slums" but the American people wisely restored and appreciated their heritage. I cringe at your lack of knowledge and foresight. Glasgow, is very rich in history. Incidentally, I am a Glaswegian through and through, and I resent the fake Americanization of Glasgow. People and communities are what is important, not big cement boxes. Stop stereotyping Glaswegian people. Even the "Body Shop" entrepeneur Anita Roddick knew that people deserve a chance. I am proud to have been born and raised in Glasgow. And I came from a "real Glesca" family......Best Wishes=:-)
I can find no reference to any such thing as "reject concrete". Can anyone help clarify whether this is true? Also, I've been to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and didn't think it was very interesting really.
I am puzzled by your praise of the "dampies". Good architecture should be about creating buildings suited to the local climate. Would you rather live in a house which is:- a. Dry, b. Damp but "geometrically pure"?
Believe me, it's better now than it was in 1970 - far better. If you want to improve things in Glasgow cut the hands off the graffitti 'experts' [hear, hear - Ed.], pull down Drumchapel and send the inhabitants out to the crofts whence they came and belong.
The actions of a few neds in the gorbals can hardly be referred to as "typical Glaswegian appreciation of culture". If you honestly believe that badly designed tower blocks which are no more than filing cabinets for people are so great then I suggest you move into one!
Now, what makes him think I don't already live in one?
Having read your remarks about Spence, the Gorbals flats and the airport, I felt I had to let you know that for residents of the flats to actually get into the lifts they had to endure what was almost a hurricane even on a calm day. Is this acceptable from a design point of view? I would have thought that any architect would have been shown during basic training the effects of wind etc.. I would very much welcome your comments.
There might be some truth in this, but it's surely a lot less than the amount of hot air that came out of the organisers of Glasgow 1999.
How can anyone defend Spence's vision of the Gorbals? I am not about to summarily decry concrete tower blocks - they work well as a housing form in context - but to defend them as a form of social housing in a particularly bleak area of a particularly bleak country?
The point with the Gorbals blocks is that they were badly designed, badly built and as a result, completely unfit for purpose. They ruined the communities that they served, contributing to the problems of the inner city we have today. How can Spence even be defended, never mind applauded for such an act? As a computer technician, I would be severely disciplined if I designed and built a costly computer system that barely addressed its intended purpose. At least I wouldn't be affecting the lives of hundreds of people.
The Gorbals smacks to me of lazy architecture; slap up something modern, hope it works for whoever lives in it, reap the plaudits then bugger off. Architecture should take a holistic approach, serving its various purposes well and being visually stimulating. The fact that the Gorbals blocks were "visually stimulating" is not defence enough to classify them as good architecture, for in every other (and more important) aspect, they were a dismal failure. Social housing should be practical first and "a work of art" second.
Those that would seek to defend the concrete monstrosities inflicted upon Glasgow in the 1960s and 70s are usually characterised by one common feature - their experience of them is one from the outside. Ask anyone who has to live in one of these brutal monuments to architectural ego whether they are privileged and I think we both know what the answer would be. Would you live in one of these as-built? (i.e. under-serviced, damp and draughty). Where high-rise living has proved a success it has always been in the private sector in relatively high maintenance cost form (e.g. 24 hour security, regular cleaning etc.)
I am not acting here as an agent for the City of Architecture and Design, merely as someone with an interest in the built environment around him. Having a design background, I can appreciate the themes, styles and elements that the architects of this period incorporated into their work, however I can not agree with the way it was carried out. Housing should be built to an appropriate scale and style to the people it serves (If the Gorbals redevelopment achieved anything, it was the proof of this theory). If that means the twee, naive architecture of a row of mock Georgian Barratt homes, then I'm afraid that that's what it must be.
Whatever you may think of the bland modern tenements that are rising from the ashes of Spence's "art" you must agree that they are infinitely more practical and suitable for their intended occupants.
I sent Mr Morrison a long and reasoned reply some time ago and have heard nothing from him since.
A question for you, did you actually ever live in the Gorbals? Living in the shadow of the Q.E. Square flats was bad enough, never mind the poor buggers (of whom I know a few), who actually had to live there.
You're sounding off about the disregard towards Basil Spence's architecture as though he was some sort of genius that we all disregard. We'll, I don't know, I haven't seen much of his work other than Q.E. Square and therefore cannot comment. However, what I do know is that if you actually went to the Gorbals to carry out some reseach on this topic, you would find most people of the same opinion as myself. Those who actually know of Basil Spence's comment that the Q.E. Square flats would "look like a great ship in full sail" on washdays not only find it ridiculous, but also patronising. I think Sir Basil was about 20 years out of date when talking about the Glasgow Green and washday even when the flats were built in the 60's. The best I ever seen growing up in the Gorbals in the 80's was maybe cheap weans clothing or a pair of jeans from whatevery's hanging there. I can assure you, I was never taken aback with the awe of a great ship in full sail.
I still remember the cheer that went up from ALL the Gorbals residents when that monsterous carbuncle - as Prince Charles would say - came crashing to earth.
A building which the city fathers possibly should try and restore to it's former glory is Caledonia Rd Church by Alexander Greek Thompson, now that is a travesty, and people in the area are actually saddened to see the state of disrepair that it has fallen into. Glasgow has many architectuaral wonders that the world should see, don't let your love of the work of Basil Spence and concrete architecture put others off from coming and seeing for themselves. It would also be nice if you didn't imply that all Glasgow is good for is going out for a 'bevvy'.
Yours in the junkie nightmare that was the Q.E. Square flats,
Can anyone REALLY believe that the modern Gorbals of low rise housing in pleasing brick is no improvement on the dreadful Spence blocks, renowned for their inability to keep even the slightest shower out?
This is an edited version of a longer email which can be found on the correspondence page.