What’s gone wrong at Glasgow’s George Square

George Square in 1875. Picture: Getty
George Square in 1875. Picture: Getty
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Plans to redevelop the heart of Glasgow, George Square, have turned into a fiasco. Chitra Ramaswamy visited one of Scotland’s most historic places to find out what’s gone wrong

GEORGE SQUARE on a bleak Tuesday afternoon in Glasgow. The rain beats down from heavy skies, gathering in oily puddles across the red tarmac. It whips around the statues of 12 dead men and a queen, wetting the heads of poets and politicians alike, who have seen it all before. Looking at Sir Walter Scott atop his 24m (80ft) Doric column results in a bracing elemental facial. People come and go, heads down, jeans soaked. It’s not a day for stopping to smell the flowers; that is, if you can find them. The benches are empty. Even the square’s most loyal residents – the pigeons – are nowhere to be seen. A lone woman who at first glance appears to be reading the inscription on the back of the Cenotaph turns out to be shielding herself from the wind while she lights a cigarette.

The 1919 Black Friday rally in George Square

The 1919 Black Friday rally in George Square

Over at the Millennium Hotel, once the North British Railway Hotel and the only remaining Georgian building on the square, two men are looking out of the window at the windswept scene. “This is the jewel in Glasgow’s crown,” sighs Ray McKenzie, a recently retired senior lecturer at Glasgow School of Art. “When you go back to the 1780s when it was laid out, the square was surrounded by wasteland. This was the edge of town. So it provided the blueprint for the grid pattern that followed. I’ve always thought of George Square as the DNA out of which the rest of Glasgow has grown. To this day it’s maintained a sense of being the heart and origin of the city.”

“It’s a relic of a former age,” adds Johnny Rodger, reader in urban literature at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. “And it’s in crisis. What is crisis? It’s when the old refuses to die and the new refuses to be born.”

For now the crisis continues. Last year Glasgow City Council announced that George Square was going to get a £15 million redevelopment in time for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The response, to put it mildly, was: “About time”. The last occasion the square got a facelift was in 1998 when half the grassy beds and trees were ripped up and replaced by red tarmac, laid without warning or public consultation. In recent weeks the proposed redevelopment has unravelled into what one architect describes to me as “an epic farce”. First the six shortlisted designs for the square were widely criticised for proposing the removal of statues and the addition of water features in a city where water is already a considerable feature (today being the perfect example). The jury stalled on the decision before eventually selecting the submission from John McAslan & Partners. Then, in a surprise U-turn and after spending around £100,000 on the project, the plans were scrapped by Glasgow City Council.

“I am proud to say that I am listening to the people of Glasgow,” said council leader Gordon Matheson at the time.

Now there is talk of a less costly revamp, done in-house, but still amounting to “a substantial facelift”. Some are hailing it as a victory for the people of Glasgow, who signed petitions and took to social networks in droves to protest against the redevelopment. Others see it as an embarrassment; yet another failure on the part of the city fathers to respect and preserve Glasgow’s history. Earlier this week Matheson was accused of dropping the project because he favoured another design. And the day before I visited George Square, John McAslan, the “winning” architect, stood on a bench beneath the Scott monument and addressed a small, bedraggled crowd with a revised design. So the debate rumbles on. Meanwhile George Square remains in limbo.

“It looks like a blank canvas,” says Rodgers, “It’s a space waiting to happen.”

A student waiting to meet a friend puts it more bluntly: “It’s like a giant car park.” Another commuter pauses briefly in the high winds to look around and brand it “a glorified roundabout”.

“This is a designer’s job,” adds McKenzie. “It needs somebody with a vision. I feel relieved that the project didn’t go ahead because I had no confidence in any of the designs. The firms weren’t given enough time. And the consultation and competition were the wrong way round. The council incensed the people of Glasgow by saying, ‘We’re doing this, and you can tell us if you like it if you want.’ This is the most important urban development in Glasgow, and possibly Scotland, this century that we’re talking about. No wonder people are angry.”

The square was laid out in the Ramshorn grounds in the early 1780s, inspired by the Georgian grid system that was taking hold in Edinburgh. Construction of the capital’s New Town had begun some 15 years earlier. Glasgow was booming. Daniel Defoe had praised it as “one of the cleanest, most beautiful, and best-built cities in Great Britain”. The population jumped from 23,500 in 1755 to 42,000 in 1780. By the 1770s it was the main tobacco port of the UK. The monument to Walter Scott was the first to the writer in the world, completed years before its more famous counterpart in Edinburgh.

In the early years there are mentions of the square being used as a slaughter ground for horses. “Apparently they used to drown puppies here too,” McKenzie says. “You could probably still do it in those puddles.” He laughs hollowly. “In the early drawings of John Moore, the first statue to be erected on the square in 1819, there are washing lines in the background. It probably looked more like Glasgow Green.”

By the 1820s the square was a private residential garden surrounded by imposing townhouses. It was soon given over to the public, however. And by 1842 Queen Street station opened, and the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow increased activity in the square. The hotel where McKenzie, Rodger and I drink coffee and chat, started out as a series of three townhouses occupied by, amongst others, William Burrell, the ship merchant who gifted his art collection to the city. By 1878 it had become three separate hotels. When the magnificent City Chambers, which now house Glasgow City Council, were completed in 1888 (“the year Celtic played their first game,” Rodger says) Queen Victoria opened the building and stayed at the hotel.

The stories come thick and fast. What about the time in January 1941 when Winston Churchill met US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s special envoy at the hotel to discuss the possibility of America joining the war against Nazi Germany? Or earlier, in 1898, when Joseph Conrad visited the north-east corner of George Square with writer Neil Munro to doff their caps to the statue of MP James Oswald. Today, the statue remains (for now anyway) in the self-same spot, Oswald’s outstretched top hat no doubt still used by schoolchildren as a target for throwing stones.

Perhaps most important, though, is George Square’s history as a place of protest, from the rent strikes to the Poll Tax rebellions of the 1980s. The 1919 Black Friday rally, in which more than 60,000 people called for shorter working hours and clashed violently with police, is the most famous example. Glasgow’s reputation as Red Clydeside was consolidated that day. Churchill, fearing a revolution, called in 10,000 troops to occupy the area.

“What we’re talking about is a peaceful demonstration that the London government took as a sign of revolution,” explains Rodger. “This was the time of the Russian revolution so any notion of working people getting together was considered troubling. By 1916 the Glasgow Corporation had already instituted a bylaw preventing demonstrations on Glasgow Green. Life was tough for people here. The protests in George Square became a symbol of all this.”

“What it shows is that George Square was doing its job as a civic space for the people,” notes McKenzie. “Look at Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Trafalgar Square – this is part of their function. Without it, Glasgow feels robbed of its fundamental right to gather here.”

Outside the weather is getting worse and there are no gatherings to be seen on the square. I cross over to the south side to meet Neil McGuire, vice-chair of the New Glasgow Society, an organisation set up in the 1960s to promote and raise awareness of the city’s built environment. We head to one of the grandest buildings on the square: the General Post Office, completed in 1878. Its old façade has been given a £70 million restoration and it now houses two chains and offices. The JPO, as McGuire calls it with a sarcastic smile, referring to the Jamie Oliver restaurant at one end.

“I think we need to be careful about falling into the nostalgia trap,” he warns. “I don’t necessarily think it’s all about restoring the square to its former glory. There are ways of looking to the future. This is a city that has always been unique in the way it has remodelled itself. If anything stands still for long enough in Glasgow, it gets knocked down.”

Doesn’t that show an utter lack of respect for the city’s history? “Yes,” he concedes. “But at the same time it shows an openness. It’s why there is the feeling that you can do things here. It’s not a city frozen in time, like Edinburgh. George Square could give out that message too.” And what message is it giving out now? McGuire gazes through the spanking new glass of the GPO at the vast expanse of red tarmac, the stacked-up barriers lying in wait for the next commercial event, and the balding patches of grass like islands about to be submerged. “It’s giving out the message that this is a city that can’t get its act together,” he says eventually. “It’s time for the people of Glasgow to get the George Square they deserve.”