Cumbernauld town centre's Brutalist architecture was an idealistic experiment but it has failed – Laura Waddell

Architectural historians are outraged by news Cumbernauld town centre is to be demolished.
Cumbernauld Town Centre may impress architectural historians but many locals are less than enthusiastic about living with its Brutalist styleCumbernauld Town Centre may impress architectural historians but many locals are less than enthusiastic about living with its Brutalist style
Cumbernauld Town Centre may impress architectural historians but many locals are less than enthusiastic about living with its Brutalist style

How many of those arguing for saving it on the basis of international architectural significance have actually lived in the shadow of such a structure?

“A cowardly and wasteful decision has been announced to demolish Cumbernauld Town Centre in its entirety. It’s had a hard life, but it's enormously important as an urban experiment,” said Barnabas Calder on Twitter, a sentiment shared with other architectural critics.

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But contemplating the building as a marvellous concept, from a comfortable distance, doesn’t really chime with the general sentiment of those who live with it here and now.

Reddit user 'elizabethunseelie' posted: “The village I went to school in had a big brutalist structure at its centre. Tearing it down was fantastic. It was like a big grey cloud that had been hovering over the place for decades was finally lifted.”

And 'smcsleazy' hit the nail on the head by posting: “If you've ever been to Cumbernauld, it feels like that building is always watching over you as if to say ‘you can never escape the depression that only comes through living in poverty’ and as a result, I feel it should be knocked down. It's all well and good for people to say ‘it's historic’ but that's not really comfort for the people that have to work/live near there.”

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Town so ugly, residents want it demolished

Cumbernauld town centre was an ambitious approach to post-war town planning. But if it doesn’t work for those who engage with it daily, whether by physically navigating its jumble of retail spaces or contending with the oppressive atmosphere of what, if we’re honest, has become a grim, light-blocking, unwelcoming eyesore, it has failed its fundamental purpose of serving living townspeople.

It’s easy to enjoy the social history, town planning, impressive intentions and visions of the future swirled through the history of Brutalist buildings. It’s easy, also, to feel a sense of faux nostalgia for a time – before my birth, certainly – when public money and goodwill were granted to such forward-thinking architectural undertakings and a social idealism lacking in today’s bland, identikit urban centres.

But not every structure ends up like the beloved Barbican, its living quarters priced beyond the budget of many Londoners, but still much appreciated as a cultural centre. Cumbernauld town centre was intended to be similarly encompassing. Holding it up to the standard of its original vision, it has long been a failure.

It’s true that, like many West of Scotland town centres, Cumbernauld’s hasn’t been well maintained; earlier adaptation might well have salvaged highlights. But the blocky structure has not, in the end, proved itself to be compatible with the needs and wants of those living with it.

Rather than elevating the environment, it weighs heavily and drags everything around it down.

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When Brutalism works, it can be a wonder. But it’s not Brutalism-bashing to acknowledge that Cumbernauld town centre has turned out to be grim, forbidding, and obstructive.

The people of Cumbernauld are not miniature models; they live and breathe. It’s dehumanising and dystopian to expect them to forever live inside a failed urban experiment from the 1960s. And experiments, after all, are only useful if we learn from them.

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