Penny Lewis: Glasgow’s architectural status is crumbling

IF GLASGOW is looking for a new city brand following the Commonwealth Games next year, I propose “City of Bungled Commissions”.

IF GLASGOW is looking for a new city brand following the Commonwealth Games next year, I propose “City of Bungled Commissions”.

When I first arrived in Glasgow in the mid-1990s, the city was mocked for its love of logos and city branding – but it did have a mission. The creative output from (and reaction to) the City of Culture and the City of Architecture and Design 1999 made the city an attractive home for architects. Politicians appeared to want to nurture the “creative industries” and spoke of Glaswegians’ enthusiasm for doing things in “style”.

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Glasgow’s decision to drop the George Square project is more than disappointing. In recent years the city has invested heavily in its landscaping, and the red tarmac on George Square has been a source of embarrassment since it was first laid in 1998. The £15 million commission for the revamp was long overdue. Chris Platt, head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture, has described the scrapping of the project as representing “a catastrophic loss of nerve and a failure in civic leadership”.

Back in the 1980s, Glasgow’s civic leaders adopted a policy of commissioning high-quality public works – in particular housing – in the hope that the private sector would follow. Judging by recent new works, the city no longer aspires to put pressure on the private sector to “raise its game”. The buildings commissioned for the Commonwealth Games may destroy any of the last remnants of the city’s reputation for good design. If the Olympics demonstrated what Britain can do – the Commonwealth Games may suggest what Scotland can’t.

The George Square debacle is the latest in a whole string of commissioning and procurement cock-ups. Glasgow’s failings highlight a broader problem in the commissioning of public works in Scotland: we have become subject to a risk-averse and procedural culture that is destroying the possibility of producing good architecture. In the absence of informed political leadership, public works are increasingly driven by the anxieties of the legal department and the press office.

Last year, two high-profile commissions, the redevelopment of Kelvin Hall and the Citizens Theatre, were victims of the commissioning crisis. At Kelvin Hall, a team led by Mace with architects John McAslan and Reiach & Hall were appointed, and then deselected a few months later. The client was “forced” to reverse the decision when the council discovered a mistake in the scoring sheets for the competition. At the Citizens Theatre, design teams were shortlisted, but the selection process was halted when an unsuccessful competitor launched a legal challenge.

The George Square competition was subject to similar confusion. The council issued the brief and wasted work was undertaken. The council then changed its mind and launched a competition, and the contenders were forced to work over Christmas. Last week the jury failed to come to a decision. This week council leader Gordon Matheson was in the surreal position of announcing both the competition winner and the project’s cancellation.

Add to this a litany of failure: the Cafe in the Square competition in 2005, which was ditched before selection, and the Broomielaw bridge competition, won by Richard Rogers in 2004, only to be abandoned two year later in favour of a cheaper but less elegant plan.

Glasgow City Council’s status as a commissioner of architecture is now officially lower than that of Aberdeen, a city with a long-standing reputation for indecision (and philistinism) thanks to the sad tale of the Union Terrace Gardens redevelopment.

Matheson has suggested that George Square was chopped because “the people” prioritised grass, schools and jobs over cultural ambition and modernisation. Glaswegians are a varied bunch with a range of aspirations but they are a standing army that can be used to justify half-baked political decisions. Observers will note that a vocal number of those that opposed this scheme (including sculptor Sandy Stoddart) did so because they didn’t trust the council as the custodian of Glasgow’s culture and heritage, not because they thought the money would be better spent elsewhere.

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It’s not Glasgow’s way to crudely counterpose frontline services to culture – part of the joy of the city is that many of its residents believe that civil liberties, housing and culture are all important. To pretend that the abandonment of this project is a democratic act is dishonest.

There has been a lot of public discussion about the £90,000 wasted on this aborted competition, but no mention of the thousands of pounds and man hours expended by architects and landscape architects.

Architects are a fairly robust bunch. They train in the discipline with the knowledge that many of their best ideas will rest forever on the drawing board. They are painfully aware that recession, shifts in the political climate or a client’s mood can kill a successful competition. However, they often (arguably too often) work speculatively if there is an opportunity to win a significant job – it’s a risk worth taking.

There is a real danger that if the competitions continue to be run without political and professional commitment from clients, designers will respond with a similar lack of conviction.

Pain and disappointment is the flip side of ambition, and the failure to realise big plans is part of the human condition, but Glasgow is in serious danger of making a failure the norm rather than the exception.

• Penny Lewis is a lecturer at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture in Aberdeen and a founder of the AE Foundation