So how did we get from classical to carbuncle?

THE inhabitants of Cumbernauld have nominated their own town for demolition, as part of a Channel 4 programme to find the piece of architecture in Britain that is most in need of instant erasure. The surprised programme-makers were expecting suggestions for ugly buildings to blow up, not whole towns. But then, they’d never been to Cumbernauld.

Back in 2003, Cumbernauld was voted the second worst place to live in Britain. It followed up last year by grabbing the title of the town with the most dumped shopping trolleys littering the streets. Ned culture is partly the result of bad parenting. It is also the result of soulless, Stalinist architecture like Cumbernauld, and similar Scottish new towns and housing schemes.

Yet, it was not always like this. Once upon a time, Cumbernauld was considered a landmark of good architecture. When it was first built, Cumbernauld even won the internationally prestigious Reynolds Award of the American Institute of Architects - the architectural equivalent of winning an Oscar - as "the most significant current contribution to the art and science of urban design in the western world".

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Let’s name names. The man who designed the centre of Cumbernauld was Geoffrey Copcutt, referred to in the staid, but well-informed, official history of Scottish architecture as "flamboyant and often controversial", which you can take any way you want. The word bonkers comes to mind.

Copcutt believed in things called "megastructures". This was an idea that emerged in architecture around the time of the First World War, and fits in with the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and Germany. Buildings were not places for people. Rather, people were the cogs that fitted into giant machines called buildings.

The Scots, to give them their due, took a while to fall for this nonsense. A small nation, rich in organic building materials, the Scots had a distinguished reputation in architecture and urban design (meaning the layout is just as important as the individual buildings). The intellectual ferment of the Scottish Enlightenment produced the elegant grid pattern of Edinburgh’s New Town, and the neo-classical simplicity of the buildings built by William and Robert Adam.

The Scots proved remarkably inventive in architecture and design. Rennie Mackintosh plundered Japanese motifs to challenge Victorian formalism, while in the 1920s and 1930s, Scotland fell in love with Hollywood Art Deco - there are more Art Deco buildings per acre than in the rest of Britain, from cinemas to chip shops.

What inspired this urban romanticism was a cultured middle class, excellent local training in architecture and design, and - in the absence of a Scottish political state - the need to express the nation in stone. Above all, a small, self-confident country bred an architecture that fitted human beings, rather than the other way around.

Then it all went pear-shaped after the Second World War. The mood of the time was state intervention, state planning and direction from the top down. Architects were out, planners were in. The age of the megastructure had arrived. Adam Smith was replaced by Karl Marx. Even worse, Robert Adam was replaced by Geoffrey Copcutt.

The big idea of the planners was to dismantle Glasgow, the Second City of the Empire, and decamp its citizens to concrete camps in the countryside, called new towns. Pol Pot later adopted the same plan in Cambodia. In due course, through the 1950s, one third of Glasgow’s population was moved out of the city. Of course, with the fall in population, Glasgow’s economy imploded. But as socialist planners have noted from time immemorial, you can’t make a utopian omelette without breaking a few human eggs.

The new towns of this era represented the triumph of socialist planning over traditional Scottish humanism. Listen to Mr Copcutt describing his orgiastic vision of Cumbernauld: "a single citadel-like structure nearly half a mile long ... a vast terminal facility ... All decks are perforated and interpenetrating ... a kaleidoscope of advertising".

Copcutt imagined that the denizens of Cumbernauld would soon give up shopping on foot, after which "the centre could become a gigantic vending machine through which the motorized user drives to return revictualled". Which might just explain all those abandoned shopping trolleys.

Fortunately, the megastructure idea met its well-deserved doom in Edinburgh. You can still see the last vestiges of this daft notion in the concrete ramps at first-storey level along Princes Street - though the city council remains determined to kill the vitality of the street by banning cars. A proposal to ring the magnificent Adam courtyard of Edinburgh university with a concrete walkway, and fillet the centre of the capital with motorways, finally led the middle class to revolt in the early 1970s. In revenge, the city bureaucrats have recently barricaded the streets of the New Town with cheap, ugly bollards.

Have we learned any lessons since Cumbernauld was built? The planners may be in retreat, but they are still in charge. Thwarted in not being allowed to build their megastructures, they have retaliated by not letting anyone build anything, unless it is bland to the point of suffocation. As a result of such red tape, land supply in Scotland is artificially scarce despite our low population density. That is why house prices are rocketing and the low-paid can’t afford to buy.

We have a new generation of talented architects who are once again designing buildings you would want to live and work in: Malcolm Fraser, Allan Murray, Gareth Hoskins, John McAslan, Zoo Architects. We need to be far less prescriptive with the planning rules for buildings, but set out simple urban design rules for town layouts within which architects can work, and developers get their money back in reasonable time. Such layouts should encourage street frontages, density, human scale, and allow for a modest degree of anarchy that drives urban change.

As for Cumbernauld: don’t knock it down. Give it some soul by using the megastructure as a museum of architecture and design that will attract folk to the place. We should learn by our mistakes.