Michael Kelly: The place where even squares can have a ball

George Square plays host to the Glasgow Art Fair
George Square plays host to the Glasgow Art Fair
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NOT Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA, but a Glasgow divested of ancient baggage and eager to revive its civic heart, writes Michael Kelly.

City squares are essentially boring. They are just empty bits of public land. All follow the same conventional pattern, four sides surrounded by shops and restaurants with homes on top. The very word “square” reeks of conformity. Thus, a “square” is a rigidly conventional person, out of touch with modern needs.

Run through the world’s most famous squares. Is there much in any of them to be excited about? Red Square is more suited for marching troops than browsing tourists. The Zocala in Mexico City is just too big, as is Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where shoppers have to dodge tanks. The Piazza St Marco in Venice and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid are surrounded by properly proportioned buildings but there are more interesting places to visit in both cities.

There is a reason for this uniform blankness. Squares are intended to be public meeting places that serve as venues for a variety functions. For that they require flexibility, which means that they lie barren and empty for most of the year. Two squares that lack that flexibility are in fact two of the more exciting. Times Square is asymmetrical and the better for it. Despite being a mess of neon, traffic and crowds, it reflects the urgency of New York. Trafalgar Square is probably the best suited for everyday life in a busy city. With its different levels, statues, column and fountains it is well used by London’s citizens and visitors.

Glasgow’s George Square fails properly to provide for either function. Events have to be shoehorned into it because of the clutter of statues and flowerbeds. Apart from a few benches, there is nowhere to sit. You certainly can’t lie down. The parkies would have you. A bakery in one corner selling all the foods that should not be in the Scottish diet is an insult to health educators.

The square is well overdue a makeover. The city council is correct in saying that over the years piecemeal adjustments have resulted in its being “compromised to such an extent that its loss of status and dignity is all too apparent”.

Who could argue with the council’s conclusion that the square “requires a wholesale re-examination of its image and functions in order that it can be regarded as a place fit for the 21st Century, and to once again enhance (sic) Glasgow’s reputation as an international city?” Plenty of people could – especially those who enjoy objecting to any change to anything, particularly if it is proposed by an elected council. There is not the least improvement that escapes their wrath. Witness this week’s new object of veneration – a stone circle built in alignment with the stars. But this is no work of the Druids – it was built in the 1970s. The council is proposing to remove it to regenerate Sighthill by building sports facilities in anticipation of winning the Youth Olympic Games for Glasgow.

Like attacking the problems of the square, this seems like sensible city planning. However, the opposition is vehement. Protests are being organised, letters are being written, the Greens are girding their loins. All designed to slow progress at taxpayers’ expense.

Past planning errors hang like an albatross round the necks of those in Glasgow who now want to continue to reinvigorate the city. The vast, peripheral housing estates with no shops or transport are repeatedly used as evidence against further creative proposals. What is ignored is the more recent, outstandingly good record of Glasgow planners. There is the efficient urban motorway system bringing traffic to and from the airport and south to our main markets in England. There is the cleaning and restoration of much Georgian and Victorian architecture. There are the new shopping centres from St Enoch to the Buchanan Galleries and the de luxe Princes Square which have preserved the vibrant heart of Glasgow. There is the investment in old and new art galleries and museums – not least the Burrell. There is the life-changing improvement in the East End.

George Square, built in 1781, is of no great age in a city 800 years old. The square itself and the street names of the surrounding area pay homage to the Hanoverians – North Hanover Street and Queen Street, not something the city wants to boast about now. It is time to replace the honouring of the mad king whose loss of the American colonies cost Glasgow its lucrative tobacco trade. Let us recognise instead those modern local giants who have restored pride in the city. Stein Square would be accessed by Craig Whyte Alley. Sheridan Court would run off Rikki Fulton Lane.

The council proposes to remove the statues from the square for two good reasons. First to make best use of the space during the Commonwealth Games but also to create a fresh canvas to be filled with ideas inspired by an international competition.

There will be no way back for Thomas Oswald MP. He’s already got a street named after him. He hardly needs a statue, too. And Sir John Moore, who bungled his Peninsula War campaign, has his dreary poem. Thomas Campbell, whose writings like Sir Walter Scott, are largely unread today, must be banished, while Sir Walter should return if only to remind Edinburgh that Glasgow was ahead of the capital in honouring him. And what was Tory Robert Peel doing there in the first place? Glasgow had a police force long before he came up with the idea.

There is no merit in returning most of these statues. Consideration should even be given to relocating the Cenotaph, which is on too large a scale for its surroundings. Outside Glasgow Cathedral would be more reverential and fill another void.

At the very least, work should start by removing all vehicular traffic and pushing the limits of the square to the building line. In fact, restoration could go further by knocking down the inappropriate extension to the then North British Hotel and the budget-built George House, a building for accountants by accountants. There will be nothing boring about the stushie that will cause.