Sporting a ‘ghost town’ within an architectural grandeur

Glasgow has always been known as a city of architecture but with three years to go, could the Commonwealth Games help to sustain such recognition?

With the transformation and reinvention of a cityscape being a predominant focal point of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the event has become part of a hotly contested debate. As Glasgow has held its reputation as a city of architecture for decades, made famous by many names such as Mackintosh and Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, the changing city landscape should help to re-create an architectural connection between the east end and the city centre. Where it has been able to continually refresh itself architecturally, the Commonwealth Games is the next spark of opportunity and attempt at boosting a legacy that Glasgow has gripped firmly onto.

Glasgow is a city renowned for its cultural elements and commitment to the arts and design but as with all urban areas, there are many factors that can infect any hopeful prospects. The east end currently has plenty to offer – methadone clinics on every corner, cheap booze deals and concrete seas of rusting grey. This is the location of the GCG, provoking necessary promises of transformation and improvement of vast wastelands and ‘ghost towns’.

The east end’s Dalmarnock is to be the home of The National Indoor Sports Arena and Velodrome designed by 3DReid and will be the only completely new facility to be used for the GCG. Both sections so far seem to assure architectural modernity with the use of a 200m hydraulically operated running track as well as telescopic and movable seating platforms. And so they should with a current cost total of £312million.

Gordon McGhie is the Glasgow director of 3DReid architects. He agrees that the chosen location does not exactly contain much in terms of architectural precedent or to base any potentially great architecture on. The closest thing to a design such as this would be the football stadiums or three large tower blocks nearby.

As the Velodrome and NISA were designed before the Commonwealth Games Village, gathering a concept from any remaining elements within the site was not something that was going to happen easily or quickly. McGhie claims designing this structure was ‘very much a case of leading the way’ and in doing so, they were ‘very conscious of creating cycling and walking routes across the site with the hope that they would be extended to connect the river and the city centre’.

The structural concepts for the designs seem to focus on modern and technological simplicity as Mcghie says ‘The plan form of each main event space is distinct, reflecting the different internal uses, while a continuous ‘out-rigger’ at roof level ties the forms together’. Contemporary materials reinforce this idea as he describes them as a variety of metal panels and large glazed areas. Aside from structural issues however, it is clear that a key element used is the city itself.

Glasgow is a permanent exhibition for an assortment of architectural periods. Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson is one of the most famous architects to have come from Glasgow and in fact, the western world. He took influences from European architecture as well as art, particularly Greek and Egyptian, hence the nickname. John Martin’s artwork was a huge influence and scattered about Glasgow are understated buildings of cubist, abstract architecture that somehow contain a kind of elegance in their mass structures. The painting The Fall of Babylon, is a flawless example as to what inspired Glasgow’s greatest architectural mind in the last century.

Of course Glasgow prior to Thomson, has had an array of exciting, gothic architecture such as the medieval Cathedral situated east to the city centre. The combination of these two architectural styles probably explains that famous style of Mackintosh a bit more clearly in terms of precedent, art nouveau pushed to the limit on top of loud, solid shapes.

In 1999, Glasgow was awarded the title UK’s City of Architecture, nearly a century after the works of ‘Greek’ Thomson were contemporary and decades after Mackintosh was recognised. This came as a result of the mixture of old and new and the works of more recent architectural celebrities. World renowned architect Sir Norman Foster made his mark on Glasgow with the Armadillo and the Mirror Bridge, RMJM architects added their highly modern and unusual style to the Tron Theatre and more recently, Zaha Hadid has brought her contribution to the city with the Transport Museum bringing a rush of optimism from architecture critics.

This circus of architectural eras brings us back to how and where the GCG fits into its surroundings and overall context. While Glasgow, whether from ignorance of the past or faith in the future, has never hesitated to demolish and rebuild, McGhie says ‘we have learned that our Victorian and early 20th century built heritage is among the finest of its time. Much of the heart of the city will remain intact, or at least its fabulous stone facades.’ Despite this and the fact Glasgow was the second city of the British Empire, McGhie seems to positively appreciate architectural plans from the 60s – the replacement of tenement buildings for tower blocks and the disruptions of communities with motorways. He claims that with this included, ‘Glasgow has had some grand plans’.

With that in mind, many other plans and developments are already underway. Though most claim not to be directly linked with the upcoming event, the GCG has been used as the perfect opportunity for the east end regeneration project.

Christopher Platt is the owner of Glasgow based architecture firm StudioKAP, a combined competition winner with Park and Page Architects for the Bellgrove development. This will be located in Dennistoun, on the route between the city centre and the Arena and contains 10 housing blocks. The area was once an old market though currently wasteland and ‘the vision is to re-establish a continuous urban area from Dennistoun to the Merchant City’. This idea seems to coincide well with the aims for the NISA and Velodrome.

The Bellgrove development and the relationship the design has with the site, plays an important role in the development of the design claims Platt, with the only remaining built element being integrated into housing blocks. This development has certainly taken into consideration its context. Glasgow sits as a rectangular grid system which is mirrored within the Bellgrove plan. Platt emphasises that the key concept is to remain within the city’s current layout. As Glasgow is essentially a stone city, with this economical climate and the budget level for a project such as this, ‘the closest thing we can use is red brick’.

For a city that has such a mixture of architecture, Platt emphasises the importance in this project whereby the idea is ‘not to re-create what surrounds it but to at least take elements of what is there to continue a flow in the cityscape’. Any modern elements that have been borrowed do not dazzle with originality. According to Platt, a huge focus within the housing blocks designed, was ‘the connection and relationship with the void and the brick’, hence the use of glass and zinc.

As with any developing cities, there is always that fear of losing a heritage culturally and architecturally, especially when events as important as the GCG are involved. With so much stress on materials such as metals, brick and glass, the concern over living in a characterless, glass-box metropolis is apparent. Not to worry though, Platt quickly removes any such thoughts through a comforting statement – ‘With a project such as housing, it wouldn’t be expected to have a great deal of influence on larger projects. If you’re talking about a lack of coherence within Glasgow, that’s only really based on appearance.’ Fair enough, architecture is beyond appearance which is only one element but appearance should always be considered as essential.

Unlike Dalmarnock, the Bellgrove development is at least being built on unused land. Twenty four residential tower blocks in the city have been marked for demolition beginning next year and Dalmarnock has already seen a huge change physically and aesthetically. Numerous council houses and flats have been bought for demolition to make room for the Athlete’s Village which will involve 1000 houses for sale after the event. This has however been viewed both positively and negatively by the public. The range of comments on demolishing residential areas for the event has been widespread and have included statements such as ‘Brilliant, the high rise flats are an eye sore’ through to ‘displacing people elsewhere won’t solve the problems of a generation and the investment will end up abused anyway’. Even in the architectural world there are conflicting views to the debate. Gordon McGhie believes that ‘in terms of sustainability, the demolition of any building is a loss’.

David MacRitchie is the head of year lecturer for architecture at The University of Strathclyde and holds views on the GCG that are very pessimistic. ‘The last big thing was the Garden Festival and there’s no legacy from that at all. I suspect that I’m not alone in not having spent any time thinking about [the GCG].’ That said he does claim that we ‘should improve what is there where possible rather than end up with something underused in the wrong place’. This is a major concern regarding the GCG that both Platt and McGhie disregard as relevant.

When architecture remains to be completely about people, the Commonwealth Games so far has enormous potential. What we can gather from the low key publicity of the event is that the designs used are not necessarily about themselves as individual buildings, but could be great pieces of architecture by doing exactly what the aims of the East End Regeneration Project are all about. They have set out to connect these dead and dying areas to the rest of the city, the architecturally famous Glasgow.

Landscape architecture is a huge factor involved with the design of the Commonwealth Games buildings but again not in an individual sense. The site is no longer just Dalmarnock and the East End but the city as a whole. As Platt states ‘we are designing a part of the city’. As long as the Commonwealth Games can prove successful at being the basis of a relationship and link between two different worlds, then Glasgow should remain a City of Architecture for Scotland. As MacRitchie explains ‘in a funny sort of way if the Glasgow Underground went to the east end as well I think it would make a massive difference to public perception of where it is’.

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