Canned designs: Two sides of Glasgow


Urban planning is full of 'what ifs': designs for future cities that never materialised. Continuing our series, Christopher Beanland revisits Robert Bruce's drastic vision for 1940s Glasgow 

7th April 2016
By Christopher Beanland

Optimism. We forget that the 20th century was full of it. Perhaps because the dystopian narrative is more compelling. The picture of crazed lunatics in town planning offices with the gall to knock down half of a city and replace it with tower blocks is the image that recurs; it's the stick used to beat all of the philosophies that went with modernism.

In many senses Robert Bruce's 1945 plan for Glasgow was brutal. Knocking down Charles Rennie Mackintosh's School of Art (plus many, many other historic edifices) – really? But the thinking was this: create a modern city fit for purpose; house poor people in better conditions; and preserve Glasgow as a great socialist industrial city.

Central government in the UK has long been suspicious of 'red cities' with too much power. They want to keep Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow from being too troublesome. One way to do this is to hobble their huge, Labour-dominated city councils (city states really) by promoting decentralisation – so the population disperses to the countryside, county towns and new towns. In 1945, Glasgow was really trying to keep the maximum amount of people and industry inside its boundaries; to reinvent itself by building high and building modern. Bruce's view was just more radical than any other almost anywhere else in the UK. But, like many other plans of the time, it was about removing filth and disorder and poverty from cities – to make cities thrive again. Not that he asked anyone living there what they wanted; that approach only came much later in the century.

Bruce wanted to redesign and rebuild almost the entire city centre, as shown in this more recent visualisation which accompanied a fascinating BBC4 look back in anger at the plan.

3D visualisation by Playdead, from the BBC series Unbuilt Britain

Straight streets, rectilinear blocks, motorways. Bruce also wanted to bin the terrible tenements and house the workers from the Highlands, from Ireland, from Italy, from Lithuania in big, new estates.

So how did the story end? The housing estates got built, as did many of the motorways – the M8 was dropped on to Glasgow's city centre like a battered Mars bar into hot fat on a Friday night. It was unwanted, and yet... You get a great sense of drama driving along it, ploughing right into the city's core.

Glasgow, in a way, got the best of both worlds. History preserved in the centre, fascinating newness on the edges

The city centre was partly redeveloped on a block-by-block basis, and on a bigger scale with huge, odd precincts of offices and shops and bus stands at Anderston. But mostly the city centre, with its Victorian sandstone and art deco, survived. Now it's a regular stand-in location for New York in movies; and a home to boutique shops (today's Glasgow is pitched to the short breaks market as a 'shopping destination').

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Glasgow, in a way, got the best of both worlds. History preserved in the centre, fascinating newness on the edges. It remains one of the most exciting-looking cities in the UK. The optimism fizzled away though. From the heady days of propaganda films like 1970's Glasgow 1980 – with the funkiest soundtrack this side of Harlem – and a belief in the future embodied in Basil Spence's Hutchesontown flats in the Gorbals (opened by the Queen but now demolished), we ended up with Andrea Arnold's 2006 film Red Road, set in the eponymous and now also demolished flats in the north east of the city.

From utopia to dystopia in half a century. Yet Glasgow's innovations during that period should also be remembered: its housing, its bold motorway designs, its cheap and cheerful concrete universities and colleges, and its big plans to keep people away from heavy industry yet preserve jobs. Most of all, the city was trying to save itself during some tough times.

More in this series
Canned designs: Berlin's paths not taken
Canned designs: Rip it up and start again in Paris
Canned designs: Cars on roofs in Staines
Canned designs: Manhattan's doomed domed city
Canned designs: Tokyo's floating city
Canned Designs: Airborne at King's Cross


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