A Tear in the Fabric: ‘Community Hubs’ as Creative Destruction

Last week it was announced that Maryhill Library, one of the Glasgow’s twelve historic Carnegie libraries and possibly the one that has been best preserved, will not reopen. Glasgow Life are encouraging proposals for alternative uses for the building and insist the area’s library provision will be picked up by the new ‘community hubs’ set to be established across the city. In the meantime, the library service in Maryhill will be moved over the road to the Glasgow Club and Whiteinch Library will be shoehorned into Scotstoun Leisure Centre. North Lanarkshire Council’s plans for the demolition of Cumbernauld Town Centre are also predicated on the foundation of one of these hubs in its place. 

For those that keep an eye on news concerning Scotland’s public buildings, these stories are all too familiar. The creative destruction of Scottish architecture has been a current running through the last two decades, whether it is done via budget cuts like in the case of Maryhill Library, planned deterioration like in Cumbernauld, or left prone to fall victim to fire like swathes of former industrial buildings across Glasgow. Those looking for alternative uses for historic library buildings could learn something by looking to Dundee, where our own Carnegie found a second life as a beloved nightclub, music venue and cultural institution – only to itself suffer from the ongoing wave of redevelopment and reopen as a pizza restaurant with another branch fifteen minutes across town. In any case, the last thing Glasgow needs is another Hillhead Bookclub. 

Elsewhere in Dundee, a block of Victorian tenements were pulled down last week because of a presumed health and safety concern with the stairwells. This process has been ongoing since 2018, when the local council undertook a community consultation that disregarded the views of residents. Jimmy Black, the city’s former Housing Convenor, led the campaign to save the tenements and through Freedom of Information requests concluded that ‘councillors took their decision to clear out their own tenants, and pay half a million pounds to private landlords on the basis of inadequate and misleading information.’ The loss of these homes and the stunning views afforded by their pletties, a distinctive architectural feature and great example of Dundonian dialect, is a tragedy. The battle has been lost, but it will live on in the fight for any replacement housing to be high-quality and affordable.

Maryhill Library, Glasgow

All across Scotland, we are fighting this losing battle against the erosion of our urban landscape in the name of regeneration. Some of the traditional methods of doing this have been discarded in favour of seductive promises of new buildings that better represent ‘the future’, or are more ‘sustainable’ – this is a textbook example of greenwashing, rebranding the tired cycle of demolition and development as innovative and forward-thinking. Sadly this approach seems to be at the heart of the SNP’s plans for Scotland, apparent elsewhere in their insistence that the UK government’s freeport model is distinct from their own efforts to establish ‘greenports’. Miles Orvell’s book from earlier this year, Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography and the Spectacle of Destruction, offers a thorough look at the politics of redevelopment in the US while supposing that the phenomenon does not occur so much in Europe, where historic buildings are apparently respected. I would invite Orvell to visit Glasgow, Dundee, or the New Towns, for his next book – all places that make clear his claim that: ‘The new is, from day to day, a moth which eats into the fabric of life, leaving nothing finally but a great hole’. The book viscerally describes this process, applying the theory of ‘creative destruction’ as developed from Marx by Austrian-German economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

The lineage of the term is proof enough that this is nothing new, in the Glasgow of the previous century redevelopment was so severe that it compelled Jeff Torrington in the Workers City anthology to describe it as ‘like the Dresden bombing – an unforgiveable act of community overkill’. In 2007, David Harvey offered an overview of how this tendency has progressed and evolved under neoliberalism: ‘ways had to be found to transfer assets and channel wealth and income either from the mass of the population toward the upper classes or from vulnerable to richer countries’. Of the methods for accumulation by dispossession that Harvey outlines, the second is the most relevant here: ‘conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusively private property rights’. While some may believe that the austerity era is over following the pandemic, I would wager that it will continue unabated under a new guise. Public assets are being turned into private property all across Scotland, based on arguments over the physical deterioration of the buildings themselves. Services are moved to substandard replacement services, allowing private developers to renovate historic buildings in the never-ending search for a new gimmick to base a bar or restaurant on. Meanwhile already empty buildings are overlooked and left to grow derelict. The deterioration of existing public services enables their consolidation into a single ‘community hub’ or ‘campus’, turning the entire population into perpetual students and undermining the individual merits of the services themselves. 

These services are inextricable from the buildings that house them, their place in the collective memory and identity of the communities they serve develop from a combination of the two. There are of course a multitude of reasons for the decline of Labour in Scotland and the rise of the SNP, but if you speak to many of the older residents in the two Yes cities they will talk about buildings. The destruction of the Gorbals in Glasgow, or the Overgait and Wellgait in Dundee, all lining the pockets of the local officials, demolishers, and construction companies that tore the heart out of communities and forever tarred the Labour administrations as corrupt. Passionate recollections of these buildings and the period of their destruction still abound on community forums like Lost Glasgow and Dundonian History for All. If the SNP government aren’t careful, their own politics of redevelopment could achieve the same effect. Architecture is fundamentally emotional, but the emotions of local residents are rarely considered. Keeping up appearances with visitors and outside observers is the more realistic and viable approach to urban identity. For those arriving in Edinburgh by train in previous centuries, the sight of The Balmoral or The North British Hotel may have encouraged resentment based on regional inequality and the constitution. When stepping out into Auld Reekie today, the copper-ribboned W Edinburgh Hotel dominating the skyline serves as a reminder that you can indeed polish a turd. Tourism is also a driving force behind these redevelopments, another possible justification for ongoing creative destruction. The exponential growth of hotels tramples all in its path. It was central to the development of Dundee’s new train station, where the interior remains largely unchanged and the mezzanine still hasn’t managed to fill up with shops and services – the hotel on top was the star feature and, along with the countless others littering the waterfront area, has sat empty for the last year. You would think a year of restricted travel would help to convince the SNP administration that planning an economy around tourism is not viable or sustainable, but they do not seem to be relenting. 

recent statement in The Courier on the proposed Eden Project Scotland, set to be spread over nine sites in Dundee, insists that tourism will play a key role in ‘economic recovery’ and that Scotland aims to be the ‘world leader in 21stcentury tourism’. A shiny tourist attraction like the Eden Project can convince the population that they’re receiving some sort of benign gift while sneakily moving public parks or buildings into private ownership and behind a paywall. Even with a ‘local’ discount, entry to the site in Cornwall costs a minimum of £15 a year. Meanwhile, Dundee’s existing built heritage is under threat. Dudhope Castle, widely considered to be the closest thing to ‘Dundee’s Castle’ through its association with the Scrymgeour family, is to be taken out of the council’s hands and potentially developed into ‘luxury flats’. The council have said they will happily consider alternative uses or some form of community ownership as long as the plans are, once again, viable and realistic. There are a group of us looking at this, but we are faced with an uphill battle in terms of both funding and engagement. A previous campaign to save Menzieshill High School was unsuccessful, with pupils moved to the new Harris Academy building on Perth Road. A balm for the pupils and parents who objected to the closure was the promise of a new building, you guessed it, a community hub.

But what actually is a community hub? Despite the model seemingly serving as the answer to every question regarding public services and buildings in Scotland, there is not so much existing literature on the potential for these new buildings and the philosophy underlying their expansion. The more one looks into the proposals, the clearer it becomes that a community hub can be both anything and everything. The Barra and Vatersay Community Campus is set to contain a school, a hospital, a police station, a library, a gym, a swimming pool and housing for pensioners. The smaller hubs that already exist serve as more or less traditional community centres, providing space for local groups and sports facilities for young people. It remains to be seen what they can achieve with new buildings that they can’t with existing infrastructure. The Friockheim Community Hub in Angus has been popular and provides services that would otherwise be remote for local residents, but at least the proposal was based on the renovation of an existing schoolhouse that would otherwise have lain empty. The rise of these hubs as a justification for demolition is a newer phenomenon. The community hub-ification of Scotland is hardly architecturally or socially ambitious either, with even the non-campus plans resembling student unions or university halls of residence. If the politicians, urban planners and architects behind these proposals need some lessons on ambition and the social purpose of their work all they have to do is look at the history of some of the buildings they seek to tear down.

A Fragment: Cumbernauld Town Centre

The architect Gordon Murray, who designed Wick Community Campus, describes his first impressions of Cumbernauld Town Centre on a school visit in 1967: ‘It appeared to me, then, and again five years later when I returned as an architecture student, that it was the one place in our country where you might look through the tear in the fabric of a 19th-century Presbyterian Scotland, still the core of all our post-war towns, and glimpse the 21st century.’ Today, the point still stands. A walk through Cumbernauld, from the incorporated historic villages that predate the new town to the futuristic ‘San Gimignano of the Campsies’ that sits at its heart, is a journey through the shifting ideological currents of modern Scotland. Although it is often forgotten that the area existed prior to the designation of the new town site in 1955, parts of that history also inform the present and future of the town. From 1820 onwards, when the Condorrat revolutionary John Baird served as a commander in the Radical Rising and was subsequently executed in Stirling, Cumbernauld has been a pressure point in wider conflicts between left and right, nationalism and unionism, as well as in debates among architects and urban planners relating to redevelopment and conservation. 

These debates are once again rising to the surface, in the face of an ongoing consultation by North Lanarkshire Council’s on their £10.5 billion investment program to redevelop the region’s town centres. Even if assuming good faith on the part of NLC, a considerable task in view of a history of scandals surrounding the allocation of resources and building projects, the consultation is still based upon a number of assumptions and contradictions. While the proposals for Airdrie for example emphasise the importance of retaining and strengthening its ‘market town heritage’, those for Cumbernauld ignore the last sixty years of its history in pursuing the creation of an entirely new ‘place identity’. If a process exists for manufacturing a concept as nebulous as ‘place identity’, it is not entirely clear how it works or where NLC have found it. Many still remember the travesty of their last attempt at forging a new identity for the town, when they spent just under a million pounds on roadside neon waves that weren’t allowed to be switched on in fear of a risk to drivers. This project, alongside the Arria sculpture that greets motorway travellers, sought to capitalise on the meaning of the Gaelic name for the town: comar nan allt or ‘meeting of the waters’. If the new identity they have in mind is once again tied to a tangential aquatic theme they should return to the drawing board, as it just doesn’t fit with a landlocked town in Central Scotland with relatively minor waterways. They are currently proposing a complete demolition of the surviving Town Centre building and many of its surrounding amenities, a comprehensive removal of almost all the significant sites of memory for the residents. Public opinion on the megastructure itself is undoubtedly divided and impassioned in both directions. For some it is one of Scotland’s architectural highlights, an all too rare example of Scottish high modernism – a post-war flirtation with utopia, brutalism and the avant-garde. For others, it is a daily eyesore and a national embarrassment that serves as a reminder of the failure of that very utopia – a building that was doomed from the offset by the naïve idealism of its planners. The truth lies somewhere in between, as even those who love the building most must concede that in its current state of neglect and disrepair, some sort of radical new approach is essential. This article attempts to show that demolition and blanket replacement with ‘community hubs’ is not necessarily that.

Cumbernauld Town Centre under construction

For the older residents of Cumbernauld, who moved there between the sixties and seventies, the building can serve as a bitter representation of all the false promises and disappointments of the town. While for the millennials and zoomers who grew up there after Thatcher, the building was always the only visible remnant of the idealism that fuelled it in the first place. Indeed, Cumbernauld Town Centre is the closest thing Scotland has ever had to Vault 101, and we emerged from our social experiment to find a post-apocalyptic wasteland of austerity and realpolitik. The most common complaint among my generation growing up was the lack of ‘something to do’, and a wander around the surreal labyrinth of the megastructure was always our one constant insurance policy. While the wind-battled, rain-soaked hilltop location of the building would prove to be one of its ultimate downfalls in terms of degrading its concrete with a pervasive ugly brown drip, it also allowed it to become a sanctuary. Those who would decry these attachments as sentimental would do well to remember the role emotions play in politics. As well as popping up as a regular feature on brutalist fan forums, archival photographs of the centre proliferate on a number of community nostalgia pages – yet those that have fond memories of the building are too often disregarded because they do not fit the conventional narrative. It has been easy for NLC, and critics of the centre more generally, to paint those defending the preservation of the building as out of touch and disconnected from the community itself. In fact, even those locally who do not see a realistic future for the building still would not like to see it replaced with something generic and substandard. Those who would like to see the centre retained, combined with those who would still like it to be ‘honoured’ in some sense, are a not-insignificant invisible constituency. 

In 1977, Cumbernauld residents Jim and Krystyna Johnson posited that ‘Cumbernauld stands alone’: ‘having been created at the high point in the architectural profession’s belief that it could change society by creating a better world to live in.’ Decades later it is lonely still, and it may not stand for much longer. The founding philosophy of architectural determinism outlined here, the idea that buildings can influence behavior, is now ironically more prevalent in criticism of the centre than in its defence. A 2005 Scotsman article called ‘So how did we get from classical to carbuncle?’ claimed that ‘ned culture’ is a direct product of ‘soulless, Stalinist architecture like Cumbernauld’. Those with experience of that culture are aware that no public building can be held responsible for a demographic that emerges out of poverty. There are more direct ways of tackling antisocial behavior and alienation than demolishing buildings, and if £10.5 billion was devoted to fighting inequality in North Lanarkshire it is doubtful that architectural style would be a part of its remit. However, even that article concludes that the centre should not be knocked 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.’ If even the most damning indictment of the building can end on a note of optimism, then it is unfortunate we have now reached the point where that optimism has dissipated. Museums, like hubs, are not the answer to all of our problems, but at least it’s an admission that another centre is possible. The idea that the megastructure is a hopeless, doomed wretch is insincere and cynical. On its foundation, the town centre of Cumbernauld won the RS Reynolds Memorial Award for Community Architecture where it was proclaimed ‘the most significant contribution to the art and science of urban design in the western world’. That alone should justify its historical significance. 

When the ground-breaking urban planner Lewis Mumford visited the town in 1963, he concluded that the flaw in Cumbernauld was that it ‘proceeded so rapidly that it has not been able to incorporate the result of past experiments and recent urban experience’. Today NLC run the risk of making the same mistake. The consultation process must be broadened and extended. The megastructure itself was not built upon a whim, and the architect Geoffrey Copcutt went to great lengths in ensuring the plans were rooted in the most advanced social theory of the time:

‘I shamelessly did night-classes in poaching statistics and traffic planning. By day we engaged academics in a 100-town social/retail study and spent weekends sampling wind and earth. In between we debated income and spending patterns, projected travel modes, and deliveries whilst juggling structural grids to match parking modules, mitigating Venturi effects and all the while, like a jeweller fashioning precious metal, I hammered the cross sections and shaped landscape to forge an urban morphology.’

Rather than turning Scotland’s towns and cities into campuses, we should be inviting in the academics and students that make our universities and colleges world-class. Community hubs don’t have to be a failsafe last resort or an appeasement to unhappy local residents – they could be at the forefront of the development of a new urban morphology for 21stCentury Scotland. Cumbernauld’s critics make the mistake of looking at an ambitious plan that was never fully realised and decades of planned deterioration and concluding that the ambition was the problem. Yet the megastructure’s founding principles, of housing a variety of services and entertainments under one roof, are being replicated everywhere without the ambition. The centre was supposed to include ‘auditoria, bowling lanes, dance floors, cafes and gardens’, as well as a ‘a multi-purpose gallery for lectures concerts and meetings which can also accommodate exhibitions’. It was also intended to be the largest single employment source, while its potential replacement doesn’t seem to offer many jobs at all. It never had a fixed purpose, flexibility and adaptability were intended to be at the heart of the development. Instead, it languished as a generic retail shed that housed many of the same shops found in every mid-size Scottish town. Walter Benjamin undertook his gargantuan, unfinished Arcades Project because he was fascinated with the contradictions of Paris as the centre of radicalism and the dark heart of consumerism. Cumbernauld contains both in multitudes. From its genesis at a time of revolutionary promise up until the present death of the high street, there is no other building that can tell us more about modern Scotland and the changing face of capitalism. 

The abandoned St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross

When Copcutt reflected on the megastructure he insisted that: ‘this fragment … is still big enough to define a future.’ Whether it must be demolished or not, this is still true. The same could be said for St Peters Seminary in Cardross, the other contender for the title of Scottish Modernism’s architectural masterpiece. Despite multiple failed attempts at revitalising the seminary, extensive vandalism, and decay, St Peters still has a powerful hold on Scotland’s imagination. The tragedy of the collapse of the Scottish Arts Council and the subsequent liquidation of NVA and their magnificent plans for the building mean it is hard not to approach the Cumbernauld consultation with pessimism and powerlessness. Yet, NVA’s proposal is still the gold standard for an ambitious and compelling vision for Scotland’s modern architecture. They had hoped to develop a series of cultural interventions alongside the actual restoration work, turning it into ‘a working landscape’. St Peters, had the funding continued, would have become a ‘place that you come and where you do things, where you take part in making its future’. This is how we must spend the remainder of our time in Cumbernauld Town Centre, and all of the other buildings currently under threat – whether we have them for a lifetime, or the rest of the summer. We cannot ultimately control the decisions of the planners, but by turning up and doing things we do have a part to play in its meaning and its memory. Angus Farquhar’s words in a 2014 event on the next steps for St Peters can serve as an inspiration and a rallying call for all of those invested in the future of Scotland’s institutions, and make clear the hypocrisy of those who condemn the removal of statues while staying silent on the disappearance of the wider urban landscape:

‘Fight the over predictable, fight the sanitising of history. History’s messy, history is dirty, that’s how we live it. It’s complex, it unfolds in unusual ways. So why the hell do we sanitise our past? And we do. So many of our castles, and so many of the ways that we treat the past are actually reductive. Because as you live life it’s not like we view the past. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t had enough revolutions in this country.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *