Cumbernauld New Town (Photo by Chris Robertshaw)
Artillery Row

L’Architecture of Lanarkshire

Urban planning should depend on local residents more than abstract debates

The recent decision by North Lanarkshire Council in Scotland to finally demolish Cumbernauld Town Centre follows decades of speculation and debate regarding the future of these controversial buildings. Its Year Zero finality has excited opposition from several quarters, most fervently from respected architectural thinkers active in defending the remains of the Modernist built environment. These are committed to preserving the supposedly utopian promise of Britain’s post-War era of vernacular Brutalist experimentation.

Hence the most prominent objector to NLC’s proposals is the leading architectural historian and socialist writer, Owen Hatherley. He has robustly defended the original Geoffrey Copcutt concept of Cumbernauld Town Centre and its roots in the 1960s “Metabolist” idea of the “gigantic self-renewing machine”, which serves the needs of newly empowered and socially advancing working-class communities.

It is easy to scoff at these defences of the Town Centre complex, reprising an argument that is repeatedly and misleadingly framed in terms of the dreary standoff between “Prince Charles” traditionalism and academic Modernist idealism. 

Most striking about Cumbernauld was not Modernist grey but natural green

However, this is not really what is at stake in the intended demolition of Cumbernauld Town Centre. This is especially true for lifelong residents of Cumbernauld such as my own extended family, domiciled here across what are now three generations of residence — from before the foundation of the Town Centre in 1963 to its anticipated demise in 2022 and beyond. Widespread local support for the proposed demolition is less about the crumbling buildings themselves and their divisive megastructure aesthetics, and more about the manner in which their popularly perceived ugliness and functional failures have come to epitomise, entirely unjustly, the alleged “crap town” character of Cumbernauld itself and the people who live in it. 

These judgements are of course grossly unfair on the town, its inhabitants, its amenities and its many built environment successes — past and present. What drew my parents and my wife’s parents from the Victorian slums of Glasgow to Cumbernauld in the early 1960s was not Brutalist innovation but smokeless zones, smart new schools, skilled jobs, the separation of pedestrians and traffic, and decent social housing. 

What was most striking about Cumbernauld when we first arrived (and remains so today) was not Modernist grey but natural green: to be almost everywhere within a stone’s throw of open meadow, lush woodland and inviting hillside; to live adventurously and safely in a Central Scotland town nestling in the ancient countryside where the Romans had raised their Antonine Wall. 

Now of course these initial attractions of New Town life were freighted with paradoxes that would become serious tensions as the economic optimism of the 1960s receded. The self-sufficient “motorist’s town” became a commuter hub to Glasgow and Edinburgh as inward investment evaporated. Integrated community fragmented in too many places into affluent and impoverished enclaves as prosperous, indigenous hi-tech industry gave way for many residents to low-skill, low-paid employment. Optimistic separation of cars and people mutated into sometimes distinctly unsafe and lonely streets. Dramatic and unforeseen expansion of the town across the M80 motorway completely “de-centred” its Town Centre. No one appreciates the shortcomings and the virtues of any town more insightfully than the people who live there.

The problems with the Town Centre, however, manifested early. From its official opening by Princess Margaret in 1967 (which we attended as children), difficulties emerged with its steep-gradient hilltop location; its roofless concrete ramps open to the often hostile elements (particularly high winds); its labyrinthine and badly-lit mall layout; above all, its inability to attract or retain major High Street retailers or leading recreational and cultural providers. 

Visions of Town Centre renewal are not new

To a large extent, this situation endures today: those with resources eschew the Town Centre in favour of ready automobile or public transport access to Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh. With the exception of the excellent public library, the location is left mostly for occasional shopping, supermarket provisioning and to those without the means to range any further for their purchases. Its signature premises is now the discount store. Even amidst economic upheaval and radical retail realignment, the contrast with the Town Centres of the New Towns of East Kilbride and Livingston could not be more disadvantageous.

Today’s defenders of Cumbernauld Town Centre, such as Barnabas Calder, insist that it can be “saved” by the application of political will and proper resources. They have concentrated their objections into a seemingly local petition for a public listing of the buildings as architectural monuments that would forestall their destruction. Their proposals for retrofitting and repurposing are also not in themselves without merit. They are right in apportioning much responsibility for the structure’s historic failures to longstanding, venal patterns of ownership and corporate neglect. But visions of Town Centre renewal are not in fact new to the people of Cumbernauld.

Their most celebrated expression was the 2005 Channel 4 programme Demolition, where Kevin McCloud and Janet Street-Porter invited a team of talented architects and planners to “remodel” the Town Centre in a flexible, sustainable and attractive form fit for the new century. Here again, however, two familiar problems reasserted themselves: the slippage between condemning the Town Centre and vilifying the town as whole; and the clear local realisation that despite the issue commanding the attention of a major public broadcaster, nothing would be done. Nothing was done. Again and again, commercial and political announcements promise the populace a major refashioning of its iconic central structure. Beyond the most cosmetic of improvements, nothing happens.

It is by the light of these realities that the Council’s proposals for demolition of Cumbernauld Town Centre (now subject to a consultation), should in my view be endorsed. It is no wholesale condemnation of the Modernist movement to recognise that it is time to turn the page on this particular abortive Brutalist megastructure. This would invite civil society into a fresh dialogue about how it can be meaningfully replaced in a period of considerable urban planning uncertainty and flux. Moving into this next phase in the civic conversation would illustrate that the fate of locations like Cumbernauld Town Centre should be determined not primarily by rival architectural abstractions, but through watchful attention to the lives of those who experience such shared locations as expressions of place, belonging and home.

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