Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, and the administrative center of the Strathclyde region, is situated on both banks of the River Clyde, 20 miles (32 km) from the river's estuary on the Atlantic coast. The Glasgow district, an administrative area slightly larger than the city proper, covers 76 sq. miles (198.54 km) and had a population in 1995 of nearly 675,000. This represents a considerable decline from the 1961 figure of approximately 1,055,000. The dramatic rise of the city's population and industrial base during the 19th century and its equally precipitous decline during the 20th century form the underlying narrative of Glasgow's urban development and redevelopment.
Varying translations of the city's Celtic name, "Glas ghu," indicate an early history as a 'green glen," or "dear green place." Nevertheless, centuries of development transformed it into a setting that was wholly urban. The 18th-century grid, and its 19th-century additions - unusually dramatic and extensive in the context of British cities - extended the crossroads of the medieval city to the west and south, across the River Clyde, providing the defining urban infrastructure for the city's growth. Into this grid have been fitted more than two centuries of housing, offices, shops, and institutions, their architectural expressions including Georgian good manners, Victorian eclectic exuberance, and mostly mediocre modernism. Not until the last two decades of the 20th century has a new sense of robust contextualism and the appreciation of the city's urban heritage facilitated a revived "Glasgow style," evident in the work of several younger architectural firms in the city.
The gridded plan makes Glasgow's urban presence compelling. The rectilinear pattern of space stamps the city more deeply into the mind than any collection of individual buildings, including even Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterwork of the Glasgow School of Art (1897-99; 1907-09). The urban quality of central Glasgow owes a great deal to the regulated street pattern, where heights of buildings in relation to street widths were more closely controlled than in other British cities during the 19th century. Overall, the architecture of neoclassical and Victorian buildings interrelates with the urban plan in a vibrant dialogue of figure and ground that has survived neglect and swathes of poor modern development. In substantial areas, Glasgow's character is maintained by the implacable integration of the grid and topography, a two-dimensional arrangement full of potential drama brought into three-dimensional life by the ubiquitous four-story tenements.
The tenement as a building type, generally four stories of apartments, sometimes incorporating street-level commercial uses, always accessed off communal stairs or "closes," and consistently arranged along street frontages, is a particularly Scottish typology, relating that country's pattern of city living more to continental Europe than to its English neighbor. Since the 1980s, the tenement has enjoyed something of a revival, both in terms of preservation and new building. This is in stark contrast to most of the 20th century, when the building type bore the brunt of social and political distaste. Perceived as the symbol and cause of high-density urban squalor, the tenement had to be eradicated at all costs.
The tenement survived because it is inherently flexible: it responds to working-class and middle-class housing needs and historically has been capable of various architectural expressions, from severe unornamented surfaces to eclectic and highly modeled facades. Postmodern versions generally substitute colored brick for the original red and yellow sandstone that created such pleasing cohesion in the Victorian city before pollution turned everything black. Recent manifestations of this building type respond in part to a new desire for urban living by younger professionals, re-inhabiting the city center in sporadic new private developments very much in contrast to decades of government-sponsored decentralization.
The first exodus from the city center was promulgated by local government action after the First World War. The working classes were decanted from overcrowded tenements in the city center where densities climbed as high as 700 persons per acre to English-style suburbs on the outskirts, built on cheap green-field land. Spurred by genuine fear of a social(ist) revolution bred from poor working and living conditions, the city government banned tenement-style development, and instead initiated low-density developments based on garden city planning ideals. However well-intentioned, these new suburbs failed to live up to their model, as planning and construction were progressively simplified and cheapened in a desire to rehouse the greatest number of people for the minimum cost.
Cost was especially significant, as most new housing was provided by public funds. This period of expansion occurred during the first years of Glasgow's industrial decline when employment in heavy manufacturing, shipbuilding, and shipping fell dramatically. In 1932, an astonishing 75 percent of the city's working population was unemployed. In this context of private sector decline, the public authority took the lead in housing, development, and by 1939, the city council was the main provider of new housing, mostly outside the old city boundaries. Between 1916 and 1944, the city built over 54,000 homes in this fashion, including, during the 1930s, a return to some modified tenement-type buildings to meet the demand for rehousing within the available budget.
Public funding and rudimentary planning were also provided to attract new industries to offset the chronic unemployment. While heavy industries rotted on their sites within the old city, new employers located in rudimentary industrial parks around the periphery. This explosion of sprawl around the edges of the city during the 1920s and 30s was completed by private sector developments of small bungalows, sited, for marketing reasons, as far away from public housing as possible.
The 1950s and 60s extended the activist role of city government in urban development. The tenement was again mistakenly identified as the root of all urban evils, but this time the prescription for a new, modern city was based on more than decentralization. A three-pronged attack was launched on the city's urban environment, a program that was well-intentioned but with hindsight appears naive and needlessly destructive. First, wholesale slum clearance and city center redevelopment were comprehensively redeveloped, akin to American urban renewal projects, and all buildings within a defined area were demolished and a new urban pattern created, based, as elsewhere, on a modernist model of towers and slabs in open space.
Allied to this wholesale demolition was the second strategy - massive new urban highway program that tore the heart out of many central neighborhoods in the name of improved transportation. The third strategy for a modern Glasgow involved mitigating the city's peripheral expansion by the creation of four New Towns, East Kilbride (1947), Cumbernauld (1956), Livingston and Irvine (both 1962), separated from the city itself by a preserved green belt.
Glasgow City Council used the sweeping new powers of Comprehensive Development to pursue a vision of almost total rebuilding of the inner city in the 1950s and 1960s. While the center city was spared, vast areas of tenements to the east and south were replaced by a mix of low-rise terraces, medium-rise slabs, and high-rise towers. Tragically, this massive demolition and redevelopment of urban housing coincided with the final death throes of Glasgow's heavy industry, and this combination created huge areas of urban dereliction, many of which still existed at the end of the 20th century.
Ironically, the main catalyst of this urban renaissance at the end of the 20th century was the rediscovery of the city's architectural heritage; the same building stock and urban pattern that had been under severe attack for the previous 60 years. A conservation boom beginning in the 1970s reeducated the public and professionals about their city, switching emphasis from individual buildings to whole neighborhoods. Simply cleaning several decades of soot from the grimy facades of tenements and older commercial and civic buildings revealed an attractive and robust urban environment, fashioned by architecture of surprising sophistication. Several civic initiatives during the 1980s and 90s enhanced this process of rediscovery and reinvention. An exquisitely detailed new building, by Barry Gasson, to house the world-famous Burrell Art Collection, opened in 1983. Two years later, English urban designer Gordon Cullen produced a city center concept plan for the Scottish Development Agency that brilliantly revealed the huge potential in the urban core and adjacent riverside. This concept plan stimulated further proposals, for the city center and beyond, amongst which are exemplary new developments like Ingram Square (1989) by Elder and Cannon, and The Italian Center (1991) by Page and Park. In 1989, the city was awarded the Europa Nostra Medal of Honour for its conservation work in the city center, and the following year Glasgow was appointed as the European City of Culture.
At the same time, the city set about remedying its mistakes of the Comprehensive Development program. In the late 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, the city embarked on an extensive program of demolition of the medium and high-rise blocks of flats that had proved such a failure during their short, 30-year life. In the infamous Gorbals area, a new urban fabric was created (based on a 1990 master plan by the London firm of CZWG) that brought back to life the traditional Glasgow typologies of the tenement, the perimeter block, the street, and the grid. This initiative was followed in Page and Park's Gorbals East Renewal Project, and new buildings by Page and Park, Elder and Cannon, the Holmes Partnership, and Cooper Cromar have created a high standard of new urban architecture.
Despite these successes, the city's declining population and an excessive supply of brownfield sites of little interest to private developers have conspired to spread redevelopment too thinly in many areas, leading to the suburbanization of once urban districts. Additional problems also remain along the riverside. The major weakness of the 1985 Cullen plan was its failure to recognize the potential for the whole length of the River Clyde, as it dissects the city, to be the major form-giving spine for long-term urban regeneration. A major garden festival in the derelict docklands in 1988 tried with limited success to redirect investment to those dilapidated areas, but the recession of the early 1990s allowed only piecemeal development along this riparian corridor, such as Sir Norman Foster's Clyde Auditorium (1997).
Glasgow's process of civic reinvention is a work in progress. But despite the significant physical and social problems that remain, the reformist spirit and urban energy that characterize the past three centuries of Glasgow's history provide the city with a powerful source of energy as it prepares to meet the next round of urban challenges.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.