Ecosse: Cry me a river
If you want romance or entertainment on the waterfront, forget Glasgow. But why have planners failed the Clyde? Karin Goodwin investigates
Monday morning in Glasgow. It is beginning to rain and the River Clyde is grey and sullen. Just a stone's throw away the city centre is bustling with shoppers and office workers, dodging puddles, pondering purchases, chatting on mobile phones. I am on the waterfront, which is all but deserted.
Looking out with me from the sixth-floor balcony of one of Glasgow's swish new waterfront buildings is Professor Andy McMillan, former head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture at Glasgow School of Art, and a Scottish parliament building judge. There is not much to see.
The flat overlooks a stretch of down-at-heel parkland. Two cyclists wobble along the narrow cycle track below, a lone jogger puffing after them. A group of teenagers, suspiciously near school age, huddle together for shelter. The river is devoid of activity.
No other city ignores its waterfront in the way Glasgow does. London's South Bank has been rejuvenated by the likes of the London Eye ferris wheel and new Saatchi gallery, in Paris the banks of the Seine now have an artificial beach every summer, and even the stag parties in Amsterdam take a wander along the canals. It would be a brave tourist who strolled along the Clyde and emerged unscathed.
Glasgow's city fathers hope that, with the redevelopment of the dilapidated Custom House Quay, that could change. Glossy brochures show the possibilities: Clyde Street busy and vibrant, the riverfront crammed and pleasure boats on the water.
But McMillan fears their dreams may fall horribly flat. He says that if the plans go ahead, all the city will get is a dreary mini suburb. The proposed buildings are, he says, "banal" and will block views of the river from the rest of the north bank. Set back from the main shopping streets, behind some rundown buildings, he claims Custom House Quay will feel more like an upmarket Brookside Close than a buzzing waterfront extension of the city centre.
He is not alone. Peter Wilson of the Manifesto Foundation at Napier University in Edinburgh says that the political will for excellence in architecture and planning is simply not there. "In Glasgow, and in Scotland generally, there is still the political mentality to accept what comes along," he says.
"We are not raising the game. We talk about creating world-class buildings but we don't go out there and see what that means. Glasgow's future could be aspiration. Instead we are caught up in the world of cosy golf club procurement of bland residential buildings."
IT USED to be so straightforward. Before Glasgow reinvented itself as what planners call "a leisure city", the Clyde was the heart of the city's industrial revolution, with well-furrowed shipping lanes and busy quays. In the 18th century it was the main business artery for the tobacco merchants. By the early 20th century, it was the shipbuilding capital of the world, building the Lusitania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and the QE2. It was a banging, clanking, working river, central to the city's economy and identity.
Then the shipbuilding industry drained away and Glasgow turned its back on the river that was once its lifeblood. Package holidays replaced the trips "doon the water" that had once been the highlight of the Glasgow fair fortnight.
In the 1980s, with the city's self-confidence at its lowest ebb, help arrived from an unlikely figure. The sunshine yellow face of Mr Happy beamed down from every billboard in town, telling citizens and any tourists brave enough to visit, "Glasgow's Miles Better".
Mr Happy was the public face of a regeneration plan that was the beginning of the Clyde's current renaissance. The 1988 Garden Festival, on its south bank, brought in much-needed investment. Next came an audacious, and successful, bid to become European City of Culture in 1990. The town centre became a building site, conserving the old, saving the damaged and putting up the new.
In 1999 the city was awarded a new title â€” UK City of Architecture â€” and the Lighthouse, the Royal Concert Hall and Buchanan Galleries mall transformed the once grim streets into a chic and polished shopping city. Leisure was the new industry as designer labels, smart cafes, style bars, clubs, cinemas and hotels replaced the shipyards and docks.
McMillan watched from his Merchant City penthouse flat. Despite the noise and disruption, he rejoiced to see the place being rebuilt. "The city was full of cranes and there were people working from early in the morning till late at night, seven days a week," he recalls. "They started to create a city centre that people wanted to live in, and others wanted to visit."
Now the bulldozers and cranes have reached the Clyde. The BBC and Scottish Television are set to move to Pacific Quay, on the south side of the river, and Lord Rogers is designing a new footbridge. The official line from the city chambers is that these are exciting times. Liz Cameron, Glasgow's lord provost, sees the return of the cranes to the banks of the Clyde as a sign that Glasgow has recovered at last.
"Losing the shipyards was a trauma we couldn't collectively contemplate. We turned our back on the river," she says. "This is a healing process, a message of such hope. When the river lives again, Glasgow will have completed a cycle of regeneration." If Cameron, her colleagues and the Scottish executive give plans for Custom House Quay the green light, the process will move to the centre of the city. The development is made up of six residential blocks, shopping arcades and a towering hotel designed by the in-demand architecture firm of RMJM. This, says McMillan, is the moment of truth. Custom House Quay will be the showpiece development and if the city fathers get it wrong, they will lose the opportunity to turn the Clyde into one of the city's liquid assets. And for him the current plans are based on short-sighted financial gain rather than a longer-term desire to reinstate the river at the heart of a 21st-century leisure city.
"At the moment it hangs in the balance. The buildings that are planned here are the ones which will make money. At first glance the plans look okay," he says. "At second glance you think, hold on, is this the best we can do for Glasgow? These are buildings with all the charm of 1960s Cumbernauld."
Its location, between the river and a rundown pocket of the town centre, would make the Custom House Quay development feel more like a suburban enclave than a charming waterfront extension of the city (McMillan calls it "hygienic living"). The flats and hotel would enjoy spectacular views of the river, but they would also obstruct the sight lines of other buildings.
Working architects are slower to criticise the developers that employ them, but even they voice reservations. "There are concerns with the current proposal," says Alan Dunlop, half of the Murray Dunlop partnership that designed the city's SAS Radisson hotel. "It is overdevelopment in my view and will cut off the properties in Clyde Street from the river."
Then there is the question of whether there is enough demand for fancy apartments, hotel rooms and bijoux commercial property to fill the place. A recent report shows that Glasgow, once short of hotel rooms, is reaching saturation point. Further up the river, in the newly developed commercial district, shiny office blocks stand half empty. No city wants its showpiece boulevard lined with glass and steel white elephants.
For the regeneration of the Clyde to work, says McMillan, the river and the city centre must be connected. The views must be shared among everyone, not blocked off for the exclusive enjoyment of the deep-pocketed few.
"We've got to ask ourselves what are we trying to achieve," he says. "We need a 21st-century role for the river. It used to be about industry, now it should be about leisure."
We shut the balcony door, glide downstairs in the lift and hit the streets in search of answers. As he walks, McMillan looks up at the new buildings around us. He points to the magnificent Edwardian houses on the south side, then to the financial quarter upstream. There is, he says approvingly, a sense of style and success about the buildings. And he really likes the grassy area out front, giving the office workers somewhere to go at lunchtime.
Turning away from the river, towards St Enoch Square, the atmosphere changes. We are not yet in the city centre and though gulls circle overhead, the presence of the river has evaporated.
"What we need here is a way of signposting the river," says McMillan. He favours a water feature stretching from the middle of the square south towards the river, continued after the road onto a pedestrianised section leading to the waterfront. "It doesn't need to be deep, but it can give the idea of water, give people a sense of place," he says.
In the centre of the square, where he fondly imagines his water feature, McMillan stops at the entrance to the Underground. The only signpost for the river is the one on the route map. We walk on past the ornate travel centre building. He stops by a green box about 10ft high and 6ft wide with its function printed on the side: air pollution monitoring system. McMillan points dramatically. "Who put that there?" he demands. "It looks as if one of those gulls just dropped that in the middle of the square.
"We're in a lovely square with beautiful carvings and then we have this, just plonked down. That's where our statue of Donald Dewar should be, somewhere that people can stop and feel pride."
In his Clyde-centred vision it would be the water square, drawing the eye down Buchanan Street and luring it gently towards the river. "We've got to make Glasgow flow like a river city again."
Crossing the square to Argyle Street, the city centre rush sets in. We walk up Buchanan Street, past one of the council's pet regeneration projects, the concert hall. On the right is Princess Square, which McMillan considers a good example of a public space. Taking a turn to the right, we pass the Gallery of Modern Art (Goma), converted from the former Stirling library. He approves of this considered recyling and even likes the cheeky traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington statue.
We hurry on towards George Square, which he finds badly in need of a revamp. The council agreed and started a public consultation last week. Through the now affluent Merchant City, McMillan points out penthouses nestled on Victorian roofs and restored facades held up by scaffolding, improvements still ongoing.
Yet crossing Argyle Street, back within spitting distance of the river, optimism fades. Taking a short cut through the narrow close of the Old Wynd, we look over the dingy expanse of car park that goes from the grimy Paddy's Market to the back of the St Enoch Centre. This unlovely parcel has, he says, been left behind in the rush to build up the waterfront.
"The new developments will render the river invisible to the majority of Glaswegians," he says. "Only those who paid through the nose for the privilege will be able to see it."
We walk past the forbidding back entrance of the St Enoch Centre, which has lost many of its customers to the upmarket precincts of Buchanan Street. "It's designed with its backside facing forward towards the river. People understand the urban code, they know a backside when they see one." McMillan raises his eyes to the heavens.
Turning another corner we face the river and the future of Scotland's largest city. "We need to think about the most visionary things we could do," says McMillan. "There could be a Parisian Isle de la CitÃ© here, we could have riverside clubs or why not have one in the middle. The water taxis that are being mooted could take people there. We just need to think past banal residential buildings and hotels."
McMillan's vision, of a Glasgow returning to its glory days as a river city, is shared by many others. Helen Rapport, a Stirling University academic, points out that the Clyde was originally a leisure destination, where people took paddle steamer trips for the sea air. "It used to be described in travel guides as Glasgow's left bank," she says.
And it could be again according to Stuart McDonald, director of the Lighthouse. Nobody, he says, could dispute the grimy city centre of the razor gang days has been transformed for the better. "We've achieved fabulous things but we have not been radical enough, not been ambitious enough or learnt enough from other cities," he says. "Now we have the chance â€” the chance to put back the Clyde as the spine of Glasgow."
The city's leaders are understandably defensive of their achievements. Charles Gordon, the council leader, says: "We want to take the approach we used with the city centre and put our energy into making the same success of a sustainable development on the river. Glasgow will be more of a river city than ever."
But McMillan is adamant that complacency is not an option. "We are at a crucial stage and we could blow it. So much of what we are doing is working. But we need to make sure we connect the river to the city. Only then will we keep Glasgow alive."
Our walk is over and the sun is beginning to come out. As the light catches the water of the Clyde, it sparkles for a second. A glimmer of hope? McMillan hopes so.
If someone reports me............. well a big boy made me do it mister.