In 1965, accompanied by his formidable permanent secretary, Evelyn Sharp, Richard Crossman, the then housing minister, visited the emerging new town of Cumbernauld.
In his diary, the Cotswold-dwelling Labour left winger waxed ecstatic. Lanarkshire’s brave new model of ‘urbanity’, planned in the 1950s, he wrote, was a ‘tremendously austere, exhilarating, uncomfortable concept. The kind of thing which Dame Evelyn and I are excited about, in contrast to the cosy, garden-suburb atmosphere of Stevenage or Harlow or Basildon [about which] the Dame, of course, was contemptuous. She loves Cumbernauld’. This lofty pronouncement may be read as a footnote to the detailed appraisal of Cumbernauld in The Buildings of Scotland: Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire. It is a small but significant reminder of how inseparable from the stuff of human beings are the bricks, stone and glass piled up in these islands over the centuries. Cumbernauld, as much as Paisley Abbey or Bothwell Castle, helps make up the living archaeological record of the nation, in all its vaulting ambition, ingenuity, sublimity, idealism, flair, naivety, vanity, and self-delusion.
After more than forty years, The Buildings of Scotland series has realized its ambition to encapsulate the legacy of Scotland’s built environment and, in the current buzz phrase, its ‘sense of place’. Since the publication in 1978 of Lothian, written by the first series editor, the late Colin McWilliam, the volumes have arrived at irregular intervals averaging every two and a half years. In fifteen chunky, shiny black instalments, they have pored over all of Scotland’s notable buildings. Each volume, it’s claimed, contains the equivalent of six PhD’s worth of research.
Almost every non-residential building in Scotland, plus every (even mildly) interesting house, has been described, and placed in the context of national and international equivalents. The series has meticulously organized the chaos of accident and inspiration, from palaces to post offices to park drinking-fountains, into a lucid, accessible and impressively consistent scheme of reference. Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland asserted recently that Scotland ‘now has the best recorded architecture in the modern world’, partly because of this series, but also because of the RIAS’s own series of regional guides, and David Walker’s online Dictionary of Scottish Architects.
These in turn are part of a long and distinguished historiography stretching back more than two hundred years to the work of Robert Billings, a Londoner whose gorgeously illustrated Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (4 vols, 1845-52) was the first systematic record of Scotland’s crumbling heritage. Later came MacGibbon and Ross’s even more comprehensive The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (5 vols, 1887-92) and The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland from the Earliest Times to the 17th Century (3 vols, 1896-97). These pioneers were architects, scholars and internationalists, and fervent conservationists, who worked tirelessly to save our relics from the Victorian wrecking ball. Like all of Scotland’s great architects – the Adams family, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, Robert Rowand Anderson, Rennie Mackintosh et al – they were steeped in the European context from which our proudly distinct ‘national style’ derived. Their focus, needless to add, was on the haunts of prelates and noblemen, not in the quotidian or anything ‘of the people’.
Which brings us back to the rigorously democratic ethos of The Buildings of Scotland, and to Cumbernauld. Although not much visited these days by VIPs, Cumbernauld is described here as being ‘of special significance… the only place in this volume that was recognized, at the time of its construction, as of international architectural standing’. This advocacy of one of Scotland’s least-loved places shows The Buildings of Scotland at its best, 31 fact-packed pages complete with maps, plans and a building-by-building guide. As with all of the hundreds of thousands of individual entries in the series, it gives the intentions of the place, and its original architects their due, with a light dusting of subjective aesthetic appraisal, occasionally amounting to good and bad marks for effort and achievement.
Where Cumbernauld is concerned, in place of the usual ‘carbuncle’ sneers, messrs Close, Gifford and Walker prefer analysis and sober assessment. They carefully consider the ‘prima donna cosmopolitanism’ of the town centre, and the surrounding oval of houses, roads and walkways ‘knitted together into a strong sense of genius loci by robust landscaping’. So far so dispassionate. But given that the entire architecture and planning scheme was predicated on social transformation, even a book such as this must address the fact that society has remained untransformed. For unlike its predecessor, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld has not flourished. Indeed, the authorial triumvirate believe its downward slide can be traced to 1981 and the filming of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, which showed the town ‘in an optimal state of lush maturity’.
It went ‘subtly off the boil’ soon afterwards when the ‘New Town ethos of aspirational mobility gradually began to work against Cumbernauld’s social cohesion’. Being ‘uncomfortable’ may have excited intellectuals like Crossman and Sharp (and architects — Cumbernauld won a number of major international awards) but it did not appeal to the people who had to live there. They didn’t take to its militantly Spartan aesthetic of now-abandoned tower blocks scattered amid small-windowed terraced housing that was apparently ‘in keeping with Scottish tradition’. Without the kind of housing and neighbourhoods that people like to wake up in each morning, even the ample green space and the child-friendly separation of roads and pedestrian areas did not make the New Town attractive. So they moved on, ‘leaving behind an ageing residue’.
Bothwell Castle: ‘Amongst the greatest of all Scottish castles.’
Appraisals of this scale are of course the exception. Mostly the microscope is applied to individual buildings and landscaped settings, of which Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire possess an embarrassment. Even a list of highlights must be brutally selective. There is William Adam’s Chatelherault, Bothwell Castle (‘amongst the greatest of all Scottish castles’), Newark Castle, Paisley Abbey, Wemyss Bay Railway Station, Ian Hamilton’s Finlay’s Little Sparta (‘a Poet’s Garden, in the tradition of Pope’), the art deco India of Inchinnan tyre factory, the miners’ rows of Coatbridge, Craignethan Castle (‘Tillietudlem’ in Scott’s Old Mortality), Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Windyhill at Kilmacolm, Alexander Thomson’s Holmwood, the Dollan Aqua Centre in East Kilbride, Cummins Diesel Engine Works at Shotts, the Hamilton Mausoleum, the Coats Memorial Church and Oakshaw Trinity Church in Paisley, Greenock’s outrageous Municipal Buildings – at one time ‘the grandest municipal building’ in the land – and its now abandoned St George’s North Church.
What is it that stimulates the long entries that denote ‘importance’? It is worth noting that New Lanark merits just six pages, which in turn is about a third of the space allotted to the volume’s star medieval pile, Paisley Abbey. Although the mill town may be ‘the largest and best-preserved example in Scotland of a Georgian industrial complex’, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it appears there is not a huge amount of purely architectural interest to linger over. What is being assessed is not historical or cultural resonance, but architecture, design and town planning. It takes iron editorial discipline to maintain this distinction so consistently.
The book is haunted by ghosts. It contains perhaps the longest list in the whole series of buildings that have long since been demolished or have fallen into ruin, as industries and the fortunes attached to them have come and gone. Many have left no trace, such as Milton Lockhart House near Larkhall, which was transported stone-by-stone to Japan where it is used as the World Santa Museum in Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo. The biggest loss is Hamilton Palace which was at least as vast, classically grand and stuffed with Old Masters as Chatsworth. Designed, built and rebuilt by illustrious hands, including Sir Christopher Wren, between the 1690s and 1840s, it was torn down in 1927, the most grievous blow to Scots heritage since Glasgow University’s renaissance old college made way fifty years previously for a railway marshalling yard. How different the tourism map of Lanarkshire and of Scotland would have looked had this temple of Scots plutocracy not been literally undermined by the Duke of Hamilton’s own coal works.
Thus it is that the way we neglect our past, as well as the way we preserve it and repurpose it, betrays who we are as a nation. The evidence of The Buildings of Scotland series is that, in place of a vague sense of moral superiority, our ‘cultural conceit’ in Tom Devine’s phrase, we could find a more solid basis on the extraordinary built heritage which graces the landscape, and which in turn feeds into our disproportionate strength and confidence in contemporary architecture. We can all point to contemporary carbuncles. But as the RIAS’s 2016 Year of Architecture has shown, Scotland has a wealth of world-class architectural practitioners eager to learn from the past and build brilliantly for the future.