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The heroic failure of Cumbernauld The idealism of the New Towns became an ugly reality

A huge improvement on the Glasgow tenements.


March 28, 2022   6 mins

Cumbernauld is the kind of town you pass through but never stop at. In my youth, I glimpsed the strange concrete structure at its heart from the window of the Glasgow bus many times. But I had no idea that this typically grim example of Sixties brutalism was a building of cultural and historical significance.

Indeed I only found that out last week, when word got out that North Lanarkshire Council had agreed to purchase Cumbernauld’s town centre, but only in order to raze it to the ground. The responses adhered to a familiar script. Architectural historians, of course, were appalled; they argued that, as Britain’s first shopping centre and a radical experiment in building a town centre that went up instead of down, the eight storey “megastructure” was an important part of our cultural legacy. But there was no popular outrage at the news that the rotting eyesore in the centre of the town might soon be gone.

In fact, the destruction of The Centre Cumbernauld (to give it its proper name), which was erected on concrete stilts over a dual carriageway in 1967, has been a dream of many people for a long time. In 2005 it topped a poll of 10,000 people in the UK as the building in Britain that people most wanted to see demolished. Cumbernauld itself, like many of the 27 New Towns that were built in the UK after the war, does not have a great reputation. The comedian Craig Ferguson (who grew up there) once derided it as a “modernist experiment”, where “clueless” town planners had provided “soulless housing for ground-down workers”, before adding that the houses looked like “German machine gun turrets”. My cousins on the west coast of Scotland were pithier: they called it “Scumbernauld”.

Yet for a brief moment in the Sixties and Seventies, Cumbernauld represented an exciting vision of the future, in which a projected population of 70,000 workers and their families would move through the town via a network of pavements, underpasses and bridges. They would never have to cross a road, and never have to spend more than 20 minutes walking to reach the “brilliantly logical” town centre, which housed shops, a library, offices, apartments and even a few penthouses.

When Princess Margaret visited The Centre Cumbernauld in 1967, she pronounced it “fabulous”; that same year it won the Reynolds Memorial Award from the American Institute of Architects. My grandparents lived there in the last years of their lives and greatly preferred their Cumbernauld flat to the one they had lived in on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow; likewise my Aunt Janet, who lived there between 1972 and 1982, still remembers how novel it was to go shopping without being rained on.

Indeed, even if it had been pouring when I paid a visit last week, I would have remained dry: when I stepped off the bus, I was already inside the centre, confronted with its “brilliant logic”. Is it possible, I wondered, that the architectural historians are right: does Cumbernauld’s town centre deserve to be preserved for future generations? I followed a ramp (there were no stairs or lifts) to the first floor, where I entered the retail complex which had so impressed Princess Margaret 55 years earlier.

The years have not been kind to the place. Where once it featured well-known retailers, such as Halford’s, M & Co. and the supermarket chain Presto, now it is clearly the part of the complex where rents are cheapest (an additional shopping centre, the Antonine, was grafted onto the original building in 2007; that one was opened by Princess Anne); it is here that the eyebrow threaders, tattoo artists, “vintage” shops and suicide prevention centres set up shop. The interior had been remodelled so all traces of its late Sixties utopia-lite origins were gone: bizarrely, the enormous clock from St Enoch’s train station in Glasgow had been embedded in the wall of a mezzanine in the new section, where it kept the time at a permanent 8:20.

After about ten minutes, a security guard informed me that it is forbidden to take pictures in the centre, because it is private property. I moved to the next level, which contains the library and a children’s day-care. This section has not been remodelled; it is very close to the original: lots of brick and tile and concrete, the pipes and wires were exposed. The corridors had names, as if they were streets, but the doors granting entry to them were locked. A service lift was out of order; a weird bench was moulded into the concrete; the glass overhead was filthy. Through it, I could make out the windows of the penthouses, long since abandoned. At the far end, a roof garden for toddlers hung suspended in the air over the dual carriageway beneath.

The library itself was cheerful enough, but overall, I felt as though I had stumbled upon a vision of Logan’s Run as reimagined by Seventies British trade unionists, only the death squads that were supposed to kill you after you turned 30 had all gone, and everyone had long since taken the opportunity to run away, or simply grow older. It was pretty grim.

But if it was grim on the inside, then it was much worse from the outside. Glimpses of Cumbernauld’s town centre from the window of the bus over the years had not done justice to the scale of the architectural catastrophe. It reminded me of the vast Izhmash plant in Udmurtia, Russia, where they pump out AK 47s and other weapons. But Izhmash at least had a decorative historical entrance; with the general absence of windows and the abundance of pipes and wires in the town centre, everything looked like the back of something. The only feature the eye was drawn towards was the long rectangular section with porthole windows suspended on stilts that hung over the road. Locals call it “the alien’s head”.

From there I took a stroll over the bridges and through the underpasses of the town. Certainly it was convenient, though obviously the planners had not thought about the canvas that endless concrete represents to bored teenagers and the threatening atmosphere it can present at night. I was passing through a particularly luminous underpass when I was accosted by a man with a hammer and sickle tattoo on his arm. “They paint it and then it gets graffitied the next day,” he said.

When I asked him how long he had lived in the town, he replied: “Most of my life, on and off. Cumbernauld is a social experiment: it’s driven me doolally. Have you seen the centre? It’s full of people like that.”

Returning, I felt a sense of coercion: the ghostly hand of the planners had arranged everything so that I was more or less obliged to follow the same route through extremely functional housing. Obviously the working classes had no need of freedom, beauty, or variety: they could get by with a few trees. Behold, Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in”, in the Lanarkshire hills.

When I arrived in Cumbernauld, I was open to the idea that the town centre might be worth saving. Now, not so much. It was not the brutalism; having spent a lot of time in the former USSR I have developed a taste for brutalism when done right. In Central Asia, in particular, architects took eastern motifs and incorporated them into their concrete structures, giving a character to blocks of flats, universities and national libraries that is entirely lacking in Cumbernauld. Those structures are worth preserving, though the cheapness of the materials likely means that one day those buildings too will disappear. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the USSR embraced brutalism in the Seventies, after “communism” had withered to mean a fridge and a TV in every house, and an annual beach holiday. In the end, the ideology was not that dissimilar to the modest utopianism of Britain’s post-war town planners.

Cumbernauld’s town centre was pioneering, but it was also a failure. There is no disgrace in that failure, however: the first generation of occupants, like my grandparents, found these homes a huge improvement on the Glasgow tenements they had grown up in; indeed, New Towns across the country were an improvement on conditions in the slums they were designed to replace. Instead of a single room, kitchen and shared toilet, families now had extra bedrooms, bathrooms and a living room. Later generations did not have this point of comparison, however, and lived in the town once it was already decaying.

The problem with preserving architectural experiments is that they are not like novels lacking the letter “e” or repurposed urinals that live unobtrusively on bookshelves and in museums; they are infrastructure, and it is very hard to persuade people that they should pass their lives in crumbling buildings that they hate because of the interesting ideas that inspired them.

It would be nice, of course, if you could take all those decaying brutalist buildings from around Britain and move them to an open-air park where architectural historians could admire these daring visions, while others could reflect on the dangers of falling for ideas that look good on paper. But that isn’t going to happen: some of these buildings will be preserved, but most of them are going to disappear, just as most of everything has disappeared.

The truth is, we often judge New Towns too harshly: it takes centuries for a city to become interesting, and even then, many old places are also quite boring and squalid. And as it turns out, many New Towns were simply a step in a broader evolutionary process. Just as Milton Keynes has realised its destiny as a sleeper town for middle class people priced out of London and Oxford, so Cumbernauld is discovering its destiny. It was never to be a self-contained social unit built around an eight-storey mixed use retail, office and residential complex — but rather a bedroom community on the edge of the larger metropolis of Glasgow.

This faceless collection of houses and shops and retail parks, without any particular centre or identity, will ultimately surrender to a vast urban sprawl: that’s progress. In time, other New Towns will see that this too is their best option; or, if they are not located close enough to a major city, continue to crumble, until one day they vanish and are forgotten forever.


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

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Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

A friend of mine writes software for 3-D virtual reality for architects. A great deal of unhappiness can be avoided when the buyers can ‘walk around’ in the proposed structure before it gets built. I think it would be a very good idea to preserve some of these monstrosities as virtual buildings so that we can show them to architecture students with long lists of exactly what is wrong with them and why we hate them so much.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

Yes – but the model needs to reflect the brutal reality, not the wonderful ‘vision’ inside the architect’s mind!

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

I was talking with my friend about this, and he says that the way to go is not with the sort of software he writes, but with the new techniques in making photography work for the sort of ‘virtual tours’ you can now get to ‘visit’ places you have never been. In his words:

There are some modern techniques to digitally preserve a building or landscape before it gets torn down. I am thinking notably about photogrammetry: taking photos where the depth of each pixel is also recorded. Typically this is done in all directions from one or many positions. From the data, it is then possible to reconstruct and render a 3D image in VR. It is like a photo album inside which you can walk. There are many companies around that are ready to professionally shoot photogrammetric photos, and indeed by now I think that it would be a shame not to do that for any important place before tearing it down. (The VR app will likely not work any more in 5 or 10 years with future headsets, so keep the raw photogrammetric data too!)

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

The large laser scanners do this quite well. Likely a good use for this building. Fine lessons on what not to do. Now sorry I never got a chance to visit in person.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

The trouble with people is that they’re not worthy of the gifts that architects bestow upon them

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Spoken like a true architect

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Or like somebody whose attempt at irony has clearly backfired in some quarters

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D
Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

It’s difficult to convey irony in writing unless you have a whole pamphlet, like A Modest Proposal, in which to do it. I have been caught that way a few times now and have given it up.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Indeed

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I thought it was obviously ironic, but hey…..

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Like Rossville & Divis Flats for example.*

(* Londonderry & Belfast respectively.)

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Quite. The plebs are sooo ungrateful 🙂

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Reminds me of some software developers who are never required to use the production they build. “Of course this is easy to use”.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

I have lived all over Britain and have seen the following scenario repeat many times – it is very true where I live now.
There are two towns very close to each other. One has ‘always’ been Labour controlled. The council has been anti-business and seen shops as intruders. So, out-of-town malls have been encouraged and traders have moved out. Left behind is precisely nothing – just a shell.
10 miles away is a town which has never been Labour. Plenty of car parks in town and outside malls stopped. Result- a community which is a delight to visit.

Rob Wright
Rob Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Bury and Rochdale?

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Yes, and also Labour controlled councils like the idea of anything that Tories don’t like. The Labour councillors may not wish to live in tower blocks but if Tory voters don’t like them, then that’s a good reason to build them.
In the 1970s there was a plan to build a by-pass through the park at Chatsworth past Baslow.
No matter that it would blight the beautiful park where people have enjoyed walking for centuries – the opportunity to annoy the rich Devonshires was too tempting.
In the event the financial crisis in the mid 70s put paid to the idea and after the fuss about a similar by-pass through the park at Petworth, the Chatsworth plan fortunately never resurfaced.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dapple Grey
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

Not so fortunate Wentworth Woodhouse where the loathsome Manny Shinwell*authorised open cast coal mining up to the front door in the late 1940’s.

(* Labour Minister of Fuel & Power, 1945-47.)

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Yes indeed – and it’s a shame that he died before he could properly be taken to task for that.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

Shinwell lived to over 101. There was plenty of time but a total lack of political will. Sadly, it was ever thus.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

I’m not a socialist, but I
think you will find it was actually Conservative governments who encouraged high rise system-built council housing on the grounds that it was cheaper.

And of course, Tory authorities have never promoted destructive road building policies, have they?! Horace Cutler’s GLC promoted a series of motorways which would have devastated inner London, which was only stopped by it becoming a political issue at an election.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
David McMillan
David McMillan
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Wasn’t the outbreak of war a contributing factor as well? Imagine a motorway running around Zone 1.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I’m not convinced this party political analysis holds much weight. I’m sceptical that any council ‘sees shops as intruders’ – perhaps you could give more details as to how this manifests itself.

Free marketeers generally support out of town shopping centres, which are privately developed – and very popular! But of course they can often greatly weaken the nearby town centre retail offer. The question then arises as to what extent should people in effect be forced, perhaps through planning policy, to use the latter, even where they would rather use the former? By the way I don’t have a car, but I can see the attraction of shopping in a controlled environment with plentiful parking.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Good examples of the two- Conservative Selby North Yorkshire and Labour Pontefract West Yorks. The former has 2 hours free parking,small& large shops,plus some slightly out of town shopping sites.It is thriving. Pontefract kept putting up parking prices & very ready to fine motorists on any pretext but also a large independent shopping centre and also an entertainment complex nearby with free parking and a mix of restaurants. The result has been lots of shop closures in Pontefract. Previously it was a popular place to visit. Both towns have impressive historic buildings but council policies have been very different.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Nice article. I thought at first that the accompanying photo was a water colour painting.

How big had been the library? The library I imagine had been excellent and handy for the local residents.

I think the Mott The Hoople/Bowie glam rock anthem from the early Seventies, All The Young Dudes, has a line in it that goes, “Is that concrete all around, or is it in my head?”
I think that outfit was singing about those New Towns. And in the song, they are a head-wrecking experience. Doolally they make you indeed! The New Towns, you know.

It’s as if greenery is for the well-off, and concrete ferries for the poor. Fabulous indeed! Nobody need ever go back to the pre-fab times.
When, if I recall right, the Jenny Agutter and Michael or Simon York characters in Logan’s Run escape the futuristic tunnelled- and domed-out city, they enter a universe of greenery (and encounter the Peter Ustinov character). I imagine the under 30s of the New Towns had a similar feeling of relief when they hit the wilds somewhere a little further out. (Perhaps there is an eccentric Ustinov character with his digs and set-up inside the locked-up Cumbernauld library?).

Could Cumbernauld have been turned into a vast movie studio. Hollywood-on-Cumbernauld?

Chris Bond
Chris Bond
2 years ago

Architects, as part of their contracts, should be obliged to live in their monstrosities for a year or two. And then return for another year or two after 10 or 20 years.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Bond

Erno Goldfinger did live in Bafrons Tower in the East End which he had designed. And many architects live in their own designed houses

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
2 years ago

In one respect I say good – it’s a dump and has been since the early 70s when I lived in ‘the Nauld’ as a wean. The bus station underneath the town centre has stank of the accumulated p!ss of decades since at least then but, nonetheless, for me it does have a certain nostalgia value: I went to playschool (now robbed of joy and called ‘daycare’) in there, loved the old Scan book shop and, even after I left, associate it with visits to my lovely grandparents who lived nearby. Not nostalgic enough not to say: ‘blaw the f***er sky high!’ though.
My parents’ first flat was in Cumbernauld in the early 70s – a maisonette, mind you! Oh, ‘ye widnae ca’ the queen yer auntie in there’, as far as my mum was concerned (at first). It soon became apparent that my bedroom was riddled with damp – flat roofs – and I can vaguely recall having some pretty psychedelic dreams for a 3-4 year old. I remain convinced I was getting high off the spores coming off the walls. They tore those deathtraps down sometime between then and the early 80s I think.
There were attempts to ‘remarket’ the town for a new economic age. The most hilarious was, “There’s a place where the sun is rising over [insert short term initiative here]. What’s it called? CUMBERNAULD!”

Last edited 2 years ago by Derek Bryce
Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

In 1962 my mother brought me and my younger brother, then on holiday in Scotland, to see Cumbernauld, telling me that she was interested in the architecture and the social concepts it represented. That was quite heady stuff for an impressionable 12-year-old — but that was the way my mother was. Nevertheless, in some detail the visit is imprinted into my memory — though not for reasons the architects or my mother would have wished.
I well remember the greyness of the omni-present concrete in various surface textures; and I remember being struck by the way in which it was designed so that pedestrians never had to encounter a car. For someone brought up in a remote part of rural west Wales, it was utterly unlike anything I had encountered. But what lingers in the memory even more vividly was the arrival of a group of about a dozen boys, aged between 7 and 13 or so. One of the older boys proceeded to beat up another older boy, till the latter ran off.
However, it was not the beating that lingered in my mind. It was the way in which the younger boys then crowded round the victor, praising him and seeking his recognition. Even then, I realised that I had seen a prime specimen of the thug as hero.
I might have been wrong about the connection I made then, in which case I’m wrong about it now. The architects’ imaginations might have brimmed with Utopian ideals for the people who would live in Cumbernauld. But as my family group left, I sensed — instinctively rather than with understanding — a dispiriting correspondence between the brutal behaviour, and the physical environment in which it happened.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Adams
Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

This, I’m afraid to say, sounds like everyday playtime hijinks amongst working class kids in West central Scotland of the time and less town-specific than you might imagine. As a softy myself, I was frequently subject to it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Derek Bryce
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

Ditto. Not just new towns, in Scotland anyway. I used to get beaten up for passing exams by kids that had no hope in education.

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Aye! that too. Your story reminds me of the crowd chant by Harvard students at college football (American) games against far more athletically able teams with lower academic credentials:
That’s jus’ fine,
That’s OK,
You’ll be workin’ for us one day!

Last edited 2 years ago by Derek Bryce
Brenda Holliday
Brenda Holliday
2 years ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

My young English son was told by his peers when he went to school in Cumbernauld to “f—k off back to England”. When he responded in kind I was invited into the headmistress’ parlour and in front of her and another teacher brought to shame. I wonder if she is around and has ever reflected that there are two sides to every story. And whether those cowardly children who chose to give one side of a story now, as grown ups, think back to their behaviour. Not a good introduction to Scotland. But we stayed around and now have many good friends, both Scottish and English.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

True enough; there were never fights or violence in the Georgian and Victorian streets of Bethnal Green

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

Has it become associated in your memory with A Clockwork Orange? Another heady mix of modernism and mindless violence, in that case filmed at Thamesmead.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

“. . . brutalism, when done right”. Eeeep.
Masochist: Hit me.
Sadist: No.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

The author is too kind. It beggars belief that anyone can have thought in apparent seriousness that this sort of living space was actually acceptable. The only way you could maintain such an idea is if you believe that the people intended to inhabit such places are somehow less than human, or deserving of a harshness to their existence that the central planners themselves very obviously never intended to share.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

He said his relatives liked it.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

A lot of people liked it. It was much better than they had had previously, no stairs, easy access to shops, modern facilities, easy access to both public and private transport. It is the failure to maintain and improve that has made it unpleasant; and that is only too common in state owned and controlled housing. Put into the hands of a tenant controlled cooperative; give them the money to reinvest that should have been spent over the last 50 years, and watch it become loved

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Erno Goldfinger designed two great towers in east and west London, they went through what Cumbernauld is going through now. But the inhabitants and admirers worked hard to sort out the problems and get investment into them, and now that are very popular indeed

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

We desire Utopia – but wouldn’t want to live there.

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Do the architects who design these utopias live in them?

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

Never, I think.I often walk past the late Richard Roger’s beautiful Chelsea town-house.He created horrendous and malfunctioning monstrosities but chose to live in the salubrious shelter of classic 18th century architecture.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Have you looked inside it? It as steel framed and modernist as you can get in a classical shell!

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Yes, in a listed building too. There’s a story to be written about how he got away with it.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Very interesting article. As you say, most of everything disappears in the end; but it does not usually do so in the case of buildings when only 60 years old.
I have not been to Cumbernauld, and I should and maybe will, but I have been to many of these dreams of the 1950’s and 19060’s. A lot of whether they succeed or fail is not to do with the architecture, which well maintained is neither ugly nor hugely unpopular, but do with how it is looked after. Cumbernauld was a brave dream that has turned into a socialist slum. There is the problem, no sense of ownership, no budget to promote, repair and enhance. Look after such place, plant some greenery, give the inhabitants ownership and control; it will be good for another 100 years at least. In many ways, for all the reasons the original designers conceived, such places are the ideal way to live now
At the opposite end of the country is the Barbican, a similar scale, built in similar times; better design perhaps, but certainly unashamedly “Modern”. And adored by nearly all those who live and work there, who fight for its future and enhancement. Even there the local authority – the City of London – have tried to chip away at it, undermining the original vision, but the residents and supporters so far have mostly seen them off.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Precisely, and why the difference? As always class!
The affluent burghers of the Barbican are far better custodians than the feral footpads of Lothian. It was ever thus

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

The rich are obviously better placed to maintain property, albeit Barbican was built as council housing. But give any social group of people an interest in their homes through ownership and control, and they take care of them.

Alan Elgey
Alan Elgey
2 years ago

I went there in the early 70s on my way to somewhere hilly. I had never heard of it previously and I couldn’t believe how vile and dispiriting it was – and we were only there briefly didn’t have to live there. We took a different route home.
How good to hear it is going to be demolished; I hope those who live there are happier with the replacement environment.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago

I wasn’t convinced Daniel had set foot in Cumbernauld until later in his article. The town centre was not built above the M80, it’s a half mile or so south and the M80 didn’t exist in the 60’s. Why the blatant error?
I was brought up in East Kilbride, an earlier forerunner in new towns, 8 miles southeast of Glasgow and which didn’t suffer from the extreme box-like architecture as in Cumbernauld. The town centre there, built and further developed in patchwork fashion, has aged and is probably in the same state of affairs as Cumbernauld but it’s a common development in Scotland, even affecting Glasgow city centre and the self congratularly Style Mile which has lost a lot of its style and is no longer close to being the UK’s best shopping city outside of London.
East Kilbride was an OK place to grow up in, clean air and close to the countryside, with good schools and a positive outlook but largely lacking in character, heritage and social amenities, at least in the early years.
Tearing down the Cumbernauld centre is probably a good idea, but tearing down Glasgow’s best city centre shopping mall, the Buchanan Galleries, is currently being proposed by Scottish planners and mindless politicians. The only retail outlets left in Scotland will soon be the sterile and depressing retail parks open to the natural elements in which Scotland excels, ie. wind and rain.

Last edited 2 years ago by stephen archer
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  stephen archer

I always though East Kilbride was better designed than Cumbernauld.

I ended up moving to the new town of Milton Keynes, which despite the clever-clog middle class critics turned out to be a dream new town for me. I still miss it – parks running all the way through the city so you could commute by foot or bike; housing estates cut off from the fast main roads for pedestrian safety and quietness, with their own wee shopping centres and no rat runs.

Fantastically well designed new town that probably benefitted from learning from the mistakes of the previous new towns. I wonder what the writer would compare new town developments to in older towns; or is he some kind of fantasist that thinks everyone can live a bucolic life in the countryside.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

Always a pleasure to read Daniel Kalder(DK).
It’s worth noticing what he doesn’t write. DK is Unherd biggest specialist in Russia and Ukraine and he chooses not to write a single word about it, therefore confirming that he really knows a lot about Russia and Ukraine.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

Brilliant article.
Let’s hope it’s demolished before it’s listed. Maybe a section could be preserved and put on display like the Norfolk House music room in the V&A.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

We are always building rubbish like this, and then hopefully demolishing them.
Does any one now recall the terrible Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds or the equally dreadful Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle, London?
Now mercifully both are dust, but too many yet remain.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

Good article. Have visited Cumbernauld and a few other New Towns. Pull them down and start again.

T Doyle
T Doyle
2 years ago

As a person who lived in an award wining council estate I now have an innate hatred for socialism.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

I’m guessing that Princess Margaret described The Centre Cumbernauld as “fabulous” after lunch.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

Its replacement may be equally ugly and depressing – though I suppose it couldn’t be any worse.

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
2 years ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

The add on bit the author describes, the Antonine, is as cookie cutter as any other big-box contemporary shopping centre, but was at least designed to optimise the making of money. This is why you’ll see a Tesco Extra, Costa Coffee, TK Maxx and other national chains there but not in the town centre itself, where the purpose was social engineering not the engineering of profit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly Kensington High Street but is a marked improvement to the horrors next door.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago

Your generalised statements about new towns are somewhat harsh.
If you went to Letchworth you would not be so damning and those who live in Milton Keynes like living there.
Near me is Bar Hill – a ‘new’ village organised with open space at the centre and the housing are ranged via a circular road from which the residential roads are radial.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago

“My grandparents lived there in the last years of their lives and greatly preferred their Cumbernauld flat to the one they had lived in on Sauchihall Street in Glasgow.” This reminded me of the views of an elderly Singaporean I knew who looked forward eagerly to moving out of her ‘picturesque’ 1st floor shophouse dwelling in Chinatown into a modern flat in one of the Housing Development Board blocks. These blocks still look good and provide good amenities for their occupants. The difference between them and British horrors like
Cumbernauld is not just design: it’s also maintenance. Singapore looks after its built environment in a way we don’t in Britain. Their administration is so much more efficient and energetic.

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago

“My grandparents lived there in the last years of their lives and greatly preferred their Cumbernauld flat to the one they had lived in on Sauchihall Street in Glasgow.” This reminded me of the views of an elderly Singaporean I knew who looked forward eagerly to moving out of her ‘picturesque’ 1st floor shophouse dwelling in Chinatown into a modern flat in one of the Housing Development Board blocks. These blocks still look good and provide good amenities for their occupants. The difference between them and British horrors like
Cumbernauld is not just design: it’s also maintenance. Singapore looks after its built environment in a way we don’t in Britain. Their administration is so much more efficient and energetic.

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Tonkyn
John Deffenbaugh
John Deffenbaugh
2 years ago

Interesting article and thread of discussion. Let’s not quibble about the name of the road running through the town centre, but rather reflect on what was behind Cumbernauld. I lived in the south side of Glasgow in the late 1950s, and visited East Kilbride. In contrast to the tenement slums of Glasgow, EK was beautiful. So clean, orderly, modern. Who would not opt for that living? So it’s easy to criticise Cumbernauld town centre and New Towns in general, but they were the creatures of their time. Time has moved on and we now view them through a different prism. Yes, the town centre is a hodgepodge of a building, lacking coherency in the way it has evolved, and needs rebuilt. For instance, the St Enoch clock now has limited access on a dead-end corridor. And the sky offices are a carbuncle, but nonetheless represent a vision of their time. I would be in favour of levelling the shopping centre, but retaining some remnants of the original design, such as the sky offices – incorporate them into a new design. This could have been done in the new Gorbals by retaining Hutchesontown E and rebuilding around it – look what is happening to Park Hill in Sheffield. Out with the old and in with the new is often retrograde but, while we’re at it, why not rebuild the old St Enoch as they tear down its 1980s replacement? Urban vandalism continues, but wholesale replacement is not always the answer.

John Deffenbaugh
John Deffenbaugh
2 years ago

Interesting article and thread of discussion. Let’s not quibble about the name of the road running through the town centre, but rather reflect on what was behind Cumbernauld. I lived in the south side of Glasgow in the late 1950s, and visited East Kilbride. In contrast to the tenement slums of Glasgow, EK was beautiful. So clean, orderly, modern. Who would not opt for that living? So it’s easy to criticise Cumbernauld town centre and New Towns in general, but they were the creatures of their time. Time has moved on and we now view them through a different prism. Yes, the town centre is a hodgepodge of a building, lacking coherency in the way it has evolved, and needs rebuilt. For instance, the St Enoch clock now has limited access on a dead-end corridor. And the sky offices are a carbuncle, but nonetheless represent a vision of their time. I would be in favour of levelling the shopping centre, but retaining some remnants of the original design, such as the sky offices – incorporate them into a new design. This could have been done in the new Gorbals by retaining Hutchesontown E and rebuilding around it – look what is happening to Park Hill in Sheffield. Out with the old and in with the new is often retrograde but, while we’re at it, why not rebuild the old St Enoch as they tear down its 1980s replacement? Urban vandalism continues, but wholesale replacement is not always the answer.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I’d say this is too forgiving of the architects and planners involved. Jane Jacobs had long before written her critiques of planned cities and zoning. Living in a monstrous, impractical and inhiman building is one thing, an entire town quite another. Has any responsible architect passed the test of actually living in the places they design?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I’d say this is too forgiving of the architects and planners involved. Jane Jacobs had long before written her critiques of planned cities and zoning. Living in a monstrous, impractical and inhiman building is one thing, an entire town quite another. Has any responsible architect passed the test of actually living in the places they design?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Allan Clyne
Allan Clyne
2 years ago

Bill Forsyth’s now classic (classic at least to Scots of a certain age) Gregory’s Girl in Cumbernauld.
He said, “because the film was about adolescence and about being young and the pains of growing. I thought to myself, why don’t we set the film in an adolescent town? I remember saying to someone, “Even the trees in Cumbernauld are teenagers so everything fits.”

David McMillan
David McMillan
2 years ago

The author (or anyone interested in Brutalist architecture) might want to check out the old Council building in Croydon which has been very tastefully converted into modern flats. It has some incredible original art sculpted into the columns and walls. It feels like a real piece of history which has been functionally preserved.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

The only good thing about Cumbernauld is that its very name sounds rather like that of Prince William Augustus, Duke of CUMBERLAND, the conqueror of Scotland* by his resounding victory at Culloden in 1746. Rule Britannia!

(* Otherwise known by contemporaries as North Britain.)