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.
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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.