Michael Kordas, RTPI West of Scotland Chapter Vice Convenor, PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant at University of Glasgow, and Guest Lecturer at Glasgow School of Art, shares his thoughts on a recent Chapter Event held in Glasgow.
A Failed Utopia?
2017 marked the fifty-year anniversary of the completion of the first phases of Cumbernauld New Town, with its Town Centre opened in 1967. Our latest CPD Event hosted by the RTPI West of Scotland Chapter discussed how, in its relatively short history, Cumbernauld has been popularly “celebrated, neglected, and then reviled”. Behind this story however, lies another, more optimistic vision of the town, from which many residents have gone on to become well known planners and architects. Many of the critics of the new towns and the other postwar reconstruction and overspill projects, view them as “failed utopias”: attempts to provide a radically reordered urban environment which fell flat in the face of shifting political priorities, economic conditions and social norms.
Plan and Reality
At first glance, Cumbernauld’s story is no different from this mould. The Town came out of the blocks to international acclaim when in 1967, the American Institute of Architects declared that the “dreams of the 1920’s and 30’s are being built on a hill near Glasgow” in presenting their Community Architecture Award. In this, the Institute was surely casting a glance to the radical work of figures such as Le Corbusier and his “Ville Contemporaine” from 1922: a grand edifice of motorways, monumental tower blocks and manufactured parkland. Accordingly, Cumbernauld’s form was characterised by complete separation of vehicles and pedestrians on site, most (in) famously achieved via the town centre “megastructure” raised above the central roadway. The housing areas were also punctuated by both point and slab blocks underpinned by a centralised landscape strategy. Unfortunately, these visions were let down by reality: only around a quarter of the originally planned town centre was completed as the construction challenges and capital requirements of such an avant-garde building set in. The original unity of conception within the town’s housing areas was also eroded as recession and then deregulation set in, making it that much harder to maintain these carefully planned environs. These challenges reflected the dubious distinction of ‘Plook on the Plinth’ being placed upon the town in 2001 and 2005, judges particularly scathing about the town centre as a “rabbit warren on stilts”.
The New Town into the Future
Despite the unhappy side of the Town’s history, our event which attracted a healthy mix of built environment professionals and local community members, highlighted a number of alternative views of Cumbernauld.
Despite the radical planning and architecture which shaped the Town’s development, the historical research presented by speaker Diane Waters of Historic Environment Scotland and myself, also highlights a counter current in the thinking of the Cumbernauld Development Corporation (CDC). In this light, the archive indicates that the vehicle pedestrian separation was not an attempt at establishing some kind of ‘auto-topia’ but at mediating the needs of pedestrians and other street users, particularly children with the growing mass car ownership of the time. Similar ideas of balance were present in the CDC’s approach to integrating old buildings on the site into the new town design, as well as attempting to re-establish natural woodland for new residents to enjoy.
The open discussion panel highlighted how the town, in its central location with good access to green spaces, remains a desirable place to live, particularly for families as was the original design intention. Like many other towns in Scotland, Cumbernauld has attracted a diversity of new residents from around the world who continue its’ story. While the town centre remains a challenge, a number of regeneration approaches continue to be explored. Meanwhile, the building holds a particular fascination for urbanists, with Bauhaus Dessau visiting the town in 2009 and my own students at the Glasgow School of Art generating a number of ideas for reviving the area at a session earlier this year.
All of this points to the fact that the new towns cannot be reduced to ‘failed utopias’ past tense: they remain with us as evolving places, continuing to provide housing, jobs, recreation and the life stories that come with these things. This is not to be evangelical about Cumbernauld or any other new town, just to respect the original visions, the challenges to these visions and the need to keep debate on them alive. This debate is all the more relevant considering the recent suggestion from some quarters of Parliament, that Scotland should build new towns again.