Architecture: A new sphere of influence

Glasgow hopes that becoming the City of Architecture and Design will bring it world status.
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The Independent Culture
Winds gusting up to 90mph in the new year toppled a 200-year-old stone church steeple in the centre of Glasgow, along with road signs, scaffolding and trees. Gale-torn Glasgow, its skyline punctuated by cranes, cordoned off by the council for an ambitious pounds 25m programme to pedestrianise the centre, is not looking its best as it prepares to launch itself as the UK's first - and last - city of architecture and design.

But from 8pm tomorrow Glaswegians will see their city in a new light, as 999 coloured lights around the city illuminate its historic buildings. Down at the Armadillo - as Norman Foster's convention centre is known by the locals - the launch party begins as Glasgow 1999 unveils a year- round programme of arts and architecture. It aims to take the design of buildings and products off their pedestals and popularise them.

Like Cinderella, Glasgow is shaking off its downtrodden image and becoming glamorous. Take the pumpkins inside the MacLellan Galleries at an exhibition called Winning: the Design of Sports. These spheres with their gaping grins and peepholes are by Ron Arad, professor of industrial design and furniture at the Royal College of Art, and replace old-fashioned showcases. "They're his way of saying `balls' to the whole idea of conventional display," says Geoff Crowther, his project director.

The balls, moulded in glass fibre, are also a witty way of showing off sports memorabilia and cutting-edge technology in sports equipment collected by the curator, Sue Andrew, who says "sports is the new rock'n' roll, even if you don't play any."

Tennis has come a long way from Fred Perry's little plimsolls and catgut- strung wooden tennis rackets, to titanium tennis rackets that are banned from competitive matches but are used by tenement tennis-players to bat balls across city blocks between the fire escape stairs - as shown on MTV. Early skis like planks of wood evolve into carbon-fibre blades; clumsy golf irons mutate into Big Bertha titanium clubs.

Protective clothing in one of the galleries, which makes even dispatch riders look like Darth Vader from Star Wars, may appear a bit nanny-ish until you remember that the two survivors of the avalanche on Aonach Mr in Scotland which killed four, were saved by the gear they wore. Chris Bonington helped to select the climbing gear in a room entitled "You're on Your Own", which features an extraordinary one-person collapsible ledge that hangs over a cliff face as a sleeping platform, dispensing with the need to pitch a tent on a craggy slope.

Formula One racers screech to a halt inside the galleries, including the racy red Maserati in which Jacky Stewart won his last Grand Prix, alongside the amazing racing bike made by Graeme Obree from washing-machine parts, and a recliner bike with wing-like handlebars that looks like a design by Ronald Searle for a flying machine

An exhibition of footwear shows Bobby Charlton's "Brasilia" football boots, as well as Ronaldo's own design for Nike and the gold boots with which Michael Johnson triumphed at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

A few myths are dispelled. Cricketers who insist that the white ball is harder than the red are wrong - they are exactly the same hardness, but the white ball will be used for 1999 World Cup because it can be picked up more easily by TV cameras. Sport is big business, as this exhibition reminds us. Whether you play lacrosse, croquet, baseball, shinty (Scots hockey), or snowboard, or take the Cresta run on the equivalent of a carbon- fibre tea-tray, you will find something interesting to discover.

Even couch potatoes will be entertained by sporting ads beamed up in the darkened rooms. Ron Arad put black bin-liners over the gallery skylights to keep the place mysteriously dimmed, with just a spotlight on each of the 18 spheres to illuminate their contents.

Winning: the design of sports is a great title to kick off the year-long celebrations. "Winning" reminds us that Glasgow beat the short-listed favourites, Liverpool and Edinburgh, in a gladiatorial contest three years ago when things looked a lot more optimistic for architecture, with the Arts Council funding art and architecture programmes.

But now they have lost the architecture brief to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, whose minister, Chris Smith, should head for Glasgow. There are lessons to be learnt from the city's single-minded pursuit of world status as city of architecture and design.

The director of Glasgow 1999, Dejan Sudjic, has attracted an international team of stars to perform over the coming year, but already people are asking, "what's its legacy?" Sudjic points to the restoration of the old Glasgow Herald building by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, called the Lighthouse, which opens in June with an exhibition on Glasgow's finest architect, Alexander Thomson. This centre is precisely what the Department of Culture, Media and Sport keeps talking about setting up in the regions, so far with spectacular lack of initiative. And 100 houses designed by architects and built by property developers will open on site this summer, as part of a brown-field housing programme for 250 homes in the inner city. Sudjic points out that this beats hollow the Millennium Village outside the Dome at Greenwich peninsula, which disappointingly offers only 80 homes due to open by 2000.

Glasgow was given pounds 45m for this year-long event to make the public more aware of the design of buildings and products. Dejan Sudjic hopes 600,000 visitors will go through the doors of Glasgow 1999, which detractors say is too optimistic, given that the Design Museum in London struggles to get 150,000 annually. However, the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley Tourist Boards, which are used to the realities of visitor attendance (about 2 million visitors a year, 1.7 million from the UK) think it is realistic. They are banking on annual tourist spending of pounds 650m in the city, increasing by pounds 30m a year.

"Glasgow 1999 widens the international appeal" says Nancy McLardie, head of PR for the Greater Glasgow tourist board, which has spent the past two years pitching for business in the US, Scandinavia and continental Europe and has been rewarded by 20 architectural and design conventions booking space in Glasgow; more are expected once the Lighthouse design centre opens in June. Convention bookings earned Glasgow about pounds 89m last year.

After the gales, it looks as though Glasgow's winds of fortune are set to change, with the most imaginative programme ever planned around architecture and design.

For Tourist Board Information call the Glasgow Information Centre on 0141-204 4400, or e-mail tourism glasgow@ggcvtb.org.uk

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