Architecture: From the sublime to the derelict

Glasgow may be City of Architecture & Design 1999, but Seventies slums still blight the city. Can a visionary `green' housing project help change that?
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The Independent Culture
Things have moved on in Glasgow since the dustmen's strike of 1973 provided a blistering backdrop for Ratcatcher, this year's Cannes Film Festival winner. In the film, black bin liners litter the streets that run with rats. Chimneys belch smoke. Canals are choked with rubbish. Even white gloss walls in the infamous tenement blocks are grey as the camera probes into the life and hopes of a family growing up in Glasgow 25 years ago. Grimmest of all is the news that it was filmed on location in Glasgow in the 1990s.

The great hope running through this tale of lost innocence is the longed- for move to a new council house in the suburbs. It never comes. When the 12-year-old star of Ratcatcher, William Eadie, breaks into an empty house on a countryside estate, he runs his hand along its white walls. The camera lingers sensuously on golden corn stubble framed in the windows, the en suite bath, the spotless lavatory pan, the melamine kitchen.

That was then. Now, the last thing Glasgow City Council wants to do is cement over cornfields. It already has a pounds 950m housing debt, and the slums are still standing - even if they are boarded up and marked for demolition. The only set the film crew built for Ratcatcher was a rubbish-strewn canal. The real one on location was too polluted even for stunt men. But there are signs that things are changing.

Glasgow is City of Architecture & Design 1999. One of its most important legacies has been a housing cluster that aims to be a model for urban housing in Britain. Glasgow Green, formerly a red light district in the forlorn East End, has been transformed by the construction of 100 apartments designed by seven international architects. Homes for the Future, as the project is known, is 95 per cent occupied since it opened three months ago.

As a pounds 10m investment from the public and private sector, it will not solve council housing problems, but its mix of private and public sector housing built in partnership between private developers, architects and the public sector, on land given by the council, is ground-breaking. So is the ambitious architecture which somehow resolves the area's differences on site. Rooftop gardens tumble in tiered ship decks along the curvaceous opaque glass blocks of a five-storey tower keep by Ushida Findlay. Next door is McKeown Alexander's punctuation mark of a four-storey tower. Platform seating and eating built into apartments is designed to save space.

In Ian Ritchie's rented apartments for the housing association, birch trees tap on outdoor glazed rooms attached to each flat where tenants sit out, or hang washing. A sky deck block in a seven-storey apartment by Rick Mather with Elder & Cannon boldly defines the southern edge of the site and pulls the scheme together along the southern facade facing the Green. Architectural consultant Neil Baxter lives in one of the flats, so he has a certain affection for the development, which he describes as a "good template for further development involving the public in architectural urban decision making". But he thinks that the pounds 38m spent on Glasgow City of Architecture & Design 1999 hasn't achieved its goal of broadening the appreciation of architecture among the public. Around 800,000 people over the year have visited the exhibitions to mark Glasgow City of Architecture. "Kelvingrove Art Gallery receives one million visitors a year, which demonstrates a real level of interest and engagement in the west of Scotland. When running a year of events costing a significant amount of money, why did we not have that many visitors four times over? Did they achieve any change in appreciation and understanding of architecture?" asks Neil Baxter.

It's impossible to answer that one and Deyan Sudjic, the director, doesn't even try. He points out that the Lighthouse, a new glazed foyer with gallery space inside a Charles Rennie Mackintosh warehouse, had more visitors in three months than the Design Museum in London had in a year. "We have shown house builders that ambitions have changed," says Sudjic. "You don't have to build archetypal suburban houses on the layout of Brookside Close."

"You'll see lots of `Mockintosh' in Glasgow," says Pat Lally. The former Lord Provost, who promoted Glasgow as the City of Architecture & Design 1999, points out the grid of vertical windows, and lozenges embedded in pebble dash on some of the modern council houses that replaced the tenement blocks. Touring one of five "millennium spaces" in between some of Glasgow's tenement blocks takes time because everyone in Glasgow recognises Pat Lally and wants to talk. They are pleased to see him and they want him to know what's wrong with the millennium squares.

Dot Bowie from the Hawthorne Court play group committee wants to inform him that the Possil millennium space is better for teens than toddlers. The sand pit gets flooded. There are not enough litter bins. "Glasgow is litter city," she says. The forlorn wasteland has turned into a popular meeting point for young people, particularly skateboarders, all the more remarkable for the threatening signs of urban dereliction encircling it. At the local store, a shopkeeper serves sweets and alcohol from behind iron gates bolted from counter top to ceiling. A drunk is jammed in the doorway.

Scenes like these catapult us straight back into Ratcatcher. Pat Lally appears in the film, playing himself, with a mayoral chain handing out awards. Born and raised in a tenement block in Gorbals, Pat Lally recalls that 70 years ago each storey had four houses sharing a single toilet on the landing. As council leader in charge of housing in the 1970s, he sought to bring 186,000 council houses under tenant management based on the Scandinavian co-operatives. Some of his co-operatives are still going. He also lowered the height of housing blocks and halted construction on decked blocks which he thought looked like Fort Knox.

It was largely Pat Lally's vision for Glasgow as European City of Culture in 1990 that triggered civic pride in the city as well as a fantastic programme of urban regeneration. It got worldwide recognition. The Bolshoi Ballet, Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra performed there. The Gallery of Modern Art opened in the old corn halls; Peter Brook staged the Mahabarata in the Tramway; hotels opened and the Council decided to build the biggest convention centre in Europe. The Armadillo, as Norman Foster's building is known, holds 3,000.

As leader of the council in 1994 when Glasgow pitched against Liverpool and Edinburgh to be City of Architecture & Design, Pat Lally edited the document bid. He wanted to give the people a voice in the development of a new Glasgow. The idea of Arts Council-sponsored events throughout the 1990s was not "to hold a beauty contest between cities, it was to involve the whole community in architecture for the future", Lally says. That is his major gripe about Glasgow City of Architecture & Design 1999. "We haven't met that promise."

In Glasgow, 90,000 council house owners still live in unheated, damp houses. Yet the council's housing debt means that it will not be modernising any more of its 180,000 properties for at least 30 years. Regulations by the Treasury put the brakes on public sector borrowing. Glasgow City Council wants to privatise council housing, handing over half the existing stock to new "not for profit" housing associations managed by banks and building societies in association with tenants.

In exchange for repairing council housing and holding rents at no more than inflation, these banks or building societies will be guaranteed an income in rent from the Treasury. Tenants will be asked to vote next November on whether they want their streets in the city of Glasgow to be paved with gold after all.

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