Architecture: Why I'm glad to be in Glasgow

The event's director, Dejan Sudjic, says he has the best design job in Britain
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The Independent Culture
DESIGN FIGURES on the political agenda for both economic and cultural issues; precisely which depends on the national context.

In Anglo-Saxon countries governments can be persuaded to invest in design because of what they can be persuaded to see as its economic benefits. Even Mrs Thatcher was bitten by the design bug, seeing it as a way to head off Japanese imports.

Now Tony Blair is busy redesigning Britain, again for what are presented as sound economic reasons, but which in fact involve much more complex motivation. The controversial - and expensive - dome in Greenwich is intended to reflect well on Blairism, but it is more likely to be the other way around. A successful Blair will mean a successful dome.

At my interview to become director of Glasgow UK City of Architecture and Design 1999 three years ago, I said that it was the best job that anybody passionate about architecture and design could possibly have hoped for, since at least the Festival of Britain. Nothing that has since happened has proved me wrong.

Glasgow, as UK city of architecture and design, tries to deal with both aspects of design at the same time. It is about economics and it is about culture. A year of events and exhibitions explores the way in which design and architecture can engage with everyday life, from sport to food. Why did Glasgow want to do this? Primarily to reshape the world's impression of it. One of the first cities to experience the booming growth of the industrial revolution, it was also among the first to have to explore the realities of a post-industrial future. In 1900 Glasgow built almost half of the world's ships. It was at the cutting edge of technological innovation as well as of architecture and design.

The ambitions for the year are complex, as are its origins. As chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Palumbo pronounced that every year of the Nineties, one British city would stage a year-long festival dedicated to a particular area of the arts. The brief was to make the subject more accessible to a wider audience. Some have been more successful than others. The year of opera, 1998, staged not in a city but in the county of Suffolk, was somewhat handicapped by the fact that there is no opera house in Suffolk. Tyneside did better two years ago as Year of Visual Arts, with Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North.

Architecture and design is the last in the series. Perhaps surprisingly, it has attracted the most interest, with 25 cities competing. The Arts Council contribution in each case is a modest pounds 400,000. The rest of the money, if any, is the responsibility of the host city. In Glasgow's case the total budget is pounds 45m, of which pounds 6m came from Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Development Agency. The rest has been found from European money, lottery funding, private sector sponsorship and commercial investment.

The year involves constructing a demonstration housing area on Glasgow Green, the old heart of the city, which will be the catalyst for redeveloping the area. Glasgow Green is where the city started. The wealthy built mansions here in the 18th century and swiftly abandoned them. The plan allows for the construction of a genuine slice of city, not a suburb in the city centre, and will look at how you build in the city and how the general standard of new housing can be transformed. It is a pointer for the research the government is currently engaged upon, aimed at accommodating the millions of new homes Britain needs on brown-field sites rather than the green belt.

We didn't have the money to build the houses, so we advertised for developers who would be ready to work with the architects we nominated. The homes are now up to seventh-floor level and, when they went on sale at between pounds 55,000 and pounds 135,000, people spent the night queuing for them.

By the summer of 1999 more than 100 apartments will have been completed, involving Scottish architects as well as Ushida Findlay's Tokyo practice and London's Rick Mather and Ian Ritchie.

Half a dozen public spaces are the product of a collaboration between architects, designers, artists and the community. A fund has been established to allow grassroots initiatives to be realised, everything from exhibitions of Sikh banners to flood-lighting water towers. The Glasgow Collection of design prototypes encourages Glasgow-based manufacturers to use design to expand their product ranges, and Glasgow designers to use the purchasing power of city institutions. A new museum of design, the Lighthouse, will open this summer in what was Charles Rennie Mackintosh's first public building, the offices of the Glasgow Herald.

What makes the project so exciting is the opportunity that working with an entire city brings to deploy the widest possible range of talents. We at Glasgow 1999 have realised a project that will have longevity in its impact. What do I hope people will say at the end of the year-long event? Simply, "It worked."

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