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November 14, 2007

Don’t demolish Glasgow tenements

Award winning architect Malcolm Fraser has criticized the proposal to demolish several streets of traditional tenements to make way for Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games East End regeneration proposals. He says they’re too valuable to be flattened.

Malcolm Fraser

Jeremy Paxman may well have come over all emotional when he saw the east-end tenements where his forebears lived. But with a successful 2014 bid under our belt, and a vast east-end moonscape of dereliction available for our athletes-village “legacy”, it seems that we are not to let a few streets of – in the words of architects RMJM – “…really depressing looking” old tenements stand in the way of a clean sweep of their “…aspirational housing for young people” across this vast site.

Maybe I’m no longer a proper “young person” but I’d like to be able to choose between old and new. As a modern architect I fully-appreciate the virtues of new building, with its concentration on light and views, and interior space that opens out into gardens, all set within a neighbourhood planned to encourage sociability and community; and I have a high regard for the work of RMJM and their ability to achieve this.

But with the best will in the world we do not build, today, with the solidity, integrity and longevity that we took for granted in the past. All today’s construction will last only a fraction of the lifetime that these several hundred tenement flats, properly repaired, still have left, and I value the solidly-crafted red sandstone they are constructed from and their high ceilings and general craft and grace. And, to take-up RMJM’s vision, a community based only on these “young people” would be a yuppie monoculture, and would benefit from some venerable Glasgow “old folks” still being around – old buildings as well as old people – to achieve a balanced community.

The bigger question is why, after the catharsis of the latter half of the 20th century, we still think that there is some sort of virtue in a site scraped clean of its culture and history. Is there any great world city that has indulged in such lacerating self-harm, on such a massive scale, as Glasgow? While Edinburgh’s tenements are largely intact, loved and occupied, the buildings that replaced those torn down in Glasgow have often been torn down themselves, and I suspect that our retained and repaired old tenements will outlast these replacements’ replacements too.

It’s not all about architects wanting the big canvas though. Government policy is heavily-biased towards comprehensive redevelopment, which can be passed over to the Banks and big construction conglomerates that are their friends, rather than be carried-out as small repairs and redevelopments, by small builders, local authorities, and you and me. VAT on demolition and rebuild is zero, while on repairs and alterations it is 17.5%: a massive imbalance which all the Government’s wee exemptions and initiatives do little to alter. Such an obscenely un-level-playingfield is then “justified” with a bit of spin and official “doublespeak”, with “sustainable building initiatives” that start with solid old buildings cowped into a landfill site, “Regeneration” that involves wasteful destruction, and PR Consultants like the Games’ who smugly-observe of Paxman that “… it’s a good job he saw Ardenlea Street when he did because it’s a gonner”.

I doubt that there is a city, town or village in Scotland that does not have a good, solid old building sitting boarded-up – without the benefit of celebrity tears on the box to draw it to our attention – near to a wafer-thin new one, already looking tatty, because of such policies and such attitudes. So here’s my proposal for a Games “Legacy”: the red sandstone tenements of Glasgow’s Ardenlea, Sunnybank and Summerfield Streets and Springfield Road should be beautifully-repaired and set within RMJM’s aspirational modern housing, in a model of truly-sustainable, mixed Regeneration… oh and I’d also like, please, a fiscal regime that no longer penalises buildings for being old, and a Government that understands that “value” is not just a site cleared for business.