6 MAY 1978, Page 11

Urban rides

Christopher Booker

What is the single most remarkable thing Which has happened to these islands in the past twe.nty years? Arguably, it is the quite astonishing transformation which has taken place in vast areas of our major cities. Yet this change took place so suddenly and on so colossal a scale (largely between 1960 and 1975) that most of us have not yet really begun to assimilate it. Most people as they travel about the country to, say, Birmingham or Newcastle or Liverpool, simply avert their gaze from the post-Corbusian fantasy world of tower blocks, urban motorways, shopping precincts and multistorey car parks. Understandably they prefer to concentrate their attention on those agreeable corners and precincts of the old cities which remain, expressing pleasurable surprise at almost anything which has survived the concrete holocaust.

Last week I set out on a tour of Britain's major provincial cities, aucompanied by a BBC producer, Christopher Martin, with Precisely the opposite intention. Our purpose was to make a reconnaissance for a film on just what has happened to Britain's cities in these past two decades. Somewhat in the spirit of a pair of latter-day Cobbetts, we travelled from the Gorbals to the vast Hulme estate in Manchester, from Liver Pool 8 to the 'new city' of Milton Keynes, in active search of the very worst of the horrors.

As chance would have it, I had not actually visited most of these great cities since the 'fifties, when they were still lingering in the seedy decadence of their grim Victorian Splendour — great smoke-blackened civic buildings rising above cobbled, tram-lined streets, acres of back-to-back slums straggling over low hills to horizons of factory Chimneys or dockside cranes. My sense of 'future shock' was thus at its greatest. Here are some of the impressions which remain.


Perhaps the most haunting single image of What has happened to Britain's cities in the Past twenty years may be seen from a certain spot on the Provanm ill Road in the north-east of Glasgow. Looking back to the west, one sees rising from a bleak hilltop on the outskirts of the city what looks like one gigantic building, a cliff containing literally thousands of windows, a colossal concrete Prison. It is in fact a group of six towers, 32-storeys high, the tallest council estate in Europe when they were built ten years ago. Today, in their shadow, lies nothing but a wasteland. The nearest shops, half a mile away towards the Springhill Road, are boarded up, awaiting demolition. The inhabitants wander about like ghosts, as if

stunned into semi-insensibility by what has happened to them.

The Red Road flats of Balornock are a depressingly appropriate symbol of what has happened to the one-time 'second city of the British Empire' in the latter years of its long decline. Glasgow's two main claims to recent fame are that it has built the largest number of council tower blocks in Britain; and that it has probably the highest ratio of urban motorway to car ownership of any city in the world.

In the old days, the most characteristic architectural image of Glasgow was the densely-packed, four or five-storey sandstone tenement block. Today in Hutchesontown-Gorbals, south of the Clyde, the largest and most notorious of all such areas of tenements stands threequarters cleared: acres of no-longer existent streets and abandoned, half-demolished buildings, while over the skyline towers the 'new Gorbals' — notably the vast, concretebuttressed slabs of Sir Basil Spence's twenty-storey maisonettes, built at just the time when he was being given the Order of Merit for Coventry Cathedral.! shall always remember the television interview in which Spence was confronted by two of the housewives who have to live in this masterpiece. They were by no means wholly unappreciative, but they tried to explain that it was not entirely easy to live on the eighteenth floor, with no room to hang out the washing on balconies and so forth. Spence became more and more impatient and finally exploded that he was not going to have his work criticised by people who were not even architects.

Many of the distinguished British architects have contributed to the 'new Glasgow'. Near the Spence blocks stand a gaunt, discolouring cluster of towers designed by the late Robert Matthew, at about the time he was winning acclaim further south for New Zealand House in the Haymarket, London. He would probably have preferred to be remembered for his share in the Festival Hall. On the southern outskirts of the city the huge new Darnley estate, pushing out into the countryside, seems unending — but it is to have an end. People are so reluctant to live here miles from anywhere, and the estate is proving so long and so expensive to build (by council direct labour) that the new Glasgow District Council, the largest municipal landlord in Britain, has finally agreed to call a halt, and to blow up part of the Darnley Estate even before it is finished.

Nearer the centre, the eye is caught by the maze of urban motorways on stilts, often built deliberately through surviving areas of tenements on the grounds that they will soon have to be demolished anyway. Just off Sauchiehall Street stands the most famous monument to this achievement — a stretch of motorway fifty yards long, standing high above the street, and looking like the portico of some abandoned Doric temple, leading from nowhere to nowhere (or rather from one building to another).

Despite the almost unbelievable scale of this architectural and planning catastrophe, which has scarred outer Glasgow from Drumchapel in the west to Parkhead in the east, parts of the city centre, with its great Victorian commercial buildings, remain splendidly imposing in the old manner. The handsome terraces and crescents of Kelvinside still look down over the Botanical Gardens with a semblance of old urban graces. It is still a deeply impressive city for an Englishman to visit, strange, like an Irish city, in that it is obviously 'British', yet somehow unfamiliar, like having stepped into a looking-glass world. And for all the horrors they have been forced to live among, the people still strike a Southerner as remarkably warm and friendly.

Cumbernauld Half an hour out to the north-east, on a series of windswept hills, stands Cumbernauld, perhaps the most extraordinary of all Britain's 'new towns'. Mostly, it offers the familiar sight of grim little boxes, many without gardens, huddled together amid the fields in vast agglomerations —but the most striking thing of all about Cumbernauld is of course its famous 'town centre'. How many of the architects who acclaim this 'daring experiment', one wonders, have actually visited it —one huge building, straddling the road like a gigantic motorway service cum-restaurant complex. This mess of con crete, glass and wood was presumably designed to look from afar like the cosy, . organic sprawl of an Italian hill town; no bit of it seems to have much to do with any other, and lumps stick out in all directions as if it was put together by a child trying to combine all his Leggo, Meccano and Minib rix in one untidy heap. Inside, this attempt to create a 'town centre' and an internal 'high street' in one building is even more depressing — a warren of gloomy walkways, lined with tatty shops, concrete steps leading down to car parks, crying children, and an all-pervading smell of urine and chips.

Newcastle Out with relief into the hills of Southern Scotland. Lunch in Selkirk, a model of what a town can be, with its trim little eighteenth and nineteenth century market place, and cheerful people. On through a rainstorm across the amazingly wild border country (including a magnificent prospect towards the distant Cheviot), and down into Newcastle. For a city of which fifteen years ago T. Dan Smith was proclaiming that it was to become 'the Brazilia of the North', it is startling how much of Grainger and Dobson's great nineteenth-century city centre has been saved —including Gray Street, with its porticoed Theatre Royal, running steeply up the hill to the Gray Monument. The two most conspicuous changes in the centre are the inner ring road, and of course Eldon Square, perhaps the greatest single example of architectural vandalism in Britain since the war. Until ten years ago this most handsome piece of old Newcastle, with its blackened, post-classical frontages survived intact. Today only one side remains, the rest dominated by the astonishingly brutal shopping centre put up by Capital and Counties, turning its brick backside on the world in the most aggressive way, in order to lure Novocastrians into the softly-lit womb of the air-conditioned shopping malls within.

The two main changes in the remainder of Newcastle are best seen looking back from across the other side of the Tyne. On the left, the vast slum area of the Scotswood Road has been almost entirely razed, and replaced by acre on acre of tower blocks and grim little low-rise developments. Dominating the skyline to the right, however, are the brightly-coloured, blue and red triangular shapes of one of the strangest council estates in Britain, the much-acclaimed *Byker. Much bigger than one might guess from the colour supplement pictures, it seems to go on for ever: a great 'containing wall' of flats up to five or six storeys. But stretching up the hill inside this 'compound' are a series of little courtyards and low-rise houses which really do seem one of the few relatively successful municipal attempts to produce a human environment to live in: there are well-kept little gardens, front gates, interestingly landscaped areas of grass and trees, and a conspicuous absence of 'No Ball Games', 'No Bicycling', 'Keep Off The Grass'.

Leeds The most conspicuous architectural event in Leeds right now is the demolition of the Quarry Hill Flats. When it was built in the late 'thirties, this was the most ambitious housing estate in Britain —directly inspired by the Karl Marx Hof and other Socialist achievements in Vienna. Almost immediately it became a slum, and today the vast area it covered near the city centre is almost cleared, only half of the grey concrete crescent facing Eastgate remaining. Although those who knew the 'old Leeds' might disagree, the city is conspicuous for how much of it has survived compared with others. By preserving rather than demolishing, Leeds has less of a housing problem and lower housing costs than any other major city in the country. The centre, around the Headrow, has been turned into a successful and agreeable series of pedestrian precincts. The most conspicuous area of change is to the west, where John Poulson's notorious International Swimming Pool Complex broods over the wilderness created by the vast inner ring road scheme, which virtually brings the M62 right into the heart of the city.

This is the first of two articles.