A photo essay on East Kilbride, the first of the 2010 Carbuncles nominations – and why it wheeled our expectations around.  Words and photos by Mark Chalmers.

This year, as in previous years, I was invited to get involved with the Carbuncles.  However, I usually demurred, because I was either busy in work, or felt uneasy about the tone of the judging, which was often perceived as picking a New Town then poking it with a sharpened stick.  Locals thought so, and their newspapers usually took up the cudgels and prompted an exchange of views on what was lacking in each community.  Sometimes bad press resulted, with the judges accused of architectural snobbery.  Changed circumstances this year mean I have an opportunity to travel to see these "down towns", to take the time to consider them properly, and perhaps tackle the preconceptions, which are unfailingly negative.

Mention East Kilbride and preconceived notions come to the forefront of folk’s thoughts; in my case the preconceptions are musical rather than architectural.  EK was home to the Jesus & Mary Chain, arguably the best rock & roll band Scotland has produced in the last 50 years.  It also played host to the young Roddy Frame, late of Aztec Camera, whose lyric “from Westwood to Hollywood” alluded to his progress from a suburb in the Lanarkshire town to the music business Mecca of Los Angeles.  Better known than either, though, are Sharleen Spiteri’s group, Texas, who wrote a pop song called “Polo Mint City” … the nickname earned by East Kilbride thanks to its many roundabouts.  Polo Mint City could be EK’s anthem.

There are over 60 roundabouts in the town, according to South Lanarkshire Council, the best known being the Whirlies, with its spherical steel sculptures landed on plinths in its centre.  When we visited, the July sun was beating down on EK, and that cheered the place up from the off, glinting on the Whirly spheres.  It’s easy to attack West Coast towns for being habitually dull, grey and lifeless – when in fact the weather plays a large part in making them dreich.  The town was lifted by sunshine while we were there.  We were lucky, perhaps, but we also saw the town’s greenery at its best: aside from lots of twee hanging baskets which seem hopelessly domestic in the context of the sprawling shopping centre, we also saw how widespread and successful the belts of mature greenery around the New Town are.

Another surprise for everyone present was the former heart of East Kilbride, the “village” which sits next to the Maxwellton conservation area.  In a scene straight out of Gordon Cullen’s book “Townscape”, a curving street of Scots vernacular shops and houses is full of life and commerce, its scale perfect, and its paving immaculate.  Having anticipated dreary system-built flats, junkie-haunted underpasses, and glum hounds tied to lamp-posts, the village High Street really was a delight.  From here onwards, it became clear that although individual buildings may deserve to be called carbuncles, the town as a whole certainly doesn’t.  That was reinforced by a local architect, who we intercepted as he made his way back to his office with a mid-morning piece; he was happy to emphasise that East Kilbride works well as a pedestrian town where you can readily walk to work.  That’s despite all those roundabouts, and the perceived emphasis on the car.

One of East Kilbride’s architectural high points (literally, since the town’s key buildings were consciously sited on hilltops) is St Bride’s Church.  The largest church built by Gillespie Kidd & Coia, seating 800 parishioners, it was completed in 1963, a squat brick cube with a tall brick campanile.  It was nicknamed “Fort Apache” by locals – but that does no justice to the interior, an impressive volume with areas of both sombre and luminous light.  The campanile has been dismantled, but the remainder is in good condition, and the curate emphasised how busy the church is.  We’re used to hearing about Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s architectural failures, but St Bride’s is a success – and it is linked to the rest of the town with a hierarchy of roads, cyclepaths and footpaths.  As in other New Towns (EK was one of the earliest, founded in 1947), those on foot are kept apart from the car.

Round and round in Polo Mint City;
Isn’t it pretty in Polo Mint City?

Beside one of the polo mint roundabouts, beyond Hairmyres Hospital, is the most unlikely building in the town.  A Spanish Revival-style shopping parade, painted canary yellow, looks faintly ridiculous when viewed through architectural goggles.  Perhaps the intended effect was that of a cheerful place with allusions to warmer climes; no-one will knock you for trying to brighten up the dour Scotish winter.  However, architects might suggest it would have been better treated like its neighbour, whose glass, timber and harling sit far more happily in Lanarkshire.  You could make a case for this Hacienda being a Carbuncle – but that doesn’t extend to the rest of the town.  So, the first potential “Carbuncle Town” may turn out to be the exception against which the others are contrasted.


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