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A birlie round the whirlies

7 Oct 2010

Taking a spin around the 60 odd roundabouts of Scotland&rsquo;s first, and  arguably most revolutionary New Town, &lsquo;Polo Mint City&rsquo; aka East Kilbride  perhaps best demonstrates how planning policy has been going round in  circles for the past 60 years.<br/>

Taking a spin around the 60 odd roundabouts of Scotland’s first, and arguably most revolutionary New Town, ‘Polo Mint City’ aka East Kilbride perhaps best demonstrates how planning policy has been going round in circles for the past 60 years.

Despite recent belated acceptance that road engineers have held court over the design of our places for too long East Kilbride is assiduously extending its defining road network in a roundabout way as a growing population conspires to extend the towns tentacles.  These demographics may contrast with the more familiar tales of urban blight the Carbuncles crew have grown accustomed to but money of itself does not necessarily equate to interesting architecture, as was soon discovered.

It is widely held that men can fall in love with a woman inside of 10 seconds but this truism does not seem to percolate into the architectural field if the reactions of our five male judges were any indicator. Indeed it is barely sufficient time to perform one revolution of the Whirlies, the town’s set piece gyratory which has been anointed by a glistening spherical steel structure at its centre. Utterly inaccessible to all but the most foolhardy jaywalkers this roadside sculpture gallery is perhaps the truest manifestation of modern art, drive by culture that is best appreciated with a second’s glance, any deeper rumination likely to reveal the sterility of this artificial world of air conditioned transport.  

Questionable follies aside however it was natures interventions that did most to brighten the dismal science of Carbuncle judging, a fact articulated by architect and writer Mark Chalmers who said: “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.”

This greenery was evident throughout the town, serving not only to soften the ubiquitous concrete but serves to enhance the livability of the place, a key consideration in the town’s efforts to bolster its image as a family friendly destination. This is furthered by extensive entertainment facilities, including an indoor ice rink, cinema and three (count them) nightclubs, all of which populate the gargantuan mall, Scotland’s largest, which constitutes the town centre.
That centre stands as something of a bellwether for the troubled retail sector, a fact borne out by vacant floorspace in evidence; it is a situation not likely to improve anytime soon either with Supermarket giant ASDA harbouring plans to develop a store on the towns West Mains Road. This follows a recent scandal in which the development partner, Dawn, complained of bias after a BBC investigation uncovered links between local councilor Jim Docherty and rival property developer James Kean, who planned to build a TESCO store on the same site. Irrespective of the eventual name on the box though architect Neil de Prez of 3DReid asked. Why can’t mall managers amalgamate empty units to provide the big box retailers with the floor space they desire? Nevertheless money is in evidence, particularly at the bus station which adjoins one end of the main retail concourse.

Pondering this newly minted landscape Chalmers commented: “This is the kind of environment you’d get in Berlin, stainless steel street furniture and granite paving so they’re doing something right. It’s expensive stuff.” However Neil de Prez, gazing at a surrounding sea of endless roundabouts and pedestrian underpasses, stated: “You feel you’re the underclass here, the car has priority, and you’re subordinate.” Eyeing an expensive granite pavement which stretched pointlessly toward a dead end fenced off by pedestrian barriers a sceptical Alistair Scott of Smith Scott Mullan added: “Public investment has gone in the wrong things and the private sector is not capitalising on this. It’s classic end of year expenditure. East Kilbride a great place to bring up the kids but how long can it be sustained? It worked well for its era but it’s not transforming as well as it should.”

Perhaps the biggest shock of our visit however was the presence of East Kilbride village, the pre war settlement which was subsequently subsumed by post war planners. Though the High Street has been cleaved off from its well mannered suburbs by the ill advised insertion of a dual carriageway this pocket of old world charm miraculously retains its character and purpose. Chalmers added: “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.”

East Kilbride also happens to play host to some of Scotland’s most important modernist masterpieces, notably St Bride’s Church by Gillespie Kidd and Coia and the Dolan Aqua Centre by Alexander Buchanan Campbell. The latter is closed to the public but we were fortunate enough to encounter the caretaker of the former and be granted a look round. It would perhaps be sacrilegious to include in any list of architectural failures but the fact remains that substandard construction of the campanile, brickwork was beginning to disintegrate within 20 years, ultimately forced demolition of one of EK’s most notable landmarks. The hall itself is no less contradictory with judges incredulous that a lightwell hadn’t been orientated to the south and an interior desecrated by an insensitive partitioned alcove.
It is in the later accretions to the town that are truly dismal however (even if some are unintentionally amusing), not least of which is the St James Retail centre, yet more out of town shops albeit in gaudy faux Spanish wrapping. This lurid eyeful proved to be a yellow rag to our team of architects as voiced by Chalmers who said: “It 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 Scottish 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.”

East Kilbride then is basically good – but getting worse. Its New Town infrastructure is nearing the end of its life expectancy, requiring investment, planning and vision on a par with the town’s formation to put right for future generations. Ultimately however it is perhaps a sense of soullessness, epitomised by a giant (largely derelict) sports centre housing an “American Golf” outlet, which provides the saddest reflection of current planning priorities. Its half empty halls with the hubris of rapid growth and hopefully represent the high tide mark of land hungry expansion, for it is the suburban housing estates and peripheral centres which ignore the vision which gave birth to the town that do most to place the community in clear and present danger.

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