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Sauchiehall Street: Save the ABC

23 Apr 2019

<p>Glasgow&rsquo;s Sauchiehall Street has been the epicentre of a spate of recent  fires but in the shadow of the School of Art it is another  architectural loss which is now focussing minds. As an application to  demolish the ABC threatens to further undermine the streetscape Sean  Kinnear looks at how this famous street can pave the way forward.</p>

Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street has been the epicentre of a spate of recent fires but in the shadow of the School of Art it is another architectural loss which is now focussing minds. As an application to demolish the ABC threatens to further undermine the streetscape Sean Kinnear looks at how this famous street can pave the way forward.

“Save the ABC” reads an earnest appeal, scrawled in black spray paint over the temporary site hoarding. On Friday the 15th of June last year, Glasgow was rocked to its core by a second catastrophic fire that tore through the Category A listed Mackintosh Building; devastating the historic monument undergoing restoration from the first blaze of 2014. Nine months on and the city is still reeling. While there has been plentiful debate over the future of the iconic Mac, we have almost completely forgotten about the other victims of that fateful night.

Since the incident, the entire block bounded by Renfrew, Dalhousie, Sauchiehall and Scott Street has been under a safety cordon set by Glasgow City Council; in a bid to secure temporary bracing and shore up the heavily damaged structures. Businesses fronting the Sauchiehall Street elevation, including barbers, takeaways and entertainment venues, have been forcefully abandoned as a direct result of the fire and ensuing efforts to contain the inferno. Only now, in March 2019, are we seeing a slight lifting of this barrier; albeit on a limited scale to permit some vehicular traffic and pedestrian circulation.

With a maelstrom of activity surrounding the future of The Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Building, the neighbouring Category C listed ‘02 ABC’ has sat still; appearing to bide its time. However, this silence was abruptly broken in February 2019 when it emerged an application had been submitted to demolish the damaged building in its entirety. This sucker punch is the latest body blow to our historic built environment, but if Glasgow is famous for one thing, it’s rallying the troops in defiance! The list of objections to these brutal demolition proposals are growing at a steady pace through the council’s online planning portal. A resounding picture is quickly emerging of how important the building’s cultural significance is to a diverse demographic; sharing collective memories and re-iterating notions of local and national heritage.

Akin to these fond tales, I too have enjoyed memorable nights in the 02 ABC, but after the recent news surrounding its uncertain future, I can only hope these reminisced stories are not reduced to folklore. 

My experience with the building now is one of dereliction and decay. On my route to frequent the GSA library atop Scott Street I regularly pass the 02 ABC on its western approach, in ritualistic fashion I peer through the metal security fence and catch a glimpse of the now exposed structure; hoping the dancefloors will witness the stamping feet of live music lovers once again. Most of the apertures have been boarded but there are still some snapshots offering a glimpse through the collapsed roofscape. ‘Campus’, another one of the forgotten victims of the fire, eerily displays a billboard promoting live showings of the 2018 FIFA World Cup like some twisted time capsule.

In the wake of last year’s heart-breaking fire there has been a resurgent interest into the ABC’s past; drawing attention to the building’s long story stretching back to the 1800’s. It’s fascinating to learn of the diorama, panorama, skating rink, hippodrome, circus, dance hall and cinema that once resided on the Glasgow city block before coming to be a vibrant music venue in 2005. At street level it’s near impossible to read the building’s story through its architecture alone, but with the assistance of archives, historical maps and aerial views, you can begin to decipher the deeper, historically layered evolution of the ABC from its early beginnings.

One of the more successful uses of the public entertainment hub prior to its music venue existence, stems back to its presence as an established cinema; enjoyed by many Glaswegians who frequented the movies shown here for 70 years. Photographs held by the Scottish Screen Archive (SSA) portray crowds queued up and down Sauchiehall Street; patiently waiting to view the latest motion pictures, commonly known as “talkies” at the time.

The ABC (Associated British Cinemas) Regal first opened its doors to the public in November 1929; offering an unprecedented cinematic experience to the city. The new picture house was finished to an extremely high standard with the capacity to seat over 2500 movie goers within its auditorium, it was complimented with tea rooms, lounges and a shop-window arcade. Charles J. McNair, the architect behind the cinema design, adapted the building from its previous use as the Waldorf Palais De Dance. Part of the renovation included a reworking of the main façade fronting Sauchiehall Street. A fantastically preserved souvenir programme published for The Regal’s grand opening, compares the new entrance to a cinema screen; describing how the movie goers casted shadows onto the streetscape from behind the illuminated glazing as they circulated up and down the levels of the building via the stairs and electric lifts. Within its interior, the Regal cinema boasted concealed lighting and excellent acoustic treatment; achieved through its material finishes and state of the art sound system.

The building underwent further expansion and by October 1967 opened its newest addition, the ABC 2; subsequently rebranding the original Regal cinema as ABC 1. Fronting Sauchiehall Street to the south and Dalhousie Street to the east, the extension was constructed in dark chocolate brickwork with vertical copper cladding. Once again this offered Glasgow the latest cinematic experience through its modern seating, ventilation design, and hi-tech projection technology.

Although the building largely remained unchanged externally, from 1979 onwards there were numerous internal remodelling episodes and a series of name changes before the cinema complex showed its last screening in 1999. 

After years of extensive renovations, the doors were finally opened again in 2005. The former ABC cinema became known as the 02 ABC and quickly rooted itself as a prominent venue within Scotland’s music scene. Acts from around the globe would travel to Glasgow and play to loyal crowds of music lovers, who much like the movie goers of the cinema generation lined Sauchiehall Street. The 02 ABC is also cited as an invaluable contribution to Glasgow’s accolade as a recognised UNESCO city of Music; a mantel held since 2008.

Unfortunately, Glasgow is no stranger to losing its listed building stock to fire damage. Furthermore, it’s alarming how many of these structures housing music venues have been struck down in recent years. ‘Victoria’s’, a mere stone’s throw east on Sauchiehall Street was also severely damaged by fire in March 2018. This popular nightclub resided within the Category B listed Crown Rooms, its uncertain fate also now hangs in the air.

The former Elgin Place Congregational Church (Category A listed), on the corner junction of Bath/Pitt Street had also found re-use as the popular nightclubs commonly known as ‘Trash’ and ‘The Shack’. In November 2004 the building was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished by Christmas a mere month later. The empty site lay derelict for almost 10 years before a solution was reached. The 19th Century Greek Revival church was only recently replaced in 2017. A modern high-rise glazed and clad student accommodation block now stands in its place; towering above its neighbours.

The evidence supplementing the 02 ABC’s demolition application presents a bleak picture. Like many other case studies of historic buildings at risk of demolition, I often read through a deluge of reports and photographs depicting the extent of structural damage. The reiterated statements of compromised integrity, coupled with notions that repair and salvaging are not economically viable, convey a very monochrome picture of a building’s predicament.

By extracting and isolating the damage incurred by fire, smoke, water and natural elements, key facts are dangerously omitted. The historical context; architectural character and irreplaceable collective memory to name a few, should all be considered alongside the engineering calculations.

There is certainly no easy, quick or cheap solution with historic buildings at risk of demolition, but each case would benefit from being assessed on individual merits and holistic being; not simply reduced to a mathematical equation.

History tells us the captivating story of a multifaceted building, constantly adapting to suit the needs of its users; forever providing entertainment to Glasgow, and continually utilising the latest technology in a bid to offer unforgettable and unparalleled experiences. Be that a diorama, panorama, skating rink, hippodrome, circus, dance hall, cinema or music venue.

Granted it has only been several weeks since the demolition application was submitted, but complex buildings like the 02 ABC; drenched in local history and cultural heritage, should be given careful consideration over their futures before any rash decisions are made. As well as the statutory protection extant with its Category C listing status, the building also lies within the Glasgow Central Conservation Area; offering further shelter against a total demolition. Surely, we can’t allow the wrecking ball to be the first viable option tabled, allowing the stage to be set for featuring another non-descript generic housing block or student accommodation unit to appear in its place?

Amongst the public objections there are valid proposals advocating preservation and re-use that rightly should be explored before reaching a final curtain call. The ‘Avenues’ programme, aimed at extending the urban realm through streetscape improvements, is currently taking form along Sauchiehall Street. Ironically, the initial pilot scheme orchestrated by Glasgow City Council has recently completed sections of the groundworks fronting the safety cordon; offering symbolic connotations of rebirth with newly planted trees and landscape paving.
Time will tell of what the future holds for the 02 ABC, but voices of support for the stricken building are showing promise of an emphatic encore.

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