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McAslan delivers last word on ‘disastrous’ George Square comp

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February 28 2013

McAslan delivers last word on ‘disastrous’ George Square comp
Spurned architect John McAslan, whose competition winning scheme for the redesign of George Square was unceremoniously dumped by Glasgow City Council, has ventured north one last time to pick over the rubble of his stalled scheme – this time in front of a select audience assembled by the AJ. Speaking at the event McAslan ruminated on the shambolic handling of the competition by GCC, conceding that there was no contractual obligation for the council to proceed with the scheme

Urban Realm was invited along by McAslan & Partners to sit in on the resulting proceedings, with the kind permission of the AJ, in which McAslan brought people up to speed on the current state of play with the competition. “We’ve been involved in some very informal consultations in order to try and keep the project alive; we’ve had two discussions, one in George Square and one last week in Café Gandolfi and while we can’t possibly say the views expressed there were representative what became clear was the idea of fountains or moving water was just not favoured," McAslan explained. "Particularly water as we’d proposed it which would go up peoples trousers or skirts on a cold day. The single move we made was to remove areas of fountains and insert areas of green landscape and an increased diagonal movement through this area of wild flowers and planting.

“That’s where we got to in the competition and as you know it was all a bit of a disaster in the end and I’ve been trying to keep it alive – and I’m not sure how successfully I’ve been doing that, by drawing attention to the council of the importance of making sure something happens for the Commonwealth Games; which is absolutely achievable so long as there is the ambition within the council to make that happen.

“What makes me most angry and most frustrated is the process from announcing the competition through to the selection was immaculately handled.  You had an anonymous competition, a jury process, technical assessment, the brief was well written and there was a very interesting shortlist of practices selected and the anonymity meant that it was about as fair as it might have been. But at the moment of selection it all went wrong for reasons that remain a mystery to me.”

Rory Olcayto, deputy editor of the AJ, queried, “I wonder how you think architects can better carry the public with them in the design of the public realm and what the role of the client is in that process.” To this McAslan responded: “I’ve never been involved in anything which has been quite so furious and messed up as this process and we’ve been involved in quite difficult consultations before like Kings Cross, where there were 25 stake holding groups which we had to liaise with. There was a sense, from people I’ve met subsequently, that though there was a degree of consultation I’m not convinced that came to any single view as to what should happen. It was all a bit ragged. A guy came with 50 A4 sheets which he’d submitted to the Council and he said he’d never been listened to. I think the difficulty was it started with a degree of incompleteness in terms of the competition and I suppose an anonymous presentation is great but there is no opportunity for the public to scrutinise the entries. There was a sense that the public had been excluded and there were all sorts of emails from groups such as Restore George Square who had a very strong view on things. When all the fury emerged I thought I wanted to meet with people so I turned up in a very wet George Square and to my amazement people turned up including a few members of rival opposition parties who I tried not to engage with.

“What did emerge was there were really only four issues which people were concerned with; one was a wish for something to happen and that the square should be repaved. The second was that we needed more soft landscaping. I said ‘but, do you really want people rolling about lawns drinking Tennents’’ and people said ‘that’s a bit rude’ but it’s not necessarily just about grass. The third issue was about the sculpture and a dominant view was that the Scott Memorial should be retained but certain elements were more important than others and the final overriding issue was that it should be a civic space and not a commercial space. To me this has all been a great exercise in re-engaging with the city and the passion people have for the Square.”

Responding to a motion for input from the floor Ian Alexander, partner at JM Architects, mused: “If someone decides to create a shop front in Glasgow then it becomes a vehicle to have a big debate about the future of the city and the whole point is lost, people who are unhappy with the council for whatever reason are focussed on this debate about the square.” Concurring, McAslan responded: “Not every competition ends with a successful outcome. Think of Aberdeen and Union Square or the Turner Centre in Margate where there was a successful outcome ultimately but it nearly finished a great practice. It’s not untypical, this happens a great deal and it doesn’t do architecture or the reputation of Glasgow any good. Although I think the competition was terrific it’s very hard to present four sheets of A1 when two of them are plans. It’s very hard for people to read so it’s understandable why people were confused because there was no dialogue.”

Following this Alan Dunlop then chipped in: “I was interested in what you said about the competition being well run, as a Glaswegian looking in from the outside it looked like a complete and utter debacle from the beginning to the end. I thought your scheme was the best, it understood Glasgow and the need for George Square to be a civic space. I support you in everything you’re doing to try and keep this competition going,  I think it’s a good thing and to your credit. My question is about the role of the public in this. If you have three Glaswegians together you’ll have five opinions. If you have a competition like George Square where everybody has an opinion how do you weave your way through that? Rather than be a visionary you have to consolidate these views and somehow make something out of it. Surely it has to be a compromise and at the end the community debate was used as an excuse to scupper the thing so rather than being positive it destroyed it.”

Resuming the verbal baton McAslan continued: “I’ve been critical of the city council, I think they’ve behaved appallingly. They do have an architecture and design champion but without a voice - obviously so marginalised in this instance that that persons voice was smothered.  It’s wilful I think to have experts in your midst and ignore their advice, it’s poor governance. That’s the reason I’m so angry about it and the reason I keep going is that although I’ve moved from Glasgow this place is in my blood. I’ve got nothing to lose, I may not win any more contracts for Glasgow City Council but then so be it. I don’t accept at this point in my career that that sort of governance and poor leadership is acceptable and you’ve got to challenge it. But I do not want to jeopardise future competitions in Glasgow by stifling good people coming forward.”

With that Andy Law, partner at Reiach & Hall ventured: “Do you think the mistake was a presentational one and that if the choice had been to choose a designer rather than a scheme?” McAslan replied: “The competition went to the jury stage without the support which one would have hoped. But the Council wanted this to happen as a legacy project for Councillor Matheson and for the Commonwealth Games and there were funds in place. Yes you could say pick a designer and then worry about the design but one assumes that would be the case anyway. Any post competition discussion would have cleared that up but the city council in their incompetence one moment they say you’ve one and then in the same moment you’re told the competition has been abandoned. I mean for goodness sake.”

Mark Bingham, of Draw architects, then mused: “When you do public projects they’re part political, part financial and part design. To what extent do you believe architects are guilty of simply looking at the design component and neglecting the infrastructure and back end thinking.” To this McAslan conceded: “This is virgin territory for us, we have no relationships to call upon. The second thing is the city council talking about the project not being able to be completed on time, the Caithness stone being prone to crack and the price was questioned. Well, all three of these arguments are wrong."

Bingham then interjected with a follow up query: “At the outset of the completion what level of commitment was given by the client, contractually, to actually deliver the project.” Prompting McAslan to concede: “To be absolutely honest with you, I don’t know. The competition is one stage If someone asked me would you seek compensation from GCC I would say absolutely not, it doesn’t matter if your right to compensate. It’s just not our policy. We didn’t bother investigating it but I can’t imagine they were obligated to proceed with the winning entry. If we’d properly thought that through it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to us or the other entrants to submit in good faith.”

The sorry square saga has now been punted into the long grass with current City Chambers rumblings suggesting that little, if anything, is likely to change in Glasgow’s set piece civic space before the Commonwealth Games.

2 Comments

Gary Urquhart
#1 Posted by Gary Urquhart on 28 Feb 2013 at 18:10 PM
One of the main issues was that there was no mandate for this. The Labour policy was to "refurbish", eg clean up. It then became the usual overblown ego trip many of these projects become. Your article mentions the Aberdeen Union Terrrace where public toilets have been closed for decades for the want of £50k but now the private partnership wants to spend £50 million. In Glasgow we have a crumbling infrastructure all round our city. (Springburn Halls recently demolished over the Xmas Holiday). The politics of greviance and envy that abound these days mean there must be a wholesale change in how citizens are brought to the table to talk over these kinds of issues.
Alison Campbell
#2 Posted by Alison Campbell on 2 Mar 2013 at 19:12 PM
As a non-architect, just someone interested in living a congenia,l people-centred, built environment, the thing I find interesting about the article above is that the architects all seem to be worried about the process of the design competition, not about the way the end result impacts on or is perceived by the people who have to live with it. I really like the new Kings Cross, by the way - but architects should try and remember that architecture isn't actually about architects.

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