Celebrating Glasgow’s neglected brutalist architectural gems

FOR many people, brutalist architecture is hard to like. Typically, Brutalist buildings are unadorned, box-shaped, and made of concrete. No charming decor, intricate brickwork, or witty references to buildings of the past for them. Instead, raw building materials and structural elements take center stage. These buildings revel in a sort of uncompromising attitude; they are what they are, and you can take it or leave it. Most people do the latter.

That said, brutalism has undergone something of a reassessment lately. What was considered ugly and worthless for many years is now beginning to be considered beautiful. Architectural historians and more enlightened city councils realize that they have culturally significant buildings in their hands.

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It is perhaps understandable that Glasgow, with its wet and cold climate, is lagging behind. For most Glasgow residents, these buildings conjure up too many memories of dank skyscrapers and drafts and windswept concrete pathways. Glasgow’s legacy of poorly designed and poorly built social housing is hard to ignore. Sadly, for most Glasgow citizens, brutalism is exactly the kind of architecture that should be torn down, not celebrated.

Thus, for several years, the fathers of the city have quietly taken their revenge. Most of Glasgow’s great monuments to brutalism have fallen in the ongoing culture wars. Without much public outcry or campaign to save them, the demolitions went without incident.

The Bluevale and Whitevale Towers, once the tallest buildings in Scotland, huge formal rectangles silhouetted against the Duke Street sky, are no more. Typographical House, a proud, compact building of cast concrete and glass near the Clyde? Disappeared this year. The Anderson Centre, a dream of a bus station, offices and supermarket combined into a kind of concrete death star, was one of the first to disappear, abandoned as an urban planning folly shortly after its construction. No real trace remains. And if Glasgow has its way, others like them will follow.

Some of the tall buildings like the Boyd Orr Building at the University of Glasgow have had a stranger fate. What was once a concrete tower with no compromise in strength and power has now been given a facelift. Now dressed in shiny glass and cladding, it fits in with the new look of the university. It’s no longer a building that demands attention, it’s now just part of a harmless and unremarkable row of university buildings. Stolen dignity and lost context is a sad shell in itself. Maybe this time demolition would have been a better fate.

It is often said that buildings are most at risk when they are between 40 and 60 years old. No longer the shiny new kid on the block and not old enough to have sentimental value, they fall somewhere in between – easier to tear down than renovate. But if buildings can survive this dangerous era and have architectural value, no matter how old-fashioned, they will eventually be recognized as buildings worth saving. Glasgow woke up just in time to try to preserve what was left of

The post-war ecclesiastical portfolio of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia before it was too late. Maybe if some of the following buildings can survive for a few more years, they could too. I can only hope.

The staircase in The Hunterian

The Hunterian Art Gallery at the west end sits opposite Giles Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Fantasy at the University of Glasgow. The building appears half sunk into the hill on which it stands, a low set of concrete huts and a modest circular tower. The reconstruction of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House is half-submerged in concrete in the largest section, an interesting metaphor for the never-ending march of architectural progress perhaps.

In its only note of whimsy, it sits on a cobbled “moat”, reminiscent of Scottish dungeons, which were fortified buildings to protect the valuable art within. The interior is clean and fresh with an incredible asymmetrical spiral staircase enclosed in the torpedo-shaped tower.

Just around the corner is Queen Margaret Union. Built in 1968, it sits in an awkward space at the end of University Avenue. It is a powerful and squat building consisting of protruding planes and several levels.

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The real gem of the building, however, is almost unseen. Around the unmaintained and unloved rear is a fantastic outdoor staircase (above). It’s an exhilarating zig-zag of concrete platforms and steps.

You get the feeling that if it was at the front of the building, it would be on every new student’s Instagram account.

If anything, the Savoy Center on Sauchiehall Street is even more unloved than the QM staircase. Best viewed from Renfrew Street, it’s a mall deeply out of step with its time. Now home to plenty of kiosks, phones and bargain shops, it deserves better.

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Covered almost entirely in textured concrete cladding, it features an amazing 1970s bas-relief sign that would be revered on any other building. An elevated walkway, now closed, cuts through traffic on Renfrew Street below, allowing direct entry into the building on the first floor. Wasn’t that what the future was supposed to look like? The building is crying out for some sort of renovation and repurposing. He deserves it.

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At 72 Charlotte Street, overlooking Glasgow Green, stands Jack Coia’s 1963 extension to Lady And Saint Francis Secondary School. Although the context of the building has been lost due to the surrounding demolition, it is still a striking construction. Luckily this building is A rated so it’s here to stay.

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The cantilevered classrooms jut out from the facade emphasizing the horizontal emphasis on the construction of the building. Some might say the touch of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia made the building more decorative than a true Brutalist building would be, but I think that’s splitting hairs. It’s a beautiful building and a brutalist.

Glasgow has a history of quietly letting important buildings become so neglected and dilapidated that it is then easy to argue that they are now ‘unsalvageable’ and should therefore be demolished. Hopefully the newfound affection for brutalism means it won’t happen to some of Glasgow’s finest buildings.

Alan Parks is the author of the acclaimed Harry McCoy novels, set in 1970s Glasgow. May God Forgive will be released by Canongate, £14.99, on April 28.