Glasgow revisited

Glasgow ’99 promises to provide the city with an impressive legacy to take into the new millennium. Hugh Pearman sees how the land lies

Jeremy Isaacs, pugnacious as ever, holds that Glasgow ’99’s Year of Architecture and Design, the last of the annual Arts Council-funded Arts 2000 cultural initiatives leading up to the millennium, will be the only one that people remember. “Does anyone know what’s happening this year?” he demanded at one of the festival’s launch events recently. “Does anyone remember what happened last year?”

He has a point. Is it photography in Bradford this year? Was it literature in Swansea last year? Can’t quite remember, though the earlier Year of Visual Arts in the North East did manage to make an impact outside its immediate area, and paved the way for Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Isaacs is, of course, partisan and proud of it. He hails from the city and is on the Glasgow ’99 board. He likes the idea of “Clyde-built”, claims his birthplace will “grip the world’s imagination” in the last year of the century, and best of all, will leave a permanent residue. Another board member, Wally Olins, is equally upbeat, talks of “huge design energy”, and urges everyone to visit Glasgow to see the marvels. Fine words. But do they ring true?

Certainly, both Isaacs and Olins are, as public speakers, infinitely better salesmen for the Year than Deyan Sudjic, its director. Sudjic’s reticent nature and soft-spoken delivery have, at times, seemed at odds with the up-front company he has kept. Indeed, various sections of Glasgow’s design community have been, by turns, puzzled and infuriated as they try to work out what Sudjic is up to, and whether he is quite so silently manipulative as he can appear to be. The boy can’t help it – for all his charm and diffidence, he was born to appear Machiavellian, whether that is real or imagined. But he has got on with the job and delivered most of the goods. Looking at Glasgow today, you wish he had had the power and the money to do much more.

In Glasgow, they love a good conspiracy. It is a city in cultural ferment, where Julian Spalding, director of the city’s museums and galleries, recently resigned in protest against the reorganisation of his fiefdom. Where the Lord Provost, Pat Lally, a champion of the Year, found himself under investigation by his own party – but bounced back. Where the acerbic architecture critic Gavin Stamp (Private Eye’s Piloti), based in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art, at first declared that if Sudjic came to Glasgow, he, Stamp, would have to leave. In fact, the two established a truce, and Stamp will curate the Glasgow ’99 exhibition on one of the city’s other great architects, Alexander “Greek” Thomson.

Other sometimes bitter critics of the Sudjic regime have been brought into line in this way – I bumped into one of them, all smiles, in the Glasgow ’99 office only the other day. This is not to say the infighting is over – Glasgow would not be Glasgow if that happened. But for now, with only a month or so before the opening party on 7 January in Norman Foster’s “Armadillo” convention centre, professional and personal jealousies have been subjugated to the need to present Glasgow in the best light to the world.

Despite this, some elements seem determined to shoot themselves in the foot. A couple of hundred yards north of the Glasgow ’99 office is George Square, the city’s big urban space. This vast square has long been unsatisfactory, but now – following millions of pounds of “improvements” by the council – it is absolutely hideous, smothered in acres of red tarmac and little else. God knows what they thought they were doing, but this surely was an opportunity for an urban design competition which Glasgow ’99 could organise and take credit for. But old municipal habits die hard: inevitably it has already been dubbed Red Square.

It hurts all the more since one of the key buildings on the square – the old main Post Office – is still waiting for a new use, having failed to raise funding for a proposed Scottish Museum of Art and Design there. Now that was a competition in which Glasgow ’99 was involved early on – the winner, Glasgow architect Page and Park, has picked up plenty of other 1999 work, of which more in a moment. But the failure of the museum project to assemble a workable funding package – which was outside the powers of Sudjic or his team to influence – has the unfortunate result that Red Square looks even more like a design black hole. An art and design fair will happen there, and Big Design Day in May will do its best to transform this now lamentable public space by turning it into a vast “world food” court, but there’s not much else you can do with the place.

That embarrassment aside, the Year is looking good. Sudjic has stuck to his task with a determination that will not surprise anyone who knows this ambitious and perceptive critic. This, after all, is the biggest thing he has ever done. So long as he does not goof, the Year may provide a stepping-stone into the charmed world of other cultural directorships, by the time (or before) he receives his cards in March 2000. He has taken care to teach and to curate exhibitions overseas. He is an indefatigable global traveller and networker. He has made it a point of principle to bring the world to Glasgow, and vice-versa. His team is at work marketing the 1999 event in the US and elsewhere. An advertising splurge is planned so that anyone who passes through Glasgow is made aware of what’s going on. A series of books recording the key exhibitions is in hand. No wonder Isaacs is confident that this is one cultural beanfeast that will not occur invisibly.

On arrival, the first thing you notice is how big the Glasgow ’99 team has become. Dozens of people fill desks on an upper floor in a dour Sixties council office tower in the heart of the city (“and they all hate each other,” remarks one local architect cheerfully, “because they’re all going to be chasing the same jobs next year”). There are directors, organisers, managers, co-ordinators, officers, assistants, spread across nine separate departments. The sheer size of the operation – bigger than many a successful design group – is totally unexpected. The salary bill must be huge, but then so is the scale of the enterprise. Of the 400 000 originally granted by the Arts Council for the event, a total investment of something like 35m has been leveraged. Or so they say. The figures are © somewhat fluid: add in all the building projects, and figures of 60m or so for the whole programme soon start to be bandied about. A lot is public, Lottery and European money, with 800 000 of private sponsorship claimed.

There will be more than 200 events – and one or two big exhibitions, such as Sudjic’s own Architecture and Democracy, are only now being organised to fill gaps. The programme comprises exhibitions, tours, masterclasses, conferences, workshops and activities such as the Big Design Day on 30 May. Big awards, such as the British Design and Art Direction awards and the Stirling Prize for Architecture, will be brought to Glasgow. There is a commendable education and community outreach programme, and a series of five Millennium Spaces being created in outlying areas. These are getting to the point: for what Sudjic always knew he needed to do was to create permanent objects as a legacy.

Exhibitions and talks and suchlike vanish from the public mind like wills o’ the wisp. But buildings, public spaces and saleable designed objects stick around. And so we have the Glasgow Collection of covetable objects, from a Seymour Powell-designed watch for Linn Products (still only a prototype), to the Ursula stainless steel bath by Submarine (a Millennium Product, already in production). There are lights, a stadium lighting system by Graven Images, and so forth. Under its director Bruce Wood, the Glasgow Collection has itself received Millennium Product status as a “design service”. Of the 50 designs it has enabled, 15 or so will make it into production.

Bigger impact, however, will be made by two key building projects. The one on which most hangs is the Lighthouse, a radical 11m conversion of Mackintosh’s long-empty Glasgow Herald building into an architecture and design centre – the architect is Glasgow duo Page and Park. The other is Homes for the Future on Glasgow Green, where a masterplan (again by Page and Park) contains homes by Elder and Cannon, Rick Mather, Ian Ritchie, Ushida Findlay, Wren and Rutherford, RMJM and McKeown Alexander. It’s privately-financed, though Ritchie’s block will be for a housing association rather than well-heeled loft-dwellers. The first phase of 100 homes should be finished by mid-1999, when the top deck of apartments overlooking the Green will be flung open as a kind of mini-Expo. Then – if economic conditions allow – more phases will be built, resulting in 300 homes by 2005.

Certain aspects of Homes for the Future are open to criticism – the most glaring being the optimism with which Ushida Findlay has created a descending series of open north-facing terraces on its apartment building. In Glasgow’s climate these are just not practical. The whole scheme has been stitched together in one hell of a rush, but that’s expos for you. By and large, this is not too much of an architectural zoo and it will be fascinating to see the area develop.

Do I sound over-critical? Actually, I’m looking forward to the Year enormously. Buildings aside, I want to see Stamp’s Thomson exhibition, which will open the Lighthouse. I want to see Sudjic’s Architecture and Democracy. I want to see Rowan Moore’s Vertigo, dealing with the new high-rise cities of the Pacific Rim and elsewhere. The Winning exhibition, by Sue Andrew and Ron Arad, dealing with the design of sports equipment, sounds good, as does Gerry Taylor and Claire Catterall’s Food show. There are exhibitions on Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto. Philippe Starck is in town, and the ageing enfant terrible of design Post-modernism, Ettore Sottsass. There is a promising show curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum on colour in design, called Red. The last design exhibition of the year, Identity Crisis at the Lighthouse, is where curator David Redhead tries to define the Nineties through its objects.

So, only the staggering price of plane tickets stands between me and a year of over-indulgence in architecture and design. And this, in the end, will be the test of Glasgow ’99: just how good will it prove to be at pulling in the punters from outside? Can it achieve national and international, status, rather than serving its very culturally aware regional audience?

It has at least one bit of chronological serendipity running in its favour: all this happens the year before the Dome extravaganza in Greenwich. Glasgow has no single venue or event to compare with that, but its piecemeal city-wide approach may well work in its favour. Even having rumbustious Isaacs as cheerleader is no bad thing. He may have sown a minefield of discord at the Opera House, but just remember the triumph of the early Channel 4.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse, Mackintosh’s former Glasgow Herald building now being turned into a permanent architecture and design centre, is enormous. OK, not British Library enormous, but at 12m for a conversion job, this is huge by the usually modest standards of such places. The team that has set it up and is building it, headed by the institution’s director Stuart MacDonald, is steadily becoming almost independent of the rest of Glasgow ’99. When in operation, it will employ at least ten people, with another 15 on hand for the big events. No other such centre in the UK – with the exception of the Design Museum in London, with which the Lighthouse will have links – has this kind of muscle.

As with the Homes for the Future project, the Lighthouse suffered delays in the planning stages so will not open until nearly half-way through the Year. Sudjic relates how, when he took up his post as director of Glasgow ’99, the Lighthouse existed only as a design concept on the one hand, and as an unused asset in the Scottish Widows property portfolio on the other. Getting the idea and the reality to meet was the problem: in the end the city council bought it and leased it to the Lighthouse trust. The late opening is bad, but not so bad as it might seem: for the opening of the building itself becomes one of the Year’s big events. It will boast an entirely new and rather fussy addition at the back by architect Page and Park, with interior graphics and displays by Javier Mariscal and Sam Booth of Glasgow design group LWD.

Since getting funding – a mix of Heritage and Arts Council Lottery money, cash from the city, rents from ground-floor restaurants and the like – the project has forged ahead. As you wander through its spaces, you already get a feel for what it will be like, sidestepping builders who all – without exception – swig Irn-Bru from the bottle as if part of some corny TV ad. The structure of the new parts is up, restoration and conversion of the rest is at a reasonably advanced stage.

Although an early example of his sophisticated organic decorative technique, this was never a pretty-pretty Mackintosh building – he was really only dressing up a fairly standard commercial block on the orders of his client, Honeyman and Keppie. Its industrial toughness transforms well into gallery space. The building will contain two main exhibition galleries – including a splendid high-ceilinged one on the first floor – lots of smaller display areas, a 100-seater conference room, an education centre and, of course, a café. It will house a permanent Charles Rennie Mackintosh centre, designed by Gareth Hoskins. From there, you can walk up to the opening bud of Mackintosh’s rooftop turret. Or, if you prefer, you can survey the city from Page and Park’s glassy new viewing gallery above the roof at the back.

Equally permanent will be the Lighthouse’s ‘Design for Business’ centre, effectively a suite of offices and meeting rooms where organisations with a design or architectural connection can place their representatives. But it is as an exhibition space that the Lighthouse will come into its own. As MacDonald says, ‘1999 is taken care of. We could have let out the space twice over. Now, we’re looking to 2000 and beyond.’

Deyan Sudjic

We dash in sheeting rain from the Glasgow ’99 office and arrive, drenched, at Rogano’s Italian restaurant. ‘Rain in Glasgow,’ Deyan Sudjic observes, ‘is like being at sea’.

He seems more relaxed, less tired, than I’ve known him previously. Maybe this is because he is doing fewer jobs. When he started in Glasgow, he was, simultaneously, writing for The Guardian, teaching in Vienna, and curating the odd exhibition, plus trying to hold down a home life in London – the combination did not make for an easy life, even if it was great for Air Miles. But as Glasgow ’99 built up, the other jobs fell away. At the same time, criticism diminished somewhat.

The Year, with the staff running it, is becoming self-generating. Sudjic can enjoy the fruits of delegation, and even get to be a bit statesmanlike in his dark suits, though he still needs intensive training before he’ll cut it as an orator. The lunchtime conversation over a bottle of Pomerol is more his forte. ‘I had no idea what doing the project would be like,’ he reflects, ‘but I remember saying at the interview that this was a great job for anyone who cares about architecture and design – probably the best since the Festival of Britain in 1951. That has proved to be true.’

The first year, inevitably, was the hardest. ‘There was a lot of tension and expectation. There was a sense that 1999 would give Glasgow a Mediterranean climate, that we’d open a car factory on Glasgow Green, and stimulate a general urban renaissance. We had to sit down and work out what we could really do, what money was really available, and what a year of architecture and design should really be.’

He admits that trying to meet everyone’s expectations without diluting the overall impact, and introducing a populist streak without dumbing down, was hard. And, of course, he has had to live with the self-image of the place. ‘The city has such a character. People say – that’s not very Glasgow. You’d never find someone saying – that’s not very Bournemouth.’

One of his stated missions is to raise the profile of Glasgow as a place for designers to be – to promote design rather than trade and industry, to come to terms with the idea of a post-industrial city. ‘There’s a very strong tradition of producing design graduates – but 80 per cent of them leave immediately. It’s a haemorrhage. I have to find reasons to make them stay.’

The Glasgow Collection, he says, is an attempt at a more pro-active version of the Design Council’s old ‘funded consultancy’ scheme. Instead of merely responding to requests, the Collection actively goes out to instigate projects, and can do so thanks to an 750 000 endowment from the Glasgow Development Agency. ‘They have to be products which appeal to everyone, that have personality. It’s not to do with whole-body scanners or the blades of jet engines, wonderful though those things are,’ says Sudjic. Which being translated, means: let’s leave the dull, worthy stuff to the civil servants, and get on with producing some new value-added cult objects.

Sudjic points to Stamp’s ‘Greek’ Thomson show as being one of the highlights of the year, and seems tickled pink that the Clydesdale Bank is producing a 1999 banknote with Thomson on it – only the second British architect to appear on folding money, the first being Wren. Of the various shows he recommends, one is curated by him – called Home, on the modern house. It occurs to me that Sudjic never had the time to do one thing he said he wanted to – build himself a home in Glasgow. Perhaps he has money down on one of the Glasgow Green apartments.

Of that housing project – which seems the aspect of the Year he is proudest at achieving – he remarks: ‘It’s turned out better than I hoped. When we started, I didn’t know how we were going to do it. We spent six months looking for the right site, and almost went to the Gorbals, but that wouldn’t have worked as well as this one has. We have to plant a seed for something that will last.’ Going to Milton Keynes to see what he describes as ‘freak shows of one-off houses’ persuaded him that a more homogeneous, high-density approach was the best way for Glasgow.

Sudjic’s manner is periodically described – with some justification in the past – as being aloof, elitist. Glasgow seems to have brought out the entrepreneur in him. He gets almost excited about the populist elements of his agenda – plastering giant Mao-style posters of Glasgow’s architects across their buildings, holding a Beaux-Arts costumed ball in which actors dress up as buildings, or getting ‘a Brazilian footballer’ to open the Winning show. And starting the Architecture Foundation’s New Architecture tour on a platform at Central Station. Not a marketing or advertising cliché passes his lips, but he’s learned the trade well.

‘So how do YOU think I’m doing?’ he asks at one point, in what looks like a moment of vulnerability. Well, the Year has yet to happen. On the basis of what I’ve seen and heard so far, it seems highly likely that Sudjic will emerge from all this with considerable distinction. He certainly seems to think so. But covered in glory? We’ll all have a view on that by the time the Dome’s opening signals 1999’s close. Lunch is over and we step out into what remains of Glasgow’s winter daylight. The rain has, temporarily, stopped.

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