I teach a course on urban utopianism, with a strong focus on the twentieth century, in particular post war Britain. Being a strong believer in the value of experiential learning I recently took my students on a field trip to Cumbernauld. We were treated to a rare sunny Autumnal day in the Campsie Hills (unlike last year when it poured down with rain for much of the time).
I was lucky to be accompanied by Diane Watters from The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and Neville Rae, an artist who has done some fantastic work on the forgotten public art of Cumbernauld. Both provided interesting insights into the town’s history, architecture as well as more personal reflections on what it was like to grow up there.
I like to take my students to Cumbernauld because it’s a fantastic place to think about post-war idealism, modern architecture and the challenges of planning new urban environments. Cumbernauld is commonly dismissed today as a ‘Crap Town‘ (second only to Hull) and the impression of it being a run-down concrete monstrosity is underlined by its status as a multiple recipient of the ‘Plook on the Plinth‘ award. These kind of observations mainly reflect the failing brutalist megastructure that is Cumbernauld Town Centre.
On the walking tours we took around the Kildrum and Carbrain housing areas it’s clear there is more to Cumbernauld than the much maligned Town Centre (which despite it’s international renown has no statutory protection, which serves to further undermine the original vision behind this behemoth of a structure). In contrast, each housing area has a distinct feel, reflecting how different architects were commissioned to work in separate areas. From the modern, flat-roofed flats in Carbrain to the more vernacular and sensitively landscaped housing in Kildrum.
Heritage status (or general lack of it) in Cumbernauld is proving to be an important issue. Now over 50 years old this ‘Town for Tomorrow’ does appear tired around the edges, but it is only ‘status’ buildings designed by ‘prestige’ architects that are being listed for future conservation. A great example of this, and one I was very pleased to be able to get into, is the Sacred Heart RC Church (thanks to Neville for arranging that!) A 1964 example of work by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia it certainly has an atmospheric feel inside, emphasised by the low level lighting, and the dramatic stained-glass windows (although I’m less keen on its recent exterior paint job).
Spending time walking around the many pedestrian footpaths, underpasses and bridges, and looking at the Cumbernauld Development Corporation (CDC) Archives, prompted the question: is the town getting a raw deal with the application of heritage logic that makes it easier to list individual buildings like the Sacred Heart rather than take a step back and appreciate the scale and imagination behind Cumbernauld as a whole? Is there a place for a broader appreciation of the town or is it destined to retain its
notorious reputation as one of Britain’s most reviled products of postwar modern movement architecture and planning (Watters and Taylor 2009).
This in many ways echoes comments that arose back in the summer at the Post War Housing Estates Symposium in Lincoln. It seems there isn’t a way to acknowledge the team work of the CDC planners, architects, and artists, who may not have been ‘famous’ but nonetheless contributed in a very real way to the post war new town movement. Neville’s work on the late Brian Miller, Cumbernauld’s very own new town artist, is a great way of reminding ourselves (and younger generations) about this.