What’s it Called? Cumbernauld!

My interest in Utopias and psychogeography stems from growing up and living in Scotland’s third new town: Cumbernauld. If you are from the town, or even just owned a television set in the STV region during the eighties, you’ll be familiar with the title phrase. If you’ve never heard this enchanting catchphrase before,  then you can see the delightful piece of propaganda it originates from here.  As a current resident, I can confirm I’ll be asked ‘What’s it called?’ around 84% of the time I mention I live in Cumbernauld. But back to that advert, if the eighties and the decades before (see this from 1970) were all about shameless self-promotion, then how our fortunes changed by the time the new millennium came around.

A little snippet of some bad news:

Despite the weary interviewees in the news clip, it’s worth remembering that Cumbernauld was once hailed a success, at least by architects. In 1967, it won the R.S. Reynolds memorial prize for Community Architecture, beating off stiff competition from the much heralded town of Tapiola in Finland. The architects of Cumbernauld employed a variety of housing styles. In areas that already had some established housing , such as the small Cumbernauld Village and the farming settlement in Kildrum, some attempts were made to keep the scale and appearance of cottage style homes. These homes remain very successful and in demand both as sales on the property market and as social housing (right-to-buy ensured that plenty of the former and less of the latter remain). However, more experimental designs of home did not work as well. Many properties were built as low-rise, medium density housing with flat roofs and substandard materials. Dampness was a problem, and many of these blocks were either demolished or extensively refurbished.

Houses were also purposefully built to face onto gardens and public courtyards rather than the traditional design of homes facing each other. In addition, Cumbernauld planners anticipated a high level of car ownership, and as such there was a garage for nearly every home. To keep residents safe from traffic, many footbridges and underpasses were incorporated into the design, and  today you can still walk through the town without ever needing to cross the road. These are all design elements taken from the Radburn plan, pioneered in New Jersey. These once-lauded elements of town planning are the source of many of the complaints made about Cumbernauld. Not overlooking your neighbours sounds like a good thing until you consider that this makes crime harder to spot. Underpasses become popular places for drinkers to congregate, and some say the incidence of flashing in Cumbernauld was higher because the perpetrators had so many places to hide unseen by passing traffic.

But, by far the biggest architectural problem in Cumbernauld is the main building. The architects, lead by Geoffrey Copcutt, had a strong vision for the town centre, conceiving a large, monolithic concrete structure with different ‘decks’ for different purposes. The intention was that all retail, finance/administrative and leisure and social spaces would be housed in this building. Also incorporated into this megastructure was a level of premium penthouse apartments built on concrete stilts. The architects envisioned that all residents in the newly built housing schemes of Cumbernauld would be able to see the centre from their neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, only a fifth of the proposed centre was ever developed, meaning many of the envisioned uses never materialised. The penthouses were barely occupied, and given over to charity and business use early on. Now, they mostly lie empty, their porthole-like windows are never looked out of. Other parts of the building have been lobotomised, entrance ramps and walkways were hacked off to make way for the shed-like Antonine shopping Centre we were graced with in 2007.

What, we wonder, will become of the centre? Most call for it to be demolished and for us to start all over again. But, both Modernist and Brutalist architecture seem to be enjoying a resurgence, with people having a fresh appreciation for the honesty of the design principles. London now has a brutalist architecture map, St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross has been reclaimed by NVA and Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate has been, in part, successfully regenerated (although not as social housing). My own dream would be for the penthouse part of the stucture to become some sort of public space, perhaps with community spaces and a museum. Students from around the world continue to be taught about Cumbernauld as one of the best realisations of modernist planning that was built. No-one is in denial about its problems but uncovering and disecting those issues too help us to understand how people like to live. If the powers-that-be dared to dream, then I think Cumbernauld’s megastructure could enjoy the sort of esteem and acclaim its architects once hoped it would have.

Whilst I wasn’t always a fan of the building, by understanding the ambition and ethos behind it, I have grown to love it. Have you been to the building? Or do you have memories of it? Is it worth saving? I’d love to know what others think.