Book Reviews

“Central Glasgow through Time” by Etta Dunn

reviewed by Professor James Stevens Curl

Dunn, E (2014) “Central Glasgow through Time”, Stroud: Amberley Publishing, pbk, also available in Kindle, Kobo, & iBook formats, 96 pp., 178 colour & b&w illus., RRP £14.99, ISBN 978 1 4456 3870 6 (print) 978 1 4456 3887 4 (ebook) reviewed by Professor James Stevens Curl

Central Glasgow through Time

 “Central Glasgow through Time”

This is a new title in Amberley’s Through Time series of books on local history, and consists of a collection of images, some new, some old, tracing the ways in which central Glasgow has changed and developed over more than two centuries. It is a very synoptic view of the topic, told by means of very short texts and many illustrations. It certainly cannot be regarded as a book of history, and is really designed to whet appetites rather than satisfy them.

Glasgow was once a rather small settlement by the banks of the Clyde, but it did have an impressive cathedral (a wonderful survival to this day, sited in a fine graveyard which itself affords stunning view over the nineteenth-century Necropolis on a hill to the east), some fine old buildings in the High Street, a University, and sundry examples of ancient fabric, very little of which, alas!, can be seen today. Indeed Glasgow has been somewhat addicted to pulling itself down: it celebrated the run-up to European Architecture Heritage Year by demolishing a noble pair of Neo-Classical blocks in the High Street by Robert (1728-92) and James (1732-94) Adam, no less. Glasgow District Council achieved new distinction in bloody-minded philistinism by demolishing Queen’s Park Terrace (c.1856-60), a magnificent Listed Category ‘A’ tenement of tremendous architectural distinction, designed by Scotland’s greatest and most original Victorian architect, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson (1817-75), a far more interesting architect than the later and overestimated Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), an Arts-and-Crafts eclectic designer bizarrely identified by distorters of truth as a ‘pioneer’ of Modernism.

Such massive losses are more than regrettable. The huge wastelands created in the orgies of destruction that have been such a feature of post-war Glasgow (where historic buildings ‘go on fire’) are catastrophic, but only something of the scale of the damage comes over in this slim book. The ‘before-and-after’ illustrations never show something more visually appealing than that which was wrecked: disastrous losses include the Duke’s Lodgings, Drygate; Silvercraig’s Land, Saltmarket; and many groups of buildings that either leave single decent works of architecture marooned in a desert of empty wasteland, or are replaced by non-architecture of stupefying banality and ugliness that the integrity of whole streets is compromised. No serious person with even a rudimentary visual sense could applaud what has happened to the Gallowgate, Charlotte Street, the Saltmarket, the north side of Argyle Street where the Black Bull Hotel once stood, St Enoch Square, that part of Sauchiehall Street where the Renfield Street church once stood, Dissy Corner at the junction of Union and Argyle Streets, and Jamaica Street looking north. If these assaults on the eye are only what many years of brainwashing in so-called ‘schools of architecture’ addicted to Modernist cults can achieve, then perhaps it is time such places were shut down or drastically reformed, for the examples of architectural atrocities shown in this little book give no cause for rejoicing except in circles determined to create a tabula rasa where a violent Modernist Dystopia can flourish.

A book which largely depends on illustrations for its impact might have been expected to contain superb photographs, but far too many are distorted, dim, clipped, fuzzy, and, frankly, should not have been used. First-class modern photographs should have been commissioned.

James Stevens Curl

Professor James Stevens Curl, Member of the Royal Irish Academy and Fellow of the Societies of Antiquaries of Scotland and of London, was Architectural Adviser to the Scottish Committee for European Architectural Heritage Year 1975, and lived for several years in the West End of Glasgow, a city for which has had great affection, though he deeply regrets what it has done to itself.

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