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A reflection on landscape in the city

In 1967 the town centre of Cumbernauld, designed by Geoffrey Copcutt, was opened to the public. Here stood the future. A centre of leisure and commerce, a complete indoor world, grand, vivid, the fruition of a prosperous modern Scotland; the ‘New Town’ landing to the east of Glasgow, allowed for a complete, clean, controlled, moderated public space within a skin of futuristic concrete bridges, porthole windows and atrium covered indoor squares, restaurants flooded from orangery like glassing systems. Featured in the dystopian 1977 film ‘Cumbernauld Hit’(see image above), the architecture was the star. A framework for a diverse community, the resulting collision of form was a magnificent, admirable, overtly optimistic delight. Designed as an ideal town, low density housing with parks and lawns, divided into distinct zones each with schools, offices and workshops, occupied the landscape. Each community was connected by cycle lanes, traffic free pedestrian route ways and quick cut-throughs which ensured clutter free passage in the modernists’ tradition of a systemised town of fields and trees. The aforementioned urban centre therefore could be arrived at by two distinct methods.

Gliding along in your new Morris Minor, the thrum of its little A series engine pop pop popping along like only they can, your window slightly ajar to ensure the newly covered vinyl seats don’t completely overwhelm all your senses, you glide, bakelite steering wheel in hand, along overpass and spiral ramp towards the pinnacle of mans ingenuity, a vision of contemporary urban society which perfectly emulated your ambition as a member of this new future. The poor Morris, with its curvaceous American 50’s wings a little incongruous beside the sharp shuttered concrete of the car park, yet this exciting juxtaposition only highlights the quality of the built environment. This elevated new space, raised balconies, two tier shops on stilts above the road below, allows humanity to completely control their environment, overcoming the ravages of untamed Scottish winters; a fully immersive perfect reality lay as if a citadel that observes the chaotic uncontrolled lands under mother nature’s spell. You trust in the new (ideas, materials, new ways of living, a better more inclusive society) because it is all of this new excitement which defines us. This is the continued tradition of making statements, of making the future, controlling ever more of our setting for the better of all. Stepping into Cumbernauld’s centre, under cover, lit at all hours of the day and night, there is a familiar creek of stiff new leather shoes on hard tiled floors; a rhythm of busy feet within a clean synthetic city. Anoraks remain sharply creased, neat slender handled wooden umbrellas tightly tied, dry. Guards monitor the entrance. You’re stood within a human cloche.

Alternatively you could cycle to the centre, along one of the wide cycle paths which flow through the town’s park that extends to all corners of the town, the comforting green blanket which unifies the plan. The bike itself, a three speed Raleigh I’d suggest, chromed bars and pannier rack a nice touch. From your new timber clad terrace (front and rear garden, wide landscape windows to both facades, generous contemporary interior with pine feature staircase) your journey is a simple on. Form your local idle head through the trees, now shedding their leaves of vivid orange and red, and out through the crisp lawns towards the towns focus, past Mrs Whittles new flat and left at the doctors surgery. Now the grand bastion at the centre of the city within a forest of oaks, pulls you in. On arrival, refreshed form tacking the air, devoid of cars and coal, up the elevated ramps the final performance is to dismount with grace. Flick into first gear and lift your leg over the centre bar, applying the brake delicately to aid you to hop off the moving bicycle, not forgetting to say good morning the Mr Jacobs the greengrocer as you extend you bikes stand.

I could leave you with that vision of Cumbernauld but I’m going to provide you with one more. The modernist vision has yet more to give. Urban green space we know does not have to limit itself to vast grass parks; it can be a true landscape, a wild untamed beast, a diverse reclaimed foot-hold for Mother Nature. An environment which gives us our wild side back and re-introduces the idea of dirt into the city could allow our urban population centres to become far more sustainable. One of the great disasters of the modern conservation movement I argue has been the cleaning of our stone buildings. Once coal stained, soot blackened majestic reminders of our commerce and industry arose out of the smog; the dirt showing us of our failings, the blackening an image of our price. The modern city, I’ll use Newcastle town centre as an example, as that is where I find myself, is disgustingly sanitised, abhorrently forgetful of that fuel and of its output. Outside or in, you get the sense that cleanliness is all urban society has come to stand for. So what would the alternative be? What is Cumbernauld’s crisp leather shoed citizen’s next step? Can you envisage yourself stepping out of your terraced house with wellies on your feet, watching birds feeding on crab apples fallen from the tree? Would you mind the untamed chaos of nature, once the spectacle observed at great distance now encroaching into your cityscape? Would you mind ponds and open waterways where deer could feed, would you tolerate the grit and grime of a ‘real’ landscape which has its own system out of the control of our finickety hands. If we could embrace the sensations of landscape, openly invite our urban spaces to grow for the first time, stop running away from the smell and sound of nature, the opportunity to re-introduce man to the ecology beyond the garden wall is immense.

Of course Cumbernauld did not quite turn out as all had hoped. Of-cause none of the three visions I have postured hold any resemblance to the truth. You could say I was lying, but I’d rather argue I was selling an unattainable dream.

Note all my suggestions have one dangerous theme in common; note all of my whimsy has little tied to place, season or real people. If we are to trust autocrats to design our spaces, places, views, landscapes, homes, streets, cycle lanes, squares … we must surely reassess the scale at which we do it. Although much is said of the ‘human’ scale in the design world, which is surely not what is meant, for a human is one of a general collection? It is posing the wrong point of view is it not? I don’t want to design for just myself either, because that would be worse still. May I suggest we design for 1 second in every year, brief moments which depict the ingenuity or success of mankind? If anyone watched the closing moments of the Tour de France as the sun set this summer, you’ll know what I mean.


Photograph still from ‘Cumbernauld Hit’, film of 1977. National Library of Scotland, Moving Image Archive. published 29 Nov 2016

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School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

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