NO matter which way I think about Glasgow and her architectural heritage, I always ended up with Big Yellow Taxi stuck in my head on a neverending loop.
Don’t it always, as Joni Mitchell sang, seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?
If there was a soundtrack to the city, or a Glasgow The Musical, that tune would no doubt feature as a headline number.
Sanctuary Scotland, the social landlord, might not quite be paving paradise to put up a parking lot but the housing association has, of the weekend just past, taken down part of the original James Sellars’ ward pavilions at the former Victoria Infirmary.
Dating from 1888, the striking sandstone building was topped by cupolas that formed a familiar part of the south side skyline but are now no longer. Sanctuary Scotland, when I asked them, said the structures were in “too poor condition to be salvaged”, which seems to be a stock line heard time and again when it comes to Glasgow’s old buildings.
Not in the case of the old Vicky, but more generally, it’s funny, and not funny haha, how many historic or listed buildings appear to be perfectly sound when they’re bought over by developers but then, after a long time languishing in wait of redevelopment, seem to be in too poor condition to be salvaged.
In Glasgow The Musical “too poor condition to be salvaged” would form a prominent leitmotif.
Sanctuary Scotland points to the fact the three Nightingale wards at the other side of the old hospital building, which also feature these beautiful cupolas, are being preserved as the building is turned into flats.
The issue at the hospital site is that Sanctuary put in a retrospective planning application to take down this additional building to create space for extra car parking. The plans were publicised in the Glasgow Times, The Herald’s sister title, and in architectural trade press, and the housing association said there were no objections from consulted community councils.
But who has the time, really, for scanning planning applications? The Victoria Infirmary plans were the subject of a lengthy battle by local groups to ensure the development wouldn’t have a blighting effect on the local community.
Volunteers, in their own time and on their own dime, spent considerable time in trying to make sure the old Vicky had a good new life. After such a quest it’s no wonder that tweaks to design plans went unremarked upon. It all must have been exhausting.
So, now, the building is gone and local residents have acted with dismay. MPS Paul Sweeney, who is relentless in defence of the city’s architectural heritage, rightly suggests that Sanctuary should recreate the cupolas as a decorative feature of the development. He estimate this would cost £20,000, pocket change for such a large project.
However, the Victoria Infirmary is just one of several Glasgow buildings making headline in the past week. Listed status has not stopped the threat to the old Robinson & Dunn Temple Sawmills building near the Forth and Clyde Canal.
It’s lain empty since 2004 and, guess what, it’s in too poor condition now to be salvaged. Partick Housing Association wants to tear it down and build two blocks of flats on the site.
Councillors are expected to make a decision on the application imminently. Will they listen to the 42 objections that have been received? It seems doubtful that such a low number of objections will be a loud enough voice to put them off.
City councillors just last week backed plans to demolish a warehouse in Cranstonhill, despite objections. While not listed, it is one of the last Victorian industrial buildings near the Finnieston area and a thing of beauty. It is to be torn down and flats built.
Leave your house anywhere in Glasgow, take a short walk, and you’ll be guaranteed to pass a formerly glorious building with bricks now split by the prodding tendrils of plants, its roof sagging from unchallenged abuse by Scottish winters.
In Govanhill, also on Glasgow’s south side, the community has worked for 20 years to preserve the Edwardian hulk of Govanhill Baths. Work has finally begun on ambitious plans for the building but it’s taken two decades of utter doggedness and determination in the face of disdain from previous council administrations to make that happen.
A sea-change in attitude later, the current council has asked for community groups to step in and offer to take over buildings around the city for local use under Scottish Government community transfer legislation.
This has its upsides and its downs. Local autonomy is a good thing but, critics say, isn’t this just a way for councils to shirk responsibility?
A city struggling with big bills, and a public dealing with a soaring cost of living crisis might bump built heritage down its list of priorities. Preservation becomes the preserve of experts and those with particular interests.
But our historic buildings are part of the lifeblood of the city and they should be of interest to all of us. There is a question of when it becomes right to let go of the past but it feels increasingly like the future of Glasgow’s built history is being left to whim and the weather.
Instead of clear planning and preservation, problematic and expensive listed buildings are farmed off to developers and a blind eye turned when those buildings start to fall into poor condition.
Listed status is no suitable protection. What will be? We need a change in attitude towards preservation, particularly when times are financially tough. In the short term, it might seem wise to flog the family silver.
But once a building is gone, it’s gone. Meaningful change needs to happen before the only place we see our city’s history is in a museum, being charged to see it.