What can one building achieve for a city? How does a remarkable structure reflect and define the identity of a sprawling and eclectic urban space?
Last year Scotland witnessed two events revealing the significance of these questions. In Glasgow, there was lamentation at the desolation of its School of Art, while Dundee saw a great wave of triumph at the completion of the cliff-like object that now sits on the banks of the Tay, housing part of the V&A’s collections and Scotland’s first design museum.
Both buildings remind us of the wider cultural anxieties at work in modern Scotland. The extremes of gruesome death and immaculate conception compel us to reconsider the now casually accepted alchemy that such places are supposed to perform for post-industrial cities. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the chattering classes in Britain so frequently talk of culture and regeneration in religious terms, the ‘Glasgow Miracle’ worshipped in all its mystique.
Now that the temple has been burned down, it’s perhaps easier to consider the real, all too fragile, matter that makes for the coveted status of cultural hotspot. The miracles are in fact an accumulation of mundane factors: canny municipal intervention, cheap and plentiful workspace, low costs of living, social mobility, access to higher education. Factors increasingly elusive in Scottish cities driven to compete for coveted inward investment.
The ruins of the GSA, and all the tiny acts of neglect and poor governance that added up to its double conflagration, caused the veil of Glasgow’s hard won cultural capital to suddenly be lifted. What could the people discern among the ruins? A city centre whose built environment has been chronically neglected, where small gems like the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) must fight for a living, or, like the famous Arches, face a needless death. The promise of ever renewing cultural vitality is as hollow as the shell of what was once the crowning achievement of the city’s visionary and gifted son.
II. Post-industrial pre-eminence
Today the scene has shifted from the Clyde to the Tay, where Kengo Kuma’s solid yet ethereal museum blends with the haar and juts out into the river, in conversation with the watery elements.
This braw thing is surely an occasion for joy for everyone. It is a building that demands to be looked at. In the global race for post-industrial cultural pre-eminence, Dundee needed a calling card, a sliver of magic to grace its transformation and seal its entry into the club of top destinations for tourism and investment. In this respect the city has clearly achieved a monumental success. To decry spending on culture in the midst of poverty is to ignore the fabric of the city itself.
But in these austere times when many Dundonians will soon find themselves pushed below the breadline by Universal Credit, it’s pertinent to ask what relationship the wider waterfront project will have with the rest of the city. With its shiny new train station with unaffordable and unreliable connections, and a multiplicity of boutique hotels and eateries, will this shiny new quarter really be any more accessible to claimants than Canary Wharf?
But there is a greater problem sitting behind these ever more pressing questions. At a national level, Scotland’s approach to culture and regeneration, despite a long succession of scandals, reviews and fresh starts, is outmoded and failing fast.
III. Creative ‘industry’
The model that is currently propelling Dundee to the top of ‘must visit’ lists is essentially the product of a consensus unchanged for forty years. It pursues the course charted first by Michael Heseltine in the 1980s and happily followed by the New Labour government into the millennium. Devolution itself was a New Labour creation, and it is perhaps unsurprising that, when it comes to culture, so many of the Scottish Government’s institutional instincts remain redolent of that period.
The notoriously ill-defined idea of the ‘creative industries’ also has its roots in that era. Culture and creativity were, in short, presented as a solution to the troubles of the post-industrial place. The basic thrust of New Labour cultural policy contended that culture was a panacea that could soothe the bruising contradictions of the inescapable truth that these cities had been robbed of industries and the civic identity that built them. Instead, the new creative city would provide ideas, symbols, signs and services. A new idea of what a city ought to be emerged out of this thinking, one that was essentially abstract: not a place of complexity and conflict, with the sweat and stink of labour, but rather a product itself, a symbol, a device used to speak to how the new class of upwardly mobile Britons—and their highly educated counterparts from further afield—would want to live.
So we have the pursuit of a more ‘European’ city, or at least, the creation of an inner-city enclave to reflect this. Dundee may have its sights set on recreating the Guggenheim effect but, unlike Bilbao, there is no new public transport network, no great scheme to re-integrate the city and connect it to other cities. Despite the polished facade of the new station, the East Coast mainline runs on infrastructure as old as the now defunct or converted jute mills, and the city’s busses are run for private profit.
Civic pride rendered without proper municipal government is always compromised. This is what traps the modern Scottish city. Measures such as a tourist tax, the norm across Europe, are deemed far too radical to be the province of local control and must instead be deferred and picked away at a national level. No amount of remarkable architecture can change this lack of public power at the local level.
If the future of Dundee is just to be a place for consumers, its creative soul is destined to diminish. As critic Owen Hatherley writes in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, buildings such as the V&A—like its forerunners on the Clyde, Mersey and Tyne—imply a process of ‘triumphing against the loss of industry,’ signalling the final and irreversible shift in urban transformation from production to consumption.
The model works, provided a great building, whether a gallery, conference centre, performance venue (or amalgam of all three) allows wealth to coalesce around it: thus bringing investment, wealthier consumers and taxpayers, and, above all, greater marketability. The goal is a competitive edge in the national and global race not to be tarred with the stain of being a ‘poor relation,’ stuck in an outmoded past. When Dundee Council Leader John Alexander described the controversial Marriott Hotel site next door to the V&A as an ‘exceptional product’—was he talking about the specific site or a wider vision of the city itself?
The draw of fresh concrete, glass and steel is undeniable. There can be space for little else in the prospectus presented by the Scottish Cities Alliance, quick off the mark in touting for £10 billion of investment opportunities after the new museum opened. Yes, this may still be a place with a certain kind of urban swagger, but much of value must be squeezed out as elite heads are turned towards the ideal Exceptional-Product-City. The messiness of identity and conflict, cheap living, space for subcultures and chronically impoverished communities don’t fit into a property portfolio.
All the while, Scottish culture as a whole is also being boxed up and packaged in a manner that is disturbingly reminiscent of all the failings of Cool Britannia in the 1990s. For Visit Scotland’s #ScotlandIsNow campaign, attracting capital and tourists becomes a kind of mantra, creativity ‘bucks the trend,’ even traditions of political activism—‘now fights for rights’—become mere marketing hooks.
The V&A is just part of a long list of symbols which communicate the message that this is a ‘happening’ place with the ‘right’ kind of third way politics, under which the spending of the filthy rich becomes transformed into a morally worthwhile exercise. But how could it ever be regarded otherwise, in a country in which the tourist board tells us ‘hope calls home’?
Like New Labour’s ruse, this attempt to create a wave of optimism, by aligning with a youthful sense of cultural revival and presenting culture and creativity as a remedy for economic and social problems, is fundamentally dishonest. Looked at another way, it is simply the desire to promise social democratic outcomes without committing to social democratic inputs.
However, whether it’s the roots of Dundee’s gaming industry, Glasgow’s art scene or Edinburgh’s festivals, the social democratic settlement of the post-war era was foundational. Why? Precisely because it created an economic safety net, founded major institutions for the arts (funded accordingly) and pursued a policy of expansive higher education. These projects were undertaken not because they might catch the wandering eye of canny investors, or please a neoliberal management culture with the right metrics, but for their own sake. They represented an egalitarian political settlement made tangible.
IV. An ageing culture
The other factor which ought to make cultural policy makers wary about the lessons from New Labour’s attempt to link culture, regeneration and politics is that Scotland is not young, but rather ageing, fast. By 2039 the number of pensioners living in the nation will have increased by a quarter. It’s become commonplace to fixate on the economic and social ‘timebombs’ associated with this trend, but some incendiary cultural factors are already with us.
Although 2018 was declared Scotland’s Year of Young People, there remains precious little evidence that young people will be afforded the kind of cultural opportunities to make it new that previous generations enjoyed. This is the cold hard reality that no amount of city branding can obscure. The first generation to be worse off than their parents since the end of the 19th century will find themselves less able to make things—the risks, the time pressures, the traps of rent and debt make truly creative endeavour increasingly difficult. Their chances of living a rich life defined by the freedom to pursue fledgling talents and burning creative passions are made ever more remote. Ironically, it is the very regeneration processes that see cities desperate to draw in ‘creative industries’ that make urban living and participation in culture ever more exclusive.
This generational lag is becoming an increasingly dominant feature of Scotland’s culture. The result is all too often silence, save for an inevitably narrow stream of talent that is funded by the fruits of inherited wealth.
We should be at a moment when a new generation is gearing up to set the terms that will shape Scotland’s culture for decades to come. Instead we find ourselves co-opted, borrowed for our energies, living, thinking and creating on someone else’s terms. Living in cities pursuing policies essentially unchanged since the 1990s, shouldering financial risks that were once borne collectively, less able to inhabit the shared spaces that are the wellspring of culture and craft.
This adds up to a desperate need to reimagine what our cities are for.
Rowan Moore’s Guardian review of the V&A noted that the building is guilty of ‘mistaking a sign of an action for its reality.’ Despite its best intentions, it does not function well as a public space—offering few opportunities for Dundonians, young and old, to clamber around and sprawl about. He goes on:
Kuma says his building is “organic”, by which he means that its rough-hewn shape looks like a work of nature, but a larger meaning of the word is that a design grows harmoniously out of its situation and use. This it does not.
This spectacular building exists to be looked at. It does not face the city, but juts out from it, as though yearning to be in the pristine air of international waters.
Dundee has been a great factory for weird and wonderful creativity over the years—exporting people who relate to the world with a peculiar slant. One of their number, AL Kennedy, recently said of her native town: ‘the feeling of being at the bottom of a well and having to scream gave rise to a great deal of artistic expression.’ Today, amid the new neatness required by capital as it turns dirty old cities into presentable products and symbols, Dundee may find it lonely, and eerily quiet, at the top.