Bright Floodplain Lights 7. Utopian Overspill and the Tunnels of Denny
During the 1960s, in a fit of madness that has only been displayed by the most detached dictators the soviet of Glasgow city council decided that they would destroy every building in Glasgow and replace them with an entire city of functionally identical tower blocks (fig 1). Thankfully they were largely frustrated though a great tract of the inner city was replaced with a busy motorway and many thousands of stone built tenements were replaced with functionally worthless housing (a practice that continues apace) that housed fewer people in worse conditions but allowed the council to increase its rates.
As part of this Stalinist fantasy fully half of Glasgow’s population was dispersed across the central belt of Scotland. Many went into admittedly better new housing than they had had before, my father’s family amongst them, and many into rain soaked concrete blocks that sit amongst green fields and which I think are painfully beautiful and evoking of pathos. Many previously small towns were greatly expanded by the influx, unhelpfully termed ‘overspill’, and it would be difficult to find one that isn’t lamented in the present day having become loci of depravation and dispossession that must inevitably follow ugliness. Cumbernauld is perhaps the most famous example. A small medieval town that was destroyed then rebuilt into a dystopian vision that if it were the set of a gritty science fiction film would be considered unsubtle, absolute spiritual degeneracy given physical form. To look at it is to look at the worst thing that man can create, physically, mentally, morally; a town planner’s fever dream that out-horrors anything Beksinksy could have imagined.
In recent years the nearby town centre of Denny gained a similar reputation, though less deserved as here the worst excesses of the town planners were cheated by a lot of sound Victorian houses that they had no excuse to destroy. Where the older housing still stands, their stones only increasing in beauty as another century passes, the madness of the 60s has rotted away and has begun to be removed.
When I was a child the worst parts of the rot hadn’t set in and I developed affection for it that still moves me. My grandparents lived nearby; the area was new built out of the fields and lie exactly as the planners had wanted it. The houses and flats sit all on one side encircled by a busy road and over the road the amenities were placed, a pub and a few shops. It was intended that rather than crossing the road at the shortest point one would use underpasses beneath the road that let out onto incredibly steep banks and ascend by many flights of stairs. The oddness of the planner’s intentions here is so jarring that I now suspect it was their absurdity that troubled me as a child rather than the spookiness of the tunnels.
The underpass is such a frightening thing in any urban landscape that it can only have been their newness that made them seem like a good idea. They are a hallmark of the apocalyptic utopias of the 60s and lie scattered throughout all the new towns, only being used by gangs of youths and people too frail to avoid them by running across the road. It would never have occurred to the planners to make the cars travel through tunnels instead or to calm the traffic through residential areas to a level it was no longer dangerous and they are so emblematic of all the misguided decisions they made that one starts to suspect malice rather than just stupidity. The underpasses are afterthoughts born of contempt from men who could never imagine having to walk anywhere even if they had ended up somehow in the sorts of places they were designing.
Part of Cumbernauld shopping centre before one of several attempted facelifts that if anything made it seem odder, before it had a lunar quality that seemed more sincere.
Denny town centre before it was demolished, the yellow stuff that looks like expanding foam was part of a £140,000 repair by the council which had the effect of displacing roosting pigeons that instead chose to roost directly under the canopy meant to protect shoppers from the rain from where they were able to rain droppings incessantly. The complex was called Church Walk as it entirely occupied the space between the village's two churches. The building in the centre was taken over as the office of the former Labour and independent MP Eric Joyce who came to be mainly known for several violent drunken altercations and having the highest travelling expenses of any member in parliament.