Finishing what was started at Cumbernauld
Through the design of a housing block populated by the obscenely rich and the desperately poor, the Lottery of Architecture explores the architectural and ideological failings of Cumbernauld New Town near Glasgow.
Hailed for its innovation as it was it built in the 1950s, Cumbernauld was called The Kabul of the North on receipt of its award for Scotland’s Most Dismal Town in 2005. That the Town Centre, Geoffrey Copcutt’s idiosyncratic, megastructural centrepiece to the town, identified as Britain’s Most Hated Building in 2005, contains a food bank and is kept barely alive by the arms-length preservationism of DOCO-MOMO and the dismal economic logic of sunk costs, demonstrates the extent to which we have disappointed the ambitions of the New Town project.
Invited to design a New Utopia on the Ruins of the Welfare State, the project extends Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Lottery in Babylon to describe a future Scotland in which every adult has an equal stake in a succession of Lotteries designating housing, profession and salary at random, with no recognisable correspondence between them. This utopian model reacts to the current social condition where it is possible to predict a series of life prospects at birth*. The project includes participation in a limited set of architectural models, house types and urban forms within this predictable cycle. In this context, places and building types can be condemned or celebrated for their class associations.
In The Lottery, notions of deserving and expectation are rendered defunct in a society where a teacher might earn a fortune and live in a slab block and a football player might earn a pittance and live in a plush Baronial Castle. Indeed this might even be the same character, from one Lottery to the next. Unlike mid-century Utopias of Equality which sought to flatten diversity in the pursuit of fairness, the Utopia of Lottery admires the dynamic range of an unequal society as a true product of market-modernity but resents those structures which restrict the full experience of that modernity. Guaranteed a basic minimum – there is no slavery, destitution or homelessness – the participants of The Lottery abandon themselves to a life of radical diversity.
With the energy only ever witnessed in the early days of a better nation, the participants of The Lottery undertake to create a built environment which better reflects their new values and expectations for difference. For the first time†, Cumbernauld receives a shifting, statistically-representative demographic, from the newly-obscenely rich to the suddenly-desperately poor. The project describes how the participant of The Lottery undertake to ‘complete what was started at Cumbernauld’ by exaggerating the local, dismantling the generic, and by restoring the abandoned megaform‡.
The Cumbernauld megaform includes a massive, monolithic, granite-clad wall of housing, corresponding to a protective wall of housing which appeared at various points in the planning proposals of the late-1950s. To achieve contemporary standards for fire escape, equal access and average flat size, the building distributes its space unequally. The relentless exterior and public spaces obscure a spatially complex, congested interior, where some doors access palaces and others access caves. Described in layered drawings and illustrations, the flats inherit veneers from the diversity of successive owners, who might line their caves in marble and gold leaf or partition their palace so that it is more affordable to heat. By proximity alone, it is impossible to tell whether the tenant of this wall of housing in Cumbernauld lives in a flat of ten square metres or ten thousand, whether they are a neurosurgeon or nanny, a millionaire or barely getting by.
Unlike Unité, the additional program generated by the wall of housing is resolved elsewhere. The reactivated megastructure acts as a civic compensation, providing relief for those designated a flat too small and warmth to those designated a flat to big, delivering cordon bleu to those who can afford it and canteens for those who can’t. Without fetishing the Town Centre as a brutal architectural object, illustrations describes how the megastructure is recanted and transformed until it surpasses the expectations of Copcutt et al.
With layered illustrations and annotated technical drawings, the project describes the social history of a strange building in a unique place and invites architects, planners and society-at-large to consider the political ideologies embedded in housing ladders and in construction methods, in building types and in urban forms.
* This ‘Lottery of Life’ emerged as a key motivation for Yes campaigners in the 2014 Referendum, which took place in the first months of this project. Discussion surrounding a deep dissatisfaction with rigid structures in society were notable by their absence in the 2015 General Election.
† As Glasgow sought to decisively address its chronic overcrowding and housing crises in the 1950s, Cumbernauld was designated to receive 80% of its tenants directly from the city’s slum-clearance programme, those identified as being most in need of housing.
‡A term used by Kenneth Frampton to describe the intersection of infrastructure, landscape and architecture – a proper megastructure (IE. Copcutt’s Town Centre) takes place within a megaform.