Glasgow’s M74 Extension – a view from the road?

by 10 September 2011blog, cities, comment

M74 Extension near Polmadie

More than ten years into the 21st century it feels strange to be writing about a new urban motorway but just such an entity was opened to traffic in Glasgow in June 2011. The motorway connects the M74 from Carmyle to Tradeston and Kinning Park then to the M8 heading for Glasgow Airport and the Clyde Estuary.  It skirts the communities of Rutherglen, Polmadie and Gorbals and is not so much a new approach to the city centre as a way of avoiding it.  The contrast between this new stretch of motorway and the well known M8 eastern entrance to the city could hardly be more marked. Where the M8 approach, like the M77, gently unfolds the landmarks and drama of the city, good and bad, the M74 extension is a particularly banal experience.

The debate about the M74 extension passed a long time ago.  It is now perhaps fruitless to discuss questions such as could this money have been better spent, do new motorways actually solve traffic problems, was the blight along the route necessary, what about the environmental pollution from the new road and wouldn’t it have been possible to build a respectable public transport system for the same money?  Instead it is interesting to focus on deeply unfashionable questions around the perception of the city from this enormous piece of infrastructure and how it changes the narrative of Glasgow for residents and visitors.

The classic book ‘The View from the Road’ written by Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch and John R Myer in 1965 was one of a number of important publications that focused on the perception of cities from behind the wheel.  This was also the subject of various publications by John Brinckerhoff Jackson and most significantly by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown in ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘.  These works still have their place in the world of architecture, landscape and urbanism but they also have parallels in photography and film. Yutaka Takanashi’s ‘Toshi-e‘ (‘Towards the City‘) and Lee Friedlander’s ‘America by Car‘ both examined the experience of movement in cities through photography: the windscreen and camera creating a frame within a frame.

M74-Extension - Caledonian Road Church

Motorway design can reach high points of excellence as demonstrated by many parts of the American Interstates and Parkways and also in the motorway systems of most European mainland countries.  The creators of these roads had skills and insight which are sadly lacking in the design of the M74 Extension. The Transport Scotland website is of course overflowing with the supposed benefits of the M74 Extension and they include economic regeneration, environment, traffic, road safety and community regeneration.  But if we imagine just for a moment that these are all genuine benefits isn’t something else completely missing? If as Mark Cousins says, ‘movies make money as well as meaning’, why can’t projects like the M74 Extension provide meaning as well as other supposed benefits?  Why couldn’t the new motorway create some positive experience of entering the city?  Where are the views, the scenography and drama, the habitats, the communities, the compositions or the evidence of thought?

We can see the lonely landmark tower of Rutherglen Town Hall and Greek Thomson’s Caledonian Road Church but little else.  But most of all, where is the River Clyde?  There is a sign saying we are passing over it but along the entire length of the new road, the barriers, super-elevation, topographical choices, screens and ill-placed railings block views of potentially interesting features that would give some sense of place to the road – or View from the Road.

While in the background we still see Glasgow, its tenements its towers and surrounding hills, the foreground is hidden behind what is effectively a 3-dimensional map of cost cutting, negotiation, compensation, risk aversion and managerialism stretching over a six mile corridor.  The banal reality of this new road may have appealed to Yutaka Takanashi’s sharp eye for composition but to most commuters and visitors, it is a poor introduction to the city and reflects a lack of interest in matters that might create genuine long term value for the city and its communities.