The Last Icon – Glasgow’s Riverside Museum

by 16 November 2011blog, cities, comment, place making, strategy, tourism, waterfronts

This article was originally published in a slightly shorter form in the autumn 2011 issue of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) Magazine.  All photographs were taken by my friend  Jon-Marc Creaney (@scarpadog), owner of GCA Architecture and Design who died on 6 November 2011 after an eleven month battle with cancer.

Glasgow's Riverside Museum

Glasgow’s new Transport Museum designed by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) is the latest in a series of buildings intended to be key parts of the regeneration of the River Clyde corridor over the last 30 years.  Starting with the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) in 1979, the developments include the Clyde Auditorium or Armadillo, an addition to the SECC complex by Foster and Partners in 1995, the Glasgow Science Centre by BDP in 2001 including the striking Glasgow Tower by Richard Horden and the BBC Scotland studios originally by David Chipperfield but completed by Keppie Design in 2007.  The Glasgow Arena by Foster and Partners is expected to open in 2013.  During this period, the Clyde Corridor hosted the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988, become home to the International Financial Services District and has seen the construction of new bridges at Finnieston and Tradeston.

For many exhibits in the Riverside Museum this will be their fourth home in fifty years.  Kelvingrove Museum, the Tramway and latterly the Kelvin Hall all housed major elements of the collection but this latest and presumably permanent location in theory can display far more of the collection than previous venues.  The riverside location provides an appropriate transport and movement context in abundance.  There are railways, ferries and the seaplane terminal, the buzzing of helicopters, the noise from BAE Systems downstream building Westminster’s warships and the constant background noise of the Clydeside Expressway.  Despite all this movement, the museum’s context is dereliction and the current recession may ensure that it will stay that way for many years.

Interestingly, Glasgow City Council considered three approaches to the provision of a Museum of Transport:  1) constructing a cheap shed on an accessible site and spending more on interior display and curation, 2) housing the collection in an appropriate historic structure – for example a disused shipyard building or perhaps a tram shed or 3) housing the collection in a new icon building.  Clearly the lure of the third approach won, potentially weakening curation and display, secondary research opportunities and floorspace.

Riverside Museum - first impressions

Approaching the building by road or on foot is a disappointing experience.   The latest modifications to the Clydeside Expressway have ensured that the Riverside Museum has few convenient connections with surrounding areas.  The access road has the feeling of a motorway off-ramp to a retail park.  With bitmac footpaths and pin kerbing in abundance around the rudimentary car park, this is a value-engineered environment.  Buses roar backwards and forwards from the city centre carrying two or three people in each while the car park (pay and display) overflows with visitors.  Clearly innovation has stopped at the outside wall of the new building.

Riverside Museum - exterior spaces by Gross Max

Well that isn’t strictly fair on Gross Max who designed the public realm around the building. Gross Max, one of Scotland’s brightest and most accomplished landscape architects have produced a sequence of spaces around the curves of the building with token misters for the kids and green mounds and silver birch trees integrated into a simple paving treatment.  Here it is possible to see a nod towards the aesthetic of scrub and spontaneous landscape that is common to the post-industrial Clyde Corridor.   Is it the intention that the maturing of this landscape would see ZHA’s building in a glade of scrubby silver birch?  Who knows – it is hard to find any sense of landscape in the various visualisations of the building.  One thing is certain though and that is that Gross Max did not anticipate the vast consumption of junk food from three temporary outlets around the new building or the consequent overflowing rubbish bins and tomato ketchup staining around the picnic tables.

Riverside Museum - the junk food issue

The building itself is another of the metal clad genre common to the Clyde, very photogenic and certain to join the family of other recent buildings that have become the postcard face of the city.  Like the Science Centre, Armadillo and the recent bridges, it is flattered by blue sky and vacant surroundings which help to point up its other-worldliness.  Purely by being interesting enough to be photographed, the building becomes a location that is unique and worth a visit.  It establishes a significant place on the river – even if it is disconnected from anything else.  And we may be seeing it at its best because once the Scottish property market recovers and starts to roll out more junk developments, especially to the west of the Riverside across the Kelvin, the setting of the building will be altered for the worse.

Riverside Museum - the view from Govan

There are few clues from the outside as to what is happening in the building.  Its crisp exterior of zinc and dark glass, flawless cladding and signature roofline create a memorable if severe aesthetic.  From across the river at Govan, the presence of the SS Glenlee berthed alongside the Museum presents a slightly uncomfortable visual moment which flatters neither object – the effect may be similar to your granny turning up at your graduation wearing a Crimplene dressing gown.

Riverside Museum - interior chaos

Inside the building, the atmosphere is chaotic and redolent of a 1950s toy garage.  Presumably there were three phases of appreciation of the building: as an empty cathedral-like space with no exhibits, as a completed building with everything in place except for the ‘customers’ – these two being very important to people living in the architecture bubble – and finally, the crowded and complete environment we see today with kids trying to break exhibits and folk bumping into each other.  It’s a happy place though with much smiling, patient helpful staff and reminiscing.  Almost everything seems very familiar yet very special too.  The curation is crowded and for some, overcrowded or cramped, lacking space for contemplation or research.

Although it may be a minor work in terms of ZHA buildings, it will surely be an excellent investment for the Council, hugely popular and extremely positive for the marketing of the city.  But despite the merits of the building, it can’t escape its surroundings and disconnection with the city. So it would be unfortunate if any euphoria surrounding the Riverside obscured the fact that this un-crowded stretch of ‘world class waterfront’ is actually a world class failure in terms of the production of contemporary city and certainly one of the worst waterfront developments in Europe.  If landscape articulates a politics as well as an aesthetic then this waterfront is a consummate neo-liberal landscape of public waste, private greed, risk aversion and an environment for ‘customers’ in which communities, their economies and potential are completely ignored.  It’s not that the individual public sector funded developments have not succeeded – indeed they are mostly highly successful in their own terms – but the external environment of each development is a total failure and after adding in the sterile private sector developments and their accompanying over-designed roads infrastructure, the cumulative effect is nothing more than junkspace – the Clyde Corridor’s default urbanism.

Riverside Museum - another exterior space

Hopefully ZHA’s building will be the final moment of iconicism on the Clyde.  For the creators of this waterfront, the first steps towards a change of approach – involving recognition that there is a problem – will be difficult and painful.  For the private sector, to own so much land yet achieve so little and to be unable to string together any sort of cohesive urbanism whether traditional, Modern, contemporary, futuristic or parametric is a profound failure and would make anyone wonder about the skills at play or what those involved were actually trying to achieve.

The point is reached where there has to be a genuine acknowledgement that a different approach is required:  that doing small things better might be more constructive than more mega-million stones on the shiny metal necklace.  That joining things up with decent infrastructure and good public transport  – rather than stinking noisy buses – might actually start to create a riverside of higher value. That growing existing communities to the river might also work – as a contra-notion to developing laterally along the river.  And that constructive employment and providing the circumstances in which economies and innovation might thrive and in which communities can be involved are more valuable aims than private greed and shareholder satisfaction and that all these things are more important than design as shape-making and object creation.

The galleries below include most of Jon-Marc’s images of the Riverside Museum taken in the late afternoon of 4 July 2011.

Interior views: 

External views: 

A pdf of the original article in the AHSS Magazine is available to download here (125kB).