Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Owen Hatherley and The Free Herrington

Yesterday, in an unplanned act of support for staff on strike at the University of Dundee I travelled to Glasgow, to attend a talk at the Free Hetherington being given by author/ journalist/ blogger extraordinaire Owen Hatherley. An interesting day that began with a bus trip passing through Cumbernauld (more below), which I will now summerise in this long overdue non-Placement related entry.

Cumbernauld Hit!

So, rather excitingly, my day began with the extended stop Megabus from Dundee to Glasgow - via Perth, Dunblane, Stirling, and Cumbernauld.

First off, a quick word about The Raploch in Stirling, an area of social and economic deprivation going through a massive regeneration programme. I know little of The Raploch, beyond a generalisation of its reputation as a "bad" area. Previously when passing through Stirling (a good two to three years ago), not much appeared to be going on in terms of architectural regeneration, with the only notable addition being a token Sainsbury's supermarket towards the edge of some baron fields. Now, there has been amass of construction in the form of community facilities and housing. It all looks very clean and fresh, and their website proclaims "... there has been extensive consultation and engagement with residents, local businesses and the Community Planning Partnership." Then you see mentions of the private sector, like George Wimpey, being involved in some of the property construction, and this instantly gets my back-up. I don't know enough about The Raploch to pass judgement, but there's something untenable about a so-caled community-driven regeneration involving the private sector (who tend not to do things out of the goodness of their heart). Still, I hope it works, and in 30 years time we can reflect on the success of the project. More details can be found on their website, linked below:-

Now, on to the main event of my journey, passing through Cumbernauld. I'm not going to harp on about the brute that is the town centre (as I only passed underneath) but more a comment on the car-centric nature of the town. As a place that is often lambasted for its architectural design, Cumbernauld seems to work. The separation of pedestrians from traffic is still a reality, aside from the odd traffic light forced upon the town by Tesco, but you gracefully move from once side of the town to another with barely a sole in sight. I documented this with a short video taken on my iPhone and strung together quickly in Final Cut, displayed below:-

Towards the end of the second clip (on the right hand side) you will notice a strange yellow wing-like sculpture attached to the slope on the side of the road. There's also a blue version as you enter Cumbernauld from the east (which I didn't capture). To say the least, I'm not a fan. The "movement" of the sculpture as you drive is nice, but I don't like the attempt being made to soften the brutishness of the road. Tarting up the roadside does not negate or, in my opinion, should not distract from the fact we are travelling on man-made forms, which force their way through the natural landscape. Perhaps that is why I like modernism, and the town planning of the time, in that it did not concern itself with the beautification of the structures. There's an honesty about Cumbernauld that is lost with such sculptures, and, incidentally, I find the interplay between the overpasses and roads far more sculptural than this artistic slap.

Cumbernauld should engage with its heritage, not attempt to hide it.

The Free Hetherington

Now, after that self-indulgant tangent, I best discuss my visit to the Free Hetherington. In short the, former Hetherington Research Club was a postgraduate social club that closed last year following the beginning of cuts. The building, now illegally occupied by students, is at the forefront of the fight against cuts proposed by the University of Glasgow. I have never experienced student activism on such an extreme level, so the whole visit was fascinating.

It's an odd environment, and one which elicits a number of fleeting emotions. When I entered I was greeted, shown around the space, and told to make myself at home. Downstairs, the bar has a very relaxed cafe feel, there's music and active discussions taking place. I sat down, made some notes, and waited for Owen Hatherley to arrive (I was a little early). What put me on edge was when a fire alarm went off there was a sudden call to arms, with people bounding up and down stairs, shouting "No one in or out!". A hasty response, but understandable when you learn of an incident involving members of the GUU Board of Management (linked below):-

There's something refreshing about the tangible student activism taking place at 13 University Gardens. All too often students become passive, and far too easily accept the status quo. I don't want to get in to my personal opinion on the resolve of the Free Herrington, but I'm happy to say I support this attention grabbing action and hope that Glasgow University open a dialogue with the occupiers.

Owen Hatherely

Now, it may not seem like it, but I actually went to the Free Herrington to see Owen Hatherely give a talk. Hatherely's impassioned commentary on the modernist movement in Britain has been of great influence to me, and enjoy his emotive writing style. So, on to the talk. There was a modernist tie-in but the talk, entitled "The Occupation of Space", was almost a verbatim recital of the below Guardian article, discussing the privatisation of student housing:

Once the talk was over, the discussion was far more engaging, ranging from New Labour planning law to the contentious GHA housing stock transfer. Insights? Many. Unfortunately though, the relevance to my studio practice was little. That said, it was certainly not a wasted journey, instead an interesting academic sidetrack.

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