The worrying state of Glasgow’s architectural heritage, Thierry Lye

IT’S becoming mainstream to discuss Glasgow’s built environment and the worrying state of its architectural heritage.

Growing up in Georgetown, an UNESCO World Heritage site in Malaysia, it is beyond belief to me that many heritage buildings in Glasgow are being left to rot.

Since the awarding of UNESCO status, in 2008, local Georgetown people have been repairing and repurposing traditional shophouses, built during the British colonial era.

Meanwhile, the country’s universities are increasingly turning their focus on architectural conservation.

And new planning regulations have been implemented to safeguard the characteristics of the city’s Old Town.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, a large number of its heritage buildings are falling into disrepair. 

For every Kelvingrove Museum or Kelvinside Parish Church (now Òran Mór) that is being well cared for, there are many others not so well blessed.  

Take the Lion Chambers for example; the Category A-listed building has been standing tall on Hope Street since 1907. However, most of its facade, including its lion’s head stonework, is currently ‘caged’, with wire mesh. Furthermore, the top floor of the building is now hazardous – with broken windows, allowing pigeons to live ‘rent free’.

It is a depressing sight, for both locals and tourists visiting the city.

The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped.

According a recent report (here), commissioned by Glasgow Chamber of Commerce on behalf of Glasgow City Council, the pandemic has “decimated city centre office working, retail and leisure custom, cultural and educational activity”.

Lots of ideas have been proposed over the last few years, including reform of land taxes, the use of compulsory purchase orders, removing VAT on retrofitting projects and imposing fines on negligent owners.

Not so long ago, I was leading walks around Glasgow city centre, identifying derelict buildings for this year’s Glasgow Doors Open Days Festival.

The participants soon noticed that many floors above retail units at ground level are lying empty, some covered with opaque windows. 

For example, the Buck’s Head Building at Argyle Street, designed by the well-known architect, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. Judging from the street level, the windows above the coffee shop have been blocked out, with no sign of human activity.

Who owns these buildings? Why are they being left to deteriorate? Why can’t someone do something? These are among the questions I often get asked during these walks. 

In order to raise awareness about Glasgow and its derelict buildings, the New Glasgow Society pulled together a storytelling exhibition, titled ‘Building Stories’, in September.

The curated exhibition captured strong emotions about specific buildings nominated by the public, accompanied by poetic photographs taken by committee member, Gordon Scott.

These day-to-day stories, largely unheard or seldom told, bring richness and collectiveness to urban living.

The exhibition kickstarted a year-long campaign on the topic of derelict buildings.

We’ve demonstrated to Glasgow a strong desire in saving the city’s heritage buildings. It is time to invite all to discuss, debate, and take a lead on reviving these buildings, with other civic groups and professionals, such as Architects Climate Action Network, Scottish Ecological Design Association and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

As a young architect working and living in Glasgow, I envisage harmonious Glasgow streets where the city celebrates the juxtaposition of old and new architecture.

There are some signs of hope, including the retrofitting of The Pipe Factory at the Barras and The Anchor Building at St. Vincent Street.

It is all part of the DNA of our beloved city. 

Thierry Lye is a chartered architect, based in Glasgow. Originally from Malaysia, he is a graduate of the Mackintosh School of Architecture and works for the architecture practice, Austin-Smith:Lord. Thierry has been actively involved in the New Glasgow Society since 2015, and recently joined the Scottish Civic Trust, as a trustee focusing on architecture and planning matters.

Pictured: St Andrews Street, Glasgow, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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