top of page
  • Writer's pictureGordon Murray

Alternative Visions in the Evolving Life of the River

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Following on from the earlier personal “history” of the River Clyde it is worth reflecting on the alternative visions which are not simply about geography or hydraulics but map different aspirations and perceptions of what the space occupied by the water and its margins means to them. For example, during 1990 when Glasgow was European City of Culture the playwright Bill Bryson set his work - The Ship (1) - in the old Harland and Wolff shed in Govan Road. The centrepiece of the set was a 20-metre-wide section of the ship under construction. The climax, its apparent launch into the river. A stunning coup-de-theatre which for many reignited memories from lifetimes on the river. The water simply a means to an end. An income or an escape.

Such cross-cultural exchanges are rare but always significant. Perhaps because of that rarity. In 1988 the artist Richard Groom built Floating Head (2) in collaboration with Govan Shipbuilders. Constructed on a barge, Floating Head was made of steel and mesh and covered in a cement render. This year the Sculpture Placement Group is seeking a home for a restored sculpture located in the canting basin. In 2019 Sam Mendes used the basin and the dry docks as the set for his “one take” film of a day in 1917 during the First World War in France. With the large expanses of water doubling for the canals of northern France around Ypres.

1. Bill Bryden
2. Richard Groom/Sculpture Placement Group
3. Jacqueline Donachie, 2021

A similar double take occurred earlier in the summer of 2021 as a part of the Glasgow International Festival where on approaching the graving docks from the Govan Road, the visitor is confronted by a series of startlingly alien forms - crystalline white prisms the work of Glasgow artist Jacqueline Donachie (3). Although small interventions in relation to the vast and overgrown docks the juxtaposition is alarming; and highlights the impact they can have in changing our perceptions of place and space. The visitor is drawn to the apparent arbitrariness of the forms and their placement. Yet when close enough to examine the tactility of surfaces you have become absorbed into the scale of the site. The entrance left far behind. Taking time to reflect on the journey to this point the traveller becomes aware that what, at first glance seems like dereliction, is simply a stasis. From the surface textures of the quaysides paths and rails what is below is of such a robust nature that it appears set in aspic. The massive area of vegetation a myriad of flora and fauna clings only to the outer surface of this vast piece of beautiful Victorian engineering.

Standing on the easternmost fingers of land that circumscribe these dry docks one is aware of the proximity to those large forms suited to the scale of the river, conscious that the city centre has moved inexorably west. The walkable city is extending. The path from Glasgow Central station to the transport museum is now well worn. Looking south and east the science centre, BBC HQ and in the distance the upscaled Barclays Bank Centre are major urban markers of a south bank regeneration (4). Less so in scale, but equally persuasive in terms of regeneration the developments along the hinterland of the Princes Dock or what remains of it (5).

4. Gordon Murray, 2021
5. Gordon Murray, 2021

Panning south and west this vista terminates in what must be the highlight of this part of the city. Sitting adjacent to the dry docks, the magnificent Govan Town Hall. Those travellers arriving on the White Star liners from South Africa looking out from busy decks at the majestic scale must indeed have though they had arrived right in the heart of the city. Or recognising this architectural welcoming party heralding the City Chambers and George Square.

On the north bank Dandara have reopened the excavations for what will become the next phase of the village that is Glasgow Harbour. Across from this BAe Systems, with another grey ship on the stocks ensuring continuity of some form of heavy industry on the river (6), presents the viscera of its inner workings to the to the river but is obscured from Govan Road by the equally magnificent Fairfield’s building, including the aforementioned Harland and Wolff sheds, a string of pearls that stretch along the south bank of the river with a full stop at Govan Parish Church and the Pierce Institute. Next to which the Hanseatic gables of the Collectives housing development on Water Row continues the expansion of the 21 C architecture.

6. Gordon Murray, 2021
7. inkdesign architecture

Reflecting on all of this resurgence it becomes apparent that the dry docks and graving basin encompass the largest currently redundant site in the city centre. It is assuredly in the city centre. Still functioning less than thirty years ago its scale is difficult to appreciate as the great long wall that starts at Fairfield’s obscures what’s going on at the foreshore. The creeping vegetation gives it a discarded rural feel where any form of husbandry had long been ignored. Yet the massive building blocks of the concrete and stone structures of the docks and their waterways themselves listed, as their counterparts above the waterline, appear in good condition (7). All the while, overwhelming the visitor and immersing one briefly in the moment when in 1865 the vision of creating over 80 berths for major ocean-going vessels right in the heart of the City of Glasgow was established. One whose comprehension still strains the imagination. There have been numerous individual visions of architectural moves on the river and it's worth reminding ourselves of these. Yet none can come close to the creation of that inland sea that was the Princes, Queens and Kingston dock complex. Queens commenced in 1865 and opened in 1877 was the largest dock in Europe at the time with the gigantic Princes Dock arriving in 1897 (8). Every vision though has its own time frame and thirty years for the realisation of this singular vision is difficult to grasp. Yet it is only one of a thousand visions each in their own frame of realisation.

8. RCAHMS (Canmore)

In 1974 with most of these docks redundant Glasgow Corporation (as was) sponsored an ideas competition for “redevelopment of the central docks from Glasgow Green to the River Kelvin”. 668 acres of unused land. One of the three winning schemes which is still significant and worthy of mention was the proposal by students from the University of Strathclyde Department of Architecture for the 1984 Olympiad to be held in the city. The trio – Sandy Ferguson, Leslie Welch and Murray McNaughton (images © of SF) produced an incredible body of work (9) – a plan on a grand scale which matched the grandeur of the site and the general chutzpah following the Japanese Expo of 1970 and increasingly associated with the post war Games. The germination of the idea which flowered in 1984, not for the Olympic Games, but the Glasgow Garden Festival opened in 1988.

9. Sandy Ferguson, 1974
10. Sandy Ferguson, 1974

The confluence of the Kelvin and the Clyde has always seen greatest activity on the river - shipbuilding yards, docks and ferries. In 1976 the author (with Stewart Lang also students from University of Strathclyde) published proposals for a shipbuilding factory on the site where the remnants of D+W Henderson Shipbuilders yard and graving dock face the Transport Museum across the river Kelvin. The idea of a fully integrated shipbuilding factory was very much a child of its time. Attracting interest from the management at Scott Lithgow on the lower Clyde but borne out of the constructive insurrection of UCS in Govan and the eloquent Jimmy Reid; and a similar workers cooperative at the Triumph motorcycle plant at Meriden in the West Midlands, formed to rescue motorcycle production. Like shipbuilding, similarly, impacted upon by Japanese production technologies. Both echoing these alternative methods of production and management. Less than five years later Japanese factory production methods applied to the construction of super-tankers closely followed by similar efforts from South Korea led to a glut in the world shipping market. At one time several vessels produced on the Clyde were lying mothballed in the Kyles of Bute. Large volume ship production on the Clyde ended. Scottish shipbuilders then built the best ships in the world but also the most expensive.

11. The Scotsman, 1974
12. Gordon Murray, 1976
13. Gordon Murray, 1976
14. Gordon Murray, 1976

In 1997, prefacing 1999-the year when Glasgow was City of Architecture and Design, the City held another competition for ideas on the regeneration of the river. The winning proposal River of Dreams - a City Weir, produced by the studio of Will Alsop, created a series of parallel buildings across the river downstream of the Kelvin (16, 17, 18). The proposals included “ a new weir and river installation which will redefine the river as a central part of the city by raising the water level and introducing new uses.” The weir taking the form of a series of raised parallel thin walls - the wall of eating and drinking; the wall of plants; the wall of fish and birds (aquarium and aviary). Another major vision which might have stimulated significant redevelop on both riverbanks and the water surface itself. Ten years later the city opened the ZHA designed Museum of Transport (19) on land to the northeast of the river of dreams site.

15. Gordon Murray, 1976
16. Office of Will Alsop
17. Office of Will Alsop
18. Office of Will Alsop

The formal similarities between both of these proposals is reason enough for the inclusion of Hoskins Architects propositions for the new Museum of Transport (20, 21). In 2004 they were chosen as the only Scottish practice amongst eight finalists. Their proposal for the 10,000 sqm museum building was comprised of a series of volumes, the massing and materiality of which strongly referenced the industrial heritage of the dockside. A slight skew introduced between the first and second rectilinear form created a dynamic entrance space within the interstice, opening out to address the water, underlining the historic importance of the river.

19. ZHA
20. Hoskins Architects

Back at the Dry-docks a general interest in its archaeology over the recent past has stimulated development interest . Perhaps the closest to their original intent are those for the reopening of the repair docks by the owners of Fergusons Yard in Port Glasgow supported by Jim McColl. In these the European demand for ship repair in factory conditions could extend the heavy industry at the other end of Govan. Proposals by Ink Design illustrate well how this might be achieved (22).

21. Hoskins Architects
22. inkdesign architecture

A case, perhaps, for no relocation of the tidal barrier although rising tidal levels may make this an urgent necessity. The beautifully engineered refurbishment of the current weir (itself a listed structure) at Glasgow Green recently completed recognises the importance for the city of control of flow of the river. A much earlier alternative vision from 1758 outlined in James Barry’s “Plan for the River Clyde in the County of Clydesdale from Dalmuir Burn to the Green of Glasgow” illustrates the proposals for the first weir and lock west of Whiteinch designed by James Smeaton -Marlin Ford with a semi-circular set of locks on the south bank providing passage for shipping.

Where does vision and innovation begin, and end and the visceral momentum of history of a city take over. Change and progress seem axiomatic. Yet the nature of that change and its potential to bring progress is, more often than not, outwith our control. Chaos theory rules. Nor can such progress be achieved overnight. It is a long game whose rules can shift in the duration. As an example the Queens and Princes docks complex over thirty years in their design and construction and yet in full use for less than eighty years. Redundant less than a century after their inception. Yet would today's approach to adaptation and reuse of resources discard such a huge achievement.

23. inkdesign architecture
24. RCAHMS (Canmore)

In his essay “An overnight success in 20 years” Koldo Lus Arana outlines the post-war history of Bilbao in the context of the perceived impact to which all the regeneration in the city had been attributed in the international press- “it would so far as appropriating the brand, replacing in the collective mind that which had been “the real” Guggenheim Museum for almost 40 years - Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic new York counter-ziggurat.”

25. ZHA

The similarities between Glasgow and Bilbao are numerous as recognised by the various administrations of both cities. Often sharing ideas in the past. Evolving on both sides of a river which is tidal into the heart of the city (26, 27). A geology and which allowed heavy industry to be developed at the centre of both. A massive investment in infrastructure – roads and underground in Bilbao’s case (28, 29, 30) which helped push the city’s redevelopment downriver toward the estuary on the Bay of Biscay with a massive container port , redolent of Greenock here. The transformation in the city was dramatic when viewed in fast forward across half a century but no overnight success- a gradual but positive change. The HQ for Santander embedding one of Spain’s main financial centres. With no steel nor shipbuilding industry to support this service industry has become global.

26. City of Bilbao
27. City of Bilbao

As for the Museum, whilst it made Bilbao’s regeneration a worldwide phenomenon it was never designed to be its flagship “rather than the crown atop Bilbao’s refashioning it publicised a much larger scale of operation of reinvention of the city that had been under development for over two decades”... since the mid 1980’s. Similarly with Glasgow, regeneration is not a fixed term process but one of continual renewal and reinvention. Adaptation and re-use. The one big move as a catalyst for regeneration has as evident in Bilbao long been shown to be a shibboleth. Innovation in the city goes on as an accumulation of ideas. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. A critical mass that can drive momentum that drives us forward but visions will always be an essential part of that.

28. Gordon Murray, 2021

147 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page