Joseph Elbourn (He/him)
In my work at the Mac I have endeavoured to synthesize my interest in radical politics with its connection to the layered histories of our urban environments. During my stage 5 thesis project, Collective city, I explored these themes in order to argue that common ownership of Glasgow’s key underutilised infrastructures, such as its rail corridors and mass tenement housing, would transform the city and make the transition to net-zero by 2030 equitable and resilient.
ESSAY 1: In repose to The Ethical City’
In response to a brief asking one to consider ‘the ethical city’ this project is titled ‘Collective City’. It places the cause for the myriad inequalities of power and space present in our world with the institution of private and absolute land ownership. Where a home or place of work is physically located, its size, the security and affordability of the tenancy, mortgage, or informal agreement are all enormous factors in the life choices open to any given individual. Whether someone can afford to retire or must keep working is often completely dependent on the vicissitudes of the market over their lifetime which determined not only the value of their home but the value of their labour. Similarly young people are often forced to make choices between living where they grew up or where there are jobs or simply where they can afford too. This project also recognises the ultimate challenge of our contemporary moment; that the continued destruction of the planet is in the rational short-term interest of those who have accrued vast amounts of land and power. Thus, this project imagines the architectural qualities of ‘The collective City’, in which Glasgow undergoes a great act of urban land re-commoning which shapes its development towards serving human need away from shareholder value.
This represents an ideological break with past forms of urban development. However, unlike previous generations of egalitarian architects, ‘Collective City’ wishes to challenge the notion that this should translate into the wholesale clearing of the built environment upon which to build anew. This is driven by the two factors.
Firstly, is the concept that history isn’t something finished and predetermined, but something we have a direct relationship to and an influence on. This project wants to stress that buildings and cities are the product of multitude periods of construction, disaster, care, and neglect by the people who have had influence to change them, both formal and informal. Therefore, architectural work which wishes to endure should embrace this fact, working with and referencing the stacked-up accumulation of events that make up the past, without pretending to be them, and indeed without purporting to be the last.
Secondly, there is environmental necessity. It is undoubtedly true that the greenest building is the one that already exists thus it is imperative we set our ‘goals’ for sustainability wider than numbers of spreadsheets. While U-Values are important, it needs to part of a holistic approach. Often, demolition and replacement is justified with these narrow metrics, even when its replacement is inferior when its entire lifecycle, transport of materials and construction emissions are considered.
However, this does not mean that we must settle for the unsatisfactory thermal performances and implicit bias’s that define much of our existing building stock. Indeed, it is this very existential need to transform the city from an extractive logic to a circular economy which provides the greatest argument for challenging and removing the entrenched power that land ownership has created.As an example, if we were to replace every conventional car, van and lorry on the roads today with an electric vehicle without challenging their individualised nature, the mining and refining of the lithium alone would be environmentally catastrophic. Instead we must make the argument for a public transport system that is frequent, reliable, and far reaching where housing, labour and leisure are within easy reach of each other and are accessible to all people. This however requires that we refute the right that the individual has taken from our streets with their car and return it to the collective.
Both Kate Raworth in ‘Doughnut economics’ and Aaron Bastani in ‘Fully automated luxury communism’ stress the importance of thinking collectively if we are to stay within earths planetary boundaries while providing for all. Both in their own way describe ways of living sustainability that rely on collective public goods, providing for everything from Health to Energy. Most notably for this project they both consider, and promote, the treatment of Housing and Transport as public services, potentially free ones. But how can this be achieved in the stagnant mire of British politics?
Glasgow, once a pocket of inexpensive rents and reasonably paid work, is currently undergoing a localised hyper-housing crisis. Rents are skyrocketing and house prices are following. Berlin, which has a similar history of affordability has been experiencing these rent spikes for a little longer and on the 26th of September 2021 they voted to take action.
240,000 properties, or 11% of all apartments in Berlin, which are currently owned by one investment fund. ‘Deutsche Wohnen & Co’ are to be expropriated without compensation and brought into state ownership. This is possible in Germany because it is inline with the German basic law, which states that “property entails obligations” and “its use shall also serve the public good”. Thus in theory the constitution allows for the socialisation of private assets for the public good. Time will tell if Berliners will succeed in implementing this historic victory.
This is of course impossible in the UK, where not only does such a law not exist, neither does a written constitution on which it might be written! However, in order to get the referendum on the law a huge social movement, made up of tens of thousands of people, and not just of Deutsche Wohnen tenants, had to take place. What would happen if a similar amount of people in Glasgow simply stopped paying their rent and mortgages and instead established a co-operative which not only asserted common ownership over their homes but pooled their resources to fix the cities multitudinous problems? It’s very difficult for the state to enforce 50’000 evictions at once. Even more difficult if they start spending the £49.2 million of monthly rental income these homes represent, on public works programs that benefit all.
Therefore, the challenge of ‘Collective City’ is to imagine what this co-operative might achieve. How they might restitch the existing housing and transport infrastructures of the city to serve egalitarian purposes for which they were not envisaged. How also would their new collective ownership structure reorientate their architecture, rejuvenating and reinterpreting spaces of collectivity.
ESSAY 2: Glasgow a Proto-Collective City disrupted
A mapped study of how Glasgow has developed reveals a series of dramatic urban revolutions and expansions superimposed onto a stubbornly persistent urban grain. These maps tell the story of the changing nature of capitalist development within, and beyond, the City of Glasgow with two key periods straddling an inflection point of the mid 20th century. During the 19th and early 20th centuries Glasgow transformed from a small university town into the supposed ‘Second city of the Empire’, with imperial and industrial wealth defining its urban development.
Thus, at its peak between 1925 and 1950 Glasgow had an urban population of around 1.2 million living in dense urban neighbourhoods connected to each other, to places of work and to places of leisure by rail, tram, and foot. The foundation of this ‘proto-collective city’ was the tenement block, an iconic Scottish typology with pre-industrial roots but which reached its height during the 19th century when it was employed to build mass housing. These buildings are usually 4 stories tall with flats entered from a shared stair (or close), with rules determining the width of the street and back courts. The typology has multiple spaces of collectivity where residents share resources, interact with each other and are connected to the wider city.
However, it is crucial that 19th century city not be mistaken for the collective city that is being advocated for by this project. Their function was to serve as mass housing for workers and bourgeois in a highly unequal society, and thus despite their merits as a collective typology they could not make up for fundamental societal ills. Thus working districts where beset with unregulated and ever escalating rents, non existing maintenance and landlord imposed overcrowding.
And so despite grassroots efforts by the residents to improve their conditions, most notably the female led rent strike of 1915, in the post WWII era many tenement districts where labelled as slums and scheduled for demolition as part of the second key period for Glasgow’s development. Comprehensive urban renewal projects in the 1960s resulted in large-scale relocation of people to designated new towns, such as Cumbernauld, Livingston, East Kilbride and peripheral estates such as Easterhouse and Barlanark. These communities where planned at a very low density with housing designed exclusively for nuclear families in zones strictly separated from work and leisure. Their density not only makes them expensive to maintain, roads and sewers are in constant need of attention, but relies on residents having access to a car.
This coincided with a growing car dependency in the city as tram and urban rail services where withdrawn further forcing residents onto the roads, either into their own cars or on motor-buses that where both suddenly stuck in traffic! In response to this manufactured problem enormous urban motorways where planned and partially built. Further destroying and disconnecting the dense 19th century city. Thus the urban landscape of Glasgow is defined as much by its vacant units, half-filled car parks and deserted front lawns as it is by its marooned fragments of a denser past that remain.
INTRODUCTION – The architecture of a collective Glasgow
As described in the first chapter the aim of ‘Collective City’ is to imagine how Glasgow’s existing tenement housing and rail transport infrastructures might be revived, reorientated and reinterpreted to serve the egalitarian purpose of a more equal and climate resilient city.
There are a huge variety of past imaginations for a city without private ownership of land upon which to draw. A key example for this project is Leonid Sabsovich and Mikhail Okhitovich’s ‘Egalitarian infrastructure for Moscow’(overleaf). Here we see 4 options for the equal distribution of resources across the city. They range from large linear cities which spread out across the Russian continent to rational plans built over a demolished bourgeois city. All consider the question of how to address pre-existing capitalist city some completely disregarding it but more interestingly for this project potentially leaving it as a cultural hub or even a picturesque ruin. These are of course products of a time unconcerned with the material limits of a heating planet, a regime with a very rigid authoritarian form of socialism and a modernist dedication to a break with the historical canon both physically and aesthetically. However, the themes of equal distribution and the big question of what to do with the material creations of our capitalist past are crucial to the architectural intentions of ‘Collective City’.
As previously described Glasgow’s development has left it with many districts highly appropriate for dense urban living but which have been disjointed by mass demolitions, resending of public transport and ribbons of destruction running through heart of the city, following motorway infrastructure. What if this could be healed not through the imposition of another new destructive and carbon intensive layer of change but with the material that is already in the city, adding only what is absolutely necessary and which can be sourced substantially.
I therefore envisage a grand reordering of the existing city into a completely transformed and egalitarian whole. Restitching the frayed and vestigial fragments of past revolutionary changes and reorientating the existing built fabric to scrub it of its ingrained inequities.
This project focuses on two aspects distinct aspects of this revolution. HOUSING IS AN INFRASTRUCTURE and TRANSPORT IS A NETWORK
Transport is a Network
Glasgow has the largest suburban rail network in the UK outside of London, and it was once much more extensive. Despite this, the system is uniquely disjointed, unequally distributed, and running well below capacity. Like many cities, its transport network is focused on the outdated and patriarchal model of moving working people from the outskirts where they live into the centre where they work on a daily basis.
This diagram represents the proposed changes ‘Collective City’ would bring. Derelict lines are reopened, new light rail lines are proposed on motorway infrastructure and river bus service are run along the Clyde. These are then connected to each other, creating a decentralised network of connections that create orders of magnitude more possible journeys and more regular service. Negating the need for personal transport for a large proportion of people.
Furthermore, this new distribution network need not limit itself to passengers. Packages, materials, and food could also be moved along these lines – making their ‘last mile’ on cargo bikes or electric vehicle. Thus, the legions of vans and lorries are banished from our streets and the space is given back to the citizens.
Housing is an Infrastructure
Collective city focuses on the most common housing typology, the Victorian tenement. However, Glasgow has a variety of housing stock and much of this critique and subsequent proposals could be applied to its modernist estates, late 20th and 21st century developments.
The binding factor in these very disparate housing models is that on the whole they were designed for the supposedly normative nuclear family model. Furthermore, the amount of space available to each resident is determined not by ones need but ability to pay.
The result is a cellular existence, with only the normative nuclear family, provided they have enough resources, satisfied. Single people must live intimately with friends to fill up flats, meanwhile next door large family’s squeeze into tiny spaces. These homes are rigid, and thus as circumstances change and individuals are born, move away or die whole groups must up sticks and move, or live uncomfortably.
Communalisation could change this dynamic drastically. What if through negotiation with neighbours, residents could move around the partitions that divide their dwellings. Expand vertically and laterally, creating innumerable layouts for different living situations, renegotiable as these inevitably change. Common ownership of the land also intuits that it be used to best serve the community. Thus the vast swaths of urban land that is currently car parks, golf courses or simply abandoned would be built upon with high quality homes for the masses that need them.
When transport as a network and housing as an infrastructure are viewed together, Glasgow can be reordered. Life and movement in the city is transformed and is no longer primarily about shuttling between spaces of remunerated and un-remunerated labour, between spaces of consumption and spaces of refuge. The Collective City is one that supports the human in their freest condition, to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to knit a jumper in the morning, fish in the afternoon, visit a grandparent in the evening and criticise after dinner.
PROPOSAL: St. Enoch and the city union line
The ‘site’ for this project should be understood as the entirety of the city of Glasgow. However, in order to give realism to the gigantic scale of this approach I have selected a 25 hectare site bordered on its North by Argyll street, to the East by Glasgow Green, south is the Clyde and to the west is the St. Enochs centre.
This area can act both a case study in the theoretical exercise of this project and as a catalyst for future development in the imaginary scenario I described in the first chapter where a co-operative is developing the cities infrastructures.
In this context the development ‘Collective City’ proposes on this complex and layered site can be viewed as reviving of multiple periods in its history. A double or triple exposure on a film negative.
Principally tenement housing is returned to the site, finally repopulating one of the oldest parts of the city. However, these tenements draw on the 19th century typologies that replaced the dark and cramped housing that was once on the site.
Furthermore, the rail line is reinstated with a new station and railway link between the City Union Line and the Argyle Street tunnel. The station serves as a node on the new distribution network with both passenger platforms and goods capacity.
Framework for material re-distribution
When compared to the majority of buildings in our city, contemporary buildings are incredibly complex and difficult to understand let alone deconstruct. This is becoming increasingly so as architects try to resolve environmental issues with technological fixes such as creating airtight envelopes, adding mechanical heat recovery systems and including large amounts of insulation that just happens to be petrol-based. Such an approach may make an environmentally friendly building in a narrow and isolated sense however it is highly inappropriate to the large scale, long-term thinking and mass action envisaged by ‘Collective City’.
Thus, a different approach is required. This will focus on reducing carbon content of materials, (both from sourcing and transport) and ease of construction and future deconstruction and retrofitting.
The ‘Collective City’ will therefore require a framework for material redistribution which will allow citizens to adapt, insulate and extend tenement housing in Glasgow on their own terms and with the minimum of environmental impact. Furthermore, the system should be focused on capturing excess materials produced by these alterations and redeploying them in the construction of a new ‘polyvalent tenement’ typology that will be constructed on the myriad gap sites that have been identified. This is supported by a distribution network and ‘interchange nodes’ which allow for the sourcing, movement, storage and processing of the materials and labour needed for this urban revolution.
It is proposed that materials used for both construction of new buildings and repairs of existing buildings are primarily harvested from the existing tenement housing stock and only where necessary from the environment.
These are then processed and stored at interchange nodes throughout the city prior to being installed or constructed by gangs of amateurs who are working to improve or build their own housing. They will of course be assisted by a limited number of professionals who are associated with their local interchange node.
New materials will be limited to a small pallet of biobased materials. This is for several reasons. Firstly, these materials are easy to source locally and are usually carbon neutral or negative. Secondly, they are highly appropriate, often identical, to the existing pallet of materials and construction techniques in existing Victorian tenements making the harvesting of materials from tenements and their retrofit much simpler. Finally, their simplicity makes their ability to be installed, and reinstalled, by skilled amateurs assisted by a limited number of professionals possible.
The project has identified 12 core building components to focus on which can be broken down into 5 general categories: Tile, Stone, Hemp, Fittings and Timber.
The Autonomous tenement
The programme for retrofiring tenements borrows its name from ‘The Autonomous Terrace’, a set of drawings by Clifford Harper which imagined how a suburban terrace could be repurposed for a way of life that is self-sufficient, green and equitably communal. Applying these to principles to the 19th century tenement typology along with the material requirements described in the previous chapter produces an enhanced housing solution that can be replicated all over the city.
The Polyvalent tenement
The ‘Polyvalent Tenement’ is the typology that will be constructed on the myriad sites that have been identified in Glasgow. Not only does it source many of its materials and parts from the excess produced by alterations to the existing 19th century tenements but also draws heavily on the typology. However, it has been adapted and updated for 21st century communal living as well as modern bio based construction methods.