Benjamin Denton-Cardew | 17 September 2018
The demolition of the old Western Infirmary’s “G-Block” represents another sorry installment in the long history of campus mass vandalism.
If you’d have walked along the Kelvinhall end of Byres Road at any time between 1906, and May 2018, a splendid building would have caught your eye: a hospital ward block, known simply as the “G Block” of the famous Western Infirmary. Designed in a Scots Baronial style by JJ Burnet, the architect responsible for the stunning Charing Cross Mansions, this beautiful landmark rose grandly for 5 stories above the tenements below, watchfully positioned to look over the West End like a guardian. Of course, this was only until The University of Glasgow – delighted to find the building was unlisted – demolished it immediately upon acquiring the site for campus expansion. Several students who walked to the rear of the temporary new maths building looked on in horror as finely cut sandstone ornaments, grand rising windows, and over a century of memories were pulverised into oblivion.
It would appear that architects and university planners alike have not learned their lesson from when “streets in the sky” became “pie in the sky”. The reason this university gave for bringing down such a grand building was that it “was not suitable for reuse as part of an efficient modern University campus”. Rubbish. The architects that the University of Glasgow hired to conduct studies on all Western Infirmary buildings (Simpson and Brown) concluded that G Block should be retained in its entirety as it functions well and is very beautiful. Their recommendations are viewable here and vitally state that “In order to understand this building block fully, a conservation plan should be commissioned. The building should be retained and restored.” Yet instead of the recommended conservation, the university chose to ignore this advice, lie about the functionality of the building and opt for the cheaper option of demolition. Beautiful cut sandstone was reduced to dust and dumped in the sea.
You can see glass anywhere, but there’s hardly a building as fine as the old G block on every corner. Should it have been in Edinburgh then people would have come to look at it from all around, but it’s in Glasgow – and now there’s nothing left. It makes me burn, this vandalism of the past, by the city and by the very university that was once an important bastion of Glasgow’s culture and pride. The fact that they lie to facilitate their purge of beauty only sharpens the sting.
Another reason why the decision to demolish G block was particularly heinous was that it was attached to a listed chapel – the Alexander Elder Memorial chapel. This was accessed at first floor level through G block, and without G block the chapel seems doomed to stand alone and isolated until the university inevitably pulls it down as well. The chapel is now completely unusable - that’ll be more beauty lost forever, in the name of economy.
It may well be cheaper to build new than to refurbish, but it’s practically axiomatic that what people love most about the architecture on campus isn’t the Boyd Orr, or the Library, but the grand spires of the main building and everything that takes the cue from that. What saves the main building is that it’s both listed and something of a visible icon. If it wasn’t, we could expect it would have been hastily demolished years ago in favour of more Boyd-Orr concrete, which attract all the anti-social behaviour and vandalism that something vaguely pleasing on the eye deters. I don’t blame the vandals of course, they’re merely finishing the job of the vandals who built it.
And nor does the loss of G-block represent the first time the university has been delighted to smash beloved older buildings. Back before the Boyd Orr and Maths Building went up in the mid 60s, rows of wonderful, well kept terraced houses on University Avenue were cleared overnight, with the excuse that they were unsafe. True to form, this was another lie from the university, and they were demolished quickly to avoid the inevitable student protest. This is a decision that no doubt has been since regretted, as the maths building which was built in their place quickly went from a new eyesore to a shabby eyesore, and is now, of course, gone as well. 50-odd years of existence is rather short for such a central building, but then again, rather long for one so ugly.
This university likes to bang on about the Western Infirmary site and its history in great detail, but quietly hides the fact that they’re just after demolishing the last surviving bit of it. It’s all rather obscene. The replacement is to be a poor exchange of glass walls hung on steel frames with absurd features that don’t match. Like the maths building, it will be built only to be demolished. The buildings being built on campus today (and for some time) are solely utilitarian. This happened in the 1960s and 1970s, and look what we have today – rows upon rows of boarded up brutalist buildings. Buildings that are empty because nobody wants to be in them, and nobody wants to be in them because they’re ugly. Put utility first and you shall lose it, but put beauty first and you shall have something that is useful forever. It is astonishing how quickly buildings built primarily to be useful become useless. Architecture that doesn’t respect the past does not respect the present, because it fails to respect our primary need from architecture – to build a long standing home, be that at our homes, at university, or in the workplace. We are not simply governed by animal appetites like eating and sleeping, we have spiritual and moral needs too and if those needs go unsatisfied then so do we. Ornaments and beauty in architecture liberate us from the tyranny of the useful and protect us from the tyranny of what will rapidly become useless.
If the students of Glasgow really believe that their tuition fees go towards a campus redevelopment conducive to positive learning, then they’re being conned. Glasgow has been conned; I’ve been conned myself. What the university planners are doing is a disgrace. There are still some buildings remaining on the Western Infirmary campus that are unlisted but are beautiful, I urge readers to go out and take pictures of them (before they are lost forever) to document exactly what the university is doing. Let’s see the vandals one day held to account for their actions.