This Brutalist Classic in Scotland Is Getting Demolished Instead of Reimagined

This building should be a landmark, not landfill.

Cumbernauld Town Centre
Cumbernauld Town Centre in North Lanarkshire, Scotland as it was originally built.

The JR James Archive / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

We have long quoted architect Carl Elefante's dictum that the greenest building is the one already standing. It was the mantra of the green preservation movement long before anyone talked about upfront or embodied carbon—the carbon released making the steel, concrete, and other materials that go into new buildings. It's why we now argue for the reuse, restoration, "RetroFirst," and reimagining of existing buildings. The upfront carbon is already in the atmosphere and you don't have to add much more.

Now, a major British brutalist icon, the Cumbernauld Town Centre, which was built as the commercial heart of a new town in Scotland, is about to be demolished. Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote and historian Barnabas Calder are not happy. Calder notes, "It's had a hard life, but it's enormously important as an urban experiment."

Calder also said it could be saved: "The limit to their lifespan is that of their structure. If maintained well the concrete here could last another century or two. Improved insulation and airtightness will save a hell of a lot of carbon upfront over demolition and replacement, and can perform better long-term too."

Many responding to his tweet do not agree; they think it's ugly. They don't like the brutalist style. They say it is too far gone—some of it has already been demolished. Calder acknowledges, "It's in a bad state. I'm not proposing a paint job but a fundamental retrofit, sorting out environmental performance too. A big, expensive, expert job, but the right thing to do and the sustainable thing to do."

Cumbernauld Town Centre
The Cumbernauld Town Centre in North Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Ross Watson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

This is what is known as "demolition by neglect," a term first I heard from Architectural Conservancy of Ontario President Catherine Nasmith, who also coined "landmarks, not landfill." I used this term a lot when I succeeded her in the role. It is described in a thesis as occurring "when an owner, with malicious intent, lets a building deteriorate until it becomes a structural hazard and then turns around and asserts the building's advanced state of deterioration as a reason to justify its demolition."

Black and white photo of the Robin Hood Gardens
Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, London.

Sandra Lousada / The Smithson Family Collection

It happens all the time in Britain. When architects Alison and Peter Smithson's wonderful Robin Hood Gardens was threatened, journalist Amanda Baillieu wrote: "The issue goes far beyond architecture and raises questions about exactly why vast resources are thrown at demolishing buildings simply because they are seen to belong to the unfashionable ideology of a previous era."

Critic Nicholas Ouroussoff wrote:

"Construction is one of the largest single producers of carbon dioxide. In the age of global warming, deciding to tear down and rebuild rather than think through whether a project can be salvaged has obvious ethical implications. Yet an equally important issue is how we treat the cities we inherit and the memories they hold. Condemning an entire historical movement can be a symptom of intellectual laziness. It can also be a way to avoid difficult truths."
Barbican Centre
The Barbican Centre in London.

Lloyd Alter

One of those difficult truths is that when you build something, you have to maintain it. Ray Lucas of the Manchester School of Architecture grew up in Cumbernauld and spent a lot of time in this building. He has fond memories; it was part of his life. Writing in The National, Lucas says:

"That’s not to be uncritical of it, to ignore its flaws and issues, but the underlying problem has always been one of under-investment. Compare the town centre to the Barbican in London and you will see a very similar architectural language but in a building that has been cared for and developed with facilities appropriate to the number of people who live there. London had the investment where a Scottish New Town would be left to languish. There are pragmatic reasons for refit and renovation, not least the significant and irresponsible environmental costs of demolition and newbuild. More importantly, it is a truly unique space that, with a little imagination and care, can be made to work. More simply put, we’ll miss it when it’s gone."
Mall refit in China
The before and after of the Capitaland Nuohemule in Hohhot City, China.

(L) Deng Ziming; (R) CLOU

Coincidentally, as I was writing this post, I received a press release about a revitalized shopping mall in China where CLOU Architects breathlessly note:

atrium in mall

Chill Shine

"CapitaMall Nuohemule stands as a new, comprehensive kind of contemporization: far beyond a simplistic mall refurbishment with superficial re-application of materials, it is about extracting the essence of a building and converting it into a new, adventurous, and future-proof concept."

Mall Interior

 Chill Shine

"The revitalization of an abandoned mall at Hohhot’s Nuohemule station has successfully transformed a dark and barren seven-story concrete structure into a vibrant and diversified experience of plants, greenery, and water - an attraction that has emerged as a visitor magnet far beyond its local neighborhood. Opening day generated a flow of over 100,000 visitors."

The Capitaland Nuohemule interior featuring plants.

Deng Ziming

"To counteract the ‘winter blues’ induced by a harsh climate of long, arid seasons devoid of green and daylight, CapitaMall Nuohemule emerges as the first garden mall in Inner Mongolia. Lush, multi-level interior landscaping spreads skywards through a series of atria, reaching out into the horizontal circulation zones to provide a rare and enjoyable public green experience for the surrounding communities."

Cumbernauld Town Centre under construction
The Cumbernauld Town Centre under construction.

The JR James Archive / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Scotland certainly has long seasons devoid of green and daylight. Surely something imaginative could be done to reinvent Cumbernauld Town Centre instead of throwing it all away. It should be a landmark, not landfill.