Catching angels in the Gorbals
I’m in Glasgow to watch the unveiling of Britain’s only suspended sculpture. Called the Gatekeeper, a grim, lead-cast angel weighing a ton and a half sways gently under a big archway leading into the latest development in the legendary story of the Gorbals.
Once home to nearly 100,000 migrants from Ireland and the Scottish highlands, the Gorbals had by the 1930s become the most famous slum in Europe. This was the district that made the architectural term “tenement” notorious and gave Britain its first razor-gang novel, No Mean City. In the 1960s, just as the Victorians had once built doomed tenements for the workers, modernist architects came in and built them doomed tower blocks instead. Now that tenements and towers alike have been demolished, a public-private partnership has moved in. And it’s looking quite good. The newly developed Crown Street area of the Gorbals appears durable, and is the first stage in a masterplan conceived by architect Piers Gough.
It’s a different world, of course. Most of the Gorbals population has long since vanished. Nearby, the gothically derelict Caledonia Road church, designed by the most original of Victorian architects-Alexander “Greek” Thomson-has been preserved in its ruin like the ghost of the Gorbals when the place, and the industrial revolution that created it, were young.
The artists behind the Gorbals’ Gatekeeper sculpture have worked with architects and developers in a remarkable way. They have exploited an EU planning clause that sets aside a “per cent for art,” siphoning off wads of cash from construction costs to integrate artworks with the new housing. Calling themselves Heisenberg (because, as the uncertainty principle implies, every act of observation changes the object observed) they have set about reclaiming the Gorbals history for the new inhabitants.
Below the angelic gatekeeper is a massive photograph, set in steel and reinforced glass, which shows a woman striding out of architectural desolation. Underneath this, keepsakes of objects dear to local inhabitants have been burned and buried. Other sculptures and photographs can be found set into buildings throughout the new development.
Is this pretentious public art making a nuisance of itself? Not quite. The two English artists behind Heisenberg, Dan Dubowitz and Matt Baker, are architects by training and have spent the last three years investigating wasteland sites in Glasgow (10 per cent of which still lies derelict). By mapping out recently demolished areas,…