When I was five years old, I thought that Glasgow at twilight was Fairyland—there was so much beauty and, in the twinkling of the green and orange streetlights laid out before me from my 17th-floor bedroom window, so much power in the vast expanse of brightness that refused to allow the night to take hold. Given that this was the late sixties, when to the rest of the world, Glasgow was equated with slum, I was essentially flying solo in this notion of my hometown's greatness.
We had left our inner-city tenement flat for one of the new tower blocks (skyscrapers, as they came to be called) that were sprouting up all over Scotland. After more than a decade in opposition, the Labour Party had returned to power, and it was determined to finally keep its postwar promise of homes fit for working families. And so, when I was born, Glasgow was in the grip of a construction boom, with whole swaths of Victorian tenement buildings bulldozed into oblivion, and Le Corbusier-inspired apartment towers giving the skyline an achingly pierced look.
These new buildings—such as the Mitchellhill Flats, where we set up house—with their balconies and tiled entryways, were the realization of a grand dream of urban renewal: forward-looking, European-styled monuments of efficiency and cleanliness. We were the first tenants in our apartment, and the freshness was overpowering. The school I would attend was brand-spanking-new, as was the veranda my mother was optimistically filling with potted tomato plants and begonias—and the sense of space provided by our distance from the ground and the rolling hills of the Cathkin Braes that surrounded us was disorienting after years spent in the gloom of the old. Literally and figuratively, we felt sure we were moving up in the world.
Unfortunately, what Le Corbusier had envisioned for the mild air of the Mediterranean quickly fell into disrepair in the damp, mold-ridden Scottish climate, and the dilapidated look of rain-soaked, graffiti-clad concrete became the defining architectural image of my childhood. Optimism gave way to a sense of isolation—we pioneers of skyscraper living were trapped in these fortresses of modernity, cut off even from our neighbors, never mind the larger world. As the industrial unrest of the seventies took hold, various strikes made power outages so common that walking up to the 17th floor because the lift wasn't working came to seem normal. Nearby, entire buildings stood frozen, partial victims of the wrecker's ball, exposed on one side like dollhouses, their front walls torn off.
To counteract the grimness of this city we called home—where unemployment and abandoned plans were epidemic—my mother took to saying (like a character from Angels in America), "Look up, look up—all you have to do to see beauty in Glasgow is open your eyes and look at the carvings on the buildings, look at the woodwork around the doorway, look at how the arch frames a whole street." Hers was the Glasgow of Alexander "Greek" Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, of Victorian wealth displayed in palaces of public virtue: the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow University, Pollok House, and the Martyrs' School. We traipsed around these landmarks every Sunday, unwitting heirs to their founders' hopes that art and culture would uplift the masses. My mother's message wasn't lost on me, and I fell under the spell of hidden grandeur that many post-industrial port cities can cast—the radical chic of a city that was born to the bourgeoisie but inherited by the dispossessed.
A few months ago, on my annual trip back to visit family, I was sitting at an outdoor table at Café Ostra in the Italian Centre, thinking about my mother's passion for the intricacies of Glasgow. The café is surrounded by a plaza that was oncefilled with staid solicitors' offices but is now dominated by a Latin nightclub and Armani and Versace boutiques. The weather was beautiful, and the cappuccino just right, served with a small wedge of fudge on the side to emphasize the Celtic setting. Glasgow is once again in the grip of a building boom—a few blocks away, jackhammers were pounding, and cranes and scaffolding dominated both sides of the river Clyde. But this time around, the city seems to be building new structures that don't undermine its controversial 1990 designation as Cultural Capital of Europe. There's little sentimentality or clinging to a tartan cliché (other than Mockinslosh, as the endless supply of faux Mackintosh trinkets has been dubbed). Beginning in about 1983, with the opening of the strikingly modernBarry Gasson-designed museum that houses the largely medieval Burrell Collection, Glasgow has staked its future on high-concept contemporary architecture and experimental art.
This is the neighborhood where my mother once worked, in one of those solicitor's offices, and it has always been prone to name changes, depending on which way the political wind is blowing. Her office address, for example, flipped overnight in a blaze of anti-apartheid fervor from St. George's Place to Nelson Mandela Square. The old commercial buildings that line Argyle Street over to George Square were themselves recently dubbed the Merchant City—a decade ago, they were just "toon" ("town"), or city center if you were trying to speak clearly for a visitor—and they are now among the most sought-after real estate in Glasgow. Renovation has transformed banks into clothing stores, newspaper offices into hotels, and train stations into nightclubs.
When the Italian Centre complex first sprang into being in 1991, I was skeptical—it seemed truly unlikely to me that there was a strong enough economy in Glasgow to sup- port luxury labels in stand-alone boutiques. Glasgow had always been a trendy place, with fashion and musical fads blowing through at high speed: when I was in my teens, Oxford "bags" were the trousers to wear one day, a green Mohawk was essential the next. But the depressed economy tended to mean thatknockoff style predominated, instead of the real thing. Thirteen years later, like so many other industrial cities in the swagger of affluence, Glasgow has changed dramatically.