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Cumbernauld is a paradox. It is within easy commuting distance of Scotland's largest city, Glasgow and has excellent road and rail links. It is only seven miles from the beautiful Campsie Fells; just over 20 miles from Loch Lomond; and lies within two miles of the line of an ancient Roman monument that could well become a World Heritage Site, the Antonine Wall. Add to this a recorded history that saw it feature on maps from as early as 1250; a name that can trace its origin to the Gaelic comar nan allt, meaning "the meeting of the waters"; and a huge investment in modern housing, especially by private sector developers who are building exactly the sorts of highly successful properties they are building across much of central Scotland. The result must, inevitably, be a dynamic and highly successful town.
And by some measures, that is exactly what Cumbernauld is. Its population now exceeds that of three of Scotland's seven cities, Perth, Stirling and Inverness, and many economic indicators are very favourable. And yet... according to some sources, house prices in and around Cumbernauld are, like for like, persistently lower than those across much of Central Scotland. What's going on?
What's going on is that Cumbernauld has an image problem. From humble origins, it grew dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s as one of five new towns developed across Scotland to cope with overspill from the large cities caused, especially, by slum clearance in Glasgow. This in itself is not the issue. The issue is that Cumbernauld took the lead in adopting a "utopian" approach to planning much in vogue at the time. The result was the construction, on the highest and windiest location for miles in any direction, and over a mile away from the existing village from which it took its name, of a town centre that at the time was seen as one of the architectural wonders of the world, a modernist concrete "megastructure" intended to exemplify everything that was good about the brave new post-war era.
A general change of outlook and taste combined with emerging structural and other problems to ensure that by as early as the 1970s Cumbernauld's bold architecture was seen as a liability rather than an asset, despite efforts to ensure that later phases of building learned from the mistakes of the first. In the decades since, Cumbernauld's brave new architecture has seemed more and more misguided, to the extent that today the town continues to be famous, but now it's for all the wrong reasons.
This fame has taken many forms. In 2001 Cumbernauld won the Carbuncle Award for the worst place in Scotland, with the judges drawing comparisons with Eastern Europe "before the Wall came down" and calling it "the Kabul of the north". In 2003 it was named as the second worst place to live in the UK, after Hull. In 2004 a survey revealed it to have a higher density of dumped shopping trolleys than anywhere else in Scotland. And in 2005, the producers of a Channel 4 series collecting votes for the UK's worst building, the idea being to conclude the series by actually demolishing a building, were surprised to receive large numbers of votes from people wanting them to demolish the whole of the centre of Cumbernauld. On the other hand, in 2012 Cumbernauld was named Best Town in the Civic Pride section of the Scottish Design Awards, suggesting that whatever its physical imperfections, many of those living there feel very positively abut the town they call home.
Visit Cumbernauld and you find that the reality is every bit as complex as the image. Cumbernauld's central location and good transport links are undeniable, and extend to having its own small airport. And the quality and choice of modern housing in the wider area matches what you will find anywhere else in Scotland.
But however positively you try to look at it, there are irresolvable problems in the centre of the town that just will not go away. The surviving core of the original "megastructure" is every bit as inhuman and brutal as the critics say it is. And once inside, the forbidding and (by modern standards) poorly lit walkways and corridors do nothing to make this a comfortable, still less an enjoyable, place to be.
Efforts to remedy matters have, over a period of decades, generally taken the approach of adding on new elements intended to counterbalance the problems with the old, often on land cleared by demolition of parts of what had gone before. But, presumably on grounds of cost and practicality, no-one has ever grasped the whole nettle and starting again from scratch.
The latest example of this sort of approach has been the £40m Antonine Centre, which opened in mid 2007. This provides a bright and airy alternative to the older parts of the town centre, though one that by Spring 2008 still carried many vacant units. The other approach also adopted in Cumbernauld is one that you see right across the UK. The development of the Antonine Centre was accompanied by the arrival of a large new "Tesco Extra" store just to the west of the town centre, while just to its east is a large and modern Asda store. These both appear highly popular and it seems possible that many people now simply view the centre of Cumbernauld as the location of a couple of very large and convenient supermarkets.
Look beyond the shopping facilities in central Cumbernauld and again you find a mixed picture. Cumbernauld College is probably not to everyone's taste, but at least it is possible to debate both the pros and cons of its architecture. Less that's positive can be said about the housing that borders the south edge of the town centre: oblong flat-roofed blocks of terraced houses, some startlingly drab and unadorned, are relics of some of the earliest housing development in Cumbernauld new town. These are just a few of the many thousands of flat-roofed houses and other structures built right across central Scotland, apparently in defiance or ignorance of our wet climate, during the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps architects' drawing boards of the era always had blue skies. Whatever the reason, it would be interesting to know what proportion of Scotland's flat roofs of the era have failed to keep out the weather in the decades since.
It is very easy to pay too much attention to Cumbernauld's centre and ignore the surrounding areas. That was one reason we chose to head up this feature with a picture of Cumbernauld Village, a picture that will come as a surprise to many who only know Cumbernauld by reputation. In seeking this out we had hoped to provide a balanced view, showing "the other side of the coin". It was therefore a disappointment to find the most imposing pub in the centre of Cumbernauld Village closed and boarded up. And still more so that in early 2008 this was a fate shared by Cumbernauld House, a fine mansion designed by the architect William Adam and another subject we'd hoped to be able to show in happier circumstances to give a more balanced picture of what Cumbernauld is really like.