One of the hidden pleasures of lockdown is the lack of people getting in the way of photographing buildings. Okay, so I appreciate that may sound a tad selfish, and I would swap not being able to get a decent shot of some architecture for not having this pandemic, but you know what I mean, right? The streets are quieter; you can appreciate things without being run over by the number 19 to Ballingry every 5 minutes.
This is the case even in my home town, Glenrothes. Regulars of my blog will know my somewhat nuanced relationship with the place I grew up in and have spent most of my life in now: I love it because of the connections with my Mum and Dad, who in their different ways contributed to the development of this new town; I love the whole ethos of planning for a better, brighter future it represented, especially in the Sixties and Seventies when it was expanding fast. Its town art is slowly gaining the reputation it deserves.
Other aspects of it I’m not so keen on, like its heavy reliance on cars, and the mix of commercial failure and opportunistic half-baked development that is the town centre. Unfortunately these are likely to be the aspects of the town that most visitors experience.
However, I come to praise Glenrothes, not to bury it, and one of its key features is the fantastic open spaces and landscaping out in the residential estates. Take, for example, our walk to our nearest shop, which is a small convenience store in the next housing precinct. Rimbleton was built in the late Fiftes/early Sixties by the Development Corporation, and is unremarkable in every way, really: but I found myself noticing just how well laid out it was. The streets were designed to provide variety – of house type and design, but also in terms of character with little side streets, cul de sacs, and the terraces of housing being set back one from another.
All of that only becomes remarkable when you compare it to some of the south Edinburgh (private) housing estates we were looking at (with a view to eventually moving there) in the months before lockdown: although of a similar vintage and designed to be equally suburban in character, they’re not nearly as well planned and designed. Citizens of Rimbleton, celebrate!
Sadly this ethos of good design has not continued on. Our Seventies estate is okay, and looks at its best as you approach it from the town centre to the north, where you can see somebody was thinking about how to use the natural slope to give it an attractive overall look. More modern than that however, and you have some pretty ugly examples of private housing estates: houses that look like a child’s drawing rather than architect designed, laid out in serried rows to maximise commercial return.
But turn to recent public buildings, and you start to see modern architecture approaching its best, in my completely untutored opinion. Two examples are within five minutes’ walk of our house: The Michael Woods Sports and Leisure Centre, and Fife College’s Stenton Campus.
The Michael Woods (named, somewhat controversially at the time, after a deceased local councillor) replaced the previous Fife Institute of Physical and Recreational Education, built in the early 70s and known colloquially as ‘the Insty.’ It was quite an attractive building in its time, built by a collaboration between three public authorities (putting ‘Education’ in the name allowed the Regional Council to contribute) but, as is so often the case with public buildings, hadn’t been maintained and was at the end of its shelf life.
Its replacement, opened in 2013, houses three swimming pools, the main one being used for regional competitions, as well as a gym, sports hall, and all the usual appurtenances. As a regular user of the pool, I can testify that it normally goes like the proverbial fair: it is particularly weird to see it sitting empty (although, since these photos were taken, its car park has been commandeered as a virus testing station).
Designed in a joint venture by B3 Architects and Cr8architecture, it uses a range of cladding materials and oddly shaped windows to turn what could have been a very boring set of interconnected boxes into a really interesting building (there’s a more technical blather about it here, if you prefer proper architect-speak).
The locals still call it the Insty, by the way.
Across a vast apron of car parking for both sports centre patrons and college students, (normally chock full, obviously) there stands the new Fife College building. The photo on the right shows it in context: on the right of the picture, the original Seventies brutalist concrete technical college building, quite impressive in its own way though now held together with chewing gum and string; and in front of it, a late Nineties extension called the Rotunda, built at a time when the then Glenrothes College was having a moment in the sun as a very well-regarded place to learn catering (subsequent mergers and retirals of key lecturers have largely stripped it of that status).
On the left of that picture, and in close up in the rest of them, the Engineering, Science and Construction Building, completed in 2010 to a design by CDA Group Architects is, to me, a remarkable looking thing. Like the new Insty, it could have been a big, rectangular box, with no redeeming features: however, it’s anything but, as I hope the photos show.
I wish more modern architecture of this standard sprang up in Glenrothes from now on: sadly, going by recent experience in both the retail and housing sectors, that’s unlikely. A lot of people at this stage would blame the planners, and the Cooncil generally, for the poor design, but I should know better than most that it’s actually very difficult to refuse planning applications on design grounds. The system is weighted in favour of development happening, rather than the other way round, and that’s as it should be. However, unlike other, posher parts of Fife where every planning application is scrutinised closely by retired academics and other highly articulate objectors, things just slide through here.
When we visited Canberra in 2009 – in many ways the Antipodean big brother of Glenrothes, with its design, landscaping and multiple roundabouts – I saw some really cool-looking housing which was apparently the result of an architectural design competition. Maybe, next time the Council has a land sale and is able to control things a bit better, it should factor into the sale something like that.
At least, until then, we’ve got these two buildings to look up to.
Just adverts down here matey.