A Secret History of Cumbernauld Town Centre

Cumbernauld Town Centre eats pigeons alive, but not before they eat each other. The building is in such a bad state that the birds have plenty of broken windows and pipes to get through, and they’ve made the top floor their home.  Even up on the third floor, where the library sits almost abandoned because borrowers struggle to make their way up, you can hear the birds in the vents, flapping their wings, trapped in the bowels of the building, hidden parts that have been there since the sixties. Sometimes the birds make it down to the third floor – only to realise they can’t get back out, often flying into windows and walls, slamming so hard they drop to the floor. Residents of Cumbernauld sympathise because they often feel like they’re hitting walls too. Cumbernauld Town Centre, the iconic brutalist superstructure, is at the centre of a battle. Some want to keep it intact, and more want to smash it down. We’re halfway there already, with whole parts of the structure already knocked down, a process that started in the ‘90s. Without the entire building together, the one remaining segment makes no sense. No wonder the birds are confused. If you weren’t raised in the town, introduced to the corridors of Cumbernauld Town Centre gradually, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It wasn’t always this way. Town planners trying to find space for the Glasgow overspill must have believed the sun would shine on Cumbernauld forever because they gave many of the early houses flat roofs. In hindsight, a silly decision, but perfectly in keeping with Cumbernauld’s brand of weirdness. This is, after all, a town that had green plastic fins grafted onto the side of a road with strobe lights to symbolise flowing water, which was so distracting the lights were immediately switched off because driving while having lights flashed in your eyes suddenly seemed like a really bad idea. Cumbernauld strange corners and sharp angles have always loomed large in my dreams (and nightmares) because it’s where I lived some of my best and worst times. Alongside thousands of other residents, I grew up in the shadow of a superstructure that won’t be around for much longer. In March this year, it was announced that North Lanarkshire Council had agreed in principle to buy the Town Centre (or The Toony as locals say) so they could redevelop it. Once gone, something sleek and shiny will arise. It took me a few days to process the news. Somehow, I expected to feel downcast at the end of an era.

Instead, I breathed a sigh of relief. God, I thought, at last.

Shopping

No one outside of Cumbernauld should underestimate how significant that building was to us. We see it when we open our windows. We go there to pay our bills. Our books come from the library on the third floor, that is when the lifts actually work and the corridors leading to it are unlocked. This isn’t often, sadly. However, despite that, there’s nowhere quite like was like Cumbernauld Town Centre. A multi-leveled shopping mall, the first in Europe, it looked, unlike anything anyone had ever seen in Scotland. Cumbernauld was the town of the future, so it made sense it should have the shopping facilities of a new unseen era. In many ways, Cumbernauld is Cumbernauld Town Centre. Their identities have merged to become synonymic. Sometimes I confuse them too. Cumbernauld, for me, is many things – but it isn’t boring. It has always provoked discussion, mostly due to that building. It is either loved or hated, usually at the same time. But I was always grateful to be from this town. I don’t think I could have been me anywhere else. Even in the ’90s, Cumbernauld Town Centre (and by proxy the town itself) had a reputation for drabness as a result of neglect. In my position at the library, I’ve spoken to people on their way to the counter with the latest James Patterson novel, residents who still remember and smile about leaving Glesga for a new life in a council hoose here in Cumbernauld. One woman couldn’t believe she had a garden with grass and a shed. At first, the town was bright and built with art in mind. Brian Miller, Cumbernauld’s first (and last) artist in residence, got his hands on The Toony, bringing colour and psychedelic flair to the shopping experience. By the time I came around, an ’80s baby and a ’90s teen, the colour had faded but echoes of it endured, like the building itself. My mum sent me up to the Post Office every Monday to collect our benefits, then to City Bakeries for crusty rolls and chopped pork. A treat for everyone but me. But this building, huge and ugly, full of wrong turns in the right direction, really changed my life. I found Cumbernauld Library, where I’d spent a lot of my life living and working. With the library came free books and adventures close to home. I’ve often said I love libraries because they make us all equal. Rich or poor, all have the same access to books and information. We were poor but that library made me forget, if only for a wee while. Back when The Toony was built, each of the four levels was busy. Everything had a place and position. In order to understand the genesis of Cumbernauld as a New Town, you need to understand how Cumbernauld Town Centre was designed. Every piece of the whole was deliberate, each floor part of a delicate ecosystem sustaining the other. This is how all good architecture should be, all working together to make a smooth living experience.

Shops that don’t exist anymore

Level Four was the Penthouse Apartments, full of professionals. My mother’s boyfriend once helped a pensioner into his flat and he still recalls the sight of the iconic porthole windows. These flats were surprisingly spacious. However, they stopped being used as a residential area and became offices. Before news of this redevelopment, there were plans for these offices to become social housing. On this level, there was also the CDC Club (Cumbernauld Development Corporation Club?), an exclusive bar that became less exclusive as the years progressed. This upper floor was full of people, who would travel downwards towards Level Three. Not only the library but the old Town Hall exists on this floor. There used to be shops here too as well as the old Cumbernauld News headquarters. Fenella Fielding had a field day in Cumbernauld Hit, the promo film made to promote the town. A great deal of Level Three can be seen in it, or the old version of it. I say that because Level Three is very different now. Doors remain locked, lifts stay broken down, and buckets are scattered across the floor to catch leaking water. No one seems to care about the library. Why should they? In a building full of leaks, the only thing that doesn’t leak is the watertight contract that forces the library to stay where it is.

Level Two is where most of the shops are located. There was a strong selection too and the entire place felt easy to navigate. Initially, a lot of the building was open, each area a street in the sky. But the cold turned The Toony into a series of diabolic wind tunnels, each one freezing the pensioners in their scarves. Areas were improved by walls and doors if only to keep the cold away. As a child, I remember shops like Scotch Corner, Price Invaders, What Everyone Wants, MacKays, Woolco, Gateway, Our Price, the Kopper Kettle, William Low, 1st Choice, Jeanster, The Vineyard, State of Independence, Capital, Mothercare, Clarks, and John Menzies. Some people have told me about the other shops, the ones I’ll never see. Remocker Shapiro, Radio Rentals, Just Wot U Needed, Baxters, and a lot of other businesses that were set up in hope, have all gone into memories and the odd JPEG uploaded onto Facebook groups. My favourite shop, of course, was The Scan. The Scan wasn’t just another bookshop, it was Cumbernauld’s only bookshop and a rite of passage for anyone wanting to support a brilliant local business and their favourite authors. You saw The Scan from the other side of the centre because the shopfront was covered in beautiful glossy pine, which stood clearly against all that concrete. When it first opened, there was a cafe upstairs where Kunzle Cake was sold. Anyone I’ve talked to about The Scan mentions how good those cakes tasted. They mention it before any books they might have bought and read. The Scan, like many other shops in that building, couldn’t justify paying the rent, which they apparently felt was too high. It disappeared in the early noughts and when I secured a publishing deal for Happiness Is Wasted On Me, my debut novel for adults set in ‘90s Cumbernauld, I found it disappointing that I never got to see it on the shelves of The Scan.

An old advert I scanned from a brochure

Level One is the bus station, which is still there today. Two sides, none easily accessible because the bridge linking them is blocked off. Pigeons have died there too.

Level Zero, or The Ground Floor, is the parking area of The Toony. There used to be weird sculptures on the walls, more evidence of Brian Miller’s creativity. There was also an Unemployed Workers Centre which became more popular in the ’80s as Thatcher’s grip on government and the economy became suffocating. I would pass there on my way to the lifts that took me up to Level Three, back when the lifts were reliable. As a child, I got lost inside Cumbernauld Town Centre, a Lego play set no one else wanted to play with. Growing up in the town, I was immune to the weirdness that outsiders saw in the building. Everything made sense to me, including the bubble floor lino that split to reveal cracks on the floor underneath.

John Menzies surrounded by iconic Brian Miller designs

The first mistake was made when part of the original building was knocked away to make room for the new Antonine Shopping Centre, opened in 2007 by Princess Anne who quickly fled the scene. The absence of the huge ramps and roof section left the remaining part of the building looking incongruous. As I said earlier, everything in Cumbernauld and the Town Centre was perfectly placed, each piece complimenting the other. If anything, this town was over-designed, but at least it made sense in context. The Antonine Centre looks like it doesn’t belong as part of The Toony. With Asda and Tesco by each side, sucking the life from the original building, it becomes less sensible to keep it. Worse, from the library, you can feel the building shake when weightlifters in the gym underneath drop their dumbbells. Drop them? It feels like they throw them down. If concrete cracks, then I’m waiting for a chasm to open and pull everyone down to hell. Then again, opening a gym in The Toony, completely closing off a huge amount of space formerly used by different shops, seemed like a bad idea from the start. Especially considering there’s another gym just a few metres outside The Toony.

The St Enoch Station Clock that now sits up a stairwell in The Antonine Centre

The news of a potential redevelopment feels like something of a mercy killing to Cumbernauld Town Centre. Finally, a chance to have something that works for the people of Cumbernauld rather than the fans of brutalism who want the building to be listed, safely staring at it from a distance, never having to live with the sight of it outside their windows. It is easy to want a building listed if you’ve never had to suffer in a lift that sticks between floors, the parts required to fix it are no longer in existence. Sometimes, you’ve got to let something you love go. For me, and a place that’s inextricably linked to my life and work, it’s time to say goodbye to Cumbernauld Town Centre. But for a town literally connected to a building, what will Cumbernauld be when it’s gone? Our New Town might actually feel new again, refreshed, a different place. I can’t wait to see for myself.


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