September 15th, 2008


Imagining East Kilbride as Chandigarh

So, I've reached the point in my Book of Scotlands where East Kilbride becomes Chandigarh. East Kilbride was designated, in 1947, the first of a series of New Towns which would later include Glenrothes (1948), Cumbernauld (1956), Livingston (1962) and Irvine (1964).

Built from scratch with Modernist-utopian town planning principles in mind (for instance, houses were staggered on the street so that each one sat in its own landscape, and schools were placed on hills so that they elevated views and minds alike), East Kilbride was the setting for the early 80s comedy Gregory's Girl. Oh, no, wait, that was Cumbernauld. But, frankly, they all look pretty much the same.

It was also the hometown of Alan McGee, Primal Scream, and other Creation Records bands, who revived forms of pop music as quintessentially 1960s as the architecture of their graph-paper new town. As the Canadian artist Sylvia Grace Borda points out in her project on the town, a lot of the original buildings in East Kilbride are now threatened with demolition. When that happens, a certain Keynesian-utopian vision (no matter how milquetoast) of post-war socialist bliss will vanish off the map of Scotland.

Much as I like the idea of post-war socialist Scottish new towns, though, I can't say I'm too enthusiastic about the drab results (Basil Spence's Duncanrig High School is okay, I guess). So in my parallel Scotland, Le Corbusier -- the master of Utopian degree zero town planning -- is called in to do the job right, as he did for the Indian province of Punjab when, between 1951 and 1965, he helped them construct a monumental and, I think, gorgeous Modernist utopia called Chandigarh.

Nehru, who commissioned the project, said he wanted Chandigarh to be "unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future". And so the greatest symbol of uncompromising Modernism got built in a poor third world country, not in Europe, America or Japan. (Parallels there with Brasilia, of course.)

My task is to imagine what kind of music Creation Records releases in the parallel world in which East Kilbride is a place like Chandigarh. And I suppose the answer is that their catalogue is like a better version of Mute! But wait, weren't Depeche Mode from Basildon, designated a New Town in 1948? So why aren't the Mute and Creation sounds identical? Why don't they both have the graph paper feel Mute bands tended to embrace? I guess I'm going to have to stop being so culturally-determinist about this and admit that genes play a part. In particular, Alan McGee's ginger genes.