I parked the car on its wet desolate rooftop. Our vehicle was alone, save a white van with rusted wheels. Was the shopping centre open? Little through its wired glass panel suggested so, yet the door gave way to a firm push from my palm. No one. The corridor sported nothing but dubious seating and bleak tan wall tiles. Ah! Iceland, the frozen food outlet, does radiate a pale yellow light. And a forlorn middle-aged woman hunches over her till, oblivious to the odd man in the aisle of chest freezers. Odd, because he stands in tracksuit bottoms and black shoes. Previous experience tells me ‘odd’ is a fair label. Also, he is sniffing a frozen chicken and muttering to himself. We walk on.
Into the bowels of the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre, on an early Sunday morning, is an experience one can never come to terms with. Endless corridors of illogical design, weaving towards locked doors and indecipherable wall signs, leaving you wishing you had laid a rope down to beat a retreat back to reality. Panels have been removed from the false ceiling, exposing the spaghetti electrical wiring of the monstrous, multistorey beast. I chance upon a widening of the corridor, where a fat pillar stands proud, smack in the middle of a tiny communal square. Why? Why on earth would people walk around this concrete column, as if prisoners on a mindless exercise walk? Finally, we find the foyer before us, the continuously revolving escalators serving no customers. A few other shops are open. I consider buying some stationery. Then we walk outside.
If you have never seen the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre (which, unless you live in Cumbernauld, I can think of no good reason why you would have), then Google it. Only then will you be able to understand what I cannot truly describe. It is positively a beast. Parts of it look like an industrial flour mill. A humungous concrete train perches precariously on a narrow concrete leg. Skyways that will make the mouths of all skyway-lovers uncontrollably pour with saliva. During your internet searching, you’ll probably find images and blueprints of the nineteen-fifties utopia it was supposed to be. Sketches of men in sharp suits; a slim pretty housewife cooing at fashionable dresses in a grand department store. Why, there are even designs for penthouse apartments above those retailers, and of hip young cats and Barbie dolls grooving on the dance floor of an on-site nightclub. This was the future. And look again at the other pictures online, to see the future now.
But I confess. I love the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. The glory it was meant to be – an all mod cons new town development that would cater for the modern man. The modern family. And of the splendid degradation it inevitably became, once those crazy young architects were weaned off the peace-loving hippie drugs and remembered that Scotland’s weather and attitudes would never wear such optimistic sentiments. To be fair, I’m not sure anywhere would. But I have wild notions. I want to map out every nook and cranny of the complex. I want to commit every dimension of every screw and nail to database. I want to emulate, simulate, every shop – the soon-to-fold budget travel agents and the grille-down bakeries – in elegant software components. In short, I want to preserve this outrageous error. For degradation of this sort fascinates me, as a generation’s enthusiasm seeps into rusty orange water stains and three wheel shopping trolleys. Somewhere in the filth, a heart did once beat proud.
Footnote: I stumbled upon Wikipedia (inevitably so) whilst writing up my musings on Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. Seems the complex has been refurbished somewhat since my visit eight years ago, transforming it into yet another faceless edifice of our current times. You know the type – shiny glass frontage (instead of impenetrable concrete walls), smooth lowercase fonts for the signage (instead of hard utilitarian letters), functioning toilets. The age of grotesque architecture has left us, alas. Hadn’t there been talk of making that monster a listed building? Weren’t there guided tours around its notorious litter-strewn pathways (seriously, I believe this to be true)? Oh well. At least I got to see it before it was vandalised by our bland new century. No one gets to dream anymore. No one gets to construct their ghoulish nightmares straight from the public purse. Soon, there will be no abandoned wildernesses left for us!