Plans were unveiled this week for the transformation of the entrance to Glagow’s Royal Concert Hall, with the iconic steps which mark the top of Buchanan Street facing removal.

Since the venue was opened in 1990 the steps have become a familiar gathering point, whether for sunny afternoons or furious protest.

Though it’s hard to imagine the city centre without them now, their creation was decades in the making after the city’s previous concert hall, St Andrew’s on Granville Street, burned down one winter’s night in 1962.

The previous evening the venue had played host to an amateur international boxing match between Scotland and Romania, in which the visitors triumphed by six bouts to four. The fire was likely started by a dropped match or cigarette from that event, with officials admitting they did not enforce a no smoking policy and instead it was “left to the discretion of the people”.

The blaze was sparked in the early hours, with around 50 families evacuated from their homes on Kent Road and Cleveland Street, while BBC television vans brought to broadcast the boxing were hurriedly disconnected.

The Herald:

“Heat was the firefighters’ big enemy”, the Evening Times reported. “It was so intense that the men on the turntable ladders could bear it for only short spells at a time and had to shield their faces with wet cloths”.

The hall could not be saved. Its destruction made front page news alongside the ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis, with thoughts immediately turning to a potential replacement. The Herald front page on October 27 said the prospects of “a major art centre for Glasgow, incorporating modern concert, conference and theatre facilities for professional and amateur drama are almost certain to be examined”.

The Glasgow Corporation resolved to move quickly, ruling out rebuilding on the existing site due to a lack of parking facilties, but it would not be until nearly three decades later that a replacement would open.

Following the contemporary fashion for city planning based on transport needs, initial proposals in the 1960s focused on an “island of culture” where theatres and concert halls would be housed in pavilions scattered on an elevated plaza surrounded by ring roads and traffic arteries.

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The first proposal was put forward in 1964 by the Civic Design Section, headed by Archibald Jury. A giant pedestrian plaza, around the size of George Square, would be erected at the top of Renfrew Street, on the site of the former Buchanan Street train station, with the concert hall to be built on the square’s northern side next to a civic theatre and an exhibition hall. Cars and buses would access the complex through underground car parks which would provide direct access to the buildings.

Critics noted that pedestrians would face walking across an elevated and open square in Glaswegian weather, and a lack of competition to Mr Jury’s £4m - £62.3m in today’s money - scheme also caused consternation, with the head of the project suggesting sniffily that “90 per cent of people don’t notice what buildings look like”. Jack Coia, Ninian Johnston, Alan Reiach, and Walter Underwood, some of Scotland’s most famous contemporary architects, were scathing in their criticism of the design and called for a new architect to lead the project. The city relented in 1968.

Jury was replaced a private sector architect, Leslie Martin, who presented his first proposal in the same year. It would be set a block to the south of the previous proposal, with plans drawn up for a three-to-four storey building that developed around a hexagonal square at the intersection of Sauchiehall and Buchanan Streets. It would have contained not just the Concert Hall but also the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Citizens’ Theatre, which was considering a move at the time and, in stark contrast to the previous plan, would be based on pedestrian access through a winter garden to the west and south, rather than being built with cars in mind.

The Herald: An early design for the Concert HallAn early design for the Concert Hall (Image: Glasgow City Council)

Though they went through numerous iterations the plans proved popular, but the decline of Glasgow’s industry put strain on city budgets. In 1970 the Herald lamented “the city has known too many reversals and missed chances to do more than breathe a sigh of relief that, at last, the concept of a cultural centre might get off the ground” and called the ruins of St Andrew’s halls “a reproach to the poverty of the city’s cultural aspirations”.

Unable to finance the project itself, the council began to explore the possibility of a commercial developer taking up Martin’s design. A ground floor of shops over which the cultural buildings could be constructed was calculated to reduce the cost of the project by around half – and featured the now iconic steps to help reach the concert venue. However, planning permission was rejected in 1983 in favour of a development at St Enoch Square which would include a swimming pool rather than a concert hall.

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By this point the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama had decided to build its own HQ at the top of Renfield Street – designed by Martin – with a concrete overpass near the main entrance a relic of Jury’s original design.

Finally, in 1986, the city council had before them two proposals. One was a variation on Martin’s original design, the other, unsolicited, involved demolishing a church in the Gorbals and rebuilding it at the top of Buchanan Street with new sandstone buildings representing a “return to classical architecture”. The former was selected and opened in 1990, with the adjoining Buchanan Galleries Shopping Centre following nine years later.

The Royal Concert Hall steps quickly became an important Glasgow landmark. People of the city would take lunch on them on sunny days, with public speakers often setting up at their foot. Protests and demonstrations have become common too, with both Yes and No supporters gathering there ahead of the 2014 independence referendum.

The Herald: Independence supporters gather on the steps in 2014Independence supporters gather on the steps in 2014 (Image: Newsquest)

The following year plans were approved to have them demolished after the council voted through plans to expand the shopping centre, despite 14,000 signing a petition demanding that they stay. The scheme was put on hold in January 2015, but last year new plans to demolish the shopping centre and create a ‘mixed-use urban neighbourhood’ were put forward.

While the affection the Glaswegian public have for the steps will be taken into account in any plans going forward, council leader Susan Aitken said that their lack of accessibility and poor condition was an issue.

This week plans were unveiled for a new accessible façade for the concert hall, which could eventually spell the end for the iconic steps. If history is any guide though, they may be around for a while yet.