You think you know Glasgow, then you discover something new, like the fact there’s a tunnel from the City Chambers to the cenotaph on George Square. It’s about 3ft high, it’s so narrow you can’t turn round in it, and it leads to an 8ft-square underground chamber. No one knows who put the tunnel there or why. It’s a bit of a mystery.

I know for sure the place exists though because the architect Peter Drummond has crawled through the tunnel and has vivid memories of the experience: the drip-drip of water from the ceiling, the vibration of the buses passing overhead, and the pain of crawling on his hands and knees. At the end was a metal hatch but it was welded shut which meant Peter then had to reverse all the way out, inch by painful inch.

Peter made the uncomfortable trip as part of research that Glasgow City Council asked him to do into the history of George Square. As we know, there are plans for further changes to the design of the square, after some disastrous mistakes in the past (red tarmac!) and so the council asked Peter to do a report which could inform their decision-making. He talked through his findings at an event last week and I must say it had some surprising effects on my view of the future of the square.

The event was one of the regular meetings of the Strathclyde Group of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, which examines planning applications that affect listed buildings and conservation areas. In 2022-23 in Glasgow alone, they looked at 800 cases, and naturally they're particularly concerned about what’s going to happen next to Glasgow’s greatest square, its civic heart, its “front room”.

I think it’s fair to say a lot of people, me included, have an instinctively conservative approach to the subject, given the kind of decisions that have been made in the past (the red tarmac! cut down the trees! you know the score). In fact, I think the first reaction of a lot of Glaswegians is they’d like to see the square restored to the way they remember it, the way it was before the 1990s, the “proper” way.

But let me tell you a bit of what Peter talked about in his lecture to the AHSS and see if it changes your mind in the way it’s started to change mine. Peter talked through the square’s history from the 17th century when the place where George Square is now was just empty ground, and the striking thing is it’s a story of constant radical change. Wait til you hear about the pissoirs.

A good place to start is probably 1810 when the square was laid out as a small park. By the 1820s, there was a fountain in the middle and meandering paths through the trees and shrubs and before long, the first of the monuments started to appear. Looking at engravings and paintings from the time, it looks in many ways like your archetypal elegant Georgian square.

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But Peter encouraged us to look a little bit closer. In one picture he showed us, you can see the open pissoirs that once stood at each corner of the square; in another, you can see a small child who’s clearly barefoot. Yes, this was a typical Georgian square in some ways, but it was never really a genteel place; it was gritty; it was Glasgow.

The various stages of the square in the years that followed are also interesting. By the late 19th century, statues were becoming more obvious. In the 1920s, the cenotaph went in, and in the 50s you had a building slap bang in the middle where Glaswegians could be X-rayed as part of the campaign against tuberculosis. A special song was written to reassure teenagers that being X-rayed wasn’t “square.”

The point is that change has always been part of George Square's story. When the cenotaph went up for example, the statues were moved about a bit, and it wasn’t the only time they were shifted. There was also a time when it was basically just trees and shrubs and there was a time when it was much more formal. And we all know about the changes in the 90s when the aim was to make way for big (and financially lucrative) civic events and red tarmac was poured over everything. It was, said Peter with considerable restraint, “not a high point”.

Which takes us to the present day and the current plans. Designed by McAslan & Partners, who worked on the Burrell Collection redesign, they show a relatively large open space in the middle surrounded by mature trees. The statues, once cleaned and restored, would also stay in place, and if approved, the work would start next year to be finished in 2027.

Do we like the plans? Well, as I said, I think the instinct of many Glaswegians is that the square should be put back the way it was pre-1990s and they certainly made it clear in 2013 that they didn’t like the more radical proposals that were on the table back then. The people of Glasgow haven’t quite forgiven the council for tarmageddon so quite understandably they’re wary of anything else the council suggests. I get it. I feel the same way.

But as Peter and I discussed last week, one of the lessons that seems to emerge from a decent look at the history is that the instinctive conservative reaction many of us have against change isn’t quite right for George Square. As Peter pointed out, the statues weren’t always where they are now and have often been moved about; and sometimes the square was parkland, sometimes more formal. It’s changed all the time.

What this means in Peter’s case is that, having done his report, he’s pretty positive about the McAslan plan; it strays away, he says, from a pastiche recreation of the “classic” post-War design in a way he thought would never have worked, but it does. He’s also open to mixing and matching the statues, reinstating some and maybe not others. After all, that’s the way it’s been done in the past as times have changed.

To my surprise, I think I agree with Peter. Instinctively, I’d say don’t mess with the statues and I’d say it even more forcefully if I detected any whiff of annoying right-on revisionism about Scottish history. You know what I mean: the ghastly entitled types that went to the square the other day and sprayed soup on the statues of Victoria and Albert. Part of me wants the statues to stay where they are just to annoy that kind of person.

But I must admit Peter’s lecture, and his dive into the history of the square, is changing my opinion. Obviously, it’ll depend on the details – there are particular concerns about where Victoria and Albert might end up – and the quality of the materials will be important. But I’m starting to realise that the idea of restoring the square to some kind of previous ideal isn’t quite right. It has always changed, it has always adapted, it has always tried to fit in to the way we live now. So let’s try and be open-minded about the change to come. And let’s try to get it right.