I've always been fascinated by large structures that no longer exist. Those that have left behind partial traces of their previous existence fascinate me even more, for it provides something tangible with which to imagine what once was. Usually it's ruins – last month I happily explored colonial Jamestowne in Virginia, where little more than brick outlines remain of the first English settlement – but I find more contemporary remains particularly captivating, not least the Empire Exhibition of 1938.
This took place in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, which is today home to House for an Art Lover (conceived, but never built, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh), a sports centre, some tennis courts and a strip of pleasant woodland. But 80 years ago, the park was covered with strikingly modernist buildings representing Scotland, the UK and its then dominions.
The purpose was primarily economic, a showcase for domestic and imperial trade when Scotland was still recovering from the depression of the early 1930s. But it was also an outlet for a multi-faceted sense of national pride, with Scotland presented as a proudly distinct part of the UK and, simultaneously, an integral part of the mighty British Empire. Despite an horrendously wet summer, it attracted 12m visitors.
Google images of the exhibition and you'll find the Scottish Pavilion North (dedicated to public services in Scotland) and the Scottish Pavilion South (focusing on the past and future of Scotland). Both were designed by the leading architect Sir Basil Spence and flanked a 'Scottish Avenue' which led to the Palace of Art, now the only surviving building in situ at Bellahouston Park.
It is now a sports centre, which I visited on Friday as part of a day-long search for what remains of the Empire Exhibition. The day had begun on the outskirts of Edinburgh, after someone told me on Twitter that contents from the Church of Scotland Pavilion had ended up at Carrick Knowe Parish Church. Sure enough, when I emailed the church asking to take a look, they happily agreed to let me see the baptismal font and bowl, lectern and pulpit, all of which found new homes in Saughton when the exhibition closed.
From there I took several trains to Stevenston in North Ayrshire and, a 25-minute-walk later, found myself amid the eerily deserted remains of Nobel Enterprises at Ardeer. There, in a small wooded area, I located the distinctively Dutch Baroque gables of the former South African Pavilion, which was moved after the exhibition and eventually became the staff canteen at ICI Ardeer.
I had hoped to get inside – videos on YouTube show that this was once possible – but all the entrances had been crudely sealed with breeze blocks, most likely on safety grounds. What ICI called 'Africa House' is now in a pretty sorry state, but then it was intended, like much of the exhibition, as a temporary structure. That it's still standing eight decades later is remarkable, although its future is uncertain.
The last of three surviving exhibition structures now stands at Prestwick Airport, the cavernous Palace of Engineering now forming part of Spirit AeroSystems. Apart from the remaining Palace of Art, meanwhile, there are a couple of other exhibition traces in Bellahouston Park, including a granite obelisk which reads:
This stone marking the site of the Empire Exhibition of 1938, was unveiled by King George VI on 9th July 1937, when His Majesty and Queen Elizabeth paid the first visit of their reign to the City of Glasgow.
If you continue up the hill and into the woodland itself, you'll reach a modest hedgerow marking out the base of what was once the 'Tower of Empire,' the exhibition's iconic 'brand' image and looking like something out of a contemporary science-fiction movie. It was designed by Thomas S Tait, who oversaw the exhibition while simultaneously working on St Andrew's House in Edinburgh. A panel nearby doubtless explains all this, but it's been vandalised beyond legibility.
My last port of call was an unlikely one for someone as football averse as I: Celtic Park. There, in the boardroom display cabinet, sits the 'Empire Exhibition Trophy,' a solid silver model of the Tait Tower. A tournament was held to tie in with the exhibition, with four teams from Scotland and four from England contesting the straight knock-out competition. Watched by a crowd of more than 82,000 at Ibrox Park, Celtic defeated Everton 1-0 at the final on 10 June 1938.
A football-enthusiast friend directed me to a song called 'Willie Maley,' again on YouTube, which includes the lyrics:
In '38 there was a show,
Glasgow was the place to go.
A model of the tower was football's prize.
England sent four of the best,
They didn't meet with much success,
'Cause the trophy ended up in Paradise.
The Empire Exhibition also spawned an incredible array of merchandising, much of which can now be found on eBay. There, models of the Tower of Empire inspire fierce bidding wars (I recently acquired a small Bakelite version, still in its box); last month someone listed a huge, three-foot-high version in black slate, although this quickly disappeared, one assumes as a result of a private bid its seller could not refuse. My desk in London now bulges with badges, tea cups, books and a handsome colour supplement produced by the Glasgow Herald.
Neville Chamberlain negotiated what he believed was 'peace in our time' as the 1938 exhibition neared its end, and indeed it would come to symbolise a Scotland, United Kingdom, and Empire, that would be transformed by the second world war that followed. In that sense, such exhibitions capture a moment in time: that in 1938 came 50 years after Glasgow's first International Exhibition at Kelvingrove, and half a century before the Glasgow Garden Festival, which I attended as an 11-year-old. Like its predecessor in Bellahouston Park, little of that survives, although its Clydesdale Bank tower was dismantled and re-erected, of all places, in north Wales.
Photo of Africa House, Ardeer, by David Torrance