Going back to the drawing board

Archivist Elspeth Reid with the Plans for Living
Archivist Elspeth Reid with the Plans for Living

From soaring church spires to practical council houses, the buildings that surround us all began life as drawings on a piece of paper.

Now, for the first time, an exhibition of architectural plans from the local area will put on display remarkable sketches that together form a fascinating insight into our history.

‘Plans for Living’, which opens in Callendar House on Saturday, includes just a handful of some of the 20,000 plans that are held by Falkirk Archives but the selection shows how buildings have shaped our lives – from the houses we live in to the schools we attended and the public buildings we use for leisure and work.

For archivist Elspeth Reid, the exhibition is something she’s been thinking about for a long time – but she couldn’t begin on the project until the archive had been properly catalogued.

“It’s been a dream of mine for years to finally put them on display,” said Elspeth. “Since the plans were transferred to us in 1996, we have been gradually cataloguing them – that’s in addition to all the other work we do, of course.”

Cataloguing them was no small task as local authorities have regulated building standards since the 1880s and consequently have kept the architectural plans of every single house, church, shopping centre, community hall and public building in the area.

Regulating building standards was an important way of making living standards better for local people and the exhibition not only charts these improvements but subtly reveals changing attitudes.

“What fascinates me in particular is the social housing,” said Elspeth. “We start off with slums and tenements – families sharing a room and kitchen and communal toilet – and we see real efforts to improve people’s standards of living.”

A classic example of this kind of development is in Westquarter, which was designed and built for the people who lived in appalling conditions in the small mining village of Standburn.

The plans show how carefully people were transferred from cramped squalor to new, affordable houses – and how much effort was made to retain a sense of community.

“I hope when people look at the plans they’ll see the different standards and see how they show what people expected,” says Elspeth. “Victorian schools, for example, were designed to be orderly, so they have very high windows so the children couldn’t be distracted by looking out.

“Plans for Falkirk High School, however – the one that was recently demolished – show a building with floor to ceiling glass, which shows a quite different attitude to education by the 1950s and 1960s.

“We hope it will make people think about what impact architecture has on them and their attitudes. We don’t have any answers, of course, we just hope it makes people think about it.”

Another notable plan on display shows the now controversial Church Walk development in Denny, which was seen as an ambitious, modern development but rapidly degenerated into what is regarded by many as an ugly eyesore, now in the middle of demolition.

But the exhibition is also a celebration of some of the beautiful listed buildings the area boasts and provides a great chance to see the exquisite draughts-manship that underpins so many of our favourite buildings from bygone days.

“I enjoy seeing the different architectural styles – there is an amazing variation for such a small local area,” said Elspeth.

She hesitates when asked to choose a favourite from so many, but finally plumps for Maddiston Primary School, with its beautifully designed ventilation system that looks more like an ornate bell tower.

“Even the writing on this plan is beautiful,” she says, admiring the detailed

sketch.

‘Plans for Living’ opens in Callendar House on Saturday and runs until April 29.

Admission is free and the house is open Monday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm.

Last admission is at 4 p.m.