Through the window of Toby Paterson's third-floor studio, by the artist's desk, I can see the top of a concrete core, one part of the Argyle Street Project under construction in the city centre's International Financial Services District. With this view of Glasgow, its topography and attempts at reinvention can never be far from Paterson's mind.
The stark grey form chimes with a recent work, Tradeston Maquette (Ochre/Teal) (2021) just next to the window: a jigsaw-like relief of dark orange board on an aluminium panel. Two watery green brush strokes cut behind the architectonic shapes.
Views of the city's facades and buildings at distance had a formative influence on Paterson. As a child he could see the newly completed Boyd Orr Building of the University of Glasgow from his bedroom. This piece of imposing Brutalist architecture is representative of the 1960s New University style.
For the young Paterson it was a structure at the edge of sight and knowledge. He registered some fear looking through a little telescope at its frosted plate-glass windows – an activity that should have garnered more information met only another surface.
In those years the building became fused with the politics of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Paterson recalls a 1979 cartoon in the Glasgow Herald announcing James Callaghan's defeat to Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative Party victory that would usher in the dismantling of the post-war welfare state and the curtailing of the architectural projects that defined it.
Paterson has written on Thatcher's flipping of Le Corbusier's logic that good buildings can produce better living conditions for people; since Glasgow's tower blocks were 'bad' buildings, those they housed were debased and dehumanised.
Paterson remained in Glasgow for his education, studying Painting and Printmaking at Glasgow School of Art from 1991 to 1995. By this time, he was skateboarding, which allowed him to explore the city more widely – and reconsider the spaces politically demonised in his youth. 'I no longer had to read the city how I was supposed to read it,' he comments.
Cyprien Gaillard, with whom Paterson shares an interest in post-war architecture, has spoken about the influence of this activity on his practice: 'I am really not interested in post-skateboarding art. I don't feel like it does justice to this practice that I think is fundamentally really interesting as a way to engage with the city. You kind of re-appropriate different parts of the city.' For both artists, skateboarding initiates a critical examination of neglected places.
Paterson's interest in photography and modern architecture became the basis for a practice of walking, recording and researching. He has cited Robert Smithson's travelogue essay 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey', in which Smithson reevaluates municipal and industrial infrastructure, as an influence. This is keenly felt in Black Elegy: Spiral Motif (The Bridge to Nowhere) (installation) (2004).
The painting isolates an infamous section of the walkway by Glasgow's M8 motorway that was left incomplete for years and even now has not been finished as originally intended. In its truncated state, the walkway holds a form of promise that history could have been different – that a pedestrian-friendly environment was planned for Anderston. It is what Smithson would term a 'ruin in reverse' and its title alludes to the American artist's Spiral Jetty (1970).
Identifying these structures and recasting them as protagonists in his artworks allowed Paterson to question hierarchies in the built environment. 'I am frequently interested in overlooked architecture,' he has said, 'and the work draws on the experience of moving through such spaces.'
In the studio these episodes are converted into material – often an aspect of a building is condensed down to a set of interlocking geometric forms, reminiscent of abstract modernist painting. Ben Nicholson's June 1937 (painting) (1937) provided Paterson with a model for translating life into blocks of colour. But his works are not expressionistic, or about a kind of inner life, but seek to offer an analogue to place.
Paterson first saw the work of Mary Martin in another run-in with New University architecture. While visiting a friend at The University of Stirling he encountered the aluminium Wall Construction (1968–1969) in the Pathfoot Dining Room.
This sparked a lifelong interest in her practice, with Martin's small-scale Perspex compositions – Perspex Group on Orange (E), for example – becoming a touchstone.
Martin's influence emerges in 'Thresholds' (see Reflection and Crooked Path, both 2015), a series Paterson installed in Scotland's Maggie's Centres, a network offering care to those affected by cancer. The charity was founded by Maggie Keswick Jencks 'with the belief that good architecture and art have the power to transform: to support excellence in healthcare and to make effective connections between people'.
'Thresholds' responds obliquely to walks between the centres and local hospitals, mimicking a journey taken by patients and their loved ones. For Paterson, this was less about conveying such transitions literally and more about considering the emotional impact of entering a centre for each individual. In the small-scale reliefs, one becomes attuned to the brushed or shot-blasted surface of the aluminium, the connections between the sections, and the flatness of colours (ranging from light mint green to earthy red). For visitors, they offer a moment for introspection, a quiet correlative to their experiences.
The effect of uninterrupted urban surfaces is a constant concern for Paterson, and the artist's reliefs speak poignantly to this. Paterson was a model-maker in his youth and his interest in the imaginative space of the prototype gives rise to works that speak simultaneously of the architect's model and Martin's formations (Messedamm, 2020).
While he has academic interests and has written on the buildings of Basil Spence, his works don't seek the same clarity as his writing. They, in some sense, reserve judgement, teasing out a feeling for a location rather than explaining historical specifics.
Paterson's interest in urban space also moves him to place work in public. Poised Array (2005–2007) was the result of a commission for the new BBC headquarters in Pacific Quay, Glasgow. It is an enormous assemblage of glass reinforced plastic and steel, around 20 metres long and 10 metres high.
In flat planes of primary colour, which float and overlap like kites, the work establishes a continuity with the modernist architecture that has traced lines across old Glasgow. Over a decade since its completion, it now speaks to the competitive urban planning on the Clyde riverside, replete with 'Guggenheim effect' hotels, media centres and events venues.
The artist's efforts also extend beyond sculptural installations. Alongside friends and collaborators, he is currently working on GUSM74: Urban Sports Sculpture Park, a plan for a multipurpose civic space. It is motivated by the desire to create a useful and inclusive area for locals, unbeholden to commercial interests.
Paterson believes it can act as a corrective to the incursions of the M74 motorway, which has divided neighbourhoods in Glasgow's Southside and created a series of hard-to-use empty spaces. The project fits with an idea that underpins Paterson's practice – that of responding to the piecemeal city created when modernist ideas became concrete.
Paterson's new studio was constructed and moved into during 2020 and 2021. The move gave him an anchor over the lockdown years – providing a routine and a place to strike out from on walks. The studio is close to the Anderston Centre (1972), 'a complex of high-rise council flats above a podium intended for shops, all raised above street level on the roof of a substantial car park'. Designed by R. Seifert and Partners, the site was never brought to completion, another of Smithson's ruins in reverse, which 'rise into ruin before they are built'.
In 2014, Paterson teamed up with the Scottish Ensemble to produce a cross-form event there, called '20th-Century Perspectives: City Strings and Spaces'. Paterson installed artworks and the ensemble played a range of compositions, from Edward Elgar to Iannis Xenakis. The syncopated strings were an elegy to the defunct Brutalist building and its unrealised uses.
The Anderston Centre's odd charms are exemplary of when quixotic modernism met commercial realities and planning troubles. The plot has been added to and sections reclad over the decades. There are missing walkways, meaning the residential flats do not connect to the shopping zone – now largely unoccupied in any case.
All this makes for a strange, curtailed composition, and although Paterson first started skating here when he was 14, he has found himself exploring the site again and again, picking out these details, turning them over. Just down the street is the International Financial Services District with another multi-use site under construction. The city is always developing. The view from Paterson's studio never quite settles.
Calum Sutherland, artist and freelance writer
This content was supported by Creative Scotland
Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, Penguin, 2016, p.214
Sandy Nairne, 'Foreword' in Thresholds, Maggie's Centres / Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, 2015, pp.3–6
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interview with Cyprien Gaillard, Based in Berlin, Vimeo, 18 July 2011
Toby Paterson, 'Basil Spence and the Creation of an After-Image' in Arcade: Artists and Place-making by Rhona Warwick (ed.), Black Dog Publishing, 2006, pp.96–107
Toby Paterson and Ewan Imrie, 'In Conversation' in Toby Paterson: Consensus and Collapse, The Fruitmarket Gallery, 2010, pp.60–77
Toby Paterson and Judith Winter, 'In Conversation' in Thresholds, Maggie's Centres / Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, 2015, pp.62–66
Robert Smithson, 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' in The Collected Writings by Jack Flam (ed.), University of California Press, 1996, pp.68–74