Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Eye-catching maybe, but is celebrating the destruction of social housing really in good taste?
Glasgow has a novel plan for grabbing viewers for this summer's Commonwealth Games opening ceremony: It's going to blow up the city's tallest buildings live on television. For the Games opener on July 23, Scotland's largest city will demolish five towers (most over 290-foot high) in just 15 seconds, screening the explosions at the nearby Celtic Stadium.
This combination of celebration and mass destruction, announced Thursday, would be unusual in any circumstances. What makes Glasgow's plans even stranger is that the towers being dynamited – part of a huge housing project called the Red Road Flats – were once the city's pride. By uniting a cheering stadium crowd and TV cameras with explosives, the ceremony might come off as a sort of latter-day Disco Sucks, but for social housing.
This angry end for the Red Road is a far cry from its beginnings. When the project was built in the 1960s, it was meant to help start a brighter future for Glasgow. Hitherto, working class Glaswegians had been crammed into old Victorian and Edwardian tenements, often with no central heating, poor plumbing and a tenacious layer of external grime. Whole neighborhoods of these tenements were swept away, their occupants transplanted to new projects offering up-to-date facilities, more space both inside and out, and broad views across lawns instead of other houses pushing against the back windows.
The re-developers made a classic mistake, however. The problems with the old Glasgow were ones of poverty rather than design. Had the city refurbished rather than demolished, the old areas might be thriving today. Middle-class Glasgow tenements built along similar, if more generous lines remained untouched and are now sought after. Meanwhile the new projects decayed swiftly thanks to poor maintenance, their residents' no wealthier. On top of this, these residents were now loaded with the stigma of living in a place synonymous with urban decay and high unemployment. The notorious Glasgow Effect, where residents experienced consistently worse health and life expectancy than other comparable cities, continued.
Glasgow's new projects shouldered much blame for this, often unfairly. True, like many buildings of their time, Red Road was packed with asbestos. But the decimation of Glasgow’s port and industrial sector, which arrived around the same time, had far more effect on people’s wealth and health than living in a modernist tower.
Still, the city has been moving on. From the '80s onwards, Glasgow started an ultimately successful re-branding of itself as a cultural and business center. The Red Road and its ilk became emblems of the run-down Glasgow that the city’s promoters wanted to forget. Demolition of the first few towers started back in 2012. Now the games will dramatize its final transformation in the most eye-catching way possible.
A video of one of the buildings being demolished in 2012.
But is it really in good taste? This video, shared by the games organizers themselves, proves that many former residents still remember the place with affection. What’s more, the project isn't totally uninhabited, as one tower, currently occupied by asylum seekers, will remain. For these people, witnessing a ceremony that enacts their neighborhood’s destruction as unfit for human habitation while leaving them on site, should feel uncomfortable at the least. A petition is going round against the plans, and there's a sense among locals that they, rather than just the buildings, are the targets of a ritual purge to do away with a side of Glasgow officialdom would rather forget.
As one local Twitter user commented: "The north of [Glasgow] has had no real involvement with the Commonwealth Games - until they decided to blow up our buildings as entertainment."
Top image: A photo of the Red Road Flats from 2009. Image courtesy of G Laird/Wikimedia Commons.