BLOWING up the Red Road flats as the eyes of the world are on Glasgow sends out the wrong message, writes Joyce McMillan
FIRST, let us concede the good intentions of everyone involved in the mighty rammy caused by the announcement that Glasgow is to stage the explosive demolition of five of its notorious Red Road tower blocks as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony on 23 July.
Back in 1990, after all – when Glasgow enjoyed its famous year as European City Of Culture – the city won friends and admirers across the world for the candour with which it exposed its post-industrial wounds, and tried to create something beautiful and truthful out of the inevitable sadness of the decline of its great heavy industries. Iconic buildings like the old St Rollox railway works at Springburn, the Tramway at Albert Drive, the Harland and Wolff engine shed at Govan and the Arches beneath Central Station, all sprang to life as performance and exhibition spaces, and some went on to become permanent features of the city’s cultural landscape.
So, 24 years on, it must have been tempting to imagine that the demolition of the Red Road flats – to be performed live during the opening ceremony and beamed to giant screens in the main stadium at Celtic Park and across the city – might strike a similar chord across the world. Glasgow is not the only city, after all, that has found itself demolishing huge multi-storey housing developments of roughly similar vintage to Red Road, which was completed in 1969, and there’s no doubt that their demolition could, at least in theory, mark a stage in the process of the urban rebirth so ardently conjured up in the Commonwealth Games press release.
Yet somehow the idea of embracing this demolition as part of the Commonwealth Games celebrations seems as uneasy and tasteless as it is bold. The embrace of old and disused industrial spaces during 1990 was essentially an act of creative reinvention, and of imaginative tribute to the past; the spaces themselves were often beautiful, with a terrific melancholy grandeur, and the work created there was often breathtakingly powerful.
The demolition of Red Road, by contrast, is an act of outright destruction, and a highly ambiguous one. The flats may have been notorious, in all the ways immortalised in Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road; their design and construction was certainly part of the long decline of paternalistic municipal socialism, a shameful triumph of theory, ideology and influence over grass-roots democracy and common sense.
Yet, for all that, it seems both problematic and strange to ask people to stand and cheer the destruction of such a large area of social housing at a time when the nation is in desperate need of cheap, affordable homes, and difficult to trust that the same council which built the flats in the first place, and its offshoot housing company GHA, will automatically replace the flats with something better.
Over the years, the Red Road flats have provided homes for thousands; in the past 20 years, they have become widely known for their role – although not always a happy one – in housing refugees and asylum-seekers from all over the world.
Even at best, in other words, the moment of their demolition will be a time for thought and for sadness, as well as for determination to build a better future. And if that is true for all of us, then we can barely begin to imagine the complex and often private feelings of those who have lived there, as they see the flats fall at last.
Will they feel like cheering, or accepting an invitation to attend a special live screening on Glasgow Green? Some will, but I suspect many will feel angry and despairing at the sight of the complex stuff of their lives being turned into a global spectacle and an opportunistic piece of performance art.
And even if the people of the Red Road area are persuaded to play their allotted role in the demolition spectacle, it still represents an astonishingly high risk, in terms of Glasgow’s image-making and the global image of Scotland as a whole.
Of course, the intention is to focus on the idea of regeneration. The central image, though, will be of a city blowing itself up under the watching eyes of the world, because of past errors of judgment which have contributed to the creation of what will look, after the demolition, like an urban wasteland; and to say that this image could prove a disastrous one, for Glasgow and for Scotland, is to understate the case, as well as to underplay the possible impact of such a possible international debacle on this autumn’s referendum.
So if this strange decision is irreversible – and I guess it may be, since it bears the imprimatur of the Commonwealth Games organising committee, Glasgow City Council, and the Scottish Government minister responsible, Shona Robison – then it’s to be hoped that everyone involved is already working on limiting those possible negative impacts, and on providing a creative context that will fully express the intended meaning of the image. This will be a desperately difficult task. Unlike the founding of the NHS, famously conjured up in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the demolition of the Red Road flats cannot respectably be presented as a matter for straightforward celebration; and complexity is notoriously difficult to convey in the form of large-scale public spectacle.
Meanwhile, yesterday on Twitter, the playwright David Greig tried to express his own unease with the idea of the public demolition. “The flats contain in their concrete bones the dream of a very particular Scottish post-war municipal patriarchal socialism,” he wrote, “part Le Corbusier, part Chicago, part Moscow… they were designed with the best of intent, but the dream, and the buildings, failed.”
That’s the kind of writing that might begin to make sense of this bizarre, high-risk gesture; perhaps the organisers should call in the nation’s leading bards, without delay.
In the meantime, though, it looks as if we may be landed with a Commonwealth Games opening ceremony that – like Red Road itself – was designed with the best of intent but which involves a misjudgment, whose damaging consequences echo painfully down the years, gradually becoming part of the trauma they were once supposed to heal.