Jackie Kemp: Blown away by Red Road demolition

Destroying the unwanted flats and using them as a metaphor for change is not a bad message to take from Glasgow’s Games, writes Jackie Kemp

It would be fantastic to see some more exciting, people-friendly and fun tower blocks emerge from the ruins of the Red Road. Picture: Getty
It would be fantastic to see some more exciting, people-friendly and fun tower blocks emerge from the ruins of the Red Road. Picture: Getty

THE Red Road flats are coming down – should it be with a bang or a whimper?

The Commonwealth Games committee says it should be with a bang and a party, and why not?

It’s a novel idea – widely denounced by the sometimes rather po-faced elders who pontificate from our television studios each evening.

But as long as we are knocking the flats down to make space for something better, then there is nothing wrong or inherently disrespectful about having a bit of fun as we say goodbye. Potentially it is a creative use of an undoubtedly spectacular moment.

Arguably, the more usual alternative of a massive firework display would simply be a lot of civic money that could be better spent going up in smoke.

In the past, public art occupied a shared space created by religion and empire building: statues of gods or saints; memorials of battles fought, kings and emperors.

But in our own age, contemporary art occupies the territory of controversy. Controversy gets us talking. It is what captures our imaginations and brings us into art galleries; it makes us think.

The public stage created around controversy has been brilliantly captured by the Commonwealth Games artistic director David Zolkwer and the rest of the committee with this idea.

Huge amounts of publicity for the Games have already been generated by the news and social media. Typing “Commonwealth Games and Red Road” into Google generates 2,500,000 results. “Crude”, “tasteless”, “insensitive” say some.

Others disagree – William Cook in the Spectator said the flats have been “a blot on the landscape for half a century. Let them go out with an almighty crash”.

Ideally, the heat and light generated by the controversy can be harnessed and turned into energy for the Games and for the city of Glasgow into the future.

The Games committee assures us that the demolition will be handled in a respectful way and we will have to trust that that will be the case.

The video about the Red Road flats on the Commonwealth Games website gives some insight into the thinking behind the decision.

Chief executive of Glasgow 2014 David Grevemberg says: “Red Road really exemplifies a community that appreciates where it has been in terms of its past but has a very bold and ambitious vision for its future.”

And Glasgow Life chief Bridget McConnell says: “My dad built it. I say that very much as someone with a childhood memory. But my dad was proud of having helped build it and I was proud of him for having helped build it.”

She remembers on the short film how excited she would be when she saw them from the bus on her way to music school each Saturday as a child: “I would see the Red Road flats and I would be so excited and think: ‘This is a city that’s modern, that’s ambitious. It cares about its people and it’s not afraid to do the most contemporary thing for them.’

“I can always remember being quite jealous actually because I wanted to live at the top of these flats because I thought it was such a cool place to be.”

As she is talking we see a photo of scaffolders sitting at a dizzying height on the bare girders with no sign of any ropes or safety gear at all.

In their day, the Red Road flats were an attempt to create affordable housing in a modern way. They did do that but they created other problems.

Their time has passed and marking that in a positive way is fine; destruction is a part of the cycle of change and renewal.

High rise is still a great idea, but it can be done better. I was interested to see at an exhibition of the Scottish modernist architect Sir Basil Spence’s work that he linked the whole idea of the tower block back to Edinburgh, which he regarded as the home of the oldest tower blocks in Europe.

Indeed the twisting streets of the Old Town sometimes conceal buildings that are a dozen or more stories high, streets effectively built on top of each other.

When an afternoon performance of A Winter’s Tale that my daughter and I were at last Edinburgh Festival was disrupted by a fire alarm, we followed the cast out of a side exit and up a steep close to emerge in a completely unexpected place.

It was only the experience of seeing groups of grease-painted thespians and their followers emerging into the sunlight from several different closes at different levels that made me aware of how high the building actually was and how many streets it was connected to.

“Urban tower blocks don’t have to be crammed with dreary rectangles. They can have courtyard gardens and submarine-like periscopes, and still be cost-effective,” Richard Woodward wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, in a piece on Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ innovative and creative reinvention of the tower block.

His practice, the BIG group, designed a low-cost pyramid-inspired tower block which has a grassy bike path all the way to the top floor. But it is capped by their current project – a massive waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen which will double as a giant artificial ski slope.

If you think, like architecture blog Curbed, that “skiing on a waste plant sounds gross” then consider this: “Visitors will reach the dizzying heights of Amagerforbrændingen ski roof via an external lift system which will rise past the plant’s smokestack, ensuring that they are aware of the building’s primal function.”

It would be fantastic to see some more exciting, people-friendly and fun tower blocks emerge from the ruins of the Red Road.

It would also be a fine thing to take the most disturbing symbol of our current century – the symbol of a collapsing building – which we all associate with 9/11 – and change its meaning.

In our recent past, terrorists have communicated through images of spectacular violence, using them to drive fear into the hearts of ordinary people.

In the 1960s, critic Guy Debord wrote the seminal work, the Society of the Spectacle, in which he saw a future where the powerful created grand spectacles which ordinary citizens could only passively consume.

That looks naive now. The idea of the Society of the Spectacle took a grimmer turn when, in a series of increasingly inhuman acts of mass violence, secret societies of suicidal terrorists have blown up and destroyed buildings across the world, invariably slaughtering innocent passers-by.

Mass participation events like the London and Sochi Olympics and the World Cup are now overshadowed by high security, caused by the fear of a spectacular terrorist attack.

It is definitely bold; and it is potentially subversive for a municipality like Glasgow to stage its own scene of spectacular destruction by blowing up its own buildings on screen.

The flats have already inspired art, in the form of Andrea Arnold’s movie Red Road, which won the jury prize at Cannes Film Festival, and has been voted one of the best British movies of the past 25 years.

Demolishing them as part of the opening ceremony will create a piece of public performance art that is cutting edge, contemporary, challenging, even subversive.

It may also mark a moment of change and renewal; the destruction of the old and the creation of new possibilities, a moment when we can stand enjoying the spectacle of the dead wood of the past crackling and blazing in the flames of a garden bonfire before we get on with the business of replanting for the future.