THE Red Road flats are used to being gazed at: in awe, in pity, in anger, but mostly with a degree of respect.
From 1969, when they were seen as symbols of a future stripped of slums, through their days as a cauldron of social disorder, to their final role as a refuge for asylum seekers, they have fascinated residents and outsiders alike. It was the architecture, of course.
The 30-storey steel-framed blocks looming over the landscape made you gasp. What did it feel like, you couldn’t help but wonder, to reside on the top floor of a building which swayed in the wind: like an eagle in its eyrie or Rapunzel in her tower? But mostly it was the people who inhabited them – their diversity, resilience and their love/hate relationship with their own living environment – that captured the imagination.
The flats inspired many works of art, but it is, perhaps, Alison Irvine’s This Road is Red, drawn from interviews with former residents, that best captures their ambivalence. The flats were a source of pride and embarrassment, a place of fierce friendships and bitter feuding, a sanctuary and a prison. In four decades, they saw lives transformed and lives destroyed.
It is the sheer complexity of the emotional response to these monoliths that makes the decision to include the demolition of five of the remaining six in the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games so tasteless, so crass, so utterly inexplicable.
Yes, we know the sight of once-immutable structures collapsing into a pile of dust can be a thrilling one, especially when it takes just 15 seconds. Destruction on such a grand scale sends shivers down the spine. But beaming it to more than a billion people across the globe who have no understanding of the buildings’ place in Glasgow’s history and little empathy with those who once lived there is a piece of opportunism as culturally insensitive as it is possible to conceive.
Would we applaud Brazil if it served up burning favelas for our entertainment? So why is it deemed acceptable in our own backyard?
The argument that it works as a symbol of Games-propelled regeneration is so tenuous that city leader Gordon Matheson seemed uncomfortable having to make it in a public forum. Located in the wrong part of the city – and with one block being retained for refugees – the idea seems more resonant of our civic leaders’ disconnect with the people (see the proposed makeover of George Square and the Wellington statue cone fiascos) than of Glasgow’s rebirth.
Perhaps the argument would have been more convincing if the city’s record on regeneration had been more consistent. Sure, Sighthill – also the site of notorious tower blocks – is to get its multi-million pound revamp despite it initially being pegged to the city’s unsuccessful bid to host the Youth Olympics in 2018. But Glasgow’s attempts to throw off its reputation for urban deprivation have been chequered. Its revitalised waterfront is disjointed and dotted with derelict spaces. And, however worthwhile in the long run, the regeneration of the East End in the run-up to the Games has ripped the heart out of the community. Though Bridgeton has seen improvement, not least the transformation of the old Olympia cinema into a leisure and business complex, Dalmarnock has been split in two by a six-lane A-road. The legacy hub – which contains a community hall, a nursery, GP surgery, pharmacy, a convenience store and café – may well prove an asset, but the old community centre has been bulldozed to make way for a coach park. The Emirates Arena, which houses the athletics stadium and velodrome, is a forbidding hulk which makes no concession to local residents in terms of access (it’s difficult to reach on foot) or pricing. It’s not difficult to see why some of them feel alienated.
This is also a time when many people are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. There is a shortage of social housing and the city has not covered itself in glory over the scandal of the Bellgrove Hotel – a hostel where society’s most vulnerable live in squalor (while the landlords make millions from housing benefits).
Set against this background, the decision to incorporate the demolition into the opening ceremony seems even more misconceived. In the wake of last week’s furore, former MSP Carolyn Leckie set up a petition, Demolition with Dignity, which calls for a U-turn and has garnered more than 3,000 signatures. With so many parties involved and less than four months to go, however, a change of heart seems unlikely.
Other campaigners, led by writer and comedian Robert Florence, who was brought up in Balornock, are taking a different tack. They are pushing the council to cough up money for the restoration of the Springburn Winter Gardens, a derelict, but A-listed glasshouse, to assuage their resentment. That’s very canny, very Glasgow.
Hopefully, they will succeed. The campaign to rescue the Winter Gardens has been going on since Springburn public halls closed in 2012. Funding a project seen as vital to halting the area’s decline seems like the least the council can do to make up for its lapse in judgment.
But Glasgow really needs to rethink what it wants to communicate to the world. If it doesn’t, it risks being perceived as a city so shallow it is happy to turn a landmark moment in its history into a cheap stunt; a city prepared to invest in its heritage only as part of a face-saving exercise. «