This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Early last April, a letter
arrived at Betty Caw’s neat, pebbledash terrace house directly opposite
Glasgow’s towering Red Road flats. “The regeneration of North Glasgow is
continuing at great pace and with that in mind I have some exciting news,”
began a single page on council headed paper signed by Gordon Matheson, leader
of Glasgow City Council. Five of the six Red Road multi-story flats, the
letter said, were to be
demolished live as part of the opening ceremony of the
2014 Commonwealth Games.
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But the planned demolition
never took place. After a week insisting, in the face of public outrage, that
blowing up the 1960s-era flats was “a bold and dramatic statement,” Glasgow City
council finally announced that the plan was being shelved. It was a bold and dramatic statement all right—and an amazingly crass one, the kind that would get you
asked to leave a dinner party. The Commonwealth Games would not begin with a
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Photos by Andrew Perry
Now, more than nine months
later, Betty Caw and her husband, Alec, still look out every day from their
living room window at the vertiginous Red Road flats.
“No one knows when they will
come down,” says Betty, who spent more than two decades living in the buildings. The multi-story towers, covered in red clay colored tarpaulin
emblazoned with the Glasgow Housing Association logo, dominate the view from
the couple’s second floor window. “We had good times in those flats, good
memories. Now I just want to see the back of them.”
The Caws moved into the Red
Road towers in 1968. When architect Sam Bunton’s vision of a city in the sky
was completed the following year, Red Road was the largest high-rise
development in Europe. The tallest of the eight towers was 31 floors. The modernist
development—partly inspired by frequent visits to Marseille by Glasgow
corporation functionaries and plans bought from Algeria—housed 5,000 people.
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“For ten years it was good,” says Alec. “Then the drugs moved in and it
was downhill from there.” After raising three children in the towers, the
family moved across the road in 1990. By then Glasgow authorities’ neglect of
the Red Road had left the flats run down and unstable, both socially and
architecturally. “We were glad to get out,” says Alec.
Glasgow Housing Association says it is on track to have all the Red Road
towers demolished and the site cleared by 2017, but nearby residents complain
that since the Commonwealth Games balk little has been done.
“Nobody has contacted us to give us a date or anything. We only get what
we read in the papers,” says Betty and Alec Caws’ next-door neighbor, Rose
Bambrick. A pair of West Highland terriers nip around her ankles.
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The Red Road flats were celebrated when they were completed decades ago, but now Bambrick says they are “an eyesore. It’s like living in a
war zone country.”
Directly underneath the hulking, 30-story buildings sits the Springburn
Alive and Kicking Project. The community center, which serves some 200
pensioners and disabled people from across Glasgow, is housed in a former
primary school. The function room is filled with the smell of soup. Photographs
line the walls.
“Nobody knows what the plans are for the area,” says a staff member who
asks not to be named. “We have been here for twenty-six years. We don’t want to leave.
We love this area. Hopefully we’ll get a refurbishment and can stay.”
Outside, in the fierce wind that rushes between the towers, a sign
pinned to a padlocked gate warns: “Demolition in progress—keep out.”
The Red Road towers were scheduled to come down long before last
summer’s Commonwealth Games. Two have already been demolished. The five that
are currently empty look like skeletons on stilts, shimmering in a winter’s
late afternoon sun. The asbestos that riddled the buildings has been manually
removed ahead of demolition. Thirty of the workers who built the flats contracted
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Former Red Road residents complain about the pace and cost of the
protracted demolition. “It has been going on for 12 years,” says Finlay McKay,
a 46-year-old firefighter who grew up in the Red Road flats. “How much money
has been spent to demolish them and they are still sitting there? It must have
been millions and millions. Surely it would have been cheaper just to upgrade
“For all these houses that they are demolishing, we have massive
homelessness. Surely if you were homeless and had the choice of living up
there”—McKay points up at the high rises—”you’d take it instead of being on
McKay now lives in another part of Glasgow, but he has fond memories of
growing up in Red Road. He takes me to a former BMX track, now overgrown with
weeds and high grass, and a flat stretch of grass near the road where kids used
to play soccer. They called this “Little Wembley.”
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During the media storm that followed the proposed demolition last April,
national and international television crews gathered on a small hillside
overlooking the towers that used to serve as Red Road’s summer sunbathing spot
and a sledging slope in snowing winters.
“It was fantastic living here. You had everything you needed. Two pubs,
bingo, shops, chippies, everything you needed was on site,” says McKay.
McKay thinks it is wrong to blame the flats for the anti-social
behavior that increasingly took place in them as the initial tenants moved out
and were replaced, often by single people and troubled families. “You have to deal
with the people. You can’t blame the building for the people,” says McKay.
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Glasgow academic and artist Mitch Miller agrees. “Steel frame buildings
of that size are great in Manhattan where there is money invested in
maintaining them. In a windy cabbage patch in North Glasgow, run by a bankrupt corporation,
it is a different story,” says Miller, who spent three years as “resident
illustrator” on the Red Road Cultural Project.
Red Road did work in the early years, says Miller, who believes that too
much focus—in Glasgow and nationally—has been placed on high-rise housing
developments that have failed, rather than those that have succeeded.
“The story of Glasgow high rises is not a universally grim story. They
got some of it right,” says Miller.
Finlay McKay, for one, will have mixed emotions when the Red Road flats
do eventually come down. “Whenever I am up here it still feels like home. It
still feels safe even though they look so sad and pathetic now.”
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