The remaining six of the original eight blocks of the Red Road Flats high-rise housing complex are, after standing for decades as hulking, doomy, dilapidated monuments to an unsuccessful social experiment, set to be demolished this Sunday with a single controlled explosion.
Many people will be happy to see the end of these brutalist eyesores, and their constant reminder of all the political and planning folly and attendant societal misery that they’ve come to represent. Others will miss their epic silhouettes on the Glasgow skyline, and lament the very public destruction of places many people once happily called home. Here’s a quick history of these infamous buildings, which have proven controversial from first to last.
The Red Road Flats symbolised an idealistic attempt to make a better Glasgow
Built in the 1960s to house nearly 5,000 people displaced from inner-city tenement slums as part of Glasgow’s massive post-war regeneration project, Red Road was the biggest of many ambitious tower housing projects around the city spearheaded by idealistic Glasgow Corporation architect Sam Bunton. The tallest of the development’s eight blocks – which between them comprised two 28-storey 'slabs' and six 31-storey 'points' – were for a while the highest residential buildings in Europe. To new residents leaving behind outdoor toilets, inadequate hot water and other blights of slum living, these modern, purpose-built homes with electricity, plumbing and TV sockets seemed at first like a utopian dream – one study at the time found 90% of people to be satisfied with their new homes. But that satisfaction would prove short-lived.
Red Road Flats , Glasgow 1970s. pic.twitter.com/JU2hPMhqDy— Yoor Wullie (@YoorWullie) July 28, 2015
The experiment failed miserably
The tower blocks quickly proved to be of unsound build. Unusually, steel frames were used in their construction instead of prefabricated concrete blocks. These frames had to be fireproofed with asbestos, much of which couldn’t be removed even after asbestos was proven to be linked to fatal illnesses. Lifts were often broken, forcing residents to routinely climb dozens of flights of stairs, or rarely venture outside. Cut off from all but their most immediate neighbours, people felt isolated, and children had few places to play. The towers were rife with unemployment and deprivation and were near-impossible to police, so drugs and crime became epidemic. By the 1980s it was generally accepted that Red Road was a failure, and in 2010 the flats were condemned to phased demolition. Two blocks were blown down in 2012, with the rest finally set to follow.
Demolition of a Red Road tower block in North Glasgow. Image © John Young pic.twitter.com/jl9HSxv4ov— Fernando Fernández A (@retosurbanos_f) May 25, 2015
Eyesores to some, icons to others
Visible from up to 10 miles away on a clear day, there’s no missing Red Road if you look eastwards across the Glasgow skyline from any point of elevation. With their distinctive multi-coloured cladding, they’re a bold, bleak, intimidating sight even from a considerable distance, more akin to the kind of thing you’d see in former Soviet Bloc countries than most other buildings in Glasgow. But good or bad, they have an architectural and historical story to tell – is it really appropriate that all eight towers should be erased from the face of the city without a trace? Especially at a time when Scotland and Europe is fiercely debating whether and where to rehome hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East (since the 1990s the Red Road Flats have been extensively used to house refugees). Some voices have called for the tower blocks’ preservation and restoration.
Glasgow's remaining Red Road flats are due to be demolished this Sunday. City skyline will seem bare without them. pic.twitter.com/zCsNOIX9Lp— Shaun Fraser (@Shaun_Fraser) October 7, 2015
They became the toast of Cannes
In 2006, the Red Road Flats became the talk of the glamorous Cannes Film Festival when director Andrea Arnold’s gritty low-budget movie ‘Red Road’ won the prestigious Cannes Jury Prize, before going on to sweep five Scottish BAFTA awards. The story of a CCTV security operator (played by Kate Dickie) observing and stalking a man from her past, the film was partly set and made in and around the flats. It’s been hailed as one of the best British movies of the last 25 years.
They walked the walk
In July 2007, a French high wire artist attempted a 45-metre walk across the massive chasm between Red Road Towers 4 and 5. Didier Pasquette was a protégé of Philippe Petit, the man famous for his high wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, as immortalised in the documentary ‘Man on Wire’ and the recent blockbuster 3D movie ‘The Walk’. With groaning inevitability, Glasgow’s temperamental weather thwarted Pasquette’s daredevil heroics – he made it nine metres in his best attempt before being forced back after the wire shook in the wind.
They had hidden depths
With the destruction of the Red Road Flats, so too will pass into history the lesser-recognised underground complex dug in around these hulking tower blocks’ foundations. In an archaic throwback to the way people spent their leisure time in the 1960s and 70s, the development was equipped with subterranean entertainment facilities in the shape of a huge Mecca bingo hall and a nautical-themed pub called The Brig. In these windowless caverns, men and women of the Red Road would while away whole evenings and weekends before disappearing back up the tower blocks. Closed since the 1990s, the bingo hall and bar and ex-residents memories of each were poignantly revisited in a short film called 'Red Road Underground', made by director Chris Leslie and writer Mitch Miller.
They had countless stories to tell
As a home to tens of thousands of people over the years, from rehomed slum families in the 1960s to refugees from all over the world in more recent decades, the Red Road Flats have seen their fair share of humanity in their relatively short lifetime. Researchers have been working to gather together as many of these stories and photographs as they can into an archive, so Red Road’s unique social heritage can live on long after all physical trace of the flats have been swept away. You can view some of the materials – and submit materials yourself if you’ve ever lived up the Red Road and want to share – by visiting the Red Road Flats website.
Red Road: controversial to the last
Not for the first time, the Red Road Flats were thrust onto the world stage in 2014, when it was announced that their demolition would be spectacularly incorporated into the opening ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. In an outcry that said much about the complex relationship Glasgow shares with the flats and the legacy of the post-war social experiment, the plans were widely condemned as insensitive and voyeuristic, and ultimately shelved – if ostensibly for safety reasons – after a 17,000-signature petition of protest was gathered. In a final footnote to the controversy-riddled story of Red Road, residents of houses surrounding the development are angry about the demolition company’s decision to bring all six remaining blocks down in a single explosion, which will scatter massive amounts of dust and debris across the area, when a more gradual floor-by-floor demolition is viable. Even after they’re gone, the Red Road Flats will likely continue to cast a huge shadow over Glasgow.
The Red Road flats will be demolished on Sunday October 11.
See more pictures of Glasgow from Time Out.