It was announced as a “bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people”. But now a groundswell of opposition is building in Glasgow against plans to showcase the live demolition of a skyscraper housing block during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games this summer.
It has been decried as “crude” and “offensive” to those who lived and died in the flats to make an entertainment out of their destruction.
Pressure is mounting on organisers to scrap a proposal to blow up five of the six remaining Red Road flats – part of the city’s northern skyline for more than 50 years. By yesterday afternoon, more than 3,100 people had signed a petition to Shona Robison, the Scottish government minister responsible, insisting that the flats should be “demolished with dignity” out of respect for what will be a poignant moment for those who had lived there.
Adding to the anger is the revelation that one of the 28-storey, steel-structured blocks, currently used to house asylum-seeking families, will be left standing. Carolyn Leckie, a former MSP who started the petition, said this was especially galling. “If the flats are not fit for human habitation, then what is the message we’re sending to those residents in the remaining block? That they are not human enough to deserve decent housing?” she said. “Residents will also have to put up with dust and debris and roads blocked.
“Certainly it’s not an appropriate celebratory spectacle. What on earth were the people who decided this thinking of? You couldn’t make it up. They say it’s celebrating Glasgow’s renewal. Can you imagine if Danny Boyle’s celebration of the NHS at the Olympics opening ceremony involved blowing up an NHS hospital?”
Author Gordon Ferris, whose bestselling crime novel series featuring Glasgow reporter Douglas Brodie is set in a postwar city with the kind of overcrowded housing that the Red Road flats were built to replace, said it was a typically Glasgow approach.
“Blowing up the Red Road eyesores is a typically pugnacious Glaswegian way of celebrating the Games. Now let’s complete the job by resurrecting the Gorbals’ tenements in all their red sandstone glory – but with inside loos,” said Ferris.
The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games will be seen by one billion people worldwide when it takes place at Celtic Park on 23 July. The demolition is due to be beamed live via a record-breaking, 100-metre-wide screen occupying the entire south stand of the stadium, as well as a screen on Glasgow Green. The flats will come down – using more than 1,250kg of explosives – in 15 seconds, aiming to close a chapter in Glasgow’s sometimes difficult housing history.
Alison Irvine, author of the novel This Road is Red, based on interviews with residents, accused the Glasgow 2014 committee of “trampling over the memories of people”. She added: “I thought it was a late April fools’ joke when I first heard. It feels crude, insensitive, blunt and shows a complete lack of understanding of the people who lived there and still live there.
“Whoever came up with this idea clearly has no understanding of the intricacies and complexities of the Red Road flats.” Others were equally aghast. Mitch Miller, an artist and writer whose work has explored the social history of the flats, said: “What’s the message here? Glasgow, city of rubble?”
Playwright David Greig, whose play The Architect was inspired by Glasgow’s urban renewal policies, said on social media: “Can’t help feeling this Red Road thing is a dreadful own goal for the games. At best it’s odd. At worst tasteless.”
People who live in and around the flats remain a little mystified as to what they are expected to do on the day and are worried about the after-effects from dust and asbetos – some of which was removed and the rest sealed in the early 1980s. Letters have been delivered to 900 homes to tell residents they will be temporarily evacuated.
Janet Smart, 58, lives in Hawthorn Street. “I’m not sure where we will be when it happens. There was talk about people maybe going in a hall for about four or five hours. I think they should get rid of them – they are an eyesore, but I am worried about the dust afterwards, and that is a concern. My friend’s mother is 75 and she’s going to be evicted, it’s a hassle.”
Eight blocks – two have been pulled down – were built in the modernist style in the 1960s to move 4,700 people from insanitary slums. They were controversial even then, when they were the highest housing development in Europe. Within a decade they had become a byword for disaffected youth. Their height also made them a notorious place for suicides, one of the most shocking being in 2010 when three members of the Serykh family died.
They have also attracted much cultural attention, including books, documentaries, photographic essays and a visit from French tightrope walker Didier Pasquette. They were the scene of a community fightback against Home Office “pre-dawn raids” against asylum seekers. Andrea Arnold made her directing debut there with Red Road, which won a Bafta and the jury prize at Cannes, and was named by Observer critics as one of the best British films in 25 years.
Talking in 2007 about filming around Red Road, Arnold said she was all too aware of the sense of community: “The thing about Red Road is, everyone who sees the film says it looks terrible. Nightmarish. But to a lot of the people there, it’s not so straightforward – they grew up there, raised their families there. It’s hard sometimes to put anything that complex across, but you’ve got to try.”
Kim Duff, 47, owns a launderette in Gartons Road. “They are an eyesore and need to come down,” she said. “But I don’t think during the Commonwealth Games is the right time. Who from around the world watching the games is going to know what they are? Those buildings coming down should be a community event, not on TV screens. I don’t think people will be impressed by it. My business was closed for almost six months after a fire and we are working to make money again, now we will have to close because we are nearby.”
Referring to the invitation to locals to watch the action on a screen, she said: “I don’t want to go to Glasgow Green to watch the buildings come down. We should be able to watch it with other people from our community and feel the atmosphere that comes with it.”
But officials have been defending their plans, saying it is the historical role that the Red Road flats played that makes it so important to highlight Glasgow’s regeneration. They insist that the demolition is respectful and that to bring five down at once was less disruptive for residents. David Zolkwer, artistic director for Glasgow 2014, said: “In just a few seconds the city’s skyline will be transformed forever. It’s a bold and confident statement that says ‘bring on the future’.”
The chair of Glasgow 2014’s ceremonies, culture and Queen’s baton relay committee, Eileen Gallagher, said: “By sharing the final moments of the Red Road flats with the world, it is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn’t stand still. A city that is constantly regenerating, renewing and reinventing itself. Glasgow’s story is always one of its people; their tenacity, their genuine warmth, their ambitions. Marking the end of Red Road is very much a celebration of all of those things.”
Additional reporting by Niamh Burns in Glasgow