You knew there was something seriously wrong with Glasgow City Council's plan to televise the demolition of the Red Road flats to celebrate the start of the Commonwealth Games when 10 architectural academics from Glasgow School of Art wrote to the Herald to complain about it. For it's architects who give other architects medals and prizes for designing such monumental monstrosities as Red Road, the Gorbals high flats, Hutchensontown 'E', and the Sighthill high flats.
David Grevemberg, the CEO of Glasgow 2014, just didn't get it, did he? The Red Road high flats constituted a colossal housing failure, not a success, and you don't celebrate failures. The proposed spectacle smacked of bread and circuses, and insulted former tenants of these high flats, the asylum seekers who still live there, and the intelligence of the people of Glasgow.
As far as the previous tenants who contracted asbestosis from the insulation are concerned, it was a sick joke. It is small wonder that as of Sunday 13 April, 17,000-plus people had signed an online petition protesting against the spectacle as crass and tasteless. The decision to abandon the proposed demolition is a significant and welcome victory for the people of Glasgow.
Apologists for the demolition talked of the warm appreciation of pioneer tenants of Red Road of the new flats with their central heating, hot and cold running water, separate kitchen and a bathroom, and extolled their 'community spirit.' But this argument forgot a couple of stark realities. The first is that many of these tenants came from grotesquely overcrowded or
slum tenement housing with outside toilets; it is hardly surprising that their initial reaction to their spacious new flats was one of delight. The second is that these tenants brought their community-spirit with them from their old tenemental neighbourhoods, only to see it destroyed by the brutalism of the design, and the frequent breakdown of the lifts.
As many commentators observed, blowing up all the remaining Red Road high flats bar one retained for asylum seekers, sent an unmistakeable message to the latter: this is the only kind of housing fit for people like you. And what about the asbestos in the block reserved for them? Has it been removed? As one of these very asylum seekers commented recently on
television, 'It's ridiculous.'
However, there was a deeper and more sinister message lurking under the proposed demolition, and beaming it on to huge screens in Celtic Park. Whether they will admit it or not, there has been a systematic attack on social housing – what used to be called council housing – by both the present and Tony Blair's governments. In the days in 1972 when Red Road was first tenanted, it was the norm for British working people to expect decent council housing; that was an essential provision of the welfare state. Nowhere was that more true than Glasgow.
The salience of such housing for the Clydeside working class derived from its half-century of active struggle – through the ILP, the 1915 Glasgow rent strike, and the Clydebank rent strike of the 1920s. The coalition government seems committed to destroying this provision. It seems to want to signify social housing as a residual tenure category fit only for the wretched of the earth – asylum seekers, refugees, drug-addicts, the physically and mentally-ill, the homeless.
In this perspective, the semiology of the demolition of the Red Road high flats was plain: council/social housing is simply not worth the money or the effort. The construction of new, imaginatively designed social housing on a humane scale is a waste of time. Therefore to televise this demolition and associate it with the Commonwealth Games was quite simply obscene. The people of Glasgow have demonstrated clearly what they thought of this
This article was first published in SR in 2014