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Housing

Not the end of the Red Road for Glasgow

The Red Road flats have been part of Glasgow's skyline for almost 50 years. The high-rises were set to be demolished in order to reshape Glasgow's image, but developers pulled back after a wave of public discontent.

Red Road's towering, multi-storey apartment complexes on the northeast edge of the city have appeared in everything from feature films to photographic exhibitions.

Until Sunday (13.04.2014), the Red Road's days seemed to be numbered, following the announcement last week that five of the six remaining towers would be blown up as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in July.

Glasgow 2014, the organizing team of the games, said last week that the move was "a bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people."

But on Sunday, the committee made a U-turn on the move due to safety concerns. The committee's chief executive David Grevemberg telling BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland program that "the nature of some of [the] opposition would make this [demolition] not a commemorative event but would start moving this on to a potential protest."

Many of the former and current residents of Red Road and the surrounding area -where almost 900 homes were to be evacuated - are likely to be relieved at the change of plans.

Luxury and decay

Finlay MacKay at the Red Road flats in Glasgow
(Photo: Peter Geoghegan / DW)

Former residents like Finlay MacKay opposed the demolition of Red Road

One reason for the strong opposition to the demolition plans is that many former Red Road residents have fond memories of growing up in the flats. "I stayed in the treble block way back in the 70s. It was a great place to be," says Marie Quinn, whose family moved into the Red Road from an old house in nearby Springburn. To her parents the Red Road would "have seemed like luxury," she adds.

Finlay MacKay, who also grew up in the flats, says that lack of investment has led the flats to decay. "If you look up at them now they've still got the same aluminum windows that they had in the 1960s. They've never had their windows replaced, or even repaired. No building can survive that lack of maintenance for 50 years."

In Scotland, and even across Britain, Red Road was often held up as a symbol of urban decay. Feature films and documentaries have been set here. Photographers have taken pictures, but for the people who lived here, the experience was often very different.

"I spent 23 years living here and up to 25 years back to visit my mum. I never at any time felt like I was living in some sort of urban decay. Quite the opposite. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have been brought up here."

An insensitive step

Two of the eight towers have already been demolished. Marie Quinn watched her old building being torn down last year.

Like many former residents, Marie had concerns about the proposal to blow up five of the remaining flats during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. "They say it's a tribute to the people who lived there. I'm pretty patronized by that," she said.

Proponents of the demolition made reference to the successful London Olympics opening ceremony and Glasgow Council Leader George Matheson said that the plan to demolish the buildings was a brave and bold statement from a confident city.

But Marie Quinn is not so sure. "I can't help but think it's a bit distasteful. It's just to project that we are moving forward with our housing. But are we? Do we really stand out from any other European country?"

A symbol of renewal?

The Red Road flats in Glasgow with a sign that reads Demolition in progress
(Photo: Peter Geoghegan / DW)

The Red Road flats are both a symbol of urban regeneration and decay

Glasgow has been synonymous with urban regeneration since the 1980s. There are even walking tours of the "Glasgow miracle," looking at how the heavy industry sites on the Clyde were transformed into cultural and retail centers.

When Red Road's architect, Sam Bunton's, vision of a city in the sky was completed the following year in 1969, Red Road was the largest high-rise development in Europe. The tallest of the eight towers had 31 floors and the development housed 5,000 people. Red Road was often seen as a symbol of postwar optimism.

But experts were concerned that the plan to blow up Red Road is symptomatic of a city that has not kept pace with changing models of urban regeneration.

"If you go back to the 1980s, Glasgow was in a global vanguard of cities that were in economic trouble but seemed to know how to get out of that. They seemed to understand that doing things around culture was a solution of a kind. During the last decade the city has gone off the boil, it has been much less good at building physical infrastructure," says Richard Williams, professor of contemporary visual cultures at the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Williams thinks that blowing up the Red Road flats is a move that looks back to the popular public demolitions in the US 40 years ago, rather than looking to the future.

"We now have a more complex, nuanced and sophisticated view of the world. This proposal is taking us right back to the 1970s," he says, explaining that the message sent by the move was a rather ambiguous one.

The message that the public sent about the plans, was far from ambiguous, however. More than 17,000 people signed an online petition against the demolition of the tower blocks and it looks like, for now, their views were listened to and acted upon.

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