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Dynamiting homes as a TV stunt sends the wrong message

Demolishing homes for a TV stunt is the wrong way to promote Glasgow’s regeneration, writes Rory Olcayto

We thought our own April Fool’s joke - about the Large Hadron Collider being turned into flats - was pretty good, but when we read last week, admittedly a few days after April 1st, that Glasgow City Council had announced it was going to dynamite its Red Road housing towers on TV in front of a worldwide audience to kick off the Commonwealth Games, we knew we’d been trumped.

Thing is, it’s not a joke.

Others too, could hardly believe the news. As architect and Scott Sutherland architecture school professor Alan Dunlop told BBC TV’s Newsnight last week: ‘I was driving down from Aberdeen today when I heard it for the first time and nearly went into a ditch. Everybody I’ve spoken to, quite frankly, thinks it’s bananas.’

Even more bananas was the response by city leader Gordon Matheson, who was seated alongside Dunlop during the Newsnight debate. ‘It is a wonderful thing to do,’ he said. ‘It is a very brave and bold statement. It says Red Road flats were better housing at the time when they were built, but that is in the past and most people now want low-rise living.’

If you can follow Matheson’s logic here, buzz the Nobel committee ASAP. You could be in line for prize.

Here’s the gist of the sorry tale: Red Road had already been earmarked for demolition, but the Commonwealth Games organising committee is now planning to broadcast the affair live to a global audience of a billion viewers to send a strong message about Glasgow’s ‘rebirth’. It will, however, leave one block standing, currently housing asylum-seekers, who will be decanted during the 15-second blow-down to ensure their safety, before returning to their homes on the bomb site.

The message this will send to the world about how Glasgow treats asylum-seekers is surely not the one it wants to make. And, while Red Road provided more than 5,000 homes for Glasgow’s citizens, only 426 new affordable homes have been built in the nearby area, with just 157 more on the way. Unsurprisingly, Matheson’s live broadcast plans have backfired and, at the time of writing, 8,800 people, including Len Bunton, son of Red Road architect Sam Bunton, have signed a petition lobbying first minster Alex Salmond to reverse the decision. It follows Matheson’s out-of-step plan last year to have listed sculptures removed from George Square, a move he backed away from under pressure from the public.

The problem Matheson and Glasgow City Council face is the complicated message the city is seeking to send to a global audience, who will struggle to understand the ins and outs of Glasgow’s housing history.

The Commonwealth Games ceremony chairwoman is Eileen Gallagher, who has a background in television production (Bad Girls and Footballers’ Wives), which might explain why she would think a 15-second demolition job adequately communicates ‘Glasgow’s regeneration and housing revolution’ - it makes good TV.

Repeatedly, Glasgow is being let down by those who represent it on the wider stage and repeatedly its architects are among the wiser figures speaking on its behalf: Dunlop argued intelligently in favour of sensible housing design and better tall buildings. He spoke passionately of his own experience growing up in a tower block and dismissed Matheson with ease. If ever there were a time for architects to reaffirm their civic leadership role - think of our own Skyline campaign, Terry Farrell’s review and this sorry farce in Glasgow - it is now.

Readers' comments (3)

  • The article is proverbially anti-council!

    In respect of the George Sq debacle, I’d be the first to rubbish replacing the red tarmac with a grey version and two extra zones of grass – a big disappointment as I've said previously, but nevertheless very welcome as an alternative to the controversial competition.

    It was actually none of the entries that were expressing a love to retain the square’s full statuary, the council merely provided the privilege of a ‘clean-slate’ brief, so as not to restrict the design experts, which the most lucrative entries inter alia took too much advantage of; one in particular with such a severe kitch as I've said previously that it was fortunate to be shortlisted...

    This year, as with the last year’s square, I am once again witnessing the macabre: the reaction against reason, particularly from our architectural community yet again.

    The extremely honourable and very clever ‘light-bulb’ moment and idea that Red Rd should bite the dust at the opening ceremony, is something I’m very jealous of (for not thinking up myself) as a sociably conscious architectural graduate. I hang my head in shame!

    I could imagine the likes of the Prince’s Foundation not failing to dream such a plot up though, for more reasons than I would have had!

    I've nothing personal against a well architected/tenanted high-rise, whether of the utopian gardens-in-the-sky variety (in Toronto you can be on an open balcony 66 up); or of otherwise safer equivalents.

    However, the former type has suffered a cataclysm of some quite horrendous stories concerning lives lost, throughout the last few years, for social reasons rather than by mishap. Glasgow is bearing the brunt of having some of the most infamous. I hadn't realised by quite ‘how much’ until I Goolgled for the infamous Glasgow ‘mother & son’ case - that my generation of architecture students were told of during Built Environment studies - to find way too many examples worldwide.

    Notwithstanding a keen interest in the architectural possibility of high-rise as with any other typology, I was nevertheless still going to respond using the single lectured case source alone.

    Directing this not to the lack of ‘commemoration’ in the petitioners’ plea per se, in my opinion, but rather towards the cold academia that’s put architectural sensibility and related passion above that of commemoration and compassion. Especially as it’s not the correct year in which to sideline, exclude, stifle, or protest over particular deeds of commemoration! My language would have been much stronger had I actually ever resided in a high-rise.

    We need to know when and when not to support various social concepts at the right time.

    An architect and architecture school are now on record for shooting themselves in the foot by being too unflappable over its own advocacies at the expense of others’ once in a lifetime ones.

    2014 was not the time to be meddling in what would have been one of the most heartfelt acts of commemoration in the world. Even without the architectural stance against it, the highly lamentable concept of the proposed Red Rd explosions would have been a Commonwealth related act and therefore not to be full-heartedly supported by everyone in the UK.

    The architectural community needn't have bothered inciting, if not spurring, Glasgow’s would-be compliment of activists against this heraldic act.

    2014 is as much to do with mourning as it is to do with celebration, especially in Scotland. If we can’t blow up our failures when is best the time to do so, in such spectacular fashion as is feasibly the case here (despite the blockbuster-film connotations) then who are we kidding?

    Ps I wish I now hadn't tweeted to RIBAJ that “... will a legacy-acumen [also] filter into the redevelopment of Red Rd, which the games want spectatorially razed?” in relation to the “nice” athlete’s village.

    Perhaps ‘cold feet’ has set in on too many fronts to mention. As readers may now know, the Games organisers have pulled the plug on the idea hours ago. Safety concerns from staging amongst activists being the contributory factor, or so it is said.

    I don’t think any activists would try to spoil the show if the standpoint /declaration as to the purpose of the proposed stunt were better communicated. Glasgow 2014 now won’t take the risk and expense: for the emotiveness that it failed to deliver or put over to the public.*

    Had it done so, critics would be fewer (they've had a heyday as it stands) and real activists wouldn't have bat an eyelid.

    [*Even Jonathon Meades on the concurrent AJ article - in order to slam it as a Brutalist sympathiser - cleverly hinted in advance that Glasgow 2014 wasn't selling the plot well enough.]

    Ps Apologies for the long post and for not proofing or editing it down! I call it chatting by myself – no one replies these days.

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  • One more thing regarding whether or not the “...TV stunt sends the wrong message”.

    Such a stunt might well send a, madly right, message that the world indeed cares desperately for those whom it’s failed, who’ve perished, through falling prey to social circumstance in quite the wrong context; and not merely by mishap and the occasional disaster, which happens anywhere.

    Blowing up 5 famous examples together for show across the world won’t make amends, but will allow us to commemorate and reveal our compassion for inter alia those we continually fail.

    If we grasped such an opportunity to reveal this compassion, such as “dynamiting” Red Rd - you said it first - then those we fail might be more likely to give ‘despair and survival’ a second thought at that crucial moment.

    Having a second thought can save a life!

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  • forgive me .... but what on earth are you saying. Sorry, but this is drivel.

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