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.