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Glasgow’s Desperate Moment: iconoclasm for the 2014 Commonwealth Games

Guest author: Andrew Hoolachan, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge.

Note from the editors: we are happy to see that this insightful post is timely with public and academic debates, such as this recently published article on Open Security shows.
Abstract: This article highlights the recent controversy over the spectacularisation of the demolition of Glasgow's Red Road flats, as part of the Commonwealth Games 2014 opening ceremony. It will argue that this is a white-washing of Glasgow's innovative history of socialist housing in an imperial city, and that the 'performance' of its destruction is a vulgar and cruel celebration of the triumph of its regeneration into a 'competitive city', with no regard for its own historical and cultural achievements of Modernity.
In 1990, the City of Glasgow held the title of European Capital of Culture and in 1999 won the UK City of Architecture and Design award. In July of this year, Glasgow will host that perhaps unknown sporting event, the Commonwealth Games. Similar in formation to the Olympic Games as a tool for urban regeneration, and of course the athletic competitions, the participants hail from Britain’s colonial past, such as India, Canada and Jamaica.

The Red Road flats in north-east Glasgow, once a gleaming thrust of Modernism in 1969 and a response to the perceived slum conditions of Glasgow’s Victorian tenements, will be blown-up as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony which will take place nearby. The last residents of once the tallest residential buildings in Europe, have recently been evicted and been invited to watch their former homes spectacularised as a theatre of demolition. Following this announcement, there has been an intense media reaction starting in the Glasgow press, which made its way to the national newspaper, the Guardian.
It is clear to see why. Mega-events often demand massive regeneration and private land-assembly in host cities (such as London and Rio), and it is often the most vulnerable who are displaced. This has lead to arguments of the live televised demolition being ‘in poor taste’, or ‘vulgar’, and rightly so. Firstly, on the surface it seems that this is a two-fingers to both the complex social worlds of the former inhabitants of these flats, and a discursive silencing of any positive narrative. It is as if the stigmatisation effect rolls on with gusto. Municipal discourse has proclaimed these flats as a “failure”, irrespective of the multiple lives, stories and narratives that are associated with them. Secondly, these flats did become problematic and it would be wrong to romanticise their failings. However, does this make it right to exploit “failure”, for a consortium of mega-event stakeholders, and an international community who will be perhaps for the first time seeing the “new” Glasgow being showcased?

Perhaps though, this demolition is in keeping with Glasgow’s municipal persona since its decline in the latter twentieth century as the City has never been shy of radical tendencies, both political and architectural (and perhaps they are linked). In 1919 the British government deployed troops in the City’s George Square to quell the threat of Socialist uprising following strike action in its ‘second city of Empire’, and largest manufacturer of war-ships. In the 20s and 30s, new socialist housing schemes were built for those returning for WW1 and the architecture of the City, especially around certain parts of the City Centre turned away from Britain and were distinctly American and European in influence – unlike London, Owen Hatherley argues, which stuck to a nostalgic Imperial style. Across the City we see Deco, Nouveau, Bauhaus, and later, Brutalist influences. After WW2, the City was highly-influenced by the debates between Robert Bruce and Patrick Abercrombie in formulating its radical new plan. Bruce advocated a Corbusian Ville Radieuse and Abercrombie a decentralised – English – Garden City plan. It ended up with a cross between the two: dispersed housing schemes on the City’s edge in the Garden City form, populated with gleaming Corbusian towers. And of course, a 6-lane motorway ploughed through the City’s Victorian heart. All in all, this amounted to Glasgow as having one of the most drastic post-war renewal schemes in Western Europe, with massive intra-population shifts. It was fundamentally different to Britain’s other second-cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. It was unashamedly “Modern”, governed by left-wing administrations from the 1960s onwards, and the majority of its population lived in municipal housing whose styles drew from socialist Eastern Europe.

Like many industrial cities in the late-twentieth century, this love affair with Modernity and Municipal Socialism waned as the City’s population almost halved, and by 1982 came to have, “the blight”. The failings of projects like the Red Road flats stood together with abandoned Victorian buildings and warehouses, not yet demolished. But in another radical turn, almost overnight the City of Glasgow reversed its entire ideology. From its comprehensive and universal tendencies, around 1982 the City began a drastic campaign of becoming arguably Britain’s first neo-liberal City. It’s ‘Glasgow Smiles Better’ campaign, the redevelopment of its Victorian buildings, and its aims to bring shoppers back into the City, would lead it claim its 1990 and 1999 awards for Culture and Architecture respectively. Its gentrification and sanitisation would continue until the present day.

Now that the Commonwealth Games are upon the City, surely this is a sign that the City has matured into established neo-liberal metropolis for the 21st century and it no longer requires the breadcrumbs of dignity afforded by European Capital of Culture (such accolades have recently belonged Liverpool and soon, Hull). Given this fact, I wish to suggest here two points for discussion. Firstly that Glasgow does not believe its own transformation and sticks to cheap and tacky stunts to convince an international audience that it has genuinely “moved on”. Indeed that fact 1 in 3 children in Glasgow still live in poverty (as measured in the UK), would perhaps fuel this insecurity. And secondly: if the City had any historical sensitivity, and a maturity about its failings, would it not take some kind of pride in the fact that it once pioneered Modern housing techniques? My personal reaction to the problem of the Red Flats would be to hold them as a memorial of a time when the City was truly experimental and avant-garde; not necessarily in vain but as lip-service to the evolution in the history of European social housing. After all if we can treat once-derided Victorian architecture with historical protection, surely in these post-modern times, it is our duty to protect what it once meant to be “Modern”?

For a cultural introduction to the Red Road Flats, see Andrea Arnold’s Cannes Jury Prize winning film Red Road or Alison Irvine’s 2012 novel This Road Is Red.

Bio: Andrew Hoolachan is currently completing his PhD in the department of Architecture, Cambridge, where he is looking at the politics of sustainable urban governance as part of the London Olympic Legacy programme. His previous studies were in Geography at St Andrews and Urban Planning at UCL. He has worked as an Urban Researcher at the University of Manchester and the University of St Andrews. He also spent time working for the UK Civil Service in London.

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