Red Road demolition

There are several good reasons why the decision to blow up Glasgow's Red Road towers during this year's Commonwealth Games is a bad idea. And one rather esoteric reason why it might be an interesting one.

One might argue that the demolition of the blocks for public entertainment mocks the idealism that motivated their construction. The Red Road development was part of the post-war effort to build a new Glasgow through provision of decent social housing for tens of thousands of people seeking escape from the slums.

The estate's dramatic architecture was designed to serve a symbolic as well as pragmatic purpose: to signify Glasgow's ambitions as a city oriented to the future, a 20th century city of soaring towers, space and light. Architect Sam Bunton modelled the towers - which when built were the tallest residential blocks in Europe - on the Manhattan skyline. And David Gibson, Glasgow housing convenor during the 1960s, quoted in John Grindrod's Concretopia said:

Over the next three years the skyline of Glasgow will become a more attractive one to me, because of the likely vision of multi-storey houses rising by the thousand… The prospect will be thrilling, I am certain, to the many thousands who are still yearning for a decent home.

The destruction of the blocks to provide public spectacle seems vulgar, a betrayal of those high ideals. Jonathan Meades, quoted in the Architects' Journal, spares nothing:

Even the most half-witted elected representative knows that there is no surer means of earning populist brownie-points than by having a mortally ill child (leukemia does nicely) press the button to bring down a 'Concrete Monstrosity'.

He goes on to note that there is nothing inherently undesirable about the concept of high rise living, nothing inevitable about the its thoughtless consignment to a scrapheap of failed experiments in social housing. Well managed developments such the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles and the Barbican in London, are in considerable demand:

Instead of committing yet another act of municipal vandalsim Glasgow's appalling council (which has a lot of form in this area) might have asked itself why it didn't maintain the structures it built. High rise works well in the private sector for the rich and even the modestly well off - their buildings are defended, serviced, cleaned. The public sector has shown over and again that it fosters neglect and all the problems that come with it.

Indeed, it is unclear that any new social housing will be developed in place of the blocks. An incandescent piece in Mute Magazine is one of many despairing of the continued 'yuppification of the east end':

Buildings are being torn down across the area and others are appearing in their place, all moves towards gentrification, pushing rents up and social cleansing… The issue is that Glasgow has lost 60,000 socially rented houses since 1991, experiencing a similar rise in the private sector, that half of all people’s disposable income is taken up by rent, that gentrification is pushing people out of their communities, and that Glasgow is facing a homelessness crisis.

There are also questions about the decision to retain one of the blocks, so that it can continue to be used to house asylum seekers. What does it say about the city that accommodation deemed no longer habitable for long term residents is nevertheless good enough for refugees? Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of Glasgow's St Mary's Cathedral, writes:

Making asylum seekers shelter leave their homes to shelter from explosions is not an image of Glasgow that I think is particularly entertaining and not one that should be beamed around the world.

I understand and am sympathetic to all of those objections. The spectacle does seems in poor taste. It is certainly understandable that it may give offence to the estate's designers and those who lived in it. It is all too likely that the demolition will simply make way for yet more private development. And the retention of a block for asylum seekers does reflect poorly on the city.

But there is a sense in which a very public destruction of the old to clear the space for something new is true to the Modernist ideals that inspired the Red Road development.

Announcing the demolition, Eileen Gallagher, chairwoman of the Glasgow 2014 ceremonies, said:

By sharing the final moments of the Red Road flats with the world as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn't stand still, a city that is constantly regenerating, renewing and re-inventing itself.

I'm aware those words should be read with due scepticism. But suppose that the city really was committed to genuine renewal of the Red Road area; to replacing the blocks with a bold new project that aspired to the spirit of the old; to a fresh development innovative in both aesthetic and social terms that sought to channel the best of contemporary architecture for the common good.

If that could be imagined, then its possible to see how the framing the demolition as a bold public gesture has a certain logic. Because by definition Modernist architecture is not built to last. Once obsolete, in practical or aesthetic terms, it is to be torn down and replaced with something contemporary, something more advanced, something better. It is by its very nature provisional.

It's often said that modern structures don't age well: steel corrodes, glass shatters, concrete stains, outward sheen is lost. But that is how it must be if contemporary materials are to be used for construction (and even Gothic cathedrals and classical facades crumble). Building components can be replaced and renewed. But there comes a day when a building that once symobilised the future instead communicates the past, a day when it's time for something new. It may be appropriate to preserve a few iconic structures for posterity, but, by definition, the modern city moves forward.

Antonio Sant'Elia, in his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, written exactly 100 years ago, says:

We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail… the fundamental characteristics of Futurist architecture will be its impermanance and transience. Things will endure less than us. Every generation must build its own city.

A bracing sentiment, perhaps, but of the essence of the spirit that motivated the post-war reconstruction of Britain, and the building of the Red Road towers.

It is, I hope, at least possible to view Glasgow's dramatic plans for the Commonwealth opening ceremony in that light. To hope that the spectacular destruction of the estate will be succeeded by plans for a new development that looks to the future, as did the Red Road architects and planners in their day, whatever the particular merit of the structures they built.

If not then the promised Commonwealth spectacle would seem to be as crass and empty as it appears at first sight.

Image credit: The image at the top of the page is a still from a BBC film of the earlier demolition of some of the Red Road flats in 2012.