Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Red Road demolition ends Glasgow tower blocks' high art

Housing scheme became a byword for urban decay, but literature, photography and film flourished there

The demolition of a tower block on the Red Road estate in Glasgow on 10 June will mark the beginning of the end of one of Britain's most controversial housing developments.

Yet though the imposing high-rises became a byword for violence, alienation and crime, they will be missed by the many artists, writers and filmmakers who made it the subject of their work.

The most spectacular was a 2007 project organised by Artangel, in which artist Catherine Yass filmed and photographed tightrope walker Didier Pasquette attempting to cross the 45-metre (150ft) gap between the two tower blocks, which are 89m tall. High winds meant Pasquette had to turn back soon after starting his attempt.

The year before, director Andrea Arnold made her feature film debut with Red Road, a thriller about a female CCTV security operator who is haunted by a man from her past who appears on her monitors.

Arnold said of the buildings: "When I was driving about Glasgow I was very struck by them, they were an amazing sight. The filmmaker Tarkovsky said if you like a location and it really speaks to you then just use it and certainly the Red Road flats spoke to me."

Red Road was part of a huge programme of tower-block construction in 60s Glasgow as the city embraced high-rise living in order to find a quick and cost-effective solution to its housing crisis.

Designed by architect Sam Bunton, the estate was completed in 1969, by which time it was home to more than 4,700 people. The six grey tower blocks, combined with the estate's two 100m-wide sand-coloured slab blocks, give the impression of an almost impenetrable wall of concrete. The towers were the highest residential structures in Europe at the time.

Residents were initially enthusiastic but, like many similar schemes, the estate started to gain a reputation for antisocial behaviour. This ranged from disaffected youths throwing objects from the roofs to frequent burglaries, often carried out by drug addicts. In 1977 a 12-year-old boy died in a 23rd-floor fire. About 100 families had to be evacuated and many refused to return.

As people moved out, some flats were earmarked for use by students and then asylum seekers, who started to arrive in 2000. The suicide of three members of a Russian family who leapt from the 15th floor of one of the blocks in 2010 still weighs heavily on many residents.

Photographer Iseult Timmermans, one of the first artists to work at Red Road, initially came to the estate when taking home a young Kosovan asylum seeker who had been involved in one of her projects. "It was early evening and all the rubbish seemed to be swirling around and I remember looking up and feeling completely disorientated," Timmermans said. "It felt like being in a foreign landscape. I thought what does it feel like for someone who is coming from a completely different culture, often arriving at night, to be landed somewhere like this? It must have been unbelievable."

Timmermans started working at Red Road in 2004, developing photography projects that helped asylum seekers settle into their new surroundings. She was later joined by others such as Alison Irvine, whose novel This Road is Red was based on interviews with residents.

"The buildings are eye-poppingly mammoth," said Irvine. "The height and breadth of them is breathtaking and you really do feel overawed when you're standing beneath them."

Many of the artists, writers and film-makers were initially attracted by the architecture, but it is the residents that have maintained their interest.

"Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the harsh-looking buildings with the richness of the people who live in them that appealed to me," said Irvine. "The buildings house so many characters and you don't know who you'll meet until you get inside."

One of the defining factors of the cultural activity at Red Road has been the close relationship between many of those involved. Much of this has centred on a community studio where artists shared ideas and contacts.

The trust built up with residents has also been important. Some embraced the artists' work and became involved with Irvine's book, a series of illustrations by Mitch Miller and a short documentary film by Chris Leslie that highlights people's memories of the underground Mecca Bingo and Brig bar.

Much of the work by artists culminated in the Multi-story exhibition at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art in 2010. Work by Miller and Leslie was showcased at Red Road Underground, a multimedia exhibition held at the New Glasgow Society in February.

Some have used Red Road to portray a grim view of urban living – it was used as a location for TV crime drama Taggart – but many of the artists have looked beyond the architecture and tried to convey the complexity of residents' feelings about living there.

Arnold acknowledged at the time she made her film that, despite their nightmarish appearance, the flats have been home to many people who have brought up families there. Irvine's book communicates that as well as the suicides, crime and drugs, there are tales of friendship, love and good times.

Leslie's film also conveys people's affection for the place. "It was very exciting and every day was an adventure being in the Red Road," says Azam Khan in the film. "I made some really good friends out there."

Glasgow Museums has been racing to document people's recollections of Red Road before the flats are demolished. Those who have taken part include Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson, who lived with her family in a 21st floor flat of one of the blocks from 1966 until 1977, when the fatal fire broke out two floors above them.

"I think Red Road was a symbol of ambition coming out of the postwar years," said Ferguson in the interview. "If you watch some of the news footage at the time, they were heralded as the answer to everyone's housing needs. I don't think they really were that, but they did fit that time and they served a purpose for a good number of years."

Ferguson, who says she loved Red Road as a child, admits to mixed feelings about the demolition. "There will be a bit of sadness, but that's progress I suppose. People watched in awe when they were built and I suspect they will watch in awe when they come down too." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Don't be the product, buy the product!