These are the areas I would normally avoid when I have visitors. You always want to go straight there…
Like other architectural photographers with a love for brutalism, my fascination with Glasgow’s Red Road Estate bears all of the hallmarks of the classic “it’s complicated” relationship. Fundamentally it represents all that went wrong with an over-optimistic post-war housing policy infused with the exuberant rush for modernism prevalent at the time. A living embodiment of fear and loathing to anybody on a waiting list for social housing, or to anybody that had to go near them. And yet the sheer scale and ambition of the development just leaves you looking up in awe, and ultimately with some sadness that it never quite worked out as it was supposed to.
By the time Red Road was completed in 1969 the nation’s love affair with high-rise living had already passed its zenith, and the only way was down. That’s not to say that life was bad in the six 31-storey point blocks and two 28-storey slab blocks from the start – many early residents enjoyed the best of these huge monolithic structures and saw their living conditions vastly improved on the condemned tenements from which they had been removed. Red Road was a later phase of the Bruce Plan of 1946 that had controversially earmarked swathes of the city for demolition and redevelopment, and city architect Sam Bunton was keen to make a statement. But it was a statement that would ultimately see 4,700 people living on a site barely a quarter of a mile square. Spectacular views aside, it was no place to be bringing up your family.
Major societal changes through the 1970s saw political instability, industrial decline, unemployment, deprivation, drugs and bad management combine in a festering melting pot that left many such estates as vulnerable as the people that were now trapped living in them, and despite improvements made through the 1980s Red Road never did manage to shake its image as a glowering no-go area riddled with anti-social behaviour and crime. Far from being a towering beacon of utopian optimism its sheer edifices merely cast ever lengthening shadows to warn people away, and in 2005 the Glasgow Housing Association gave up all hope and set out its plans for demolition.
After fifty years dominating the skyline the remaining slab block and four point blocks are to be blown down this autumn. Walking round the perimeter you can sense a tension in the air, the now semi-skeletal construction exposed to the elements and shrouded in red netting. The nervous silence is occasionally punctuated by the clanking of windows or metal panels high up in the breeze. The solitude is interrupted by a car, a few friends walking, a kid on a bike… a far cry from the life of almost 5000 people that once called this home.
Maybe it’s the reputation that put me slightly on edge, maybe places really do retain the atmosphere of the life that was lived within them… but it wasn’t going to stop me experiencing this fascinating sight for what may be the last time. Nothing of its kind will ever be attempted again in Britain, and as the sun slid between the towers and set through the battle-scarred chain fencing I looked up and smiled. For all their problems, Glasgow will look back with at least some fondness of Red Road and the like one day.
It certainly won’t forget it.