Culture House Daily

Our infatuation with high-rise housing has been catastrophic. Good riddance to the Red Road flats

7 April 2014

12:25 PM

7 April 2014

12:25 PM

‘If you meet anyone in a pub or at a party who says he is an architect,’ advised Auberon Waugh, ‘punch him in the face.’ Typically, the late, great Spectator columnist articulated an important truth: modern architects have scarred our cityscapes with some truly horrendous buildings, none more so than Glasgow’s notorious Red Road flats. What better way to mark the opening of this summer’s Commonwealth Games than to blow them up?

Five of the six blocks will be blown up on 23 July. These five are already empty. The sixth, which currently houses asylum seekers, is due for demolition at a later date. ‘We are going to wow the world, with the demolition of the Red Road flats set to play a starring role,’ said Glasgow’s Labour council leader, Gordon Matheson. ‘Their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area.’ For every Briton, red or blue, this is a true cause for celebration. Our infatuation with high-rise housing has had catastrophic consequences. Eradicating these eyesores will feel like waking from a bad dream.


I was a toddler in south-east London when the Red Road flats were built, in the late 1960s. Woolwich, where I spent my early years, was subjected to a similar programme of ‘urban renewal’. Tidy Victorian terraces were demolished and their occupants rehoused in bland new tower blocks. Sure, these new flats had central heating and proper bathrooms, but the social infrastructure was shattered. We’re still living with the consequences today.

My mum had bought our two-up two-down with a loan from the headmistress of her New Cross grammar school, and so, unlike my classmates, we never relocated to this new suburb in the sky. My high-rise classmates had all mod cons, we still had an outside loo – but even at that early age, I could sense we’d had a lucky escape. My school friends were imprisoned. We were free. As a teenager, I returned to Woolwich and was shocked by what I saw: those smart new tower blocks had become intimidating. The spaces between them were no-go areas. The inhabitants had become invisible. There was never anyone around. My friends in low-rise council houses were much better off than their high-rise peers. The estates where they lived were built on a human scale, around communal spaces. A child of five could see the difference: stacking people vertically doesn’t work.

A few months ago, in Birmingham, I visited the city’s last remaining back-to-backs. Almost all of them were demolished in the 1960s, and their tenants rehoused in new tower blocks. The National Trust have preserved a few of them and restored them to their original condition, right down to the old bric-a-brac. You can see it was no picnic: dozens of people squeezed into a few small rooms, with no kitchen, toilet or bathroom. Mind you, the nice old lady who showed me round had happy memories of living here. She said the tower block where she was rehoused was worse.

High-rise works well for prosperous owner-occupiers, but when it comes to social housing it makes a bad situation far worse. Yet more than 4,000 people have signed a petition protesting against the spectacular demolition of the Red Road flats. They’re worried this big bang will send out the wrong signal to former and current residents. ‘The homes should be demolished with dignity,’ they say. Fiddlesticks. They’ve been a blot on the landscape for half a century. Let them go out with an almighty crash.

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Show comments
  • Matt Quinn

    The Red Road’s reputation for crime, disorder and deprivation was not quickly or naturally gained. Rather, it was the direct result of seeding the area with known anti-social types whilst simultaneously abdicating responsibility for proper stewardship and maintenance of the place; and it evolved over some two decades or more! – If there was social engineering at play, the physical buildings played little part in it. The scheme was deliberately mismanaged.

    I know, for I was there! – From the age of 10 I enjoyed a good upbringing in a warm, comfortable flat in the scheme. And later – again from one of the flats in the scheme – starting what is now one of the longest-established video production companies in Scotland.

    The decline of the Red Road past the point of no return has been carefully orchestrated. And it’s history written by those who brought it down to paint the pictures they require to justify their actions… Why for instance bring in a London-based Australian to write stories about the place? Or some guy from East Kilbride, now based in Blackpool, to take the ‘official’ photographs of its demise? Springburn is known for producing its own fair share of creatives! As is Glasgow generally!

    I personally can tell you that attempts to tell a positive story of life in the Red Road have been obstructed. And offer the opinion that what has gone on amounts to almost an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Red Road community and its true story. This, entirely for political gain and the generation of fat contracts for the well-connected cronies behind what seems to be an endless cycle of ‘build it up, run it doon, build it up and run it doon again’ – with the ordinary folk of Glasgow caught up like rags in the spin cycle!

    The commonwealth games have cost many a Glasgow East-Ender their homes and businesses, with no adequate compensation. It’s a spectacle that most won’t be able to access. And likewise the facilities left will be beyond the reach of many – more ‘ethnic cleansing’ and fat contracts for the boys in other words! – The demolition of the Red Road does NOT symbolise anything of the regeneration of Glasgow; for it’s been ‘regenerating’ for all of the 51 years I’ve been on the planet and never-quite got there! – Rather it’s just the click of the ratchet as the next spin-cycle kicks in!

    And this is the ultimate mockery, the ultimate disrespect and display of contempt for all those ordinary Glaswegians who lived, loved and died in those buildings. The ultimate display of ethnic cleansing.


  • dado_trunking

    “for every Briton, red or blue”
    note the colour of the dust sheeting upon explosion (!)
    nah, not political at all . . .

  • Kitty MLB

    Auberon Waugh, you mention the son of one of my favourite authors…
    and maybe I agree with his sentiments in this instance- Victorian terraces were
    demolished for these.
    The 60’s when I were born! They say if you remember them, then you were not there
    clearly those magic mushrooms had a lot to answer to. I am sure Sir Christopher
    Wren would be turning in his grave.
    Utter soul destroying monstrosities, and so not England and indeed beautiful Scotland
    as she has been mentioned- I have not wandered into the Glasgow.
    People stuffed together like sardines is a ghastly concrete jungle.
    Quite honestly, I am not too fond of the ghastly things, I am minded to say.

  • wycombewanderer

    In a perfect world:

    Would the Scots stop finding things to whinge about?

    • Michael Mckeown

      In their perfect world, no.

    • John Lea

      It’s not ‘Scots’ whingeing, it’s the usual left-wing Socialist tw*ts who are up in arms. I’m sure you have a few of them down your way, too, non?