From slum clearance to high-rise demolition: why Glasgow’s Red Road flats could never live up to expectations.
Intended to be the solution to Glasgow‘s 20th-century slum crisis, the Red Road flats instead came to represent the failings of modern high-rise housing.
While some former residents have fond memories of the community that grew up around Red Road, others remember the poor living conditions and rapid decline of the development.
An iconic part of the Glasgow skyline for many years, the troubled Red Road flats were finally condemned in 2008.
By the mid-20th century, much of central Glasgow had become overcrowded, and traditional tenements had turned into unsanitary and unsafe slums.
As part of the post-war Bruce Report (drawn up by the Glasgow Corporation in 1946), certain inner-city districts were named as Comprehensive Development Areas.
Essentially, this meant that the council believed areas like the Gorbals, Townhead and Anderston were beyond saving – residents would be moved elsewhere and the slums would be flattened.
Areas on the outskirts of the city were earmarked for new developments, which would provide modern, safe and spacious living conditions for those leaving the urban slums.
A new beginning
The Red Road flats are arguably the most famous of these new developments.
Construction on the green belt area at Barlornock started in 1964, and the first residents had moved in by 1966.
At the time they were built, the eight Red Road tower blocks were the tallest residential high-rises in Europe, at 28 and 31 storeys.
The flats cost an estimated £6 million to build and were intended to house 4,700 people to ease overcrowding in the inner-city.
On top of brand new housing, improved living conditions, and high levels of community spirit, residents could also enjoy spectacular views of Glasgow and the surrounding countryside, even being able to see as far as the Isle of Arran on a clear day.
Plagued with problems
Despite the promising start, the Red Road flats soon came under criticism.
Built with a steel frame (rather than pre-fabricated concrete panels like other tower blocks in the city), the flats had to be fire-proofed with asbestos.
The architects responsible for the project argued that using asbestos was the safest way to ensure the flats were fire-proof, but by the 1980s it was widely known that asbestos could cause severe illness and even death.
Some asbestos was removed in the early 1980s, but the majority of it remained until the Red Road flats were eventually demolished.
The tower blocks soon began to deteriorate. Lifts frequently broke down, leaks were common, and the flats even swayed in high winds.
Crime, drugs, and social issues
It wasn’t just structural problems that affected the Red Road flats.
They quickly gained a reputation for anti-social behavior and crime, ranging from youth gangs causing mischief to burglaries, assaults, and drug dealing.
One of the most infamous incidents happened in 1977 when vandals started a fire in an empty flat.
The blaze caused serious structural damage and also resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy.
After residents were evacuated, many refused to return to their homes because of safety issues.
Shortly after, in 1980, authorities declared two of the blocks as unfit for family accommodation and were instead let to students and the YMCA.
Around this time, measures were also introduced to reduce crime in the Red Road flats.
Access to communal spaces was made more secure with the installation of intercoms and electronic keys, and 24-hour concierge facilities were also added.
Crime did drop significantly following these measures, but Red Road’s reputation would never recover.
It was seen (especially by outsiders) as a grim and desolate place. As some of Glasgow’s tallest buildings, the complex also became a hotspot for suicides.
The end of the Red Road
By the beginning of the 21st century, repairs were costing more than rent, and by 2008 the decision had been made to demolish the Red Road flats.
Phased demolition was planned to begin in 2010, despite the fact that asylum seekers were still living in the flats.
The first block was demolished in June 2012 and took just six seconds to fall after a series of controlled explosions. The second one followed in May 2013.
A controversial plan was then announced which would see five of the remaining blocks demolished as part of the 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
Those who opposed the plan said it would be insensitive to demolish the flats as a form of entertainment. They felt the demolition should instead be done with dignity, as a mark of respect to the people who had called Red Road home.
There were also safety concerns, as the sixth block (not yet planned for demolition) was still inhabited by a large number of asylum seekers.
The Commonwealth Games ‘spectacle’ was called off, but the flats were demolished anyway during the following year.
Since the demolition, Glasgow Life and Glasgow Housing Association have partnered up to create the Red Road: Past, Present, and Future project, which collects stories, photos, and recollections from those who lived in the flats.
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