The Red Road Flats, And The Slow Demise Of A Community In The Sky
Glasgow following W.W.2 was for the majority of its citizens a slum city, poverty was rife, disease substantial and the standard of life was appalling. Families made the best of a bad situation but it was clear to everyone in authority that changes had to be made.
The Red Road Flats, one of Europe’s most iconic and recognisable housing structures, for a short period of time, were known for being the tallest buildings in Western Europe and began life with a feeling of euphoria.
A new start for Glasgow, Councillor Edward Clark convenor of Glasgow Corporation said speaking to the Glasgow Herald, “we (Glasgow Corporation) are providing many of our citizens in Springburn and surrounding areas with long desired modern amenities.”
On a clear day the Red Road Flats were visible for nearly 10 miles in every direction. Considered a beacon of hope for Glasgow’s overpopulated, tenement, dwelling families, unfortunately the buildings from the very beginning were besieged with problems.
Financial disagreements, as a result of spiralling costs, meant that construction of the high rises, continued for more than half a decade. From 1964-1969 construction was ongoing. The towers weren’t finalised until 1972.
Unbeknown to the construction teams, the Red Road Flats seemed to be doomed. Each house harboured a monstrous silent killer. As was the practice at the time, workmen used asbestos to insulate each apartment. Being substantially resistant to fire, it appeared to be a safe cheap method of erecting each of the 1356 separate homes, with the aim to create a picturesque “Community in the Sky”.
The 1000 strong workforce, tasked with creating the ambitious flats were ominously nicknamed the “white mice workmen” by locals in the surrounding area. Each day the workmen could be seen leaving the construction site, visibly pink of eye and covered head to toe in white asbestos dust.
In 1984, as a result of a massive spike in Red Road workman related deaths, a local action group tracked down the whereabouts of more than 180 former employees. 60 of whom had already died. 86% per cent of the deaths were from cancers directly associated with asbestos. Shockingly, the average age of the deceased workmen? 51 years old.
As well as the asbestos danger, other aspects during construction caused serious concern. Mainly a lack of emergency exits, the sheer power of the wind, which pulsated through the corridors of the upper floors. It was such a problem, workman and eventually families, noticed water in toilets rippling as a direct result of the gale force winds.
Unperturbed, families from local areas moved in and it was a paradise to them. Instead of living in cramped, dank, dirty Victorian tenements, they now lived in fresh, clean, 3 bedroomed homes. The towers were considered a brilliant solution to Glasgow’s housing problem.
With shops, bingo, pubs and whole streets of people living in the new buildings, residents couldn’t have been happier. It seemed however, their happiness was to be short lived.
Sam Bunton, the architect responsible for drawing up the blueprints, was dogged with accusations of vanity following the creation of the Red Road Flats. The accusations ranged from wanting to ensure a legacy for himself never to be forgotten, ambitions to build a skyscraper befitting of the New York skyline and also wishing to be known for creating the tallest housing development in Europe.
It would be impossible to lay the blame solely at the feet of Sam Bunton however, Glasgow Corporation as time progressed allowed the towers to decline into a state of disrepair. They also failed to understand the issues affecting the area and because of this struggled to solve the growing social and economical problems in the sprawling estate.
The media at the time were quick to leap on board the Red Road bandwagon. In 1963, the Evening Times boasted that the towering buildings “had space age innovation”, “could last 100 years” and because of the unique steel frame foundation, “windows, external walls and partitions could be reclothed in the future, helping keep costs down”.
A lack of finance was always a problem and with spiralling costs needed to continue necessary redevelopment of the towers, they plummeted into a state of disrepair.
After optimistic beginnings, the Red Road Flats hit a steady and swift period of decline. Lack of redevelopment, antisocial behaviour, muggings and rife drug use became part and parcel of life. Hauntingly the Red Road Flats also became notorious for multiple suicides.
In 1977 the Red Road Flats “community” would be irrevocably altered forever. A single incident which called into question every statement which helped to pour scorn on health and safety experts, who voiced concern that the towers were a tragedy waiting to happen.
With suspicions of a prank that went disastrously wrong, a fire broke out on the 23rd floor of Red Road Court engulfing the entire floor. The resutl of which was serious structural damage, a mass evacuation, and tragically, the death of a 12 year old boy.
Many families, evacuated during the fire, simply refused to return and by the 1980’s two of the towers were deemed unfit to live in.
Bizarrely, ownership of the two towers were handed over to student accommodation and the YMCA.
It was clear that the once heralded “community in the sky” had become an albatross around the neck of Glasgow Corporation, a monumental sign of their failure to permanently and successfully improve life in Glasgow.
In less than 20 years since their creation, the Red Road Flats had come to encapsulate everything wrong with post war Glasgow. Poverty, lack of employment, bereft of opportunity and a failure to change the lives of its citizens for the better.
As time progressed, fewer families were willing to accept relocation to the area and its reputation, once sterling, became poisonous, a tag it was never able to shake off.
Controversy continued to swirl around the hulking grey towers, in the 90’s they became known as an estate which Glasgow used to rehome asylum seekers, but in 2010 the Red Roads Flats were to make irredeemable headlines around the world.
Serge Serykh, his wife Tatiana and stepson, a Russian family who left Canada seeking asylum in Britain, had their request rejected. Apparently through fear of deportation they leaped from the Red Road Flats to their death.
Prior to his death, Serge claimed to be an ex Russian secret agent, and during their time in Canada, the family had been granted “Protected Person” status. Rumours surrounded the circumstances resulting in the Serykh family’s death, following similar deaths of both prominent members of the Russian press and also Russian rights activists. All had vocally opposed Vladimir Putin’s rule.
In Russia many dissidents to Vladimir Putin, met similar fates, each jumping to their death from buildings not to dissimilar in design to the Red Road Flats.
Yet another sad tale intertwined amongst the legacy of the Red Road Flats.
Following Glasgow City Council’s wise decision not to obliterate the 50 year old buildings for the viewing pleasure of the Commonwealth television audience, (many of whom, lets not forget, face a daily struggle to put a roof over their head), Glasgow’s iconic grey towers had been granted a stay of execution.
It was announced that later this year, the remaining six towers would indeed be demolished in one huge controlled explosion.
Although the massive demolition will bring an end to an ambitious ideal, which was never truly realised, a huge regeneration project is expected to be undertaken in the areas surrounding Balornock and Barmulloch.
As the towers come down, and the eyes of the world are directed toward the Red Road Flats, the iconic structures will be viewed upon, once again, as a beacon of hope, and as a signal which promises a brighter future for Glasgow and her people.