Democracy is a lie reads the graffito. As the peoples of North African and Middle Eastern nations voice dissent against their autocratic leaders, I’m caught short by the message sprayed on a wall on a Gorbals side street round the corner from the Citizen’s Theatre. On a biting cold day I pick over the remains of the blowdown of one of the Norfolk Court high-rises and wonder, what would the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya think if they ever washed up in this city?
The world turns but in the Gorbals, as in all provincial post-industrial areas, the legacy of first-world Western democracy is all-too-evident in a city made rich and poor by the shifting fortunes of its industry and the venality and short-termism of its politicians. On Gorbals Street huge mounds left by the demolition are slowly eroding as the debris is shovelled up and transported to provide aggregate and landscaped banks for the M74 Extension currently nearing completion only a few hundred yards away.
Whenever confronted with these great piles of rubble subliminally I reach a pitch of high anxiety, knowing the construction methods employed in Glasgow’s tower blocks involved the liberal use of asbestos as a safeguard against fire. But unlike plutonium or uranium, asbestos has no half life and therefore is arguably more lethal. Did the planners and architects know this when they devised the solution to Glasgow’s slums? And were they aware that these monoliths would stand for only 50 years, a shorter span than the Victorian and Edwardian red and blonde stone tenements they almost replaced?
While making The Devil’s Plantation, I spent a lot of time looking at the city from all angles, aware of the proposed razing of Glasgow’s high rises and its impact on the skyline, a cityscape very different from the one seen in a piece I once made for BBC Television. My programme opened with archive footage from a film made for Glasgow Corporation in 1949 titled Glasgow Today and Tomorrow and directed by Erica Masters to illustrate the Bruce Plan, Glasgow’s version of the Marshall Plan, devised after WW2 to address the city’s housing crisis, said to be the worst in Europe.
There’s something terribly affecting about the film, in particular one sequence featuring architect’s plans and models of a futuristic Glasgow complete with motorways (decades before the M1 was built) and little helicopter type machines, proposed, I believe, in the optimistic spirit of post-WW2 as modes of public transport. Like most civic plans, however, the reconstruction of the city was destined to go the way of the Milngavie Monorail, in that new housing was built then left to deteriorate.
The notion, that the heavy industry that sustained the Empire and two world wars could and would keep Glasgow afloat to the common good and not the privatised military-industrial compact that governs our cherished democracy today was, with hindsight, misguided. Every time I watch Glasgow Today and Tomorrow I feel both sad and angry at my own naivety and ignorance, of how these public information films were pure propaganda. Who watched this film, I wonder? Who was it made for, and what was its real agenda? That I knew the answer all along is of little consolation.
Growing up, my old school, the recently demolished McGill Primary in Pollok, had a room dedicated to the purpose of showing TV, 16mm films and filmstrips, a now-defunct medium harking back to the days of the Magic Lantern. The output of National Film Board of Canada featured high on the programme, usually in the form of wildlife documentaries and oddities such as the life of a lumberjack, where the sight of toppling trees to a young audience incited flashbacks of the demolitions most of us had witnessed prior to moving to the schemes.
With cinema and TV as our major means of escape we devoured these films, eager for any experience that excused us from the grind of reciting times tables and conjugating verbs. The greatest attraction was the ability to sit in a darkened room and dream of other, exotic places, a possibility made attainable by the times we lived in, the last generation since Queen Victoria’s era that governments sought to ship out labour, not for the shoring-up of Empire but to populate its replacement, the Commonwealth, at a time of declining industry at home.
During the 1960s, when the opportunity (some might say expedience) of emigration for the skilled manual workforce was still in play, through our adjoining bedroom wall I often overheard my mother rage at my father on the matter of moving abroad. By the time I sat in that darkened room at McGill in 1970, all bets were off. Films featuring construction work in Sydney or sheep husbandry in New Zealand were as redundant as Clydebank shipbuilders. With the ten pound passage withdrawn and the schemes completed, in my own family’s case as with many others, what resulted was the absence of our fathers, men who for want of a decent wage stood on roadsides waiting for a lift to some distant town, or by train, off to Corby and what was left of steel, or in my father’s case, to transfer his skills from ships to power stations to nuclear plants, nuclear submarines and oil terminals.
By the early 1970s, like so many concrete exclamation marks, Glasgow’s skyline was punctuated with tower blocks, both in the inner city and outlying greenbelt. Not all of the schemes boasted high-rises but those that did displayed little coherence. Blocks appeared on any available gap site with scant regard to the extant buildings or for that matter, planning, as seen in Ibrox, Govan, Maryhill, Cardonald and Anderston. In other areas such as Barmulloch, Sighthill and Castlemilk, Toryglen and the Gorbals, blocks were erected en masse but as per the post-war schemes, local shops, launderettes (washing machines being rare), pubs, cinemas, sports facilities, dancehalls and community centres were an afterthought in that too many instances never materialised.
The Gorbals, arguably the most recognisable area of Glasgow to those outside the city, if more of a psychic construct than an actual place, underwent wholesale redevelopment from the mid-1960s onwards, including the notorious Hutchesontown C. Designed in 1959 by Sir Basil Spence, Hutchie C, also known as the Queen Elizabeth flats, was based on a Le Corbusier model in Marseille, a city with an average 12 hours sunshine in July as opposed to Glasgow, averaging a mere 5 hours in the same month. In the way of all architects, responsibility for the flaws of Sir Basil’s construction was abdicated on completion. From the day in 1965 when the first tenants arrived, claims Sir Basil’s website, the failure of Hutchie C was due to the city council’s lack of maintenance, casually omitting the fact of the city’s higher than UK average rainfall.
That the Spence website features a video of the developments’ blowdown less than 40 years later only concedes the failings of its originator, whose concern for the housewife’s laundry and the building’s hanging gardens paled insignificant against the problems of chronic dampness, child-minding from a 20 storey remove, the feelings of loss and isolation from one’s neighbours and a massive spike in heating bills for those unused to billed heating as opposed to coin-fed meters.
What’s unarguable here is that compared to the privately-rented tenement hovels housing the majority of its citizens, initially Glasgow’s high-rises were desirable dwellings, with heating, bathrooms and usually more than one bedroom. No longer did parents have to sleep in proximity to gas cookers or watch their children play in rat-infested middens or share a single toilet with the family next door. High-rises boasted rubbish chutes, lifts with removable panels designed for the transport of coffins and communal drying areas.
Walking round the Gorbals today is a dislocating experience. In the shadow of the last remaining block of Norfolk Court, I visit the Citizen’s Rose Garden, a rubbish tip by any other name, its benches broken, decades worth of strewn litter and stunted greenery, not a single rose bush in sight. Nearby I spot a sign calling for volunteers to tidy the area, positing the question – whither the Big Society now? For a main thoroughfare, it’s eerily quiet, with virtually no one on the streets and few cars. By the entrance to Norfolk Court, on a metal railing I note a set of modest bouquets, doubtless a tribute to someone’s recent tragedy.
Close to the block a large sign announces a new construction, The Glasgow House, or rather, two low-build houses of traditional, some might say regressive design, examples of what the GHA sees as the future of social housing, eco-friendly perhaps, but occupying a disproportionate footprint compared to that of the neighbouring high-rise. Later I learn that the reported cost of demolishing Norfolk Court is £6m, but whether that sum includes the razing of the last tower is moot.
Passing the earth-movers piling ever-diminishing mounds of debris I pause long enough to take a photograph and catch myself holding my breath. What are those large plastic containers of liquid next to the JCBs, I wonder? For the purpose of damping down the dust, that’s what, I tell myself, perhaps to prevent asbestos fibres from taking root in my lungs. I have no way of knowing, but the thought’s enough to propel me down the road and round the corner to Laurieston Road and the graffito.
Crossing the road I head east towards Caledonia Road when I’m stopped in my tracks by the sight of a double decker bus parked by the high flats. On closer inspection it turns out to be a mobile church, the Salt and Light which, according to its signage is bringing the presence of God to the hurting people of Glasgow. I talk to three women stood smoking outside and ask them if this is a regular occurrence. Aye, comes the reply, it comes every Thursday, adding, why don’t you go in and have a cup of tea? They tell me that Salt and Light is run by some ‘nice young people’. But with my camera weighing heavily in my hand, I feel like an intruder, so decline their kind invitation. What I don’t ask is whether these women feel they are hurting, or if the church requires hurting as a condition of entry. I’m troubled because it feels patronising and wrong for any church to assume that the people of the Gorbals are somehow more hurting than those living in Hyndland, say, or Newton Mearns and therefore more deserving of their ministry.
Retreating, I wander into the heart of the two tower blocks between Lonsdale View and Crown Street. Apart from the ever-present CCTV there’s no obvious sign of dereliction, just a pair of tired old blocks situated on the edge of recent, private, low-level developments, a build started in the mid-1990s that continues today, where further up the Caledonia Road, past the Southern Necropolis towards the old districts of Oatlands, Richmond Park and Polmadie, new, private housing is springing up a stone’s throw from the M74 Extension.
Retracing my steps, I head back towards the junction of Caledonia and Cathcart Roads, a corner that since the demolition of the tenements has been a kind of no man’s land. The one landmark of note is Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s Caledonia Church, built in the 1850s and described as ‘a ruined building’, the shell of which only survives today, I believe, due to its awkward position and remains a monument to the city council’s wilful neglect of Thomson’s genius as a native architect, a man who influenced the work of Frank Lloyd Wright among others. Perhaps it’s only fitting then that his memorial, situated only a short distance from the church in the Southern Necropolis, was vandalised before its official unveiling in 2005.
Later, I’m reminded that the Red Road flats in Barmulloch, mentioned in an earlier blog, were scheduled for demolition in 2010 but for numerous reasons the blowdown was postponed, possibly due to the triple suicide in March last year. That, and the ongoing issues of asbestos removal by the contractors, Safedem, a major beneficiary of Glasgow’s drive to rid itself of its tower blocks. According to their website, Safedem faces many challenges when it comes to blowing up buildings, not least at Norfolk Court, where letters to the mainly asylum-seeker tenants had to be translated into nine different languages.
Still, it seems controversy surrounds the razing of Red Road. Nowhere can I find a reliable date for demolition, the most accurate quoted by the current owner, GHA, an unspecified date in summer 2011. One for the diary, I tell myself, to make sure I’m out of town, since the level of asbestos used in these buildings, released in the wrong wind conditions, would surely be enough to slowly kill the entire population prematurely, thus saving the Council millions, if not billions, in future provision for the elderly. The last word on Red Road I leave to Dr. Joe Murray, a one-time resident of the area in his moving reminiscence. His words – and the accompanying photographs – say more about Red Road than anyone else.
Two weeks after my Gorbals walk, I hit the road again, this time walking via Pollokshields to Ibrox, Govan and beyond and musing on the short distance between some of the most expensive property Glasgow has to offer and the least desirable housing in the city. Crossing the footbridge over the M8 by way of the sinister, rubbish-strewn back road bordering its southern side, I pause at the flats at the corner where Edmiston Drive meets Paisley Road West, many of which lie vacant, their windows clad in sheet metal, ready for the same fate as nearby Broomloan Court, recently demolished and curiously, one of the few high rises built with a gas supply.
Rounding the corner into Copland Road, I arrive at one of my old haunts, Iona Court, and its three tall grey towers that even a sunny afternoon can’t improve. For the first time I notice on the flat’s perimeter some very expensive landscaping – heavy granite sets and boulevardian tree planting – installed by the city council but left abandoned under a mulch of litter. After the hard winter, many of the city’s pavements are still scattered with red grit, the highways potholed to buggery. Iona Court is sure to go soon, as are many of the city’s high rises. From certain viewpoints the effect of these mass blowdowns is already evident, reducing Glasgow to flat earth, with fewer distinguishing landmarks separating it from the surrounding hill ranges. Is this the shape of the city to come? Tracts of low-level houses, low level warehousing, low level service industries and retail parks cleaved by motorway?
Passing through the old Moorepark area I head towards Craigton and Drumoyne on the Shieldhall Road, where a few modest high rises still stand. I soon reach Moss Heights, the first tower blocks built in Glasgow, notable for their appearance in a 1983 BBC drama, An Englishman Abroad, as Russian apartments. Occupied from 1959 (and built from 1953 onwards) at only nine storeys high, these flats are possibly the most aesthetically appealing of all Glasgow’s high-rises, both in terms of situation, south-facing and perched high on a hill, and in their design, the facades predating 60s brutalism, with curved private balconies and boat-shaped motifs on top by way of understated adornment. I love these buildings, having grown up with them while living in Pollok, unlike their counterparts off the Berryknowes Road, the last blocks built in Glasgow, which today are illuminated with green strip lighting, always a touchy subject to those of a sectarian bent.
Will Moss Heights survive GHA’s cull of the city’s tower blocks? I hope so, just as I hope the city doesn’t lose its shape entirely. Cities are defined in many ways and in Glasgow’s case for the last 50 years the tower block has become its defining image, not homogenous off-the-peg structures palmed off to its citizens as its latter-day icons, such as the ‘Squinty’ Bridge or the ‘Armadillo’, names insisted on us by their developers and the media, for constructions of a type found in any provincial UK city under New Labour’s and the Coalition government’s zeal for privatised but publicly-underwritten regen projects and in the absence of real, meaningful, manufacturing industry.
Location, location, location. Glasgow, in tandem with the developers who lubricate hardest, is about to greenlight a new generation of mega-tall buildings, according to the Future Glasgow website. But who can predict the future shape of the city? Not the people behind Elphinstone Tower, (the link’s worth checking out for the objection letters), whose original 2004 plan to build a 39 storey residential building on the site of the former Strathclyde Regional Council offices in St. Vincent Street appears to have stalled.
Homeward bound, as I walk down Mosspark Boulevard, the exotically-named road running parallel to Bellahouston Park, the beautiful amber sunset kicks off the windows of the high flats on the eastern edge of the park. I’m certain if these, and many of the Glasgow high-rises were situated in central London, say, or Manhattan, the city wouldn’t be so quick to blow them down or nibble them to the ground, just as I’m sure many of their tenants would resist being shunted into yet another social housing experiment.
The Guardian once did a regular column called Notes and Queries. I recall reading a question sent by a reader regarding some scientific matter I’ve long forgotten. But I’ll never forget the answer –
And thus the ‘problem’ of Glasgow’s high rises might also be resolved. Pity then that it’s only ever pubs and nightclubs that catch fire in this burg. There’s too much asbestos in the flats for that to happen. As I complete my journey, at the other end of the news cycle come reports of the latest disaster currently playing out in Japan in the aftermath of its earthquake and tsunami. In all the talk of the fragility of the built environment, it would be crass to make any comparison with the tragedy occuring there, but there’s a sobering irony to be found on the streets of Glasgow, of the insidious man-made disaster of the last 50 years where in some parts, the parts no longer useful to late capitalism, you’d be forgiven for thinking an earthquake happened but nobody noticed.
As for the graffito – it wasn’t the heartfelt expression of a local ned. I suspect it was the work of a frustrated asylum-seeker, probably out of some African country, maybe living in Norfolk Court, maybe disillusioned, but obviously alert to the chimera of democracy, so good on them, whoever they are.