This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Glasgow is a city trapped in a never-ending cycle of demolition and reconstruction, so it's fitting that watching buildings getting blown up has become its new favorite form of mass public entertainment. Yesterday, thousands gathered to watch the city's iconic Red Road tower blocks reach their demise in one of Europe's largest-ever controlled explosions.
It was a strange spectacle akin to an apocalyptic Christmas lights switch-on or fireworks display, but there were no rubbish local celebrities overseeing proceedings, no countdown, and no tacky merchandise in sight. In fact, there was no warning at all when the demolition finally arrived in the mid-afternoon. Instead, a loud bang echoed out across the north of Glasgow and seconds later, the six buildings collapsed amid clouds of smoke. Surprised spectators rushed back to their intricate camera setups in a bid to catch proceedings, but having been distracted during the five-hour wait, many weren't quite quick enough. "That was total shite," remarked one unfortunate video recorder, who mistimed it by seconds and whose commentary has now gone viral.
While Glasgow's fascination with demolishing its built heritage goes back much further, it was in the years following the Second World War that audacious plans were hatched to flatten most of the city—including its ornate Victorian architecture—and rebuild it as a modernist utopia of grey concrete and functional tower blocks. The more far-flung elements of this plan were never adopted, but the decades that followed did see the city's slums flattened, motorways plowed through it, and vast high-rises come to dominate its skyline.
Among the highest buildings in Scotland, the Red Road flats were visible for miles around and became an emblem of both the successes and failures of Glasgow's postwar housing schemes. Once idealized as the future of urban living, they latterly became synonymous with social problems and neglect as the city struggled to cope with the effects of deindustrialization. More recently, the dilapidated flats were used to house asylum seekers, with one block remaining in use until earlier this year.
There was shock and anger last year when it was announced that five of the blocks would be brought down as a live-action spectacular during the opening ceremony of Glasgow's Commonwealth Games. One block would remain, with its asylum seeker occupants temporarily evacuated for the evening. Safety reasons were cited when the plans were ditched by organizers a few days later, although negative headlines and a mounting social media campaign were more likely the cause. Bringing down blocks of council housing as an entertaining spectacle for an opening ceremony where tickets began at £40 [$60] did, unsurprisingly, come in for heavy criticism.
Some of these concerns have remained, with housing academics arguing that celebrating the flats' destruction reflects a wider "antipathy to social housing." However, there was little sign of these qualms being on show near Red Road yesterday, where large crowds gathered at impromptu viewing points for the mooted blowdown time of 11 AM. Few thought they would be there all day, but it soon became clear that things wouldn't be quite so straightforward. One family, backed by housing campaigner and local publicity-magnet Sean Clerkin, was refusing to leave a house near the foot of the flats, well within the area that was to be evacuated. Although out of sight, the whole drama was being streamed online, and by around noon sheriff officers had evicted them. It didn't take long for Clerkin to show up in the crowd outside the perimeter, where he explained to me why he had tried to get the whole thing called off.
"There's asbestos particles lying all over the site which will be blown up into the air when the flats come down later, and people's health will suffer," he claimed. "The debris will be flying around over one side, which will damage homes, and the local nursery is over one side and that will be destroyed. The bottom line is this will cause massive damage. People that are here to see the glory of the demolition need to think about the long term ramifications for the area."
Most onlookers, however, appeared more concerned about what time the contractors would be getting started with the demolition than anything else. The Barmulloch housing scheme provided one of the best vantage points in the city, with just a railway line and some wasteland separating it from the flats. There, the demolition waiting game was in full flow. Children spent the afternoon clambering onto a JCB forklift (weirdly evoking this famous image of Red Road in the 1960s), the only shop in the area was having the busiest day in its history, and families were opening up their gardens to allow people a better viewpoint. At times it felt like being at a music festival waiting for the headliner to come out—the smell of churned up grass, the bored looking security workers, the sense of anticipation, and the endless guesswork and Twitter rumors about what was actually happening. Except it was all for a headline act that would last about 30 seconds when it finally came.
It was in Barmulloch that I met Jim, Raymond, Bob, Kenny, and Finlay. Their parents had all been among the first generation to move into the Red Road flats when they were built in the 1960s, and for the most part stayed in them until around the late 1980s or early 1990s. "It was a great place to grow up. You used to be able to name everybody from the first floor up to 27," Jim said, although there was little sadness about them now coming down, saying that they've "served their purpose."
For Bob Niven, his family history is intertwined with the Red Road flats. "I was the first person born in the actual flats up there," he told me. "My mum and dad loved it, they were among the last of the original residents to leave."
When the flats eventually came down after 3PM, there was no warning, leaving many onlookers feeling aggrieved, which was understandable after a five hour wait. It felt like the organizers were deliberately trying to avoid any excitement building up among the crowd, particularly as they had been urging people to stay away from the demolition in the days prior to it. This seemed ironic given that last year the same blowdown was being touted as a showpiece spectacular, to be beamed live around the world.
As the clouds of dust cleared following the explosion, it became obvious that something had gone wrong. Two of the blocks were still upright, their bottom halves wiped out but the top 13 floors precariously jutting out of the ground. Earlier, the organizers had said that "the bottom ten floors" would remain intact, to be later removed by machinery. This wasn't the bottom ten floors though—it was the top 13, perilously balanced on top of the rubble of their lower half. It remains to be seen how they'll bring down the defiant leaning towers of Red Road, although earlier fears that they would prevent a return home for hundreds of nearby residents appear to have unfounded, with the exclusion zone lifted by early evening.
"Me and my mate have been trying to decide for 40 years which of our blocks is best, cause we grew up in different ones," joked former resident Finlay McKay, as we stood in the back garden of a house overlooking the site. "I think this has settled it, as mine came down in ten seconds flat and his one is still standing."