Urban planning in Glasgow, Scotland, has never suffered from a lack ambition. When post-war zeal dictated that the infamous slum of the city was to be torpedoed in the late 1960s and 1970s, there were mass scale demolitions. Thousands of Glaswegians were transported into towering new high-rises across the city. Vast structures, such as the recently demolished Red Road and the starkly brutalist Dennistoun twin towers, were the tallest residential buildings in Europe when they were erected. It seems so vastly improbable from our vantage point more than 50 years on, but these were truly utopian undertakings. They had kitchens, hot water, indoor plumbing, mixer taps. For residents reared on some of the worst slum conditions in Europe, life in the towers seemed like luxury.
What happened in the following decades is common knowledge. For a variety of complex reasons—lack of upkeep, insufficient vetting of new tenants, endemic long-term economic decline—the high-rises became a byword for deprivation, poverty, and appalling social conditions. The same enthusiasm for demolition that gripped Glasgow planners in the 1960s is present again today: Since 2006, more than a quarter of the city's high-rises have been demolished as part of a bold, and at times worryingly scattergun, vision for Glasgow's future.
"The skyline of Glasgow is set to be radically transformed, as swatches of high-rise tower blocks make way for thousands of new homes across the city. Glasgow is enjoying a real renaissance. We're delivering on better housing, and we have regained our sense of ambition. This is an announcement that looks to the future, and we are determined we will not repeat the mistakes of the past"—Glasgow City Council (2006)
BAFTA-winning filmmaker Chris Leslie has been charting these changes since 2007 through his constantly evolving project The Glasgow Renaissance, a multimedia documentation that combines photography, first-person accounts, and archival film. His work approaches the changes in the city with nuance and depth, acknowledging the urgent need for real, sustainable, regeneration in the city, while posing questions as to what that means, and about who might get left behind in the drive towards transformation.
We caught up with Chris to discuss the Glasgow Renaissance and his upcoming film Reimagining Glasgow, with Oscar Marz.
VICE: You've been documenting the "condemned and disappearing housing schemes of the city" since 2007. Was there a particular catalyst that set your work on this path?
Chris: In 1996, I spent six months living and volunteering in war-torn villages in Croatia and then Sarajevo, Bosnia. Both places were destroyed and cleansed and had lost a lot of population. The destruction in Sarajevo was on a grand scale. I'm not making deliberate comparisons between Glasgow and Bosnia, but I guess that environment of loss and transition kind of stayed with me when I arrived back in Glasgow to settle down a few years later. The process of clearing many of Glasgow's high rises had already begun, and there were parts of Dalmarnock that resembled frontline Sarajevo. The systematic destruction of "failed" homes was made public and exposed for all to see.
A lot of the coverage has focused on Red Road. Why do you think that is?
The death of Red Road and indeed any high-rise is a long process—from the flats' demise and depopulation in the 80s and 90s to the later housing of destitute asylum seekers, all the way through to its final demolition. So Red Road was always to be the centerpiece, a way for people to commemorate the changes to Glasgow's skyline, but it's just one part of the changes. 30 percent of high-rise flats in the city have been demolished since 2006.
Why do you think there is this emotional connection to demolishing old apartments?
The focus was always on the romanticism of the flats when they were first built, the new buildings, the new opportunities, all that hope and promise. But that was history, and now it's a marker of progress to blow them up. The idea of blowing them up to commemorate the Commonwealth Games could only be considered in Glasgow.
You acknowledge that it's difficult to argue against the fact that "Glasgow needs regeneration, or that a renaissance could usher in positive change," while presenting the case that the change is perhaps too wholesale, too sweeping, and ultimately cyclical. Do you see any evidence of long-term, sustainable regeneration, or are you ultimately cynical about the whole process?
Glasgow has always been a tale of two cities and all those shiny zinc-clad buildings, housing museums, and sport facilities don't resonate with a lot of Glaswegians. But that's the image of Glasgow today, the image they want to portray. I can understand the need to market the city like this, but in areas of the city, in the north and in the East End, there is so much derelict land and vast open stretches of ruin and decay. But these areas are far from the sheen of the city center and the prying eyes of visitors and tourists, and they are of zero "commercial" value or interest. You're quite skeptical about the binary choice between "good change," represented by demolition and new building, and the bad old symbols of decay and despair, represented by the high-rise buildings. Do you think that anything was learned from the legacy of the 1960s when high-rise buildings were first built, which is kind of analogous to the changes being undertaken today?
With regards to housing, we are worse off. In the 1960s, the councils were doing their best to address a humanitarian issue as Glasgow had the worst post-war housing conditions in Europe. There was a real need and urge to do something for the better, even if in the end much of it was a botched job. Today the construction of social housing is lead by volume, profit, and ever-decreasing quality control, so in many ways it's actually worse. And then there is Glasgow's love of motorways and the destruction and chaos attendant with the building of even more roads in the city, at the same time that other countries are abandoning them and reclaiming land. In Glasgow, we continue to build and extend the roadways in areas that have the lowest car ownership. It doesn't make sense.
One of the most moving pieces is the one detailing the Jaconelli's battle for compensation in the pre-Commonwealth Games ghost town that was once Dalmarnock. You talk about the irony of "salvation via a two week mega-sporting event." What did the build-up to the games make explicit about the Glasgow Renaissance?
If Glasgow didn't win the bid to host the Commonwealth Games, what would have become of Dalmarnock? And why was Glasgow reliant on winning the bid for the regeneration of the area to go ahead? Without the Commonwealth Games infrastructure, there would be no significant change to the area. The regeneration of the area was made so much easier and fluid by the fact that there was nothing left in Dalmarnock—a population of 50,000 decimated to just a few thousand and an abundance of post-industrial brown sites—waiting desperately on any kind of investment. Dalmarnock was ripe for change and its population desperate. A rebirth is a lot easier if you have a clean sweep of the area.
So this project, which so far has mostly been about stories and photography online, is now being turned into an upcoming film with Oscar Marzaroli. Is this the first time you've collaborated with another artist on your Glasgow work?
The film looks at Glasgow's regeneration over the past 40 years and the pledges made by the Corporation of the City of Glasgow. The film playfully reworks Oscar Marzaroli's 1970 film Glasgow 1980 and uses previously unseen footage shot by Marzaroli for an uncompleted follow-up film, Glasgow's Progress, alongside new footage of Glasgow today. It shows how Glasgow has been torn down, reimagined, and transformed, and it questions the city's seemingly never ending urban renewal. After eight years of documentation of the city, it was a great project to work on and of course be paid to do! All the work I have done up until now has been self-funded and self-initiated so it's good when others see value in your work.
I've also got a book coming out later in the year, alongside an exhibition on the project at the Glasgow School of Art—supported by Creative Scotland. I think this year is turning into a good one for the project. After eight years of documentation, it's a good position to have arrived at.
Do you personally feel optimistic about Glasgow's "regenerated" future?
I think you should ask me that question in 25–30 years time, and we can see what's happening to the same homes we're building now to replace the ones we are destroying. Then we'll have a definitive answer. A bit more imagination would be beneficial rather than the usual terms of "knock 'em down, build them up again." Perhaps just the documenting, questioning, and debating of the issues are a good starting point. But there is already some interesting and positive projects going on around Glasgow—some high-rise flats are being developed and more importantly reimagined, so perhaps we are seeing a turning point.
Tickets to the Glasgow Renaissance film are here.
Follow Francisco on Twitter.