Live-action gentrification shouldn't be part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
Red Road towers in Glasgow (Photo via)
There is currently a torrent of clickbait emoporn gushing through the world's internet cables, and I'm starting to worry it's seeping into the water supply. You will have seen it on the Facebook feeds of the more earnest people you know – maybe your well-meaning liberal aunt, or that weird guy from school who you didn't ever really see laugh.
You know the kind of thing:
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What happens when this variety of trite, eye-catching quick-fix bullshit is put at the heart of urban planning and cultural policy?
Let's ask Glasgow. The city's hosting this year's Commonwealth Games and last week, it was announced that the opening ceremony will feature the live demolition of five of the remaining six Red Road towerblocks. The news was greeted with understandable horror. The demolition has been planned for some time, but destroying five iconic towerblocks all at once, in 15 seconds, as light-hearted entertainment for a global TV audience of millions, is an entirely different proposition.
It is live-action gentrification, beamed straight to your sofa – and it is humiliating.
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In essence, the demolition of the Red Road flats is a perfect idea. It is perfect because it reveals the regeneration industry for what it truly is: a grotesque spectacle, clothed in the language of Blairite euphemism and dripping with crocodile tears. An erasure of the individual lives of those struggling with Britain's housing crisis, and a thoughtless reduction of our messy urban histories to cheap, tacky sentiment, designed to satisfy outsiders, and imposed from above.
The Red Road flats were built in the 1960s, in that concretopian moment when it was believed that architects could design better lives for us all through collective living (Utopia London is a great documentary on this egalitarian idea, albeit down south). It was a follow-up to the necessary slum clearances after the war; in 1947, a delegation from Glasgow visited Marseilles and were dazzled by the towerblocks built by Le Corbusier. It was no small project; the Red Road was built to house 4,700 people – and over the years it went the way of too many high-rise 60s blocks and was neglected, becoming notorious for a noxious climate of urban decay that inverted the original utopian community ideal.
To destroy it in the form of a TV spectacle does not absolve the sins of the local officials who let Glaswegians live amid crime and squalor for years, nor does it "celebrate their past" (as the Games organisers have claimed), any more than it assures them of a better future. As this article in The Scotsman reminds us, it is the range and complexity of feelings its former residents will harbour towards Red Road that are being flattened into so much choking dust: “The flats were a source of pride and embarrassment, a place of fierce friendships and bitter feuding, a sanctuary and a prison. In four decades, they saw lives transformed and lives destroyed.”
Plus side though, it'll look great on YouTube, right?
A heartfelt tribute to Red Road by the Commonwealth Games Federation.
People have kicked back – in the space of a few days, over 6,000 people have signed a petition calling for the flats to be “demolished with dignity”, off-air, and not pegged to a global sporting carnival. The petition was started by former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Carolyn Leckie, who was gobsmacked by the decision. “It took my breath away when I heard,” she told me. “I thought it was still the 1st of April. It's inappropriate on so many levels, but most of all: making a spectacle of demolishing people's homes, and assuming people would be universally joyous about it. Everyone's going to have a different response – maybe joy, maybe sadness, some might have tragic memories, for others it might be their childhood home. But the idea that destroying all of that becomes an international spectacle, demolished for entertainment, is so disrespectful.”
Another indication of the thoughtlessness of the plan, is that one Red Road block, which currently houses asylum seekers, will remain standing – for safety reasons, they will be forced to shelter elsewhere while the mass demolition-spectacle is carried out. “A lot of them may have come from wartorn countries, and seen buildings destroyed on a daily basis.” says Leckie. “The idea they can be compensated by being given a free ticket to watch the opening ceremony on a big screen, is beyond bizarre.”
Welcome to Scotland's sanctuary, where buildings are destroyed for lulz.
Above all, it's an exercise in blithe stupidity; the reduction of the complexities of the lives of thousands and the vivid paradoxes of post-war urban utopian architecture to the future source of clickbait emoporn. Maybe I'm over-thinking this. Maybe this is just about housing. In which case, ask yourself one question: Are Glaswegians likely to find that the result of this regeneration-via-sporting-propaganda-spectacle will be plentiful, good quality social and affordable housing for the people who need it most?
Well, is that what's happened in East London since the 2012 Olympics? The answer will not surprise you – the answer is no.