For half a century the Red Road tower blocks have loomed over the skyline of north east Glasgow. In the space of 15 seconds on 23 July, with more than one billion people watching live on television, they will be demolished forever.
In a surprise announcement, Commonwealth Games organisers revealed that five of the six remaining structures will be destroyed using 1,250kgs of explosives during the tournament’s opening ceremony.
While local officials trumpeted the act as “symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow”, others described it as a “crude stunt” which was “highly insensitive” to those who have lived in the towers over the years, many of whom were asylum seekers making their first home in Britain.
Built in the 1960s, the series of eight 89m tower blocks were once the highest residential structures in Europe and provided homes for 4,000 people. Initially heralded as the answer to Glasgow’s overcrowded tenements, latterly they have fallen into disrepair and serve as a constant physical reminder of the city’s problems with poverty, deprivation and drugs.
From 2001 onwards, thousands of asylum seekers fleeing war in countries such as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan were housed in the flats. In 2010 a family of three Russian asylum seekers jumped to their deaths from the 15th floor of one of the towers after being told they had to leave.
Two of the 31-storey buildings were demolished in 2012 and 2013. After the Commonwealth Games, only one, Petershill Court, will remain standing. It is still used to house asylum seekers and will be destroyed at a later date. Almost 900 homes near the site will be temporarily evacuated in the run up to the opening ceremony and their residents invited to join celebrations at local venues.
Eileen Gallagher, the independent director on the Glasgow 2014 board and chair of the ceremonies, culture and Queen’s baton relay committee, said: “By sharing the final moments of the Red Road flats with the world as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn’t stand still.”
Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson said the demolition would “wow the world”, adding that the removal of the towers “will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area and is symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow”.
But Alison Irvine, whose 2011 novel This Road Is Red was based on interviews with people living in the towers, told The Independent: “I think it’s insensitive and crude. It rides roughshod over all the memories of the people that lived there… it’s a crude stunt. The Red Road housed some of the first refugees that came from Kosovo, and I think that’s a very proud history to have.”
Robina Qureshi, director of the charity Positive Action in Housing, said the demolition was “ironic”, pointing out that asylum seekers have also been barred from volunteering at the Games. “For the Olympic Games they light a torch, and here in Glasgow they are celebrating the start of the Commonwealth Games by blowing up the Red Road flats. It’s highly insensitive and jars with the senses,” she added.
Chris Leslie, a photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting the blocks and their residents for three years, said he was “shocked” when he heard about the live demolition, but added that it had “opened up the idea of Glasgow’s resurgence”.
Some residents will be sad to see the end of their former homes. Red Road resident Ali Mudassir, 21, said the buildings had been “a family” to him since he moved to Glasgow three years ago. “It’s been a great experience and they will be missed,” he said. “The area will be entirely different after they’ve gone.”