Piece by piece, the looming, steel skinned concrete towers of Glasgow’s Red Road flats are coming down. In 1971 over 4,000 people lived in blocks that soared 30 stories into the sky. Forty years on, the scheme is dilapidated, its population depleted by about three quarters. A walk between the towers today, takes you across a desolate, lunar landscape of deserted swing-parks and crumbling shops.
In 2008, new owners GHA pronounced final sentence on the flats. The demolition company Safedem zoned off the two giant slab blocks of 10-30 Petershill Court and 153-213 Petershill Drive, and began the slow process of making the buildings safe for blow-down. The scheme, the most iconic, grandiose expression of Glasgow’s high-rise experiment, was to die slowly, in phases.
Not everyone welcomed the announcement. Helen McDermott, a handsome woman in her seventies would have stayed here for the rest of her life. June Aird, who does welcome the demolition nevertheless, emphasises her sense of loss and regret. ‘At one time people cared. They looked after their buildings. You could eat your dinner off the landings.’ Finlay MacKay speaks of a childhood in the 70s supported by tight community, football games between the blocks and crazy kids games such as ‘giant heiders’ (To play yourself, drop a football from at least 7 stories up and head the ball before it hits the ground). Such stories complicate the official story of grimness, isolation, decay and tarnished ideals – idyll to some, Hell to others (I feel as ambivalent about the personal, much more selfish ideal homes of Grand Designs).
Chris Leslie, whose work this piece accompanies, and I are part of a small group of artists, writers and curators tasked with recording the last days of the scheme. When we hear from tenants about a subterranean bingo hall and bar, it is too a tempting absurdity, the sort of extremism that feeds the mythology of Red Road. Towering or tunnelling, there is no middle ground here.
‘I found it the strangest place to have that, underground.’ Says June, who dutifully accompanied her Aunt Molly into the subterranean Mecca Bingo and Social Club. ‘I remember distinctly going into it thinking that this place is going to be totty, thinking I was gonnae walk into a small place, but when you did go in it was sparkly – now that might sound crazy but it was all the machines…all these machines were sparkly, and you had the mini-bingo, and there were all these colours…’
When we enter it, 15 years after it closed in fire and flood, the visual impact is rather different. Pools of stagnant water make islands from the array of four-seater tables in the main hall. The ceiling has in places, collapsed into stalactites of plaster and plastic – the bingo today is at best, beautiful desolation, but you can still sense the grandeur, sense your way back to what it was. If I came across a mummified bingo player, game book and pen in hand, I would not be unduly surprised.
Very little stopped Helen playing bingo (her ‘home from home’) twice a day, nearly every day, not even water seeping from the ground above onto her table. But then, if you were raising a family over a hundred metres up, keeping track of the numbers between drips was hardly a stretch. In the intervals patrons could make an illicit visit to the toilets and spend their winnings on stolen goods, usually ladies wear or kids clothes, draped enticingly over the sinks or, from the late 70s, grab a drink at the bar. The bingo doubled as a social club, which brought in the husbands, fathers and boyfriends.
In more segregated times, those men may have preferred the neighbouring Brig bar, whose back entrance faces the Mecca. Between bar and bingo, a social rhythm, you could say, equilibrium was reached; ‘Men would be fly and have a wee afternoon session on Saturday’ says Finlay, who came with us when we visited what’s left of his first local. ‘They’d take their women in and they would get stuck in the bingo for a couple of hours and the guys would go in The Brig, and there was the Mecca bookies right next door to it…then the women would mebbe come in and get a couple of sweetheart stouts and up the road.’
Built in the style of a ship, there is a genuine weirdness to the Brig with its compass tables and false windows with painted yachts sailing alongside. ‘No windows’ says Bob Niven, who also grew up here. ‘It was like Las Vegas! You didn’t know when you should stop drinking.’ True enough; you could gamble at the Mecca bingo or the bookies, then blow it all at a bar built to look like somewhere else entirely.
The Brig seems to have been a closed, self-sustaining loop, a place where the locals could imagine they were anywhere they liked. Surrounded by a sea of concrete and modernist landmarks, its as if the collective imagination of the residents have created a dockside bar and carefully hidden it in a concrete box. We find a soot-smeared photograph of a smiling couple in their middle years, drinks plonked next to a loaded ashtray, enjoying good times in Vegas.
Looks aren’t everything. Beneath the concreted surface, life at Red Road is traced in the most vivid colours. When Finlay and Bob played here, they imagined patches of grass as their own ‘little Wembley’ and called the tiered steps near Petershill Drive ‘The Castle’. Helen seems to remember the flats largely as a giant family tree, while aunty Molly’s landing was always spotless even if the rest of the scheme was falling to pieces. These stories, and relics such as The Brig and the Mecca Bingo show how a community found its foothold in the smooth, stark concrete, part of a grand design that took little account of the human dimension. Now the people of Red Road are leaving, splitting into their own, tiny diaspora as its physical traces gradually disappear, it is important we acknowledge its multiple dimensions beyond just its great height. Above or below ground, the inner world of its inhabitants is full of surprises. These people were dwarfed, but never diminished by, their extraordinary landscape.Mitch Miller VIEW THE FILM – RED ROAD UNDERGROUND > | THE BINGO HALL > | THE BRIG BAR >