Auberon Waugh, architecture and the Red Road Flats

Red Road Flats Glasgow  - architecture and landscape

Red Road Flats Glasgow – architecture and landscape

Glasgow had the witty idea of blowing up the last of the Red Road Flats to celebrate the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. There was an outcry, a petition and they decided not to do it. But the flats are still doomed and we have to keep asking ‘what went wrong’. Auberon Waugh (see quote below) blames the architectural profession. I see Sam Bunton & Associates as accessories to the ‘crime’ but believe the main responsibility lies with the client body: Glasgow Corporation. Instead of giving poor people ‘housing’ they should have given those people the money they needed to buy or rent accommodation. The socialist principle was well-intentioned but mistaken. I remember visiting Glasgow ‘estates’, like the Red Road, in the 1960s and finding the ‘landscape areas’ between the blocks strewn with broken glass. I do not know what they had been smashing but there must have been a lot of it. In recent years the blocks have been occupied by asylum seekers.
1 June 1985 The great joy of London Docklands Development may be that no-one will ever see it. A stretch of the desolate East End is being given over to whatever monstrosities the architects can devise – vast concrete prisons rising from a windswept cemented plain decorated with notices and litter bins. It might be specially designed as a recreation area for vandals in search of a telephone box, sex maniacs in search of a public lavatory. But it is a part of London where I have never been and I can’t honestly think of any reason why I should ever wish to go there. If architects could be persuaded to practice their filthy trade only in places like the the Isle of Dogs, then there might be some hope for the bit of England that survives. Another good policy to adopt towards architects is, if you meet anyone in a pub or at a party who says he is an architect, punch him in the face. [quote from Kiss Me, Chudleigh: the world according to Auberon Waugh by William Cook (2010)]
Had I happened upon this image on the web, I would have guessed it was in East Asia. So one wonders: will the Chinese be thinking about dynamiting places like this in a few decades time? I think they will, and some of the credit will belong to Michael Wolf’s work on the Architecture of Density.

Image courtesy Glasgowfoodie

16 thoughts on “Auberon Waugh, architecture and the Red Road Flats

  1. Rachel M

    You’ll probably find the flats are better planned and more spacious than the thousands of blocks which have just gone up in Lewisham and Stratford. Just these have empty green space to look at and no shopping oportunities.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Possibly, but the Lewisham flats should be better built. The architect and the Corporation wanted to create work for Scotland’s steel industry. So they used steel frames and then clad them in asbestos for fire protection. When the health risk became known they told tenants not to drill into the walls.

  2. Christine

    Yes, unfortuneately the legacy of asebestos overrides any other conversation about the architecture. True, the safety issue arises primarily when the asbestos is disturbed – and it is ‘safe’ in place if it is not left to deteriorate.

    Along with Pruitt Igoe[ ] the issues of architectural form, government housing and finance policy and the social problems of social housing residents need to be decoupled.

    The Eureka Tower in Melbourne is [ ] and [ ] considered to be the worldest tallest residential tower and a desirable place to live.

    Now what makes the Red Road Flats in Glasgow (apart from the asbestos) so undesirable as a place to live?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I went on a tour of Glasgow high-rise ‘estates’ in 1969. They were breath-taking for their bleak awfulness and the ‘slum tenements’ they were then destroying to make them were like this So they were raising taxes to destroy good buildings and replace them with rubbish buildings. A puzzling aspect of the 1964 image is the wide street – since very few of the residents are likely to have had cars. I guess they were built this way because of the mistaken belief that ‘bad air’ caused infections disease. What they should have done, when the error was discovered, was to convert some of the road space to green space. I think they residents might have done this if they had had the chance.

      1. Tom Turner Post author

        There is more to the Pruitt-Igoe story than I knew – and more parallels with the Red Road flats than I knew.
        See for example:
        The myth situated all of the blame squarely on the architects, ignoring the economic and social problems that contributed to the project’s failure.
        Since then, the site has been left fallow, and the trees and native plants have grown lush despite soil laden with concrete, brick and contaminants. Pruitt-Igoe is now America’s most prominent accidental urban forest.
        Jencks, architectural historian cites the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death of modernism. Jencks blamed architecture for the failure instead of the real culprit: the St. Louis Housing Authority.

  3. Christine

    Did the tenements have yards of any sort (i.e. at the rear) or was the roadway the only place on which children could play close to home?

    It would seem the tenements in Glascow had less undesirable features than the Rocks housing in Sydney. (They were slated for demolition largely because of health problems associated with the plague.) However, the area was eventually saved through green bans and is now a premier tourism destination.

    Perhaps the current commercial use of the buildings is more appropriate than their original use as family homes?

    My question about Red Roads was rhetorical. For example, the experience with high-rise social housing in Melbourne tended to be that high-rise flats and children were in many instances incompatible, particularly if the lifts were not well and regularly maintained. (The cost of maintaining a high-rise is significantly greater than a single or attached residence). There is also the question of the ability of parents to supervise children’s play and perform household tasks simultaneously with this arrangement.

    So there are probably many generalities about family living that could be stated as well as some unique challenges for residents of social housing.

    More on this soon…

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The famous Gorbals tenements had small yards at the rear but salubrious is not an adjective one would apply to them:
      The designers possibly intended them for hanging washing
      Also in New York – just think what a great place it would be if they turned the roofs into roof gardens:

  4. Christine

    Some accounts of Pruitt Igoe suggest that federal funding policy – red lining – was the initial cause of the decline of the estate and it was not possible for all residents (who in the beginning were middle class and worked at the nearby hospital) for buy equity in the estate. Apparently as the demographic profile of the residents began to change so apparently did the perceived desirability of living there.

    Tom Wolfe suggests the death knell for the estate came from the residents themselves as they chanted ‘blow it up!’

    It is certainly important for any appraisal of modernism for a retrospective case study of Pruitt Igoe to be undertaken.

  5. Christine

    You are right – the Gorbals tenements would have been perfect for gentrification. In the question renovate or detonate, renovate would be the preferred option.

    A good architect, interior designer and landscape architect could have turned them into very desirable places to live close to the river and Glasgow gardens not the mention the few small squares and what looks like a forest.

    As a social housing solution, however, the tenements would probably still leave much to be desired.

    So, the crux of the question is what is the essential difference between the needs of social housing residents and the needs of middle class residents?

    The first assumption that is most probably true is that the middle class occupants would own the property and would have the funds to maintain it and that the social housing occupants would have neither ownership of nor funds to maintain the property.

    The second assumption that is most probably true is that the middle class occupants would have some form of body corporate to make decisions about the common elements of the building and grounds and would contribute to a common pool of funds to achieve these ends and that the social housing occupants would have neither a voice in common decision making nor the funds to contribtute to a common pool.

    If this is so, and if it has consequences for the livability of the residences, then a different arrangement to accommodate this aspect of the property’s management would need to occur.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The differences between social housing and that of higher income groups are very important. Some of the points I wonder about are:
      – how large is the social group which is unable to manage good roofs of its head? This group should be given managed housing – because they are human and because wealthy societies can afford the provision. I suspect the group is not very large. In fact couldn’t there be something akin to ‘working your way through college’? ie creating paid jobs in managing the property?
      – for the larger group, which could manage property but which lacks the resources, wouldn’t it be better to provide the resources than to provide the management? The danger here is that unscrupulous private landlords profit from the resources so allocated. This is where the opportunity for not-for-profit housing providers comes in (‘housing associations’ in the UK). I think the Gorbals could have been managed in this way but agree that it might have been better to sell the tenements to the middle classes and use the money to fund non-profit housing bodies.

  6. Christine

    Yes it would be interesting to know who these groups are. Here is a guess:

    During the Thatcher years many students were offered the opportunity to purchase housing – and many dropped out of their studies to do so because the opportunity was too good to pass up. Student housing tends to be different in nature to social housing, even where there is a need for more affordable accommodation. Cost is usually the only factor affecting them.

    Presumably there is also a disability group – and this group is probably as varied as the community in terms of its profile. The objective of the group is most likely to be to live as independently as possible but yet be as close to family and medical supports as possible. It is likely that this group is across the socio-economic spectrum and has varied employment prospects.

    Single parent families. Most likely female led and perhaps with limited employment prospects – partly because of family responsibilities – and partly because gender distinctions and expectations of a male ‘breadwinner’ still exist. It is likely that this group needs accommodation suited to families and with access to childcare to reduce the disadvantage of being a single parent.

    Migrant groups transitioning to a new country. The issue for these groups is more likely to be language and education barriers to employment opportunities which take a while to overcome. They are more likely to be two parent families and have the same need for child friendly accommodation styles. Childcare may or may not be an issue. Language and training supports are the most likely needs for this group.

    There may also be other groups so it would be worth surveying the social housing population to get a full appreciation of demographics and needs.

    Apart from the difficulties experienced by the tenant groups there is an issue with the owner group allocating adequate resources to the maintenance and management of the housing stock. If there is a policy not to fund to maintain stock – it would be better to roll the housing stock over every five years from new onto the private market. If carefully thought out there should be no problem with finding appropriate self-management structures of each of the groups.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, it may even be good for students to slum it. I remember living in rented room with a grumpy landlady and thinking how much better life would be if I could have a lock-up garage to live in.
      Re disabled people, yes of course they should be looked after to every degree that is necessary. But I think they should also wish to do what they can for themselves – if they can.
      Special accommodation for single mums is a good idea, the risk being that if it is too lavish they become attracted to this provision as a ‘career choice’. If work is not much fun and boyfriends are a pain, then why not have a few kids and let the state provide housing, education, health-care etc etc?
      We have many migrants in London and they do not seem to suffer from language problems: they just find places to work where the language of their country is the most spoken tongue.

  7. Christine

    Hmmm. It has not been my experience that Housing Departments are over generous – with minimum spaces being also maximum spaces. But is all depends on what you are used to perhaps. Perhaps the standard needs to reflect community standards in some way and to encourage mums to contribute depending on the ages of the children?

    Do you think living in boarding or billeting type arrangements is better for students? Perhaps this could be something that was studied by survey with the optimum outcome being the optimum study and campus experience? Or do you think there is a ‘good’ to be derived from every student having a grumpy landlady to contend with?

    It would seem that different people have different disabilities which gives them need/support profiles. Perhaps they could be arranged into groups according to high, medium and low levels of support needed? Some disabilities are permanent and stable while others are variable over time. So the same person might need different levels of support over a lifetime?

    Do you find that in migrant communities the children have a different relationship to learning english and being bi-lingual or multi-lingual and that they may seek work opportunities beyond their own linguistic community?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I had a dread of communal living when I left home, aged 18, but I came round to it eventually and now think it is a good experience for students to have – whether they like it or not.
      Though I do not know much about migrant families, my impression is that most of the children adapt quickly and well, so well that despite contrary appearances they appear indistinguishable from the children of ‘natives’. But some families keep their children separate and do not let the girls learn English for fear of cultural assimilation. After the 2005 7/7 London bombs the journalists set out to discover WHY? They did a great job and found them to have come from migrant-dominated communities in the north of England which were largely cut off from the ‘native’ population. I remember an interview with with a French sociologist who said the reason for the separation was that the men wanted to maintain control of the women. I do not know if this was true – but it sounded plausible.

  8. Christine

    Do you know whether the migrant families disapprove of their daughters and sons marrying out of their community and marrying natives? This seems to be a common experience of the children of migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds.


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