Unless you’ve been in a total media blackout for the last million years, you’ll have noticed that Glasgow, where I work, is currently hosting the Commonwealth games.
Yes, sport is now actually happening, after months of interminable anticipatory hype, non-news coverage of some baton or other being shipped and helicoptered around the planet, and a run of controversies, gaffes and cock-ups that now come as standard with sporting mega-events.
On the whole, the mainstream media seem to think that the competition is the main thing, and that with the athletes up and running we all ought to focus our attention on that. But I’m finding myself pulled in the opposite direction. The games themselves are proving less interesting than the clunking apparatus of event management, urban change and media coverage that surrounds them.
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Let’s take the all-too-predictable ticketing fiasco that unfolded a few months ago. Official vendor Ticketmaster recently engineered an 11-day website shutdown during ticket sales for the 2012 London Olympics. So this time round, the firm appeared to have learned an important lesson: if you’re the sole provider of an in-demand commodity, it doesn’t matter how rubbish your delivery systems are. People will still sit around for days on end, clicking themselves into carpal tunnel syndrome, until they’re finally allowed to hand over wads of dosh. The games showcase the extremes of human endurance, and it was breathtaking to witness the digital hardships punters suffered to win the right to watch some people moving quite fast. One person reportedly spent 31 hours in an online queue.
So the games began with the casual cynicism of modern capitalism in full swing, the public being ripped off with impunity. Ticketmaster, a US-based multinational, makes its money from exclusive deals with high profile venues and promoters, enabling it to charge sizeable booking fees without fear of being undercut by competitors. Its lazy dominance and technical ineptitude are thrown into sharp relief by the commonwealth athletes, striving for total excellence in a fiercely competitive field. Alongside the dedication and flair of these outstanding individuals, we have a company whose supposed mastery of tickets involves it being comprehensively, serially incapable of administering seating for large sporting events.
Worse still, the company’s success has been built not on selling tickets as such, but rather on selling electronic allocations of seats, which amounts to co-ordinating the on-off status of lots of tiny switches inside some computer hardware. In a world of everyday technological marvels, these lumbering chumps managed – again – to screw up a basic data handling task; sizeable, to be sure, but clearly within the bounds of possibility in an age of routine big data processing.
My explanation is that they simply had no incentive to do anything else. Why bother improving your software if the cash will still come rolling in regardless? The company’s choice of the suffix ‘master’ is perhaps appropriate after all. The word can mean ‘expert’, but it can also mean ‘controller’, or, as a verb, to dominate, grasp or commandeer.
Regeneration and displacement
Meanwhile, on the ground in Glasgow, away from the podiums and the pundits, grim realities have been unfolding for some time now. To recognise this is not to dismiss the achievements of the athletes, or to take anything away from sport as a form of popular culture. Nor is it to suggest that there are no benefits to Glasgow from hosting the games. Rather it is to question the manner in which sporting events are increasingly being harnessed as drivers of unjust urban change, particularly for those who live where new sporting facilities are built.
The Jaconelli family had been in their Dalmarnock home for over 30 years when the Glasgow 2014 organisers decided to knock it down to clear space for the athlete’s village. The family were served with a compulsory purchase order, offered compensation worth a third of the value of their property, and, when they refused, forcibly evicted in the middle of the night by the police. Such heavyhanded tactics and flagrant disregard for the lives of ordinary people are directly at odds with the principles of the Commonwealth Charter, such as human rights and respect for human dignity.
As Jack Jaconelli was overheard to say during the eviction: “All this so arseholes can run about in shorts for two weeks” (source: here). There is nothing intrinsic to sports events that requires the reckless destruction of people’s homes. Architect Malcolm Fraser points out that the Jaconelli’s tenement block could easily have been incorporated into the new development were there a will to do so. The problem is that, despite the rhetoric of community engagement and legacy, the priorities appear to lie elsewhere.
As my colleague Neil Gray has argued, sporting mega-events have become an opportunity for a small number of corporations, property developers and land owners to make a tonne of money under the guise of regeneration. Local benefits are often marginal by comparison. Some of the figures for land sales in Glasgow are eye-watering. Neil writes that
“The most controversial deal was with Charles Price, the Mayfair developer, who bought property on the projected Games Village site for around £8 million in 2005-06, then sold it to the City Council for £17 million in 2008”.
In another deal, £5.1million was paid to former Rangers owner David Murray’s company, for land the company bought a few years before for £375,000 (reported in this BBC news article). Set against these shocking transfers of public finance into private hands, the modest provision of so-called affordable housing in the games redevelopment looks tokenistic.
Add to all of this the demolition of a disabled people’s day care centre to make way for a Commonwealth Games bus park, and the erection of an 8-foot security fence lined with CCTV cameras segregating the athlete’s village from surrounding homes, and it is hardly surprising that local people feel excluded, a sense “that the games are not for ordinary people in the east end to be part of or enjoy” (source: here).
The tearing down of modernist buildings
The sickly mix of aspirational urban cleansing, wrecking-ball regeneration and local disenfranchisement came to a head in the games organisers’ crown-jewel fuckup, a failed plan to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony.
A cluster of high-rise tower blocks built as social housing in the 1960s, Red Road is an iconic landmark with some of the tallest buildings in the city. The flats were due to be demolished anyway; the aim of turning their toppling into a live spectacle was to make
“a bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people…An estimated television audience of 1.5 billion people around the world will also bear witness as the 30-storey blocks fall spectacularly to the ground, transforming the city’s skyline forever. And, while this will serve as an unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future and changing for the better, it is also intended to serve as a respectful recognition and celebration of the role the Red Road flats have played in shaping the lives of thousands of city families for whom these flats have simply been home over five decades.” (Glasgow 2014 press release)
This beyond-satire piece of opportunism was an idea whose boldness, at least, deserves some acknowledgement in an age of watered down committee-consensus decision-making. Unfortunately, it was boldness firing in exactly the wrong direction. A tidal wave of public outrage sank the whole thing within days. Objections surged in from all angles.
Many Glasgow residents disagreed that the plans were a ‘respectful recognition and celebration’, pointing out that the flats had been people’s homes, and that making entertainment out of their destruction was crass and insensitive. Claims that the event would be managed “in a sensitive manner” looked ridiculous in the face of the obvious brutality of dynamiting five enormous skyscrapers. For some people, an act of mass destruction seemed an overly negative way to start the event. Serious concerns for the wellbeing of nearby residents were raised. That one block housing asylum seekers was to be left standing also provoked heated debate about social exclusion.
A petition gathered over 17000 signatures, local politicians and architectural groups queued up to voice their opposition, and before long the organisers abandoned the whole idea, with a carefully-worded statement from the Chief Executive citing security and safety concerns as the deciding factor. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine quite where a live video feed of collapsing monoliths would have fitted into the opening ceremony’s kitschy mix of tartan tat, national cliches, gay kissing, imperialist pomp and celebrity-fronted charity appeal.
Academic commentary suggests that the Red Road episode was simply the latest expression of deeper, longer political currents: the relentless privatisation of housing across the UK, and attempts to break with an unglamorous industrial past, re-branding cities as places for leisure and culture. For Neil Gray, this is about erasing “all traces of progressive modernist social housing through disinvestment and demolition in order to maintain the ideology of private home ownership” (see his incisive article here). Likewise, Fraser MacDonald argues that this impulse “to detonate our towering achievements” is not only about destroying buildings, but about destroying the very ideals that they express – the notion of housing as public good rather than private property, as social service rather than investment opportunity. Demolition as spectacle, writes Gerry Mooney, “somehow manages to cue to a wide audience that it is waste of time and money to try and provide council housing for working-class people. It always ends up in failure.”
But there is also something else going on here. The Red Road opening ceremony plan, whilst breathtakingly ill-conceived, flushed out strongly-held sentiments about social housing and urban renewal. The proposal acted as a catalyst for public discussion, albeit brief, about the legacies of post-war modernism, and the question of what to do with the imposing physical structures it has left behind. Some of the online debates, in comments on the BBC’s news pages for example, were witty and revealing.
It is often said that tower blocks and brutalist architecture are hated by the general public, who see them as concrete monstrosities. What the Red Road episode showed was that in fact they are highly contested. These buildings retain a power to elicit passionate feelings, of loathing and love and everything in between. There is something about modernist architecture that continues to fascinate, to activate imaginations, to exert a magnetic pull, or to repel, repulse, annoy and disgust. These forces are evident in the scathing polemics of commentators such as Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades.
Perhaps it is the boldness of tower blocks, the confidence they project against all the odds, the lost ideologies they embody, their monumental presence, their shameless masculinism and muscularity, or the way that they evoke the recent past through material form. The desire to blow up such buildings as a spectator sport could be seen as a tacit admission of their intrinsic power. Put it this way: it is unlikely that, in fifty years time, anyone will want to dynamite the bland low-rise housing of the Glasgow athletes’ village as part of a public spectacle. It would be a damp squib.
Passionate attachments to modernist architecture can be felt elsewhere too: in the campaigns to save Preston bus station from demolition by the local council; in the refurbishment of the Apollo Pavillion in Peterlee; in the skaters resisting their removal from the concrete undercrofts of London’s Royal Festival Hall; in community opposition to the demolition of the Heygate estate in London; and in the work I’ve been involved with helping arts organisation NVA to reinvent the ruins of St. Peter’s College in Cardross.
In such sites, local residents often get actively involved – not necessarily in large numbers, not always in agreement with one another, and not always with success in achieving their aims, but certainly with a lot of emotional investment. These contested sites also have a tendency to attract artists and creative projects – sometimes working with conflicts, sometimes intensifying them or provoking resistances, but either way usually inciting lively responses. Red Road itself has given rise to a remarkable array of arts and cultural works over the years, such as the drawings, photographs, videos and writings collected on the Red Road Flats website.
To sum up, modernist architecture seems to have a capacity for concentrating and intensifying energies, generating sparks of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is powerful. It can help to galvanise resistance to the profiteering cycle of demolition and gentrification. It might also help in developing alternative and more equitable forms of urban renewal, involving maintenance and repair rather than demolition, for example, the provision of amenities for local people, and the creation of spaces to support inventive cultural activities – forms of common wealth that could be genuinely transformative.