Archive photography courtesy of The Flemings
The Bluevale and Whitevale flats were unique in their design, resembling no other high-rises in the UK. They were idolised by many architects and photographers for their bold and powerful brutalist structures, but loathed by surrounding residents and Glasgow City Council as being terrifying, bleak, depressingly out of date.
On construction in 1968 the flats were pitched as ‘Mansions in the Sky’ – indoor bathrooms, mixer taps, living room and separate kitchen, and bedrooms. The wraparound balconies on each level (whose main design purpose was a fire escape) allowed for a ‘wee community in the sky’ where you could chat with your neighbour over a cup of tea on balconies with 360 degree far reaching views across the city.
By the 1980s everything had changed; Glasgow was a city on the brink and the Whitevale and Bluevale flats were one of its many theatres of despair. Billy, who lived on the 20th floor of Bluevale, described the arrival of hard drugs as one of the key components to their demise: “As soon as one dealer moved in that was the start of the end. With no concierge, people were free to come and go as they pleased. They were shooting up on the stairs, the families living here all wanted out and when other dealers moved in, it was beyond anyone’s control.”
From then on, most of the families moved out, single people and people on housing support moved in along with ex-prisoners after release from Barlinnie. Many of the original tenants moved out, taking the ‘community in the sky’ with them. Cups of tea and chats on the balcony became a thing of the past as those who were left behind kept themselves to themselves. The drugs and mayhem continued as the dealers flourished.
Maintenance problems and costs along with poor design were cited as the main issues, but essentially the flats’ reputation for brutality, drugs and crime became irreversible. In 2011, after years of mismanagement and poor maintenance, the flats were deemed unfit for human habitation and it was announced they were to be demolished.
In 2012, I began to document the first and last residents in the final days of the blocks. Gathering their stories proved a desperate affair, as the last inhabited block only contained a handful of residents. Brian, one of those last residents, lived on the 19th floor of the Bluevale block and was waiting to be rehoused elsewhere in the city. “It’s a scary place at night and freezing in the winter. You hear the wind rattling through the empty flats below and above, the young team break in and smoke drugs in the stairwell. All my neighbours have left – they took the first house they were offered, regardless – that’s how bad these flats are. I’m stuck here waiting in this box, waiting to move on. It feels like a prison – it’s never been a home for me.”
Marion was one of the first residents to move in and one of the last to leave, and for her daughter Nicola, the flats were a loving home. Despite all the chaos that resided around them Nicola described her childhood home as a “happy and upbeat place.” It was only as she got older and noticed the strangers taking drugs in the stairwells that she began to question it. “I never felt threatened or intimidated by it, but it wasn’t right that this was what I had to witness day in day out. It’s not the kind of thing a teenager should be seeing.”
In 2014 with the Commonwealth Games fast approaching, these last residents (and everyone else in the Gallowgate) presumed that the blocks would be demolished well before the opening ceremony of the Games. But as time passed it became evident that the flats were standing defiantly as several demolition companies struggled to devise a viable demolition strategy. Being so close to a railway line and surrounded by smaller maisonette flats, some only a few metres away, it became evident that bringing these buildings down was proving impossible.
A huge ‘tidy up’ campaign began in the area a few months before the Games, repainting and other camouflage techniques being used to conceal all traces of East End dereliction. One of the last residents – Paddy – questioned how they proposed to ‘disguise’ the flats: “Maybe they will just have to put a bag over our heads because our flats are so ugly.” He was not so far from the truth as there was talk of plans to use the blocks as giant billboards during the Commonwealth Games.
One prospective advertiser was Barr, the infamously quirky Scottish soft drinks company that produce Irn Bru – but this idea proved too wacky even for them. Perhaps it was also the pervasive anxiety over Glasgow’s treatment of condemned housing schemes after plans to blow up the Red Road flats for the opening ceremony were halted by public outcry and a 17,000 strong petition. Or perhaps it was just too expensive.
In any event, the Whitevale and Bluevale flats stood defiantly, empty and in darkness, boasting a bird’s-eye view over the Games celebrations that no-one could enjoy as fireworks and celebrations buzzed around them when the Games began. Demolition of the flats finally began in late 2014 when a suitable demolition method was found. The flats would be demolished using the ‘TopDownWay’ deconstruction system, meticulously, floor by floor, the same way they were constructed. In March 2016, some 18 months later, they had finally disappeared.