“I hadn’t intended to spend one year or even eight years doing this project,” says photographer and filmmaker Chris Leslie, who began to shoot the abandoned high rise flats pegged for demolition in Glasgow’s East end in 2007 when the Commonwealth Games were awarded to the city. “I was just keen to document my own city and thought this the ideal time to begin – when we were told everything was ‘about to change’.”
The city’s promise was carried out and Disappearing Glasgow, Chris’s book, film and exhibition now on at The Lighthouse captures the process in a colossal body of work that covers six different areas across Glasgow. Chris shot some buildings when they were fully intact though clearly abandoned and captured others half destroyed, the individual homes that were once contained within laid bare in a rainbow of peeling paint and wallpaper framed by the splintered guts of the building structures.
Photographs of the buildings taken from the inside meanwhile reveal signs of unusual or decaying decoration, personal belongings, abundant natural light and clear views. The viewer gets an eerie insight into personal rooms and memories of residents now long departed from buildings that have since been razed.
“Sometimes you’d get access and find places that no-one else had seen for a long time,” Chris notes in his film. In the 30-storey Red Road flats, Glasgow’s most iconic high rises that were once the tallest residential buildings in Europe, the artist photographed the 1000 seater underground bingo hall which had shut in the 1990s, as well as the bizarre kitchen of a painter and decorator who had meticulously decorated his house in newspapers and food boxes. “I spent hours in that one because it was very unusual obviously.”
Another flat in a high rise in Sighthill is also covered in newspaper clippings of cars, cats and maps, a layered mass of fading colours and dated images peeling from the walls.
Since 2006 30% of the city’s high rise flats have disappeared, shattering communities across the city. “A few years into the project much of what I had documented had disappeared so I was compelled to keep pushing for access and looking at different areas of the city going through regeneration. Nobody else was doing this work, so it felt like a bit of a mission,” Chris told us. “When a high rise is awaiting demolition it is stripped of everything and all that remains is the empty shell and some surviving walls. The light that spills through the open doors and windows lights the interiors in a really unique way. I spent a lot of time waiting for light changing, the sun setting, the sun rising, and it could feel a bit eerie.”
After embedding himself in the high rises, Chris tracked down former residents to hear their stories and found reactions to the experience of being rehoused varied. “Most people are delighted by their new homes and high rise living isn’t ‘fashionable’ anymore, but a lot of them feel there is no longer the community they once lived in. That could be down to displacement or the design and facilities of a new estate – one with no shops, no facilities is effectively a collection of new housing, nothing more.”
This experience is not unique to Glasgow and is being reflected across multiple cities in the UK. Disappearing Glasgow allows us to contemplate that while for many changes can be an improvement , there are losses in erasing vastly populated areas without figuring out what their best replacements are.
All images with permission from Chris Leslie.