Ghost City – desolate beauty in Glasgow’s abandoned high rises

“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.

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The end of the Red Road flats

The last months of the Plean St High Rise Flats in Glasgow in 2010.

The last months of the Plean St High Rise Flats in Yoker, Glasgow in 2010

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.”

Underground Bingo complex that housed 1000 seats and was the main social scene for many of the flats residents and beyond. It lay empty and flood and fire damaged since the 1990's.

The underground bingo complex that housed 1000 seats and was the main social scene for many of the flats residents and beyond. It lay empty and flood and fire damaged from the 1990’s

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.

Sighthill Flats pre demolition

Sighthill Flats pre demolition

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.”

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In 1968 the the Brutalist Bluevale and Whitevale flats at Gallowgate were pitched as ‘Mansions in the Sky’

View looking through the 133 Petershill Block as it awaits demolition, stripped back to its steel skeletal frame

View looking through the 133 Petershill Block at Red Road as it awaits demolition, stripped back to its steel skeletal frame

Sighthill, North Glasgow

“They were only supposed to last 40 years anyway,” said Andy, demolition contractor and Sighthill flat resident

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An old polaroid from a resident meets Chris’ photograph of a Gallowgate high rise

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.

Chris Leslie is holding an illustrated lecture and book signing at London College of Communication on 9 Feb, at Glasgow’s Book Festival on 16 March.

All images with permission from Chris Leslie. 



Jill Macnair

About

Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.


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