Queen Elizabeth Square (or Hutchesontown C) is one of the most famous high rise experiments in the history of British housing projects. Located in Hutchesontown in Glasgow's notorious Gorbals it was meant to be the flagship for an exciting new dawn but turned out to be an icon for poverty, deprivation and the tarnishing of Basil Spence's reputation.
Gorbals, the most deprived and overcrowded area in western Europe in the post war climate, and like many similar areas in Glasgow, was designated a Comprehensive Development Area in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Bruce Report. The tenement slums would be demolished and replaced by new high rise homes that would provide satisfactory, cheap housing on the south bank of the Clyde. the daring initiative was the largest project of it's kind in the United Kingdom. at the heart of these plans were to be spectacular towers designed by acclaimed architect Basil Spence. He was appointed by Glasgow City Council in 1957 amongst a media frenzy.
Spence's plans for Queen Elizabeth Square were approved in 1958 by the city architect, Archibald George Jury. Spence told of his exciting vision of "Gardens in the sky" which again, built up public anticipation. 3 years of demolition and clearing of the site pre-dated the commencing of construction which began in 1961 on the architect's return from an 'inspirational trip' to Marseilles to view France's high rise housing projects designed by Le Corbussier. The Queen pays a visit to Gorbals at the same time and is shocked by the living conditions in the condemned tenement slums that QES would replace. At this point, 90,000 people were living in "Hell's Hundred Acres".
As the project began to rise in 1962, local 'Gorbalonians' aren't impressed and call the growing concrete behemoth 'intimidating'. King Olav of Norway also visits the site and leaves with a similar view. Later that year, an Edinburgh firm announce plans to build a shopping centre at QES which would provide amenities to the future residents. The first block, 2 Queen Elizabeth Square is completed on time the following year. There is then a 16 month wait while the slab block, 16-32 Queen Elizabeth Square is completed behind schedule. Only a few years later, the flats at QES become undesirable with residents referring to the three blocks as Alcatraz, Barlinnie and Sing-Song respectively.
The Cumberland Arcade shopping centre opens for business in 1969 completing the masterplan just over 12 years after conception. It contains 38 shops and 4 blocks of low rise flats designed to complement QES with an equally brutalist look.
In 1984, the flats are found to be asbestos ridden and Glasgow District Council, who acquired responsibility from the GCC for the city's housing stock in 1975, strip the flats of the dangerous panels of asbestos over the next year but the problems for QES were to get worse. In 1987, all the flats are evacuated after being flooded. The GDC spent £2m over the following 2 years on new lifts, new pitched roofs and a concierge station in an effort to cut crime which was rising to uncontrollable levels as problems in the Gorbals increased. Brutal rapes, assaults and muggings were becoming all to common in the damp dark corridors. These measures were to prove futile as QES was once again flooded in 1989. Many residents had had enough and opted to be rehoused rather than face returning to their homes.
Now half empty, crime ridden and damp, the GDC announce that QES would be one of several high rises to be demolished over the next 5 years, in 1990. The also speak of a long term plan to demolish all the high rises in Gorbals over the next 15 years. The latter plan was never to come to fruition. In 1992, the first high rise demolitions commence at Germiston, Royston and Castlemilk. The 38 residents remaining at QES are fenced off (or in) by the GDC in an attempt to speed up the rehousing process. Many felt unhappy at this.
In 1993, the flats were demolished by Ladkarn using explosives. The operation was not a success despite the buildings being reduced to rubble. One woman was fatally injured by debris and several were seriously injured. An enquiry into the death of 61 year old mother of four, Helen Tinney, the following year resulted in the prosecution of the company. Ladkarn were found to have used twice the amount of explosives necessary and no blast sheeting was used to contain the unnecessarily wild explosion. The safe distance employed by Ladkarn was naively worked out as twice the height of the buildings - 140m - an outdated technique that had resulted in fatalities abroad. No klaxon was used to warn of the explosion, which the company say they forgot to bring. They would be banned from operating in the United Kingdom again.
Six years on in 1999, the site, still left vacant, is acquired by developers and two years later 950 homes are built on the Square in a £40m regeneration that moves the Gorbals further away from it's gritty past guises.