I Saw a City in the Clouds

By Francis McKee, 2008

High Wire didn’t have to happen in Glasgow. As soon as the decision was taken to site it at the Red Road flats, however, the work took on a particular character unique to its location. The slab blocks built in the mid-sixties are an iconic part of the city’s history, representing both the best and the worst of urban planning.

Post-1945 Glasgow saw attempts by the city council to tackle its inner-city slums, recognised as the worst in Europe. A Glasgow Corporation Engineer, Robert Bruce, laid out a vision for the regeneration of the city in two documents, the First Planning Report and the Clyde Valley Regional Plan. The projected changes were radical, even by the standards of post-war planners. A surviving film of an architectural model of the new city centre shows that almost all the Victorian buildings would have been demolished, including sites such as Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art, the Kelvingrove Museum, the City Chambers and Central Station. In their place rose skyscrapers serviced by a series of motorways and a monorail. The Bruce Plan, as it became known, also laid out blueprints for the large-scale construction of high-rise housing in the style of Le Corbusier. This was a classic welfare state appropriation of modernist principles, in line with developments across Britain and other parts of Europe. The scale of the Bruce Plan, though, was unprecedented as it sought to deal with the city’s pervasive slums.

Much of this futuristic vision was never implemented. Glasgow city centre, although ringed with motorways, remains intact as the plans lost momentum and were eventually replaced by a new policy of regeneration that focused on the cleaning and preservation of heritage buildings.

Vast projects of slum clearance were implemented though new modernist-inspired schemes rose across the rest of the city. The Red Road flat complex came to epitomise this era. At the time of building, from 1964 to 1969, they were the highest residential tower blocks in Europe. Welcomed initially by their new tenants, they appeared to offer new hope after the deprivations of areas such as the Gorbals, on the south bank of the river Clyde. Against the backdrop of profound poverty, the utopian aspirations that were always implicit in Le Corbusier’s plans for ‘cities in the sky’ became even more pronounced in Glasgow as both the council and the population looked forward to a bright new future.

Within a few years of construction, the dream turned sour as the schemes were plagued by crime and violence. The buildings suffered from damp while the residents found themselves without local amenities and, most vitally, without an infrastructure that could provide employment. Red Road, having represented so much utopian yearning now became emblematic of the descent into squalor and despair across all of these schemes. In 2005 Glasgow Housing Association announced a £60 million regeneration plan for Red Road. The eight tower blocks are set for demolition over the next decade, to be replaced by around 600 low-rise private and social-rented homes.

High Wire, then, found an immediate resonance within this broad historical context. Not only did the utopian ambition of walking in the sky echo the earlier dreams of Glasgow planners and flat-dwellers, the actual realisation of the project bound it to the buildings’ current situation of the buildings. In the months leading up to Didier Pasquette’s walk, Artangel worked hard to create a successful relationship with the community of Red Road, now an amalgam of older Scottish tenants and newer immigrants. Many of the newer tenants speak French and so found a quick bond with the high-wire walker. At the same time, the volatile nature of the community added an extra degree of unpredictability. Perhaps the greatest difficulty encountered in the process was the weather, bleak even for July in Scotland. The subsequent impact of the crosswinds on the project seem, with hindsight, to have rightfully aligned the fate of Yass’s ambitions with those of the inhabitants of the blocks. The conclusion of the walk became more complex, darker and more ambiguous, paradoxically enriching the work.

This complexity reveals itself in other ways in the installation of the completed film and light boxes that comprise High Wire. In that body of work it is possible to see the different ways in which the actual presence of the Red Road site and the walk are transformed. At the core of the project there resides an historical relationship between photography and modernist architecture, one seldom explored in any depth.

Certainly, from its early days, photography has had a close relationship to architecture. The very stillness of buildings made them obvious subjects for cameras relying on long exposures and some of the earliest photographic images are of buildings such as Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s ghostly image of rooftops in 1826 or Daguerre’s View of the Boulevard du Temple in 1839.

The emergence of modernist architecture was accompanied by a new kind of image. Photographers such as Ken and Bill Hedrich, Julius Schulman or Ezra Stoller did not merely document the new buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe. Instead, they portrayed them in ways that revealed the sculptural ambitions of the architects and conveyed the futuristic, utopian values of their buildings. Often the images were moody, angular, spare and otherworldly. People seldom appeared and if they did, as in the photographs from the Hedrich Blessing company, it was often simply to convey scale. These were not photographs that spoke of plain habitation but images that celebrated monuments and visionary concepts. Moreover, this relationship was not confined to still photography as the first scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) testify. Filmed on Paramount’s VistaVision, the United Nations Headquarters emerges in the film’s opening credits from a series of drawn lines, to become a fluid mirror of the street, an unforgettable celebration of the power and aspiration implicit in the building.

Photography and modernism, then, became intertwined. The stark geometry of the architecture and the idealism implicit in its simplicity and verticality demanded a certain kind of documentation. Equally, photographers and their images were vital in the promotion of architecture and its values. Importantly, modernist architecture developed in parallel to photography as an art form and as a commercial tool. Previously, the architectural drawing or artist’s rendering had comprised the dominant form of architectural record. As both the still camera and the moving image developed, modernist architects acknowledged the ability of this new media to capture the essence of their vision and to extend the exploration of architectural form that began in drawing.

In High Wire both the film and the light boxes invoke this context, though the two forms reflect differing approaches to the architecture and to the high-wire performance. Four colour films show Didier Pasquette’s wire-walk, the footage captured from a camera on his head and from varying placements around the site. The series of accompanying light boxes present Red Road flats in black-and-white negative.

It is these black-and-white images that refer most directly to the history of architecture and the representation of buildings. Interviewed immediately after making the works, Yass noted:

"If you’re printing a negative it always has the potential to become something other than itself. It’s on the way somewhere, rather than being something very final. We think of photography as indexically recording something, but you can think of it as a kind of drawing – Fox Talbot called photography the ‘pencil of nature’ – so I was interested in linking drawing and photography, and was thinking about architects’ plans, where again we have that transformation from one thing to another."1

The light-box images each document the complex of tower blocks that make up the Red Road scheme, some from a distance and some which focus tightly on the three blocks linked by the high wire. In these, the wire itself is represented by a straight, precise line scratched into the negative. This line links the photograph back to architectural drawing, just as its subject matter links it to the history of architectural photography. More than that, however, the scratched line reveals an ambiguity in Yass’s photographs. The towers almost seem to demand to be photographed in a certain way – they are angular, reaching, powerful. The images, like so many modernist architectural photographs, are unpopulated, ghostly monuments. Yet, Yass’s decision to display them as black-and-white negatives exposes another dimension to these scenes. The cloudy Glasgow skies become a dark roiling mass in one image, and in others there is an otherworldly calm that transforms the ambitious, thrusting towers into something much more dreamlike.

The scratched line also ruptures the entire photographic enterprise, introducing the hand of the artist and implying a certain degree of violence and anger. This too might reflect some of the lived misery of generations of Red Road inhabitants. Any final interpretation rests with the individual viewer but the sense of the uncanny induced by the light-box images does function as a counterpoint to the colour films.

The four films, despite their dramatic content, exist in a more recognisable world where the weather-beaten greys, browns and blues of the Red Road landscape ground the action, in contrast to the more apocalyptic dimensions of the black-and-white photographs. The vertiginous record of the high-wire walk (and the giddy attempt to watch all films at the same time) is a conscious experience that affects the viewer physically and intellectually. The light boxes invoke the unconscious, the dream state that perhaps lies beneath the anxieties of the high-wire walk.

The sense of such a relationship is accented by our knowledge that one view of the walk puts us on the wire with the performer, seeing the scene through his eyes. Equally, there is an element of public performance for each of us as we watch the films. We move constantly to gain new perspectives on the action, watch others react to the dizzying images while we too are watched by others. Our experience of the light boxes is much more solitary and personal.

The ambiguities set up within the exhibition allow us to grasp the immense, shared social significance of Red Road. At the same time, they reveal flaws and failures that undermine these social dreams, allowing us space to critically consider what is at stake in such architecture and planning. In this process, High Wire shares and extends concerns that inform many of Catherine Yass’s work; the power of capital, for instance, that drives the construction of London’s Canary Wharf or the Three Gorges Dam in China; the anxieties and reflex reactions that impel the building of asylums or the West Bank barrier. The vast scale of these enterprises spur the artist’s analysis of the uses of photography in the modern world, its complicity in the formation of ideologies and its ability to demystify these processes if used transformatively to create art and installations.

1. Mottram, Jack (2008). ‘Catherine Yass: Highrise’, The Herald, 30 March.

Francis McKee was Director of Glasgow international Festival of Contemporary Visual Art 2008.