On Sunday, Dundee’s tallest buildings disappeared from the skyline forever. They were merely 40 years old, but were said to be too costly to maintain and too difficult to rent out. In seconds, these proud, sturdy structures collapsed into rubble — but not without a fight.
Two sides to the demolitions
I, like many others, went up Dundee Law to witness Bucklemaker Court and Butterburn Court be blown down. These buildings were close to where I live, and I have seen them almost every day since I moved to Dundee three years ago. They dominated the skyline, and watched over me whenever I walked or drove up the Hilltown. Not any more.
It felt strange as I made my journey home for the first time after the multis came down. There was indisputably something missing from the scene. But at the same time, it was pleasant to see blue sky where once there were empty buildings. It felt simultaneously wrong and right.
This theme of good and bad runs right the way through the story of the buildings.
Among the crowds on the Law as the towers tumbled, there were cheers from those who felt that the skyscrapers were a scar on the city skyline. But from some others, there were tears as homes they loved were reduced to rubble.
Even the demolition itself had two sides to it. On the good side, it was incredibly impressive to watch these gigantic buildings collapse so neatly into such a tight space. But among the crowds there was great concern as Butterburn Court appeared to topple onto its side rather than disintegrate.
It was as if the building really didn’t want to go down. It has indeed been described as “one of the most rigid tower blocks” that Safedem, the demolition company, has ever worked on.
At first, everyone in the crowd around me was convinced that it had all gone horribly wrong. I guess there is something about seeing so much destruction that makes us believe that it couldn’t possibly be right.
As the dust cloud dispersed, the top few storeys of the tower still appeared to be visible, but on its side. After a while, some in the crowd decided that the demolition was planned that way to avoid the church, which nestled between the two towers, and instead collapse onto the four storey building at Russell Place, which is also undergoing demolition.
On the ground
I went to the site to have a look at the scene a few hours after the towers tumbled. More curious crowds gathered around the perimeter of the site.
Impressively, despite the dramatic nature of Butterburn’s collapse, it still stayed almost wholly within the perimeter fence that separated the buildings from the surrounding streets, mere feet away. It had indeed smacked into Russell Place, but not by as much as I had expected.
Safedem cryptically say that the demolition went “pretty much” as expected. But the debris also “settled higher off the ground than anticipated”.
The pavement in Derby Street was also damaged, and appeared to have sunk slightly as well.
Media attention has focused on the church. It escaped with just minor damage. A few flats across the road in Strathmartine Road had some windows damaged as well. Apart from that, the whole thing appears to have gone off without a hitch.
I had never witnessed a demolition in the flesh, although I knew how precisely engineers can carry them out. But I was still awestruck at how two 23 storey buildings in such a densely populated area can be so neatly transformed into 14,000 tonnes of rubble with limited damage to anything in the surroundings. I would never have guessed that even Russell Place would receive so little damage, especially given how dramatic things looked from the Law.
An astonishing aerial photograph from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland demonstrates just how impressive this operation was.
A close shave! Our aerial photo shows the 2 Dundee tower blocks that were demolished on Sat & surviving church pic.twitter.com/Dc6d0VoJXT
— RCAHMS (@rcahms) July 2, 2013
Homes reduced to rubble
Back on the ground, there was something distinctly eerie about looking at the site and seeing fragments of people’s home lives literally reduced to rubble. At the edge of Russell Place, somebody’s bedroom wall could clearly be seen. It was also possible to pick out fully intact heaters, baths, and more.
Amid the excitement of the explosions, and some people’s joy at what they saw as “eyesores” being done away with, it would be easy to forget that we are talking about 374 homes. Most of them were occupied at the time the decision was made to demolish them.
As the crowds gathered on the Law, one person was handing out booklets called How the Council Destroyed oor Hoosis. Sadly, the booklet seems rather oversimplified, when there is a good, more subtle argument to be made.
Dundee City Council themselves appeared to end up almost regretting going ahead with the demolition. When power changed hands a few years ago, the council looked into reversing the decision, but ended up deciding that the project had progressed too far to stop it.
In 1991, there were 49 multi-storey buildings in Dundee. Today, two thirds of them have been wiped out. It is little wonder that Safedem, a globally recognised demolition company, is based in Dundee.
Failed experiment or missed opportunity?
My feelings on the demolition are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, one of the things I like the most about Dundee is the fact that it is on the move and making changes. The Hilltown redevelopment is a major part of that, and I particularly welcome it since I use the area so much.
But I admired the architecture of the Derby Street multis more than any other tower block in Dundee. You could see the craftsmanship. Their red brick exterior, added in 1984, marked them out from the drab, weathered grey of all the others. Sturdy and proud, they were the tallest buildings in Dundee. The supports were a nod to the Tay Road Bridge. They were saying, “We are Dundee’s buildings.”
Apparently the homes inside the Derby Street multis were originally highly desirable, spacious and with spectacular views. They were distinctive three floored maisonettes. As usual with these sorts of buildings, mismanagement and neglect appears to have been thier true downfall.
Tower blocks are often identified as a social experiment that failed. But they seem to me more like a missed opportunity.
But maybe they are a relic of the past. Would I ever see myself living in a multi-storey block? Truthfully, probably not. I am not sure if that is because I think living in one would be simply inconvenient, or if it is really because in our culture they have become indelibly associated with deprivation and antisocial behaviour.
Even so, does that mean they should be demolished? People are very quick these days to rip down highrise buildings. They are decried as eyesores. But they are part of our heritage; part of our story. Surely we can’t just blow them all up.
On the other hand, the majority of residential tower blocks are now around 50 years old. They have had their time, and served their purpose, and perhaps it is time to wave goodbye to them.
The first page of the anti-demolition booklet that was handed to me on the Law notes the vital role that tower blocks played in replacing dilapidated slums. It also says, without any sense of irony, that “people protested over leaving their old homes and communities.” But no-one ever built a Victorian slum again.
I have created a little YouTube playlist of videos about the Derby Street multis.
It begins with an aerial tour of the site prior to demolition, giving a taste of the views you could see from the buildings, and also a taste of life inside.
Then there are a couple of accounts of what life was like inside. The former resident of 11H Butterburn Court took one last awestruck look at the views from the home he was being kicked out of. It is a measure of how quick the pace of change is in Dundee that two of the landmarks pointed out in the video — Tayside House and the Alexander Street multis — have also disappeared since the video was made.
Then there are a couple of videos by me. Apologies for the poor quality. The first is of the crowd on the Law, waiting in anticipation for the demolition to begin. The second is of the demolition itself, with the concerned onlookers trying to work out if it went wrong or not.
To make up for the poor quality of my videos, the playlist is rounded off with a higher quality video of the demolition taken from within the exclusion zone. This video is particularly dramatic.