Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bon Accord

By accepting Sir Ian Wood's jaw-dropping proposals to destroy Aberdeen's historic Union Terrace Gardens and replace them with a car park topped by a "city square", the politicians of north east Scotland have cemented their already formidable reputation for credulity and deference. Aberdeen City Council's support for this megalomaniac scheme comes hot on the heels of Aberdeenshire Council's pathetic capitulation to the Trump organisation's formidable PR machine. It all adds to the impression of a city-region which is hopelessly in thrall to big money, but lacking the skills and confidence to make the big decisions. The leaders of a city with much-vaunted global aspirations are revealed as naive and provincial.

Aberdeen is a truly remarkable place. Jonathan Meades' recent Off Kilter TV series included a touching essay on the city: its villages (Old Aberdeen and Footdee), the neo-classical city, the extraordinary legacy of Archibald Simpson, and so on. Aberdeen is inevitably associated with sparkling granite, but its dormer windows and wonderful white-on-black street signs are equally characteristic. City-boosters are constantly whittering on about "distinctiveness", but Aberdeen really is different.

Nothing about Aberdeen is more remarkable than the view north from Union Bridge - "the finest panorama of Aberdeen architecture" according to Bill Brogden. The green bowl of Union Terrace Gardens, created during the 19th century in the Denburn Valley, is framed by some of the city's most notable and best-loved buildings. No one could pretend that the gardens are in great shape: they are a bit tired, dowdy and under-used. But the survival of this landscape, with Union Bridge leaping across the valley, is unique to Aberdeen. And if the municipal gardening is a bit uninspired, the presence in the centre of the city of green space and mature trees is priceless.

For the proponents of the City Square the heritage, natural history and all-round quirkiness of Union Terrace Gardens are, of course, an affront. Marching under a banner inscribed with portentous gibberish - "This Time, This Place, This Generation" - they have revived the idea, which has surfaced at intervals over the decades, of filling in this anomalous and inconvenient valley and using it to store cars. They may not have heard that encouraging more people to drive into the centre of the city is a bit passé but, hell, this is Aberdeen. Just as the Trumpsters always talk about the golf course but never the luxury houses, so the City Square propaganda machine talks up the (generally rather elusive) wonders of this new civic space but is silent on the subject of parking.

new building image
Northern Light - a new centre for contemporary art in Union Terrace Gardens

One of the most objectionable features of this wretched project is that is has wrecked plans - carefully developed over a number of years - to create an elegant and sensitively designed Contemporary Arts Centre in the gardens (see above). The centre would provide a new home for Peacock Visual Arts, who have nurtured the scheme, while leaving the historic landscape and the mature trees intact ( Combining this project with the restoration of the gardens and decking over the road and railway would be the ideal solution. But the essential modesty of the Peacock scheme and the affection and understanding of the city that it reflects are of no interest to the people gagging for "a truly radical transformation of our city centre...[and] an accessible, safe, connected and vibrant public space".

The new scheme is uncosted, although its supporters put the price at £120-140 million, including Sir Ian Wood's pledge of £50 million. We can safely assume that the real costs will exceed £200 million, and we know that for a fraction of that amount this wonderful piece of historic townscape could be restored and improved, and the city would gain a much-needed cultural centre. But this would deny Sir Ian and the city fathers their legacy project, and the opportunity to trump the visionaries who designed the heart of Aberdeen in the 19th century. The City Square scheme is a crass, hubristic gesture: there is every likelihood that it will fall apart as the costs mount and the public protests intensify. But that won't save the Peacock project or Aberdeen's reputation.

One final thought. Earlier this year, the scheme's supporters, Scottish Enterprise and Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future, commissioned a consultation on the City Square proposals. Although the terms of the exercise were disgracefully biased in favour of the Wood scheme (the Peacock alternative was not presented as an option) there was "a huge response rate" and the result was a clear 55-45 vote against the City Square proposals. The report can be accessed via, but the result of the consultation is not mentioned on the website. The conclusion, shamefully confirmed by the city council yesterday, is clear: the people have spoken, but they have got it wrong.