It’s summertime on the east coast of Scotland. The weather is close and muggy, yet with nothing on TV but repeats of Reg Vardy’s “Genocide on the Buses”; the cinemas screening a Disnae film featuring a grumpy Connolly Rex and three miniature ginger John Gordon Sinclairs; and the capital full of a desire for comedy - but empty of streetcars - it’s time once again to look north of the Central Belt. That's where the real news is breaking…
I’ve written before about the awkward relationship between Dundee and Aberdeen: with experience of both, I can’t help but compare them. Comparisons are invidious and all that... but the two share the same rivalry as Edinburgh and Glasgow, and despite only 60 miles’ worth of Scotland lying between them, their advocates believe they are a world apart. Experience teaches that they’re not, yet today’s developments in the Union Terrace Gardens fiasco have shown up the gulf between their ambitions.
An industrial bypass
A recent trip along the North Deeside Road at Peterculter, in the city’s western suburbs, revealed that the former International School is still standing empty, having been decanted to make way for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route. Despite many expensively-won compulsory purchases, and despite the glittering prize of Mr Trump’s “best golf course in the world” as a destination just beyond the planned new Don crossing north of the city, the AWPR is no further forward.
It’s ironic that the International School, with a terrific range of modern facilities, and sitting on a beautiful wooded site in the Dee Valley, lies empty while nothing happens on the by-pass – whilst inner city state schools crumble.
I have an ongoing project which relates to the Modernist factories strung along Dundee’s Kingsway, and the recent demolition of NCR’s former cash machine plant at Gourdie was another waypoint along that journey. The bypass itself is working fine, but the empty factories which have been demolished over the past few years (two NCR plants, Low & Bonar’s head office, Valentine's greetings cards factory, Bonar Long transformers), and the empty units which still stand (William Lows’ former HQ, William Halleys) tell their own story.
The city still needs industrial regeneration, to balance the arts, cultural and educational work which is going on: the newest hope is that wind turbine manufacturing will take root in the docks.
Both the Overgate in Dundee, and Union Square in Aberdeen, appear to be doing OK, despite the double dip recession... but while the Murraygate and High Street in Dundee have been pedestrianised and prettified, the granite mile of Union Street in Aberdeen is still sorely in need of regeneration. Over the past few years, retailers such as Jaeger, Mothercare, Bruce Millars’ music store, and E&M’s department store have shut down or moved out. Charity shops and estate agents have taken up some units, but there are many rental voids... which leads you to suspect that the focus in Aberdeen is wrong. Perhaps folk have been distracted by Union Terrace Gardens.
By contrast, folk are starting to accept that the efforts of Mike Galloway, the city development director in Dundee, are improving the waterfront. Acceptance is grudging, because the city centre has been in chaos for months as the approach roads to the road bridge are realigned, and Tayside House is demolished. However, setting aside those grudges and the agendas of provincial politics – I reckon that eventually Galloway will be mentioned in the same breath as Mackison (who laid out the Whitehall Crescent area) and Thomson (who built the City Square and eastern suburbs Taybank and Craigie). All three prove that you need someone wearing a big hat named “city architect, planner, engineer or development director”... if you want cohesion in urban design.
The DCA - Dundee Contemporary Arts centre - emerged when Seagate Printmakers’ Workshop outgrew its premises, and various agencies clubbed together to build a set of galleries, studios, cinemas and a restaurant on the Nethergate. When Aberdeen’s Peacock Printmakers tried to do the same thing, commissioning a new gallery in the “Trainie Park” on Union Terrace, their plans were derailed by Ian Wood. The ongoing circus surrounding Union Terrace Gardens does Aberdeen no favours at all, and in fact the decision taken todayby the city’s councillors to finally kill the scheme (which was what prompted this article) took far long to happen.
Similarly, while Dundee’s McManus Galleries recently re-opened after a thorough revamp by Page & Park, Aberdeen’s Art Galleries on Schoolhill are tired and badly in need of refurbishment – but plans seem to have stalled, once again lacking funding. As with Peacock, there is a lack of money but perhaps underlying that is a lack of will to make things happen. Finally there is the V&A, and despite scepticism in the city at the marketing campaign which has wiped out the “Beanotown”-style marketing of Dundee in an attempt to market the city to the more sophisticated international art clique, the project has gained some traction.
Its real test may be to attract revenue once it’s been open for a few years.
I wrote elsewhere about Conran Roche’s 1989 scheme for a North Sea oil visitor attraction in Aberdeen: called Bravo, it was intended to be built off Beach Boulevarde, but fell victim to all the usual funding problems, and a downturn in the oil industry. The private sector were reluctant to foot the entire bill, far less seed capital, but the council didn't have the means to kickstart the project. Now it seems that Son of Bravo, the Aberdeen Energy Futures Centre – designed by RMJM, is heading the same way for the same reasons.
The fear must be that when the oil industry winds down, it will leave nothing of value or merit in Aberdeen – apart from the Piper Alpha memorial. Here is a scenario worth considering: when natives crow about how well the city has done over the past 35 years, Aberdeen’s detractors usually scoff and ask what will happen when the oil runs out? The truth is that new fields continue to be discovered, so the oil may last for another 35 years; yet it’s possible that demand will fade before the oil does. The world has shifted against carbon, after all, and all the new hydrogen fuel cell, wave power and solar PV technology hasn't been developed to no avail.
Against that background, moves to invest in alternative energy through fabrication plants at Dundee and Methil seem prescient.
Although no-one would have expected it even ten years ago, the newspapers in both cities are now owned by Dundee’s DC Thomson, the famously patriarchal yet anti-union publishing company. They attract fierce loyalty among their employees perhaps because, as George Rosie wrote, sentimentality lies at the heart of their appeal. To their credit, Thomsons rescued Aberdeen Journals from a lingering death of falling circulation and plummeting standards of journalism – and perhaps it’s better to have a Scottish-owned media rather than relying on the Murdoch press. Thomsons are in the process of retrenching, having closed their West Ward printworks in Dundee: it isn’t inconceivable that their facilities in Aberdeen will also reduce.
W.H. Brown Construction went into administration a couple of days ago: it joins a list of large Dundee contractors who have gone bust in the past few years. A previous article mentioned Charles Gray, and since their demise Taycon, Torith and several others have gone, too. This tells its own story about the state of the construction industry, although other far older firms such as Melville Dundas failed during the “good times”… as did firms in the land between the two cities, Burness of Montrose being the most notable example.
In Aberdeen, you only have the choice between three large contractors: Morrisons, Robertsons and Mansells (formerly Hall & Tawse). One is technically an Inverness firm, another from Elgin, and Mansells have recently closed down much of their operations in the city, including the well-regarded Hall & Tawse joinery shops. Thankfully, the smaller contractors in the area, such as Bancon and CHAP appear to be weathering the storm better.
The four best-known development proposals of the past decade have all been vigorously opposed: the by-pass (Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route); the Peacock-sponsored Arts Centre; the various Union Terrace “City Gardens” schemes; and Trump’s golf course at Menie. Another contentious scheme is Stewart Milne’s move to relocate Aberdeen Football Club from Pittodrie to a new stadium at Westhill – which has failed more than once to gain planning approval and stumbled again this week.
All this perhaps hints at a deeper psycho-social issue, not unique to Aberdonians, but part of the Scots mindset: the self-fulfilling “doomed to failure” prophecy. So many things are dismissed as “just a load of shite” ... now, make it thus. Perhaps allied to that, the opposition to each scheme has a nasty habit of resorting to ad hominem criticism: witness the personal attacks on Donald Trump, Stewart Milne and Ian Wood from the respective “anti” campaigns, and more recently the online petition by the “pro” side to unseat the council leader Barney Crockett because his administration voted against the City Gardens. They have gone beyond criticisms of policy into claims of incompetence.
The point I make is that in Dundee, the V&A gained lots of public support and while there were critical voices, no-one that I’m aware of tried to block it or petition against it. Similarly, the Waterfront regeneration hasn’t been subject to planning appeals or court injunctions. Yet (for the sake of balance) Dundonians are just as thrawn, and given the chance will drive potential investment away from the city before it evens arrives – such as the Ford motor parts factory which hadn’t even been built when the unions began arguing about working practices. The men from Dearborn, Michigan were perturbed, and if I recall correctly, the factory was built instead at Bridgend in Wales.
The central paradox in considering Dundee and Aberdeen appears to lie in the relationship between wealth and action: while there are many wealthy individuals in Aberdeen, the city council appears to be too broke to make things happen. It has closed down swimming baths, ice rinks and libraries, and doesn’t have the cash to build grand projects such as Union Terrace Gardens, far less doing the essentials. Seemingly unrelated to that, property and land prices in the city seem to be holding up well.
Dundee, on the other hand, is looked down upon by some as being a poor place (“you’ve only got one shoe”, being a favourite jibe of football crowds). Yet redevelopment goes ahead, regardless of the fact that property and land prices haven’t held up that well. Perhaps, despite the fond belief of Aberdeen’s capitalists that the American model of success based on extraction and consumption still holds, a city also needs belief in its own capacity for reinvention. Stewart Milne appeared on TV tonight bemoaning the fact that the council lacked vision: in fact, it lacks money and underlying that is a deeper lack of self-belief.
In case you’re wondering, the dragon and the leopard are Dundee’s and Aberdeen’s respective crest bearers on their civic coats of arms. If it came down to a square go, I suspect the dragon would “take” the leopard. While comparisons may be invidious, they’re easier to resist than civic stereotypes…