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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Urban design - on steroids

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June 24 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Urban design - on steroids
Urban design – on steroids
Yes, it’s the continuing story of Union Square and the intriguing slant the ayatollahs at Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF) have put on the idea of public consultation about Sir Ian Wood’s ‘gift’ to the city. It seems the Lighthouse has been commissioned to deliver an exhibition on his proposed plans for the public so that – in true Iranian election style – the punters can get to vote on whether they want the dumb or the dumber version to be built.

What is missing of course is the same thing that was absent in Tehran this past week or two – a truly democratic alternative to the pre-selected option. Worse, the Lighthouse is apparently prepared to take on the commission of this exhibition without having offered equal space to the Peacock Visual Arts Centre and its architects Brisac Gonzalez to show their scheme. If ever there was a signal that the time really has come to question whether the Glasgow-based institution is any longer fit to describe itself as ‘Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City’ this has to be it since nowhere else in Europe would a bona fide architecture centre allow its programme to be defined by the public relations imperatives of external bodies. So a plea to Nick Barley, director of the Lighthouse: show some independent spirit here and get on the phone to Brisac Gonzalez Architects to arrange a display of their work too in order that the public consultation exercise has some real meaning.

And while we’re about it let’s be sure the information presented compares like for like. As mentioned in last week’s Wrap, ACSEF has no real money of its own (a major partner being the to-all-intents-and-purposes bankrupt City Council) and if Sir Ian’s project is to proceed it will have to find the best part of £100m in what are unquestionably difficult economic times. The cumulative fees associated with a planning application alone will tot up to the best part of £1m so it would be nice to know who’s going to front these up before things proceed too much further along Fantasy Avenue. A few weeks ago we pointed out that the Peacock Visual Arts Centre had almost all of the funding in place for its project before Sir Ian came along on his charger and thumped it into the long grass. There is no certainty that said funding (from Scottish Arts Council and others) is transferable to a different arts project – even on the same site – but the dreamy sketches produced as part of the feasibility study produced by Martha Schwartz Partners and local boys Halliday Fraser Munro don’t exhibit too much interest (i.e. none) in accommodating any of the Brisac Gonzalez’ competition-winning design.

More to the point – for this is about far more than the simple issue of where the Council and its chums think they’re going to find their share of the capital cost (we’ll come to running costs in a minute) – the proposed scheme seems to misunderstand the scale and climate of Aberdeen completely. Now I know Sir Ian is on record as saying that his project will deliver something akin to “a grand Italian Piazza or a mini Central park” but will it really? An interesting thing happens when you lay its plan area over those of various well-known – and successful - European public spaces, because only then do you get a real sense of the vainglorious ambition at work here. It has to be hoped - indeed demanded - that the Lighthouse’s exhibition/consultation will include such an exercise.

To be specific, Sir Ian’s ‘Union Square’ covers approximately the same amount of ground as St Peter’s in Rome – including the Basilica – and is as large as the open space in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square – and this in a city with a population of less than a quarter of a million people and whose urban scale hardly compares with these great European centres. If one looks at cities with similar demographics, the answers don’t get too much better – Venice, a city with just over 270,000 inhabitants has Piazza San Marco as it’s great urban space but even if you include the Doge’s Palace and San Marco itself, the total area finds itself dwarfed by Sir Ian’s plans for central Aberdeen. Sienna fares no better – a city with almost the same-size population as furrybootville – would need to have its famous Campo inflated at least five-fold to compete with the Union Square proposals.

Bringing it closer to home, Sir Ian’s plan is three times the size of Trafalgar Square in London and would easily contain all of Edinburgh’s Waverley Valley including Princes Street Gardens. Not that anyone in the latter city has ever suggested covering the fissure caused by the railway lines but Sir Ian’s scheme boldly show how wimpy Scotland’s capital has been by proposing to cover over Aberdeen’s Denburn Valley, a move akin to building over the Thames or the Seine simply because they split the cities they flow through.

Megalomaniac planning aside, there is the small question of the cost of maintaining such a large public space and tellingly the feasibility study makes no mention of this, a surprising omission given that the city fathers can barely find the money to keep existing schools and leisure facilities open. In the meantime, the Peacock Visual Arts Centre sits in limbo: unable to go anywhere and unable to build its chosen vision because of one man’s desire for legacy and one organisation’s (ACSEF’s) asinine determination to accommodate his wishes – no matter at what cost to the city of Aberdeen. Culture and democracy have never needed friends as much as they do at this moment.

All the baskets are on Eigg
Across country now to Scotland’s Housing Expo (the Highland Housing Fair as was) which has finally been given the green light. Well, greenish – Housing Minister Alex Neil has just announced the Scottish Government’s commitment of £1.9m towards the construction of 22 of the 55 units planned for the Balvonie Braes site near Inverness. So that deals with the 40% affordable housing component that is due to open in August 2010, a reassuring development for the various architects involved in that part of the project. Less clear is the way the other 60% of the housing will manifest itself: certainly, on the basis of an amber light in April, all of the architects involved (some 27 separate practices) were pressed to produce Building Warrant drawings by the end of May, with the Highland Housing Alliance - a key player in the overall management of the project - picking up the tab for the application fees. Oh, did I not mention the architects’ fees? Sorry, I was distracted by the pig flying past my window, but even it was giggling uproariously at the very idea of such a thing.

So whither the project now? Remember, the notion postponed from this time last year is that all of the buildings should be on site later this year for completion in early 2010 so that they can be fitted out and the all important exhibition material installed prior to the event opening to the public. So here we are again – late, but this time with contractors in place. Somewhere along the way the term ‘design and build’ seems to have been mentioned, the idea presumably being that the architects would be novated to a group of companies (five in all) who would absorb the not inconsiderable risk associated with the Expo. Trouble is, nobody seems to have mentioned this to the contractors, all of whom seem to be proceeding as if on a conventional contract basis.

It’s fair to say that after last year’s uncertainty and the subsequent postponement of the project, most people would have expected the management to up its game and to ensure better communication with the architects involved. Not so, it seems for not only have the financial arrangements still to be fully resolved, but there is a perception amongst the design teams that they’re still being strung along. And, to add salt to the wound as far as any possible sponsorship is concerned (already very late and already difficult in the current climate) it appears that a member of the coven associated with the Lighthouse-based Sust Project (the conduit by which money from the Scottish Government’s Architecture and Place division is delivered to the Expo organisers) has been put on standby to raise funds for the event. Trouble is, she lives on Eigg, the obvious epicentre for securing money from the few national and international companies that have any to spare these days for such luxuries. So, not only is this move extremely late in coming (if indeed it does), meaning that its potential for success is unlikely to be very high, but it still leaves the overall question of ‘who pays’ unresolved. Certainly, at this stage the major sponsors of the whole bang shooting match remain the architects whose time and energy continue to be abused by the organisers’ inability to communicate straightforwardly with them.

The continuity candidates are – exactly the same as before
A couple of weeks ago I ventured to suggest (on the basis of what I thought was fairly reliable information) that – following the Scottish Government’s ‘light touch’ review of A+DS – advertisements might be on the horizon for posts on its soon-to-be-reformed-and-handsomely-paid board. Forget it: it seems that too much change at the top would signal to all that things were not exactly as painted in Tim Whatsisname’s report and that in any case with one frontperson having already walked the plank, there was no need for other planks to follow, so to speak. As a result, and in the spirit of the times in which we live, mediocre performance is once again rewarded - this time with new two-year contracts for the SAD board’s top bods  All, we are assured, due to the need for continuity whilst a new Chief Executive is sought. Strange this, because there don’t seem to have been any calls from out there in the big bad world for things at A+DS to continue as they have done for the past four years.

And finally…
Although vaguely curious as to its composition, I confess I’d never really given much thought to the workings of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Architecture and the Built Environment. That was until recently when I got an e-mail inviting me to join. Now, being one of the Groucho Marx persuasion (“I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member,” blah, blah…) it had never actually occurred to me that anyone could sign up for this gig, presuming naturally that attendance was by invitation and offered only to those organisations that make up the status quo of Scottish architecture. Not so it seems and I feel a bit dopey that it has taken me until now - ten years after the Parliament came into being – to discover that absolutely anybody can take part in the Robin Harper happenings. Now just because CPAG has never knowingly affected anything related to Scottish architecture doesn’t mean that it can’t so can I suggest you all send off an application form and a tenner to Veronica Burbridge at RTPI Scotland to get yourself a year’s membership? With more architects in Scotland than there are Liberal Democrats, who knows - by sticking together to become the most powerful group attached to the political body, we could even effect significant change in Scotland’s built environment. You never know until you try.

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