Soon after I moved to Aberdeen, I bought a cheap Kodak digital camera. As I recall, the first building I took a photo of was Marischal College. At that point in the early 2000’s, the college was an under-used part of the University, but it dominated Broad Street like a mescaline-laced wedding cake. I particularly liked it on dull days after rain, when the grey granite took on a sheen, although my photos didn’t do it justice.

Later, I returned with a better camera to take a shot of the pinnacles. I zoomed in to look at detail which seemed almost fractal, which kept on increasing as you looked more closely. If you don’t wonder at how many tens of thousands of hours were spent carving the granite, you’re not looking at all.

A year or two later I began contributing to a magazine called “Leopard”, which was published in Aberdeenshire. Over the course of the next few years I wrote about the life and work of many architects who built in the North East, including Pirie & Clyne, Robert Matthew, Leo Durnin and Michael Shewan. Eventually Leopard was sold, and publication ended before I managed to complete my article about Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, the architect of Marischal College.

I know intuitively that Mackenzie had presence. If you think Mackintosh dressed like a dandified fop, photos show the young Mackenzie as a Victorian psychobilly with a pimp moustache, little quiff and giant sideburns. Something like Wayne Coyne, but sent half a century back in time from the Flaming Lips to the place where John Byrne’s Slab Boys grew up.

The hairstyle fixes Mackenzie in time, in same way that his wide-lapelled tweed jacket does; yet fashions in clothing come around again in a way that architecture doesn’t. The Bauhaus was founded exactly a century ago, but just a few years beforehand, in 1906, Mackenzie completed the final wing of Marischal College. It was built in a strange and driven version of High Perpendicular Gothic which has never come back into vogue.

The college is perhaps the ultimate building in Kemnay Grey, the best-known Aberdeenshire granite. Marsichal College will hopefully stand for all time as a memorial to Mackenzie, and to the granite industry my grandfather worked in, which has all but gone. In the 1950’s when my grandfather began working at Kemnay, dimensional stone was still being cut, but by the time he retired in the 1970’s, that had finished.

There was a brief flash of hope when a face at Kemnay’s No.2 Quarry was reopened to win stone for the parliament at Holyrood, but that proved to be the very end. Yet the mercurial silver stone built so much of Aberdeen: His Majesty’s, the Town House, Holburn Viaduct, the Citadel, the General Post Office, Queens Cross Kirk, the old Palace Hotel, most of Union Terrace … and the icing sugar filigree of Marischal College, mostly erected during the 1890’s but continuing past the turn of the century.

Kemnay Grey was later used in the former Scottish Amicable and C&A buildings on Union Street, the Majestic Cinema, the Cowdray Hall, Hilton Kirk, King George IV bridge, and finally as a cladding on Norman Foster’s Faculty of Management at Garthdee. Further afield, it clad the upper storeys of the Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s Pierhead, it paved Electric Avenue in Brixton, it built Albert Richardson’s Tormore Distillery, it lined the waterways of both Loch Katrine Waterworks and the Lochaber Hydro-power scheme, and Kemnay granite also founded the Tay and Forth Rail Bridges.

In London alone, the Tower, Blackfriars, Southwark, Vauxhall, Kew, Chelsea and Putney Bridges, plus the Thames Embankment, are all Kemnay stone. As it happens, Mackenzie also worked in London, and may have won lots of commissions both before and afterwards – but never built anything like Marischal College again. And neither has anyone else.

It’s post-modern, but eighty years before its time, caught somewhere between William Burgess’s neo-medieval Castell Coch and Philip Johnson’s Pittsburgh Glass headquarters. Those who came before as architecture writers in the North East, such as Douglas Simpson, had their own thoughts about Marischal College. Carving its spirelets, crockets and archlets, “involved a tormenting of granite in a way to which the hard crystalline stone is basically unsuited”, yet Simpson felt that the building with, “a great glistening front, with the deep shadows cast by the bold buttresses, is nothing short of magnificent.”

The closest I came to discovering what Mackenzie’s contemporaries thought was a fusty book dug out in a bookshop in a one-horse town way up Deeside. Briefly excited I drew it from the shelf, but soon calmed down when I saw its condition (mildewed covers and foxed pages), the content (more about dignitaries than architect) and the book dealer’s optimistic pricing. It may still be there on the shelf, gathering dust.

Meantime, in a city where the grey granite provides a kind of visual unity, the college still does its best to stand out. Marischal College’s conversion into council offices a few years ago hasn’t done much for it; the interior was gutted and the facade retention and stone cleaning has left something that looks like synthetic stone.

Everything changes: “Leopard” is extinct now. It was swallowed by Scottish Field and disappeared completely with last month’s issue; but if you’re interested in Aberdeenshire’s granite industry, seek out a copy of Jim Fiddes’s book “The Granite Men”. It’s the first book in seventy years to attempt to cover that ground, since William Diack’s “Rise and Progress of the Granite Industry of Aberdeen”.

Considering the enormous publication gap, it’s almost like Aberdeen is simultaneously proud and ashamed of the very stuff it’s built from…

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