Gallery: "dundee"

I visited the Tartan exhibition at the V&A Dundee a few days ago, just before it was due to end. The show was wide-ranging, thought-provoking and left you wanting to learn more, which is always a good thing as you clatter down the stairs and back out into the wintry blast of the firth.

Outside the exhibition hall, in the first floor foyer where one of Ian Callum’s Jaguars used to sit, was a Hillman Imp with tartan seats. I read the caption closely, twice; despite what it said, the Imp wasn’t the last mass-produced car to be built in Scotland. After Imp production ended, the factory at Linwood – which passed from Rootes Group to Chrysler and would soon become Peugeot-Talbot – began making Sunbeam hatchbacks. Mass production in Scotland ended when the Sunbeam went out of production.

However, the initial jolt that things you read on exhibition walls aren’t necessarily true, did prompt another connection. Although it doesn’t get a mention in the Tartan exhibition, I recalled a snippet about the Volkswagen Golf GTi which demonstrates the international reach of tartan.

The decision to select tartan upholstery for the Golf GTi came from designer Gunhild Liljequist, who was a porcelain painter and chocolate box designer when she was hired, at the age of 28, to work in Volkswagen’s Department of Fabrics and Colours at Wolfsburg in 1964. She was one of the car industry’s first female designers and prior to her, the VW’s interiors were drab. Some would say that many of them still are.

Liljequist’s focus was on colour, trim, and interior detailing: when the first Golf GTi was planned in the mid-1970s, she was asked to design a “sporty” interior. Specifically, Scottish sportiness: the tartan cloth design. She recalled, “Black was sporty, but I also wanted colour and quality. I took a lot of inspiration from my travels around Great Britain, and I was always taken by high-quality fabrics with checked patterns … you could say that there is an element of British sportiness in the GTi.”

The fabric she chose was named “Clark” by VW, as a reference to double F1 world champion Jim Clark, whose his home in Duns isn’t far from the cloth-weaving heartland of the Borders woollen industry. Jim Clark was the talent of his era, and just like most great drivers he made speed look effortless, with none of the theatrical oversteer and screeching tyres you see in Hollywood films.

So the sporting check made its way to the grouse moor and the golf course, then it was co-opted by the fashion industry, and finally crossed over to motor racing. The GTi’s tartan upholstery is now referred to as “Clark Plaid”, which confuses people because tartan and plaid aren’t the same thing. The pattern on the x- and y-axes is identical in a tartan, but the patterns are different in a plaid. Nonetheless, tartan is often misrepresented as “plaid”, especially in the US.

Liljequist’s decision to use tartan-upholstered seats made the GTi of 1976 easy to distinguish from a base model Golf, just as she had intended. Fifty years later, tartan seats have endured, although the fifth-generation Golf GTi which emerged in 2005 had a classic black, white and red tartan renamed “Jacky”, perhaps in tribute to Jim Clark’s friend Jackie Stewart.

Meantime, for me, the best images in the V&A Tartan exhibition were firstly a shoot for Vogue magazine by Sarah Moon, a French photographer with a superb eye. True to the original clan tartans, prior to Walter Scott and George IV’s Public Relations visit to Scotland 200 years ago, the models in her photos wear subtle, autumnal colours. The second image is a Bo Diddley album cover which stands out thanks to the joy of his shy smile and pillarbox red tartan jacket. Compared to the po-faced fashion plates on show elsewhere in the exhibition, Bo Diddley is having the time of his life.

Passing the Hillman Imp again on the way out, though, something was missing. I had a nagging feeling that the V&A’s curators treat their subject as art historians would, rather than as a living tradition. Perhaps they didn’t speak to Johnstons, Isle Mill or Strathmore Woollens – who have a mill just up the road – while they were putting the show together. The exhibition needed a tangible demonstration of how tartan is made, with a Dornier P2 loom – like the working mills in Forfar, Keith, Elgin and Hawick use – so that visitors could see tartan cloth physically forming in front of their eyes, as the rapier swishes to and fro through the warp.

When folk reportedly say of the V&A, and other galleries, that “It’s no’ for us,” or that “There’s nothin’ for us there,” that’s sometimes construed as people in Dundee’s traditionally working class northern suburbs saying that they don’t have a connection to the arts, especially to visual culture. That shouldn’t be the case.

Just as The Rep theatre has made an effort over the years to put on shows which connect to the working traditions of Dundee’s jute industry, perhaps the V&A should look closely at what was (and is still) made across Tayside. Then, everyone in the city would make a connection with the tyres, watches, lasers, computers, confectionery, ships and many other things which their families helped to make, and which contribute to Scotland’s material culture – including the polychrome checked woollen fabric on the Hillman Imp’s seats.

By • Galleries: dundee, scotland

Sunday was the first bright, clear day in Angus for a long, long time, so I went a few miles out the road to Ardestie.  The souterrain there, just off the A92, sits on a hillock that rises gently from the surrounding fields.  It's a place I like to visit during short days when the light slants low across the Firth. It can be peaceful there too, when the wind blows the noise from the dual carriageway away in the opposite direction towards Carnoustie.

At the entrance to the souterrain, a Pictish earth house built perhaps three millennia ago, is an interpretive board.  Often these boards are a cop-out, because we enjoy it better when we have to figure out for ourselves what we're looking at.  However, rather than an artist's impression of Picts with woad tattoos and Neil Oliver mullets, the board includes a photo of the RCAHMS team who excavated the earth house in 1950.

We learn that FT Wainwright led the dig, and there he is in an Indiana Jones canvas jacket and boots, with clay pipe and homburg hat both tilted at a jaunty angle.  Then there are the assistant diggers, keen young women in short sleeved blouses and sensible slacks, and young men in sweaters with strange, pre-Brylcreem hair piled up above their foreheads like a cream horn pastry.

But the interesting aspect is what you don't see, either in the exposed souterrain or on HES's board.  A while after the dig was complete, the archaeological findings were written up and published in a learned, peer-reviewed magazine.  In return for academic scrutiny and the certainty that experts had checked the 3000 year old facts to the extent that anyone can, the article was circulated among a coterie of specialists.

It would be left to someone else, perhaps writing in the Scots Magazine or Scottish Field, to write for a broader, interested public.  That article would likely be shorter, use little or no jargon, and would use hooks to pull ancient history towards the modern world. But in return, it reached tens of thousands of people, rather than a few hundred. That's the contradiction I've come across time and again during my career. 

Mostly I write for trade or specialist magazines like Urban Realm and Blueprint and Archive, and in parallel I've contributed to titles such as Leopard, and also ended up writing for Scottish Field a few years later. Their bag is cultural journalism with a more popular remit (definitely not "populist", now that word has been debased by far right politicians).

Occasionally I've been invited to contribute to academic titles, but that’s where the system falls down, at least for someone who maintains that research and publication are an important part of being an architect, yet doesn't have any ties to an institution.

Academic magazines generally don't pay contributors, because they can get away with it.  They know that academics with tenure have a stipend and receive grants for research and conference attending, and are mostly glad of the chance to publish – plus that keeps them in a job, indirectly.  Some academic careers rely on making a set amount of journal contributions each year.

As the late Charles Rattray told me ruefully, Architectural Research Quarterly or ARQ, where he was associate editor for many years, had keen contributors but a fairly small circulation.  He sometimes asked himself, what's the point of publishing if your ideas and hard work don't reach as wide an audience as possible? Sometimes you write for the love of architecture only, reaching a small audience of peers – but that isn’t quite the same as journalism.

Thankfully each piece of research eventually finds a home, hopefully including a 6000 word essay which I wrote last year during a difficult time in my life.  The research and writing helped to take my mind off life in the evenings.  The essay was short-listed in a competition, but didn't win: nonetheless the judges were keen that I should publish it somewhere.  It wasn't bound for the society's journal, nor for another they suggested which is based in the same city but not only doesn't pay for publication – it takes and retains copyright to your text and images, forever!

That practice should be outlawed, since it takes advantage of the young and keen but inexperienced. In the real world, an author or photographer always licences their work to a magazine for publication, normally first publication rights only. Anything else is exploitative.  Sometimes you have to set your ego aside, when trying to get your name into print, and be patient.  You consider your options then decide, "None of the Above”.

By • Galleries: books, dundee

Having tracked down a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, I thought it was worth updating and re-posting this post from 2016 about Dorran Construction and W, T & H Dye Builders. By accident, it’s begun to evolve into a snapshot of housebuilding in Tayside during the 1960’s and 70’s.

During the 1950’s, the Hull construction firm of R.G. Tarran, builder of the Tarran Prefab, adapted the former dyeworks of Pullars of Perth to produce the Dorran House, a single-storey bungalow built from precast panels.

Dorran houses are like Structural Insulated Panel Systems or SIPS houses, but pretty much without the “I”. The Dorran system consists of storey-height precast panels which are 16 inches wide, which seems an odd width for a structural module, but we now live in a world which has the luxury of setting out in metric, usually on multiples and fractions of 2.4 or three metres.

Whether Dorran licensed the system from Tarran, or the company was a direct subsidiary, isn’t clear – but during the 1950’s, they sold to the public sector with houses for the Forestry Commission in outlying parts of the Highlands, small developments of social housing in rural counties such as Argyll and Caithness, and even domestic accommodation at RAF Saxa Vord on Shetland.

Dorran Construction later offered a range of bungalows to private buyers; the housetypes had couthy names such as The Glen Shean, The Glen Varloch, The Glen Frugart and The Glen Clova. By the 1960’s they were fabricating around ten houses each week at their precast factory in Perth, and a total of 2500 had been erected by 1962.

According to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) report I consulted, two-storey Dorrans have a characteristic protruding band at first floor level, like a string course, formed by a precast ring beam. Timber floor panels were strapped to the ring beam with joist straps, and the precast panels were tied together using steel bolts. Some Dorran bungalows appear to have a concrete ring beam at ground level, too.

For vapour control, the concrete panels were lined with 2-ply bituminous felt as a damp-proof membrane. When the wall was erected, the joints were filled with gunned bitumen, then pointed up in cement mortar. Interestingly, a newspaper article from the 1960’s notes that one of their outstanding features was the level of insulation in the walls and ceilings. A half-inch-thick internal layer of expanded polystyrene sat between the concrete panel and its plasterboard lining … half an inch, which is laughable nowadays, but better than nothing.

By the 1970’s there was disquiet about non-traditional methods of construction, and two of the Dorran houses’ failings were shared by several other systems. The panels’ lack of decent, continuous insulation led to condensation problems, and serious corrosion of the steel ties between the panels was a by-product of that.

The BRE diagnosed the problems during the early 1980’s, which eventually led the designs to be designated under the Housing Defects Act 1984, which effectively condemned them and made them un-mortgageable. However, the 1984 Act was soon consolidated into the 1985 Housing Act, which provided grant assistance for people who had unwittingly bought former council houses constructed using problematic systems.

Perhaps if the Dorran system had been constructed using stainless steel fixings, and with effective insulation, the design might have succeeded. As it is, the remedial works entailed in fixing the problems range from adding a masonry skin outside the precast panels, to propping the roof then demolishing the panels and building a brand new external wall. Instead, many chose to demolish the existing house and start again, often building a timber kit on the site instead.

While it’s true that we probably won’t make exactly the same mistakes again in future, we may make slightly different mistakes in pursuit of the same goals. A few years ago, I worked on a project with some of the first zero energy houses in Scotland, built using a SIP system comprising JJI joists skinned with OSB board, and a cavity filled with injected cellulose fibre.

There have been no insulation or corrosion issues that I’m aware of – but the high degree of airtightness meant that when tenants switched off the whole house ventilation system (because they were concerned about running costs) they suffered from condensation problems in kitchens and bathrooms.

A different kind of prefabrication, a new type of problem, caused partly by a novel approach to design and more so due to poor communication between the landlord and tenant about how the house worked. The other lesson of Dorran Construction Ltd. lies in how we may try to meet today’s unmet demand for housing by using “off-site construction”, which is the new, untainted name for system building, a.k.a. prefabrication.

In the early 1960’s, Dorran looked southwards and after 1964 during which it made a profit of £96,000, the firm opened a precast factory in Consett, and another in London. By 1967 the firm had built 4000 houses across Scotland, but by signing up to fixed price contracts in England during an era of rampant inflation, Dorran committed its fatal mistake.

The company lost money on its English contracts, the factories in Consett and London closed, and the parent firm in Perth struggled to survive. By the time that Dorran Houses began displaying the first symptoms of structural corrosion, the firm was no longer producing them – and the post-war housing boom was over. As demand slackened, the industry pulled back from mass produced housing.

“House factories”, the dream of technocrats and Le Corbusier alike, are much trickier to achieve in practice than you might think. Dorran Houses have been condemned, both literally and metaphorically, as a failed experiment in mass production. After the 1984 Act, mortgage lenders viewed precast panel houses as “Non-Traditional” and as far as most buyers were concerned, that euphemism was the kiss of death for prefabrication.

Another name from Tayside during the 1960’s and 70’s is W, T & H Dye Ltd. which was founded in Dundee around 1959 and fell into liquidation in 1988. In the intervening thirty years, William, Thomas and Harry Dye were less radical than Dorran, and they targeted a different market. If little has been written about Dorran, I’m not aware of anything at all about the Dyes.

Their family-run business generally built their own developments. They concentrated on small sites in the West End of Dundee, Broughty Ferry and Monifieth, and their houses were thought of as better quality than run-of-the-mill bungalows built by other firms of the time such as Interbuild, Pat Dempsey or McCabe. Dyes typically built cavity wall detached and semi-detached houses, with harled walls and panels picked out in Fyfestone. The 1960’s houses between Victoria Street and Grange Road in Monifieth are typical of their output.

The Dyes didn’t attempt to compete directly with Bett Brothers of Downfield, who were Dundee’s largest housebuilder for several decades. Betts built thousands of houses in the western, northern and eastern suburbs of Dundee – plus Perth, Fife and Aberdeen too. Before they were taken over by Gladedale, they were Scotland’s biggest house developer north of the Central Belt.

Betts employed their own architects, including Bert Stevens and the late Ron Valentine who later worked in partnership together. While I was preparing a portfolio for my architecture school interview, Ron Valentine kindly set aside a morning to chat about the course, show me his own drawings from Duncan of Jordanstone, and offer some pointers.

A year or two after I published this piece, the son of one of Dyes’ directors, also Harry Dye, got in touch. He was generous with his time and very helpful in providing more background about the family firm, but he pointed out that some of the developments I highlighted in Barnhill – including a couple of dozen houses on the Dalhousie Feus in Ardmore Avenue, half a dozen in Holly Road, and a couple in Navarre Street – weren’t actually built by Dyes at all.

As I’d relied on anecdotal information, I held my hands up and promised to track down whoever did build those houses in Barnhill. Their facings in Leoch stone, harling and natural slate roofs combined to create what one ambitious estate agent described as “Voysey-style” bungalows. Not quite, but some of their larger houses were vaguely Arts & Crafts in a watered down fashion. While a Bett bungalow in the area we’re talking about now sells for upwards of £200k-£250k, the houses in question are now worth at least £300-£350k.

People notice the difference in quality, and there’s a reason why many homebuyers are conservative. Most have little say in what their house looks like or how it’s built, yet they tie up most of their wealth in it and sink much of their sense of self into it, too. “Traditional” housing has always been popular: partly because it’s time-proven, and also because it doesn’t lose its value in disastrous ways, like Dorrans’ houses did.

The developer of those houses in Barnhill built in the spaces left behind by other developers – they were evidently happy to achieve a slow and steady rate of sales on gap sites. They built on ransom strips, backlands, landlocked plots and spaces left over after planning. The rising tide of land values means that the quarter- or fifth-acre parcels they used are now only a seventh- or even an eighth-acre in area!

Nowadays, small-scale developments avoid Planning Gain and Section 75 agreements (providing parks, playgrounds, contributions to roads schemes and primary schools), and the complexity of SUDS systems using swales and constructed wetlands. The developer in Barnhill avoided those too, but one giveaway is that some streets have unmade pavements and unadopted roadways: they were “unbonded” developments. In other words, there weren’t financial bonds in place for the roads and sewers when the development was completed, so the local authority wouldn’t touch it.

On reflection, “barriers to entry” for this type of housebuilding seem low. Many joinery firms entertain the idea that if they can build houses, they should also be able to put together developments of houses. But the functions of a developer – land acquisition, finance, project management, marketing – are very different to those of a builder, and for the past thirty years they’ve become ever more complex.

Similarly, with the coming of the timber kit from firms like Interbuild and Stewart Milne, cavity walls with stone facings became an anachronism. Also virtually gone are the “All Trades” building contractors who directly employ their own concrete workers, bricklayers, masons, workshop and site joiners, roofers, painters and decorators. Likewise firms with joinery shops which can manufacture their own doors, windows and stairs: the best you can ask are Howden kitchens, Magnet doors and kit panels rattled together with a Hilti gun.

As a consequence, houses are built to meet the ruling standards of the day, but the construction is less robust with gang-nailed trusses rather than couple roofs, and timber kit walls versus cavity masonry. They’re generally finished to a lower standard, with flush ply versus panel doors, and MDF rather than hardwood facings.

Traditionally-built houses from the 1960’s and 70’s would be tricky to procure in large numbers nowadays, but they’ve proven to be a remarkably good store of value over the past half-century. Perhaps, depressingly for those with a “social” model of housing in mind, that’s the real message.

Meantime … the final piece of the jigsaw? A few days ago, I discovered that the houses in Ardmore Avenue, Holly Road and Navarre Street were developed and built in the early 1960’s, by Hills Brothers of Brechin. That firm wasn’t even on my radar, so there’s another rabbit hole to disappear down. Perhaps they were designed by a local practice, in the same way that the now-forgotten architect James A. Fraser of Blairgowrie designed houses for A&J Stephen of Perth during the 1960’s…?

By • Galleries: technology, dundee

For a spell in the 2010’s, I did consultancy work for an environmental charity which was headquartered down south, but worked all over the country.  They were keen on Homezones, pedestrianisation and the like, but their roots lay in the construction of bike paths along abandoned railway lines. 

It’s ironic that many of the lines they chose to save became battlegrounds.  For example, when the Airdrie to Bathgate line was reopened as a railway, there was friction when the charity realised that their bikepath would disappear.  It raised a rhetorical question. Should bikes take precedence over railways, despite the fact that the infrastructure was built for trains in the first place? A compromise was struck, the trackbed was bought back by the railways (Network Rail, it had been owned by BRB Residuary before that) and a new bike path was constructed alongside it.

Of course, other organisations have utilised the trackbeds of dismantled railway lines for footpaths and long distance tracks.  Around Dundee, stretches of the Dundee to Newtyle line have become footpaths – such as the Miley, leading from Lochee towards the Kingsway along a muddy, litter-blown cutting.  Beyond Rosemill and Bridgefoot, its character changes completely: it was once a goods line serving the Leoch quarries which provided Dundee with building stone, now it runs through a completely de-industrialised landscape.

The goods branch to Fairmuir and Maryfield, both of which were early industrial estates, has largely disappeared under houses and parks. Just like the first mile of the Dundee to Forfar Direct line, which later becomes a footpath as it crosses the Seven Arches viaduct, then heads northwards beyond the city boundary and disappears into scrubland where railway bridges have been demolished, leaving only a series of stranded abutments punctuating the trace of a line along cuttings and embankments.

The photos show another former rail line a few miles north of Dundee, which once ran from somewhere to somewhere. It’s always cut through a rural district but it passes sawmills, oil depots with giant tanks, farm steadings with silos and grain dryers. Once, all those were fed by rail, now the trackbed is choked with brambles, birches and willow trees and thorn bushes.

I’m sure it’s far down the list of railway lines to be reinstated: the Borders railway, the Alloa line, the Levenmouth branch and perhaps the Peterhead and Fraserburgh tracks will gradually come back to life, but others have been forgotten for good. Perhaps that’s because this line is far away from the decision-making centres of the central belt. It’s also far from the heartland of environmental charities, populated by student activists on fixed gear bikes, middle class commuters on Bromptons with laughably small but lethal wheels, and the angry, angry men who take many-thousand pound carbonfibre cycles for Sunday races on public roads.

As I discovered when I revisited the trackbed with a friend, nothing has changed since my last visit a decade earlier. The irony is that this area – beyond bus routes, miles from post offices, corner shops, GP practices, village schools and further education colleges – and most of all, far away from opportunity and well-paid jobs in the city – is crying out for the better transport links that doing something productive (anything productive) with the trackbed would bring.

By • Galleries: ghosts, dundee

The winter of 2009/2010 has turned out to be a reflective period for architects, commentators, and Scotland in general.  Perhaps that thinking time is a result of our having been snowbound for days on end.  We’ve been given a variety of things to think about: the colour of our government may change shortly; the economy may drop into the second trough of a “double dip” recession; architectural practices may retrench, fail – or, despite everything, pull out of their current doldrums.  Who knows, but we’ve seen these things happen before: the last time practices suffered like this was during the early 1990’s, and although architecture school insulated me from the worst of it, I do recall nervous times for practitioners.

The vision of a steady stream of work for practices, leading to smooth cashflow and regular employment, proved to be just as illusory during the Nineties as the political creed “Boom and Bust is Dead”.  A few good years, “perhaps the pattern has finally been broken?” then back to Great British Whale, an economy which dives then surfaces again.  Stasis and change are eternal themes, and in my case that meant when the Lighthouse shut up shop, so did my articles commissioned by their website.  However, the evolution of Prospect into Urban Realm means I’ve been offered another platform.  The tenor of what I write here will be similar: photo essays, explorations of lesser-known architects and marginal places, plus the odd rhetorical or polemical piece.  Given the theme of this article, I thought it appropriate to look at the see-saw relationship between Scotland’s third and fourth cities.

Dundee and Aberdeen have always sat uneasily, 60 miles apart, and we find it hard to resist making comparisons between them.  Over the past three hundred years, their fortunes have waxed and waned on the basis of mercantile wealth (Dundee); woollen and paper milling (Aberdeen); the jute trade (Dundee); offshore oil (Aberdeen) – and now both have pinned their colours to some kind of hip new cultural economy.  The Dundee Contemporary Arts centre (DCA) recently celebrated ten years in existence, whereas Ian Wood’s current battle with Peacock Arts for control of Union Terrace Gardens is the latest instalment in Aberdeen’s efforts to catch up.  At present, Aberdeen doesn’t have a full-blown contemporary arts gallery.  In terms of traditional venues, Dundee’s McManus Galleries are in the final stages of a £8m revamp, and the building is due to re-open next week; whereas Aberdeen’s Art Gallery is at an early stage of navel-gazing about its future.

Yet those two Dundonian advances over Aberdeen mask the real ambitions of both cities, which are far more expansive.  In Dundee’s case, the Victoria & Albert Museum are keen to open a northern outstation, like the Tate did in Liverpool twenty years ago.  The proposed V&A-on-Tay is already being touted as a world-class piece of architecture – yet it could easily turn into an own-goal for the city.  Quickly, the local press jumped on the Frank Gehry “brandwagon”, with Mike Galloway (the city's Director of Planning and Transportation) trying to elicit Gehry’s involvement in the gallery, which it’s already been decided will be built on a promontory jutting out into the river.  But that move seems like a pale echo of Glasgow’s policy of commissioning an icon-builder to design the new Museum of Transport on the Clyde.  Perhaps wisely, Frank has ruled himself out of the running.  How about appointing an iconoclast instead, and doing so through a limited, or even an open competition?  Somehow, you have to maximise your chances of getting the best design.

That, it could be argued, is what Aberdeen University did when they chose Schmidt Hammer Lassen to design their new library.  The European approach, the articulation of simple volumes to create spaces for people, contrasts with the school of manipulating three-dimensional forms for visual effect.  The latter, whether you call it Deconstructivism or parametric design, was born on the Pacific Rim, at the Peak in Hong Kong, and Culver City outside Los Angeles.  The twisting and torqueing of steelwork to create fractured buildings has been fashionable for the past quarter century, in the hands of a handful of architects whose star ascended during the 1980’s.  Those architects became corporate brands, and their signature style was bought in by cities keen to ape Bilbao.  That approach has now been discredited, as it’s unlikely to result in truly timeless buildings.  Aberdeen University appear to have avoided that trap, and should be commended in avoiding a mere “statement” piece of architecture.

However, the V&A run a risk of repeating their “Boilerhouse” fiasco – if they, and the city council in Dundee, are set on commissioning a NAME rather than an appropriate talent.  If you recall, Daniel Libeskind (one of the most famous of architectural iconographers) produced numerous versions of a metal box with tesseract or Rubik cube contortions for the so-called Boilerhouse extension to the V&A in London, although each evolution of the scheme was quietly shelved due to heritage or financial issues.  Hopefully those behind the V&A’s new outstation will realise that the age of the icon is over, and that Dundee already has plenty symbols on the central waterfront: the landfall of the Tay Bridge, the Discovery’s masts, the ghost of the Royal Arch.  Why not build something on Riverside Drive, which as several writers have pointed out is one of the grandest approaches to any European city (provided you don’t allow superstores to build alongside it…)

Aberdeen’s V&A-rivalling plan is to create a vast urban square.  Others have talked about the P.R. chicanery which lie behind the Union Terrace Gardens campaign, so I will concentrate on the urbanism which might result from it.  At first glance, it seems as if Union Terrace might become something like Castle Terrace in Edinburgh.  If you build a multi-storey car park in a gulley, you create lots of city centre parking (although that’s not really the done thing in 2010…) and gain a “plaza” on which farmers’ markets, carnival jugglers and political rallies can do their respective piece.  Yet the north-easterly aspect of Union Terrace is ill-suited, and creating a vast open space will open the Terrace up to the biting wind which howls in from the sea.  There is also the serious matter of destroying one of the city centre’s few green lungs, and chopping down many handsome trees.  No-one has closely scrutinised the financial side of the proposals yet, because the latter are merely a few artists’ impressions.  Maybe that doesn’t matter, because Ian Wood’s proposal is superfluous.

You see, Aberdeen already has a large urban plaza, and it was the hub of the city’s life for hundreds of years: the Castlegate.  A former market place at the knuckle of Union Street and King Street, it later became the main node in Aberdeen’s tram system.  The scale of the open space to the surrounding buildings seems far happier than a vast treeless tract stretching from Union Bridge to Rosemount Viaduct, along which empty chip wrappers will race unhindered.  Perhaps if Ian Wood had the benefit of wise counsel, his focus might be shifted towards endowing a new wing at a local hospital, for example, or bequeathing money to fix the city’s real problems.  Aberdeen has several good examples of philanthropy, such as the WW1-era Cowdray Hall next to the Art Gallery, and the Crombie family’s gifts to the University which were used to build residences during the 1960’s.  As it is, both Aberdeen and its southern neighbour have more glaring issues to deal with than the need for a large expanse of paving slabs.

Aberdeen has serially failed to build a by-pass for the past forty years, so the main route through the city is still the pot-holed Anderson Drive, constricted to the south by the medieval Brig o’ Dee, and to the north by the hellish Haudagain roundabout.  Dundee’s airport is little more than a base for flying club planes, and needs investment or perhaps relocation to Errol, to enable short-haul jets to use it.  Dundee lacks a large conference facility, whereas the AECC in Aberdeen is in financial straits.  Aberdeen’s modern ice rink has been shut as a cost-saving measure, which means that its curlers and hockey players have to travel to … Dundee’s Ice Arena, if they want to practice their skills.  All the talk about urban squares and new galleries masks the inertia at the heart of both cities.  Drivers, airline passengers, conference-goers and ice enthusiasts realise that the more everything appears ready to change, the more it actually stays the same.

A decade may pass before we know whether the new Union Terrace Gardens, or the V&A’s outstation, made a difference.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, aberdeen, dundee