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Once you surmount the barriers put in place around the old Dinorwic Quarries, Llanberis to prevent folk from walking on the mountainside – the irony of putting a vertical obstacle in the way of climbers obviously didn’t occur to First Hydro, who own part of the mountain – you enter a landscape dramatically transformed by man.  The landforms are unique, and just like the last time I was in Snowdonia, the blanket of cloud burned off slowly, revealing Sinc Juliet from the top of Marchlyn Mawr.  Previously I’d climbed Elidir Fawr, and also visited the “Electric Mountain” visitor centre down in Llanberis; this time, I decided to visit the old quarries.  As I stood there, with the crows wheeling overhead, and mountain sheep grazing between blocks of blue slate, the light changed many times as the cloud base gradually rose above the tops.

Dinorwic was one of the world’s largest slate quarries, and rather like Ballachulish on Scotland’s west coast, it was worked as a series of galleries, so the mountainside now consists of twenty or so terraces linked by steep inclines, which also run around dramatic pits.  Unlike Scotland’s slate industry, which had died by the start of the 1960’s, Welsh slate was more resilient, and though Dinorwic closed in 1969, other quarries like Oakely and Penrhyn are still live (only just in the case of Oakely).  The well-known and oft-repeated statistics are that Dinorwic opened in 1787, and was second only in size to Penrhyn.  At its peak, it employed 3000 men and produced over 100,000 tons of slate each year.  The workings extend 1800 feet up the mountain, and there are about 20 levels, once linked by around 50 miles of narrow gauge rail track. 

Dinorwic really is the quarry which ate a mountain.  It sits on the face of Elidir Fach into which it bit deeply, leaving Elidir Fawr alongside it pretty much untouched.  In addition to the galleries, the most obvious parts of the quarry are the inclined planes down which the slate was sent.  The “A” inclines on the north-west or “Garret” side of Dinorwic, and the “C” inclines on the south-east or “Braich” side are mostly self-acting inclines with two sets of tables, one loaded with slate which trundled downhill by gravity, and counterbalanced by the empty one travelling back up the incline again.  A good example remains at the “New York” level.  Several of the inclines still have the winding drums and brakes in situ; likewise some of the pits still have Blondin (aerial cable crane) winders and cables in place.  The Blondin was invented by John Fyfe, the granite quarrymaster from Aberdeenshire, and many Blondin-type cable cranes were built by John Henderson of Aberdeen.

“Australia” level is where the interesting artefacts are: the sawmills with lines of rusting circular sawbeds, the powerhouse with its compressors still in place, the caban (bothy) with fleabitten jackets still hanging from pegs.  In fact, once more than 20 different mills, and almost 500 saws spread across the site, but this is the most intact set of buildings.  Incidentally, all the areas of the quarry were given names, and became its “departments”: Vivian, Wellington, Matilda and Victoria at lower level, then Braich and Garret further up the mountainside.  Some of these areas lower down are approached through tunnels cut through walls of slate, some now blocked by rockfalls.  Dinrowic’s galleries run in one direction to vast spoil heaps which bloom out over the mountainside, and end abruptly at a precipice.  Some, like Sinc Harriet, renamed “Dali’s Hole” by the rock climbers who have adopted it, are hundreds of feet deep. 

When the Welsh slate industry went into retreat, Dinorwic was still making its owners enough money for them to entertain the idea of opening a new quarry further up the mountain, at Marchlyn Mawr.  The idea was that it would continue once its parent shut, but in the end Marchlyn wasn’t a success, either.  After Dinorwic quarry closed in 1969, an auction was held to sell off all the easily-recoverable plant and machinery, such as saws, compressors and locomotives.  However, the equipment on the higher levels was too much hassle to reclaim, so it was left in place and surrendered to the elements.  By contrast the newest buildings – modern slate mills, and a concrete block and tile plant which used the quarry dust as aggregate, all of which sat beside Llyn Peris – were razed to the ground completely.  Others have been unroofed – for their slate, ironically, given the huge quantities of dressed roofing lying around the place, small heaps set against vast planes of slate scree.  Yet the artificial topography left behind at closure is only part of its attraction: what happened next is the real fascination of Dinorwic.

The process of decay is a demonstration of the power of entropy.  Anything we create exists on sufferance, as a result of continual human intervention: but once left to its own devices, it quickly returns to its natural state.  The buildings weather, roofs collapse, timber rots away, iron rusts to oxide, and the walls of hewn slate merge with the mountainside that gave birth to them.  What we think of as the “chaos” of decay and decomposition is really Nature at work, and as that happens the meaning and history Man superimposes are surrendered.  As decay strips away machinery, signage, end products, the buildings and inclines come close to being generic ruins.  Dinorwic is a powerful demonstration that nature will unmake everything we build, and eventually only the stones remain, and as Robin Hitchcock sang, the stones do not remember.

Some of Dinorwic’s heritage is preserved in a museum – the Vivian department of the quarry – but you know that it’s been cleaned up and curated whereas the castings, wire ropes and motors strewn over the mountain are more or less as the quarrymen left them.  They are living, or perhaps dying, history.  The museum is about objectivity, whereas the quarry beyond it is more about evoking “saudade”, a Portugese term which combines melancholy and a sense of life irretriveably lost.  In amongst the death of an industry, and the gradual erasing of Man’s intervention – is the power of Nature, which is revivifying the quarry and proving that nothing really dies, it is transformed or transfigured.  Dinorwic is a poignant place, and provided you respect the lethal drops and rockfalls, makes a thought-provoking day high above the tourists.

There’s a good deal of further material about Dinorwic on Dave Sallery’s excellent website about the Welsh slate industry – Penmorfa.

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The jet flew a tightening arc over the Bar of the Tay, throttling back as it broke through a bank of haar.  The shape of the city resolved itself: twelve miles strung out along the river, from the Buddon to Kingoodie.  “Cabin Crew: Doors to Automatic.” We were buckled in for landing, and the aircraft overflew drilling rigs moored at Caledon Wharf, passed a cluster of high rises off the Hilltown, and lined up on the runway.  There was a whine and thunk while the landing gear locking down, then as we were within touching distance of the rail bridge, we overhauled a cleared site on Riverside Drive, a few acres of graded hardcore.

No ordinary rubble: this little patch of Dundee was the downfall of Mark Wilson, an architect-developer whose company, Duncarse Developments, bought it for £10m in 2007.  Before that, a Texas DIY store sat here, but it was reduced to rubble before redevelopment was due to begin, helping to clear what Enric Miralles described in 1999 as one of the most the most dramatic urban settings in Europe.  Wilson’s company was on the brink of starting work on a scheme of 200 luxury apartments, which would have seen Duncarse spend upwards of £40m, when the economic crash interjected.  Duncarse went bust in 2008, and 25 potential purchasers lost their deposits.  Mark Wilson got lots of bad press, but he lived to fight another day and eventually bounced back, as most developers do.

Wilson trained as an architect, and his first big success as a developer was the redevelopment of the Bastille in Aberdeen, formerly part of Richards’ textile mill at Broadford Works.  He progressed through other housing developments, eventually converting parts of Royal Dundee Liff, the former insane asylum that lies to the west of the city.  Riverside Apartments, the scheme which brought down Duncarse, would have been his largest development, and one of the biggest in the city at the time.  Wilson’s upward trajectory is similar to that of his contemporaries, although they specialised in different sectors, and the wisest among them pre-let their developments before work began on site.

Dundee’s developers have a reputation which extends far beyond the confines of their industry.  Michael Johnston, Angus Cook, Kenny Harper, the Marr brothers, Bruce Linton and many others have made their mark on the city in the past quarter of a century.  Most of them made their money in retail and commercial development, particularly in pubs and clubs, in the case of Kenny Harper and the Marrs.  However, the first-mentioned had widely-reported trouble with the tax man; three had their their fingers burned through involvement with Dundee FC; and most have experienced failure as well as success in business.  Yet it all made interesting copy, so their milieu reached the wider world through the film Jute City, and Andrew Murray Scott’s novel Estuary Blue, which feature the thinly-disguised exploits of the city’s worthies in recent years.  In fact, property development has a long pedigree in the city. 

A previous generation of Dundee developers made themselves rich men in the 1960’s, ripping down the city which Joseph McKenzie captured in his famous “City in Transition” series of photos.  It was McKenzie, incidentally, rather than Oscar Marzaroli who most completely captured the squalid final years of the old Gorbals in Glasgow, complete with snottery urchins and the last of the city’s horse lorries.  McKenzie’s photos also show us the old Hawkhill in Dundee, before it was bought up by developers, sold in parcels for clearance, and the ‘dozers moved in.  The current generation of property developers started out in the same way as every other does: by owning a pub or nightclub, buying up an old jute mill, spotting unregarded worth in a street of tenements and factories.  Years ago, a Dundee developer – a quiet, unassuming man with none of the trappings traditionally associated with his ilk – told me that during the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, you couldn’t go wrong in buying commercial property in the city.  Values were as low as they would ever reach, and could only go up.  That proved to be true – and if you bought at the bottom of the market as he did, it worked in your favour.  Arguably, Duncarse bought their site right at the top. 

However, the point of this piece is not only to provide an insight into the forces which shape Dundee, but also to highlight the sancitmonious attitude which folk reserve for property developers.  The recent news that Mark Wilson has bought part of the former Seaview Primary School and plans to convert it into flats, provoked a piece in the Courier which revealed more than just facts.  Mixed through with a hint of schadenfreude at the developer’s downfall, is a righteous moralising at his rebirth.  Never blatant, it comes across instead as silent censure, as when the reporter writes about a developer who “could not be contacted at his home yesterday” despite the fact that “a Porsche four wheel drive was parked outside the property”.

You can infer a good deal from the article’s clichés.  The depositors “did not see a penny of their money back”. The scheme “folded … before one brick was laid”. All this meets public’s preconceptions about property development, but it offers a simplistic view of a complex set of issues.  The people who lost money may nurse a sense of betrayal, but how many of those who placed their deposits to secure flats “off plan”, hoped that their new properties would rise in value before they were complete – so they could be sold on for a profit without even occupying them?  It certainly happened in other schemes, such as City Quay three years ago, the conversion of Camperdown works in the late 1990’s, and the remaking of the Thomson Shepherd carpet factory a few years before that.

The Courier reporter is hung up on the figure of £6000, but the article doesn’t explain that a £6000 deposit is worth different amounts to different people.  After all, cash is swapped for equity when you buy property, and equity can be leveraged.  It’s worth far more than its face value to a development firm on the brink of insolvency, as it provides vital cashflow and may convince a fat banker in his pinstripes not to strangle your company.  The fat banker is, of course, another media bogeyman.  £6000 is also worth more than its face value to a carpetbagging flat speculator, since it is the necessary toehold which a mortgage enables you to leverage.  However, £6000 is worth less than £6000 once it’s been handed over – and just like Mark Wilson, the deposit-placers at Riverside Apartments were speculators, who also felt risk’s downside.  They have first hand experience of what economists call the marginal value of utility. 

I’ll explain by using a maxim from Richard Whatley, a 19th century economist, who said – “it is not that pearls fetch a high price because men dive for them; but on the contrary, men dive for them because they fetch a high price.”  In other words, the value of something depends on its utility, and that is reflected in the price.  The general theory of marginal utility is that price declines at the margins – so as extra supply appears, the price of goods or services will fall.  By contrast, a shortage of land in prime locations leads to spiralling cost inflation, and increased profit margins.  Scarcity is an integral part of the utility which pushes up value, so a unique piece of land on the riverfront is worth paying more for – hence the reported site value of £10m.  Yet when the economy crashes, the prime location loses its utility as an object to speculate upon.  But the Courier doesn’t look into this.

Neither does the journalist explore the forces which impelled folk to lay down money speculatively on “paper” architecture.  For example, he could have explained that the motors which propel Dundee’s economy today are the universities, the computer games industry, biotechnology, financials, and to a lesser extent, high-tech engineering.  Plus property, of course.  If you recall the canny developer who told me that he couldn’t lose when he bought property?  That’s no longer true, certainly not of residential schemes.  Prime site values in Dundee increased by a factor of three, and that increased development risk.  Values went up hand in hand with demand, and demand is driven by … folk placing deposits on flats before they’re complete.  You could argue that some of the wronged depositors were, in fact, agents of their own downfall.  However, that would be to allow the same moral relativism that the Courier applies.  Anyhow, the article implies that someone who took money and gave nothing in return, has no business coming back to look for more.

So we leave the airport terminal and cross the windswept apron.  The jet is waiting.  After it takes off, Courier-readers and non-deposit-placers alike look out through their oval windows.  The site on Riverside Drive is still graded hardcore, but that hardcore now belongs to H&H Properties – run by Hassan al Saffar, another of Dundee’s cadre of developers.  He hopes he can do what Mark Wilson couldn’t.

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With this article, I’ve chosen to return to Aberdeen which – although it lacks good contemporary architecture – does contain some notable post-war Modernist buildings.

Imagine a city where everything lies within walking distance of home: shops, parks, cinemas, school, a gym, football stadium, and a bus station that connects you to the rest of the city.  How can you fit everything in?  The answer is high-rise development.
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Towers came about in reaction to the land-hungry suburban ethos of the 1950’s.  Space on the ground was running out, so architects conceived a new kind of urban, high-rise living.  At the same time, many inner cities were riddled with slums sorely in need of regeneration.  Scotland was at the forefront of this movement – Dundee with the 26-storey Derby Street multi’s, and Glasgow with the 32-storey Red Road point blocks, which were the tallest steel-framed buildings in Europe when completed – but Aberdeen’s towers are very different to any others in Scotland.  Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow relied on “package deals”, where the building contractor took charge, delivering a system of concrete panels manufactured on a production line.   In Aberdeen, most of the multi-storeys were designed by the staff of the City Architect, George McKeith.  Now, whilst the further-flung towers, like Seaton and Tillydrone, look much the same as high-rise council blocks elsewhere in the country, those in the city centre, at Chapel Street, Gallowgate and Castlehill, are unique.

In April 1950, Baillie Frank Magee, the city’s Housing convenor, declared that there were still appalling slums in Aberdeen which must be wiped out.  “We are not going to build tenements, but something we will be proud of, and something I hope that may win another Saltire Prize”.  What he was alluding to was Rosemount Square, the modernist tenement which I wrote about elsewhere – in 1947 it was premiated by the Saltire Society, which present awards to Scottish housing projects of merit.  In January 1952, the Housing committee approved Aberdeen’s first multi – a nine storey block in Ashgrove Road – and even considered installing district heating within the block.  The first tower block proved to be good value, so the “multi” programme developed.  Another prime mover behind the post-war housing redevelopments in Aberdeen was Robert Lennox, the city treasurer. 
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The inner city blocks at Chapel Street, Gallowgate and Castlehill were built on the site of slum clearances, and transformed their neighbourhoods.  Although old granite buildings which were retained where possible, the towers dominate.  They have dramatic profiles, and were orientated to catch the sun for the benefit of their residents in the morning and early evening, but to minimise the effects of the shadows they cast during the rest of the day.  This means that several of them sit with their narrow edge on a north-south axis.  Aberdeen was slow to begin its programme of high rise construction – and it was the last city in Scotland to build a high-rise council block, in 1985.  None are true “skyscrapers” in the New York sense.  Yet in 1977 the city’s Director of Planning argued that tower blocks have a – “dramatic effect seen from many viewpoints outside and within the city, particularly when they catch and reflect brilliant sunshine, burn with the reds and purples of evening sunsets, or appear softly indistinct through the haze.”

The blocks on Gallowgate make dramatic use of the sloping land towards West North Street: Seamount Court and Porthill Court grow out of several tiers of concrete car park.  The towers behind the Salvation Army Citadel in the Castlegate – Virginia Court and Marischal Court – command Union Street and act as a vista stop when you stand at Holburn Junction and gaze northwards.  They were placed on the highest point of the city centre deliberately, and they look down upon the council offices at St Nicholas House.  That’s the way it should be: the people set above their politicians.  Further north, Hutcheon Court and Greig Court are less dominant, but loom over the giant roundabout of Mounthooly and its “Clockwork Orange” underpass.  Over the course of 40 years, the towers have become an inseparable part of the city’s silhouette, alongside the Town House and Marischal College.
tower
However remote it may seem, we have a tradition of building vertically in Scotland which stretches back to tower houses – castles comprising a vertical stack of accommodation.  They were sturdy masonry sentinels with a cluster of rude hovels around their feet – in the same way that the 1960’s concrete point blocks rose from a morass of festering slums.  Conceptually, the model for Aberdeen’s tower blocks were the “Unité d’Habitation” buildings in Berlin and Marseilles, designed a few years before by Swiss architect Le Corbusier.  His aim was to create self-contained villages, with generous apartments organised along streets in the sky, and facilities such as a laundry and creche integrated into the block.  So the multi storey blocks have a mixed pedigree: Scots tower house, and Continental communal living.  The tower stretched up to meet the lofty social ideals of post-war architects and town planners.

Playing Devil’s advocate for a moment, Aberdeen is a low-rise city.  With the signal exception of a handful of these Brutalist multi-storey towers, the city centre skyline sits four storeys above street level.  Anything which rises above the line is alien, particularly if it is a “statement” building.  For example, when you approach Aberdeen from the south, the Talisman Energy headquarters of 2001 is a landmark for the wrong reasons.  Often likened to an aircraft carrier ploughing through the city, it even has a “ski jump” at one end of the roof, as if to enable Harrier jump jets to take off.  The architects – Jenkins & Marr – may have made a simple association between oil companies, the North Sea and giant wave shapes, but the sheer-sided hull of silver-tinted glass forces its way through a tide of grey slate roofs on the medieval Hardgate, and its freeboard is visible from miles away.  Talisman House is “just” seven storeys high, but its context sits three storeys beneath it: the projecting part doesn’t glitter in the sunshine like dressed granite does, instead its mirrored glass blinds you with dazzle and iceblink. 
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The concrete towers take on a very different aspect, but had to combat a different danger.  Aberdeen’s multi-storeys are between 12 and 18 storey high slab blocks built mainly from in-situ reinforced concrete.  Public housing at Roehampton, and the Barbican Centre, (both in London) are other scarce examples of concrete towers, cast as beton brut, smooth or bush-hammered like elephant hide.  Today, concrete is used as a metaphor for everything that’s perceived to be wrong with 1960’s architecture: but the unique treatment of Aberdeen’s tower blocks avoids the problems that plain concrete suffers from.  Fresh bright concrete gradually weathers with age, often becoming streaked with run-off water and stained with dirt from the atmosphere.  Granite rubble was cast into the concrete, like raisins in a clootie dumpling, to give it a grain and texture which breaks up the streams of rain which would otherwise stain the panels.

Aberdeen is almost unique with its rubbly concrete towers: elsewhere in the world, multi-storeys are clad in a diaphanous veil of “curtain walling”.  The towers were made possible by the “Concrete Age” – which supplanted the city’s more famous Granite Age.  Where solid rock lay some distance under the surface, the towers needed piled foundations.  A column of soil was removed with a giant auger, then a cage with a man inside was dropped down inside the pile casing – shades of Dickensian times, given that the piles were very deep, and only four feet in diameter.  When he reached the bottom, he checked that the building would have something solid to bear onto: quite important, considering it would rise 150 feet above the street.  The concrete arrived thanks to recently-introduced truckmixers, or a batching plant on site, which prepared a soup of sand, water, gravel and Portland cement.  The liquid was poured into formwork, like plaster-of-Paris into a mould, and took on its final shape.  Once it is placed, concrete actually gives off heat as it cures.  The tower steams gently as it gains strength … and the heart of the concrete remains warm for months after the building is complete.
tower
For the past 30 years, tower blocks have been routinely derided as a brutally inhumane environment, a piece of 1960’s megalomaniacal city planning gone wrong, a bleak neo-Corbusian high-rise experiment…  they were discredited.  After all, we still retain the memory of some high-profile council tower-block disasters – especially the partial collapse of Ronan Point in East London in 1970.  Yet thanks to Robert Lennox, Aberdeen’s multi-storey blocks, with their large inherent investment in materials and labour, have been well looked after.  They’ve been carefully managed, which means that they suffer from few of the problems – graffiti, vandalism and anti-social tenants – which blight the stereotypical multi.  As a result, Aberdeen hasn’t demolished its multi’s with the relish which other Scots cities have.  Today, a generation has passed since the last of Britain's concrete council tower blocks was built.  Attitudes have changed.  In the property boom following 2000, they were a signal of successful economy, of high land values and property speculation.  New tower blocks were built in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds.  They aspired to the aura of apartment towers on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, or the Upper East Side in New York – but the difference is that they are expensive private flats, rather than council housing.    Not any more, of course …

So tower blocks have gone through a complete cycle, from heroic urban interventions, through vertical eyesores, back to being sought after again.  Of course, they are compromised – especially if you have small children who want to play outside, and whose buggies have to be man-handled in and out of the lifts.  Yet in Aberdeen there is none of the sense of menace you experience in the vicinity of the Red Road flats in Glasgow, or Leith Fort in Edinburgh.  Provided you can put up with their drawbacks, they are relatively cheap to live in, centrally located, and always provide an expansive view across the city.  In parts of continental Europe or the United States, these advantages would make the high flats unaffordable to all but the rich.  Aberdeen’s City Fathers should be applauded for having invested in affordable social housing which towers above other cities’ efforts.

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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.

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