Gallery: "memory palace"

I’ve written about architectural photography before - and unusually, a few folk made the effort to comment, although presumably many others went “meh”.  Having spoken about technique, this time I’d like to consider approach.  Specifically, how photography and architecture are moving in opposite directions.

Soon, there will be fewer folk training to become architects.  In other parts of Britain, the universities charge fees.  You have to work for at least two years after leaving university before you can sit your Part III exam, which means architecture is effectively an eight year course (3 + 1 + 2 + 2). 

There are many more people taking an interest in buildings; but fewer of them know about the buildings themselves.  Despite the rise of TV programmes along the lines of *Half the Dream Home for Double the Money*, the techniques we use to put buildings together are less and less accessible to the lay person.  Back in the day, anyone could have a go at knocking together timber kits, but no private individual could ever erect unitised curtain walling.

By contrast, back in the same day many had a point and click camera, some had a 35mm SLR, but only the serious-minded few had roll-film cameras capable of taking the quality of photo which is required for publication.  Fewer still would see their shots reproduced in the “mass media”.  The advent of the web changed that, irrevocably.

Today, everyone is a photographer.  The combination of camera phones with decent quality optics, such as the Iphone, and photo sharing websites such as Tumblr and Flickr, allows us all to propagate our work.  Photography is becoming easier, and exposure to photos is increasing; but architecture is becoming more exclusive, and understanding its technicalities more involved.

Now to earn my stripes as a contrarian.

Despite the democratisation of images, there is still a discernible gap between how the enthusiast and the professional work.  The previous print edition of Urban Realm features a set of photos I took in a deactivated power station.  They were shot using a digital back and processed using Capture One software.  This is a serious combination, which you’d only use if you needed to publish the results.

The next print edition of Urban Realm will features a set of photos I took somewhere derelict.  They, by contrast, were shot on transparency film.  I suppose processing transparency films was hard work, before machines did it for you: taking the shots is the creative part, and as such it’s enjoyable.  Processing hundreds of digital shots against a deadline is gruelling and unpleasant - taking them was neither of those things.

Partly as a result of that workflow, I still use film for my personal projects.   It’s entirely characteristic of the arse-for-elbow way things are, that I became interested again in film at the point when it began to disappear.  At some point along the road, maybe 2005, I decided it would be apt to make photos of derelict buildings using a technology which was similarly coming to the end of its life.

An architectural photographer once told me that smaller formats, like 120 or 35mm were useless for serious architectural photography, as they lacked sharpness.  Fine, I like a challenge, although when the lab scans 35mm film at 18MB (around 3000 pixels across) I can barely see grain on “pro” transparency film, and likewise with 120 film at 80MB (around 5000 pixels across). 

I’m well aware of the race for pixels amongst the readers of Amateur Photographer magazine and its ilk – but it’s never been an issue in anything I’ve shot for publication.  Likewise, I think the 35mm/ 120 comment stemmed from a certain froideur toward lesser photographers who didn’t use 5x4 technical cameras.  Go figure.

Comme d’habitude, I knew that things would become increasingly difficult as film stocks and processing labs reduce in number, so naturally I wanted to try it … and to master E6 film’s unforgiving latitude.  I started using Agfachrome RSX around 2005 … and Agfa stopped making it in December 2004. 

More recently, Kodak has stopped making acetate base, the stuff which “film” physically consists of, and onto which light-sensitive chemicals are coated.  Fuji is killing off its emulsions one by one – Velvia 50, Astia and Provia 400 were recently chopped. 

Nonetheless, if you look hard enough: after Agfa’s factory in Leverkeusen shut and was subsequently demolished, Fotoimpex in Berlin built a small film-coating plant using pieces of equipment from the former Agfa research dept.  Almost a pilot plant, it produced a fraction of what Efke did in Croatia, which in turn was a fraction of Agfa’s production…  SImilarly, some film is still manufactured at Mortsel in Belgium, and repackaged as Rollei. 

Film is undergoing a "craft" revival at the moment, aided by the Lomo movement.  However, it's never going to be mainstream again, and that's the problem; Agfa were geared up for the mass market, while smaller manufacturers like Efke or Rollei never expected to be more than niche players.  The archipelago of factories which Agfa relied on made economy difficult to achieve, so Agfachrome RSX in 50 and 100 ISO will never return.

However, it became a touchstone for me, because RSX renders colours in an authentic way.  Not overly vivid, nor warm or cool: the greys are neutral, because its sensitivity isn't biased in any direction - yet other colours have a richness.  The film is also lower in contrast than other makes, and its inherent crystallinity provides a nice balance between grain, acutance and fuzziness.

Agfa somehow has a more European aesthetic than other films: Kodak’s are warm and Disney-like, and the colours of Fuji’s are super-saturated, and high in contrast.  The result is that some shots I took with Agfachrome captured similar tones to Vermeer’s paintings, with rich shadows which still manage to reveal detail.  Perhaps Agfa shares Vermeer’s Low Countries sensibility?

In the same way that artists favour a particular palette, Ernst Haas favoured Agfachrome - he was one of the “Magnum” photographers who first mastered colour photography.  Robert Farber made some wonderful images using the grain of Agfachrome 1000 as an aesthetic tool.  Late in her career, Fay Godwin moved away from the monochromatic landscapes which made her name, and I believe she used Agfa RSX to portray nature morte arrangements of frozen and flooded foliage.

The choice of stock helps to define an atmosphere, although RAW converters like Capture can also do that.  However, more important than the particulars of any brand of film, is the fundamental difference between film and digital which few think about, an aesthetic sensibility which is lost with all the talk about digital sharpness, noise and resolution. 

Once you decide which chrome to use, you choose how to view the world.  It’s all down to taste in the end - transparency film, with its non-linear characteristics has different properties to digital, such as a gentler roll-off, meaning it blows out highlights in a less marked way.  Its narrow latitude means you have to nail the metering, there is no recovery if you over-expose.

However, film is not better than digital.  It's just different.

A story about photography, but with no images?  Are you mad?  If you want to see how Agfachrome RSXII-50 renders light and colour, take a look at my “Cement” post.

By • Galleries: memory palace

The giants of industry crank themselves into gear for the first time in five years.  Luffing jibs have appeared on Dundee’s skyline again, this time with brand new names on them.  The economic depression turned many titans into an after-dinner burp – but soon there will be new things to design, construct and experience.

In the pits of recession, we needed a little guidance to get us through.  So, here are some notes on the most important person you’ll come across in your career - whether in the latter years of architecture school, or early years of practice.  I’ll try to explain why the relationship some of us develop early in our career is formative.

A long time ago, I worked with someone who I count as a mentor.  He was in middle age then, between thirty and forty-five, a man while I was barely that.  His youthfulness had been stripped away to leave intensity, and at his core more determination than in anyone else I’ve met.  He was a progressive, a self-described lapsed communist, and he mistrusted academics who did not go out into the field, as he did.  He was a practitioner.

Here is my experience. 

It’s getting late in the evening.  We sat in on a Planning Committee meeting.  He wore a dark tartan shirt with a grey woollen tie; as he sat waiting, with his dark hair swept off his forehead, the heel of his hand lay against his cheek, a dog-end fumed between two splayed fingers. 

In the chamber, the talk was quiet and trivial, like the voices of sleeping birds.  He sat, absorbed, thinking.  Inside a timber-lined chamber with its dead green drapes and points of light overhead.  Application papers were spread in front of us, a notebook, diary, and ashtray.  In the centre of the table – a metal tray with paper lace napkins bearing a water decanter and glasses lined up around it, upturned on their rims.

The talk turned.  When the cue came to speak, he suddenly animated himself.  He stood tall, looked candidly at the elected members in turn, and spoke in terms that were thoughtful, quiet, detailed.  They knew he meant what he said - and there’s the lesson - and so I learned by example one way to deal with committees.  His phrases stuck, for their intonation as much as the intent of the words.

He seemed to be willing another kind of architecture into existence, something with timeless value, but most of all architecture as a “discipline”.  His dextrous fingers twitched with expression, as if reaching their tips towards a lead-holder. 

To a few who hit it off with him, his face opened with candour, and he shared his confidence in you.  It isn’t a systemic thing, it’s not something which can be taught, but can be taken in by osmosis and relies on a connection forming between humans, a meeting of minds.  A nurturing environment comes down to one thing: finding someone prepared to discuss ideas with you.  That’s all.  Somebody to contend with and force you to test what you say.

To others he seemed dry and remote, and his insistence on clear-eyed truth was irksome.  But I never saw that side of him.  Instead, I gradually discovered that we had things in common, the roots and background of our parents were similar, surprisingly so, and I guess that created a level of fellow-feeling.  From that grew trust and ultimately a loyalty that wasn't asked for or offered, but was there nonetheless, unspoken.

I owe him a great deal, but it’s an unacknowledged debt.  Most of the valuable stuff sank in sub-consciously.  Those were chunks of impenetrable rock and uncut diamond which would become character much later.  I was reminded of the steel founders William Cook, who made the torso nodes for Heathrow Airport Terminal 5’s roof.  Their guiding principles describe the same effort:

“Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

He demonstrated the role of a mentor - to show a glimpse of what might be possible.  In some ways he was the most stimulating of the people I’ve worked with, but of all those, I disagreed with him the most.  He might have had communitarian sympathies, but he was an individualist.  How's that for contradiction?  He took particular pleasure in playing Devil’s advocate with ideas, and was always on-the-one-handing/ on-the-other-handing.  Albeit he knew when to balance those views, and come down with a decision.

He was very certain that original thought always pay off, and is recognised.  None of what he produced was old, hack, or devoid of consideration.  It was all fully thought-out and justifiable.  That bore out his rigour, an obsession with integrity, and a bloody-mindedness about following things through.

Who knows which things I truly learned, and in what measure.  However, like everyone else’s experience of life, the people who I learned from have become part of me.  Those illuminations and examples were a life-saver on many a dark night – including when I found myself at a low-point a couple of years ago.  Late one evening, I found myself standing waiting in the winter darkness in a godforsaken part of the country, pursuing something I then realised that I did not believe in.  He gave me the mental strength to keep going until I found something more worthwhile.

I hope that if you’ve taken the time to read this, you’ve recognised something from your own life in it.  Thanks.

By • Galleries: memory palace

For several years, I contributed to The Lighthouse’s website, and those contributions began in 2006 with an article about Donald Trump’s plans for the Menie Estate. Given how much interest those plans attracted, The Lighthouse was keen for me to write more articles along those lines, and fewer about the obscure things I’m usually drawn to…

Pieces on Trump appear to fall into two camps: hatchet jobs by his opponents, or PR influenced by George Sorial, the Trump Organization’s spokesman. However, I believe it’s more productive to illustrate examples of good practice, than to pick off the things we don’t like. Keen students of human nature know that we’re more motivated to attack bad things than to support good ones, but while sneering may entertain you, over the years, skepticism becomes cynicism, and all is lost.

The ongoing melodrama at Menie, with the “Best Golf Course in the World” completed, but Trump’s hotel ambitions thwarted for now by an outbreak of wind turbines, masks the struggle to find an appropriate architecture for tourists visiting Scotland. Better to offer a well-designed Scottish coastal resort which Mr Trump could use as a model: yet once again the focus has turned to Trump himself, this time with the perceived bonus of Alec Salmond as an adversary.

Trump the man is easy to dismiss with glibness and ad hominems: Barack Obama called him a “carnival barker”. Discussion turns quickly to his appearance, his personal taste, his style of business, and his grand pronouncements. Decades of property development have made him thick-skinned, but like other self-made men, he probably feels he is misunderstood and puts that down in large part to the envy and jealousy of his detractors.

Journalists have been using a standard script over the past eight years, so we know exactly what newspaper copy will say: it’s been well rehearsed. A typical piece on Trump is unlikely to head off in an unexpected direction like, say, Eddie Mair’s softly-spoken interview which spelled death for Boris Johnson’s political ambitions. Mair had the benefit of an element of surprise, plus the combination of an acute, well-researched journalist, with an ill-prepared interviewee who likes to play the buffoon.

Trump is more media savvy. He is outspoken but eminently quotable. He takes up the cudgels on his own behalf. He turns the tables by publishing his own propaganda.

Witness his 1980’s book, “The Art of the Deal”. I picked up a copy in an Aberdeen charity shop, and it did exactly what it promised, by demonstrating how capitalism works. You may not make money if you buy his book, but Donald Trump will make money if you buy his book... unless of course you part with 99p to your local Oxfam. Having digested the book’s simple thesis, I realised that Acanthus Architects DF’s (Douglas Forrest’s) recent design for a golf hotel at Menie is the real matter at hand.

If you study the history of holiday resorts in the North East, you discover several notable failures. The outdoor lido at Tarlair lies derelict. The Carnoustie Golf Hotel has reportedly struggled to fill its rooms. Another ambitious developer tried and failed on the same stretch of coast as Menie, at Cruden Bay. The Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR)’s prospectus was even more ambitious than Donald Trump’s, because they hoped to create a tourism industry from a standing start.

In 1899, the coastal haar cleared to reveal a piece of High Victorian whimsy. The GNSR had created a five-storey high, 94 bedroom hotel in pink Peterhead granite. Crowsteps, pepperpots, Scots Baronial ... everything which the railway company imagined would attract visitors from South Britain to this northerly airt of North Britain. It was an over-scaled pile, an urban form transplanted to a rural location where its dominance made it seem like a town hall or bank head office stranded in a wilderness of dunes.

If you’re trying to find a prototype for Scottishness in architecture, I would argue that you can rule out golfing hotels, because they are inevitably bombastic. The others I’ve come across are overdone and over-large, too. It seems there is a strong preconception about what a golf resort should look like, and architects appear not to challenge their clients on that fundamental point.

Another American plutocrat, Herb Kohler, is redeveloping the Hamilton Halls overlooking the Old Course in St Andrews. It was the first hotel in Europe to have a lift, and the first to have indoor plumbing within the rooms … Now called the Hamilton Grand, Kohler bought the building after its previous owner tried and failed to turn it back into a hotel. Its key characteristic is scale: Thomas Hamilton built it immediately after his application for membership had been rejected by the R&A. It’s a monster in Locharbriggs stone, at least two storeys too high for its site, but achieving dominance was probably the idea.

Further inland in Perthshire, Gleneagles is a grim-looking railway hotel, and no amount of sparkling wristwatch concessions can make up for its lack of elegance as you approach. Its lumpen mass has been extended several times – and now it seems more like an airport Marriott, with endless corridors linking its spa, arcade, restaurants and ranks of bedrooms. Like Menie, and the Hamilton Grand, its selling point is overpowering size and its proximity to golf, rather than any inherent Scottishness in its architecture.

Modern architects have done no better: the Old Course Hotel is a piece of 1960’s Travelodge modernism which crouches on the edge of the fairway like a giant toad. Scotland is the “Home of Golf”, an epithet which the Royal & Ancient jealously protects and would dearly like to copyright: yet they have no influence over the buildings which surround their skiting grounds. Like the Melville Grand, the Old Course Hotel is owned by Herb Kohler: Trump’s peer, his golf resort-building rival, and according to Forbes Magazine, a man with exactly the same amount of cash in the bank.

Yet money is no help, as there are seemingly no good demonstrations of an appropriate style – or better still, a pertinent approach – for Menie. The extent of Donald J. Trump’s ambitions for the estate became clear in 2010 when he renamed Menie Dunes as “The Great Dunes of Scotland”. This proved to be a publicity stunt, to keep interest going while plans were drawn up for a hotel on the coast at Balmedie. It would surely be grand in a superlative manner, but would it be fitting?

In terms of topography, Lawrence Halprin’s Sea Ranch springs to mind as a building responsive to its site: it lies on the foggy western seaboard of the US overlooking the ocean, and its organic plan fits into the contours of the site. The grassland sloping down the Pacific isn’t dissimilar to the Aberdeenshire coast. The dunes at Menie would be well suited to low-lying, enwrapping courtyards, shelter belts of pine trees, clusters of buildings. Perhaps better suited than the bluff six-storey front of Trump’s original Disney-style proposal, or Douglas Forrest’s current three storey scheme, of which a couple of images have been released.

They reveal a very long, rather flat facade in grey granite (or perhaps Fyfestone), with little modelling, and nothing to deflect the North Sea storms. Based on the CGI impressions, there is an Aberdeenshire motif in the detailing of the cross-gable roofs, which reflects the nearby Menie House. However, there’s no sense of the hierarchy needed to handle a facade of this scale, nor to relieve its overwhelming flatness. Maybe a fake castle would be better?

Perhaps not. In the wake of the Scandic Crown Hotel in Edinburgh, expectations are low. Each successive revival of the Baronial Revival proves to be tacky and superficial. Its motifs - tartan carpeting, fielded timber panels, more bloody corbels and crowsteps - are expected to evoke Brigadoon. They copy details from ancient buildings, but never evoke the grandeur which lies in the mind of a stranger to Scotland who has formed an image of the country based on the romance of its history and the atmosphere of its ancient places.

The Romantic image of Scotland is well known but poorly understood: the scholar-architects who restored the Old Town have long since passed away, Walter Scott’s novels are deeply unfashionable (still), James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle is sneered at, and Hamish McCunn, who wrote “Land of the Mountain and the Flood”, is long forgotten.

McCunn’s deeply romantic view of Scotland, moving and symphonic, is a natural extension of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture”, but was last heard before I was born, as theme to a similarly long-forgotten television programme called “Sutherland’s Law”. Mike Scott tried to recapture that spirit in the 1980’s when he created the “Big Music”, although much of it is Celtic-Irish rather than uniquely Scottish. Some songs make the birse on the back of your neck stand up, though, and like McCunn he creates atmosphere rather than just applying motifs.

Arguably, we need to re-evaluate the Romantic tradition in Scotland before we attempt yet another Scots Baronial revival building. Done properly, it could celebrate a side of our culture which has been given up to sentimentalists and postcard publishers. Perhaps it even has the power to redeem golf. Done badly, it will be another self-parody to join the rank of kitsch spanning from Harry Lauder through Russ Abbott to “Brave”.

I’ll return to this subject again in future, but meantime if you’re interested in the troubled history of Scottishness, try to get hold of a copy of Murray & Barbara Grigor’s “Scotch Myths”, which is the best source for where all this stuff originates. Or perhaps if you’re planning a golf hotel, it’s time to consult another book, “Powerhouse Principles”, sub-titled “The Ultimate Blueprint for Real Estate Success in an Ever-Changing Market”, written by Donald J. Trump…

By • Galleries: memory palace

History doesn’t repeat itself, said Mark Twain, but it does rhyme.  Even to the extent that I’ve used that quote at least once before... and spoken about Donald Trump’s plans for Balmedie, too.  As an introduction to the Menie Links, I thought it would be worth re-posting this article which was originally published on in 2006.

So Donald Trump hopes to build a golf course on the Menie estate at Balmedie, just north of Aberdeen.  The boy from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn will face obstacles… and perhaps some will prove to be intractable.  After all, the scheme has already stalled once.

Part of the area is a nature reserve: Balmedie is close to the Ythan estuary, which is of world importance for migratory birds.  The area also gets a world record amount of haar.  It's on the wrong (north) side of Aberdeen - have you ever tried to get from the city centre, through the Brig o’ Don then up past Blackdog, during the rush hour?  Trump’s director of golf, Ashley Cooper, calls Balmedie a “beachhead” in Europe.  That’s a poorly-chosen metaphor, since many ships have foundered along this stretch of coast.

"The £300 million project - his first golfing venture in a cool climate - will feature a five-star Victorian-style hotel," said an early press release.  You can imagine that a mock baronial clubhouse will take shape on the windswept coast, with its dreich grey granite houses and wind-blasted trees, although Mr Trump’s aspirations may stretch to something grander.  He already has a string of holding companies which own casinos, restaurants, a university, and of course other golf clubs.  The Trump website boasts of Los Angeles, Bedminster, Westchester, West Palm Beach and Canouan Island–  but Trump International Golf Links will be his first course outside continental America. 

By November 2006, the Menie scheme’s value had increased to £1 billion, and it was being touted as a saviour for this dead quarter of Aberdeenshire, which the Oil Rush had passed by.  However, recent arguments about the effectiveness of Scottish Enterprise's policy of "inward investment" raise doubts about Trump’s claims, and there is also the spectre of the political clout of inward investment will might Planning permissions to be bought, in the interests of injecting cash into the local economy. So much for democracy, and due process.

Although Trump’s supporters may compare the two figures, Trump isn't a latter day Andrew Carnegie, so may not be welcomed like Carnegie was at Skibo. Despite his claims to Scots blood on his mother’s side, he isn’t a native like Carnegie was.  He may have money, but he’s far far short of being the richest man in the world.  It’s more likely that Trump will be regarded like the Texas oilmen were in Bill Forsyth’s film, “Local Hero”, of which film-maker Bill Forsyth said–
“I saw it along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies–  what would happen to a small community when it suddenly becomes very rich - that was the germ of the idea, and the story built itself from there.   It seemed to contain a similar theme to Brigadoon, which also involved some Americans coming to Scotland, becoming part of a small community, being changed by the experience and affecting the place in their own way.”

Architecturally, the images released so far depict a 450-bedroom hotel and palatial golf clubhouse which are rather like a diluted Disneyfied version of Cape Cod, with timber verandahs, shingled towers and festive bunting.  Trump’s architects haven’t taken the obvious source - Scots Baronial - and built a rugged castle from granite and slate.  After all, Slains Castle is nearby, but perhaps Trump’s American architects haven’t yet been affected by the place yet: maybe it will grow on them, as Ferness did in Local Hero.

A more serious question is whether we need yet another golf course?  Didn't the National Golf Centre at Drumoig (outside St Andrews) go bust just a couple of years ago?  Isn’t the future of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel - brainchild of developer Michael Johnston - currently in jeopardy?  Mr Trump should also remember that just up the coast from Balmedie there was a Victorian golf resort at Cruden Bay, built by the GNSR railway company as a resort: but it disappeared, hotel gone, tramway taken up.  As the Trump website says, “Up to the Second World War, Cruden Bay was a favoured holiday destination of the wealthy from the south, journeying up by train to a luxury hotel near the course which has since been demolished.”

Looking through the archives, the same claims made by Cruden Bay’s backers are being repeated by the Trump Organisation.  Investment, jobs, a catalyst for development, improving the area’s profile, better transport links et cetera… in the end, it was a case of Boosterism.  The hotel lost enormous amounts of money during the Great Depression, and it was forced to close in 1932.  During WW2 it was used by the Army to billet soldiers in, and by the end of the 1940’s it lay in disrepair, and was later sold for demolition.  The golf course remains and today the Cruden Bay Golf Club’s website boasts it is the “61st BEST COURSE IN THE WORLD”.  Only sixty places behind Menie Links, in fact.

Beyond that, there is concern about Scotland’s coastline becoming a monoculture.  Golf, even links golf courses, are an un-natural land use.  They are man-made.  The ecology of sand dunes is a shifting one, and dunes wander inland, choking grass and killing it.  That won’t be popular with the green-keepers.  Just like industrial farming, golf curtails diversity by controlling which species are allowed to grow, and controlling access to the land itself.  While bents and fescues may continue to grow in the rough, the varieties of grass on the fairways of golf links tend not to be native to the area.

At the moment, Trump’s plans are in for planning permission, and everything seems to be going fine: yet the protagonists of Local Hero discovered that the rights to the beach belong to an old beachcomber (played by Fulton Mackay, the prisoner governor in “Porridge”), who is determined not to sell them.  His tumbledown beach hut became the stumbling block which forced the American investors to think again.

By • Galleries: memory palace

Saturday evening’s lecture by David Mach was life-affirming.  It was an insight into Mach’s process of making art and the drivers of his personality, and emphasised how creativity can be put to work.  Forcefully.

For some reason, the University of Dundee runs these lectures in the Dalhousie Building – contemporary, with rather spartan interiors – whereas a parallel series of British Association lectures are held in the Tower Building – Modernist, with rich timber and carpeting.  No matter.  Neither venue would have been large enough for the crowd which turned up to see Mach.  His appearance attracted many hundreds of people who were rewarded with an evocation of the artist’s pure joy at waking up in the morning then racing to the studio to start work on the ideas fermenting in his head.

Tower of Babel

Mach was brought up in Methil and studied in Dundee: the attitude he found in the city has never left him.  He described how he was shy and unforthcoming when he arrived in the city but over time he found self-confidence.  His first public artwork, a net of leaves suspended from the trees in Camperdown Park, encouraged him to interact with the public.  After looking on intently for a few minutes at the artist at work, an auld boy came up to him – “What’s that you’re doin there, son?  Is that a bridge for the squirrels?” 

As a result of this early experience, Mach explained that he is more interested in engaging the art-hater - there’s something to work with there - than the uncritical art fan who loves everything the artist presents to them.  When he came to Duncan of Jordanstone to study in the mid 1970’s, Mach discovered that the Dundonians were the most bolshie people he’d come across, and perhaps that has grounded him.  He described art world players in New York who sidle up to him and explain how rebellious they are: Mach smiles because he knows the Dundonians would size them up shrewdly, see through their pretension and bullshit, then eat them for breakfast.

Temple at Tyre

I recall Mach’s first works in Dundee - from the “King is Dead”, a fibreglass gargoyle perched on the hammerbeams of the McManus Gallery roof, poised to throw a chimney pot down onto the art lovers – to the magazine stacks in the Central Library, enveloping concrete columns with tidal waves of old magazines.  He went on to build several magazine installations, each bigger than the last, culminating in giant Corinthian columns at the Tramway in Glasgow – a colossal undertaking which took months of planning and a considerable amount of cash.  Early in his career, he built the “Temple at Tyre” in Edinburgh - a Parthenon built of worn truck tyres - two enormous Sumo Wrestlers, and the Big Heids on the M8 motorway, which are seen by thousands of motorists every day. 

Mach describes himself as a materials junkie: this is where the lecture became particularly interesting, because iterative pieces made with many thousands or even millions of repetitive components – magazines, bricks, matchsticks, pins, coathangers – have become a theme in his work.  For example, we discovered the roots of his famous brick locomotive in Darlington.  He began with a steam train made from stacks of magazines, but harboured a dream to build it full size, an express steam locomotive in brick, its clouds of smoke and exhaust thrown backwards and merging with a terrace of brick houses.

Brick Locomotive, Darlington

The brick locomotive was one of the first National Lottery-funded artworks, and it was fascinating to hear about the years of battling with committees, dozens of maquettes and collages which it took to realise it.  Once on site, he laid about half a dozen bricks, then the brickies chased him away!  But he learned about the limitations of brickwork, and developed an understanding of how to communicate what he wanted to achieve to the folk who could realise it.  The simple lesson was how to make progress with committees – the attrition of coming back at them again after they try to knock your ideas down.  During the evolution of the Darlington brick locomotive, a series of collages emerged with brick trains glowered at by a Politburo of committee men in grey suits, and when someone suggested the voids inside the brick structure could house bat boxes, an opponent seized on this, so Mach made a collage with vampire bats to present at the next meeting....

Mach's work ranges from small scale sculpture – the painstaking craft of the “Matchheads”, to large scale public art – the brick locomotive in Darlington, and a Polaris submarine made of tyres outside the Hayward Gallery in London – and visually rich collages … which evolved from a studio perhaps unsurprisingly piled high with magazines.  Much of it plays with notions of the monumental: the Temple at Tyre, his magazine columns in the Tramway, and the recent “Golgotha”, reach huge scale, yet they are temporary installations made from expedient materials. 


Similarly, Mach enjoys challenging peoples’ assumptions about what is possible - he admitted several times that the more folk say “There’s no way that’s going to happen”, the more he grits his teeth and says, “Yes it fucking it is!”  Within that expression of Scots thrawn-ness lies the root of the works which have made his reputation.  Some take years of planning, having begun gestating early in his career.  Recently Mach became well known for the coathanger Christs at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh: but like the brick locomotive, it’s a concept which he had been carrying around in his head for more than a decade.

At the opening night of the 2011 Festival Fringe, he placed a bust of the Devil, made out of thousands of brightly coloured matches in a courtyard at the College of Art then lit it with a dowp.  It burst into flames, which Mach artfully extinguished so that it could take its place alongside “Golgotha”: three huge figures of threaded coat hangers impaled on metallic crosses constructed in the City Art Centre, as part of Precious Light, a modern interpretation of the King James Bible.  I recall pressing my nose against the glass one cold day while the exhibition was being installed, and gaining a glimpse of the ferment of activity inside.  The result was a moving and unusual tableau of religious art, long viewed as unfashionable.

Don’t give a Fuck bear

I’ve often thought during lectures that I would rather fight a bear than be here doing this – but David Mach turned that notion on its head by presenting his “Don’t give a Fuck” bears, the mean cousins of the Care Bears.  In a similar vein is a timber staircase carried by armies of Barbie dolls and other emblems of popular culture he has co-opted such as Neil Armstrong, King Kong and the 101 Dalmatians.  As with Jeff Koons’ art, all these say something about celebrity, but set in mach's case against a background of waste, the post-consumer shite which piles up all around us.  The magazines, tyres and matches make a point which Mach summed up his art's "criticism of materialistic attitudes, which I hope points right back into the art world, where there is as much of a commodity market as anywhere else."

This is the best lecture I’ve attended in years, and the rest of the audience thought so, too.  Mach’s dry wit and plain speaking compliments a gift for communicating ideas.  If you get a chance to see him, take it, for there is no post-modern irony or cool distance in David Mach’s delivery.  Underneath the humour and pop culture references, there is a serious message being hammered home about unwrapping your creativity and seizing every chance you get in life.

Hell Bent

Images from, all copyright the artist

By • Galleries: memory palace

It’s a truism that the great ones die too young: the talented, inspirational, and insightful often live shorter lives than average, perhaps because they pack more into their time, and give more of themselves to the world.  (Picasso, as with everything else, is the exception.)  While I was away travelling in Europe, Lebbeus Woods passed away: I learnt of his death when I returned, after a friend emailed with the sad news.

We were both hugely taken with Lebbeus Woods’ work while we were at Duncan of Jordanstone, and the copy of his book “Terra Nova” in the college library was probably the most dog-eared volume on the shelves.  I later bought my own copy direct from the publishers in Japan: now it’s out of print, and copies fetch prices way above what they should.  Terra Nova has become a collector’s item, when paradoxically it should have been reprinted in the thousands and become widely known amongst the general public.  Woods’ real currency was that of ideas.

I think the first drawing of his I can recall seeing was a colour pencil illustration for a competition to build a new aquarium in San Diego, closely followed by his striking black and white sketches for an Einstein Tomb.  The drawings were so thoroughly realised that you knew there was a sketchbook full of working out and development, to make this impression buildable, but which you’d probably never get to see.

Years later, I almost met Lebbeus Woods in person, when I applied to attend a summer school in Turin in 2005.  I say “almost”, because sadly the event was cancelled before it went ahead, but I had been accepted, and was on the brink of booking flights to Caselle airport.  Of course I was interested in the projects which the summer school would concentrate on – but it would also have been a precious opportunity to meet, and perhaps discuss ideas, with him.  That was seven years ago, but I still regret the opportunity passing me by.

I don’t feel the same regret about any other architect – the so-called architectural “stars” with their cults of personality have gained little traction – but Woods was different.  It’s interesting that he rarely appeared in the journals, on either side of the Atlantic, and that tells us something important about the dead hand of journalism, and how “the debate” often centres on rehashed rhetoric. 

Lebbeus Woods differed firstly through his virtuouso drawing technique – as simple as a coloured chalk ground on paper, overlain by fine coloured pencil work, but with startling depth and detail – and secondly through his powerful essays.  Each set of drawings was accompanied by a long-form discursive essay, which often tackled metaphysical questions.  If the concepts were challenging, then that was surely the point.  His books were books of ideas, providing a superficial kind of inspiration through his wonderful drawings, which eventually pulled you into the deeper inspiration of engagement with the world’s problems.

Woods was born in 1940, in Michigan: he studied engineering as an undergraduate, then took a master’s degree in architecture, after which he joined Roche & Dinkeloo.  After being job architect for the Ford Foundation – a notable 1960’s building in New York, one of the first to have a huge plant-filled atrium, and a pioneering use of structural Cor-Ten steel – Woods chose to eschew practice in favour of research and teaching.  He helped to fund his research by working as a perspectivist for the top New York practices.  The answer to the question, “If architecture is a practice, then what use is the paper architecture which comes out of architectural theory?” was neatly dealt with in his series of studies on War and Architecture.  As Woods wrote, “The arts have not been merely ornamental, but central to people’s struggle to ‘find themselves’ in a world without clarity, or certainty, or meaning.”

The destruction in the former Yugoslavia was one starting point, and the chaos brought about by natural disasters: his Zagreb Free Zone drawings proposed a city where destruction and reconstruction could co-exist.  "Architecture should be judged not only by the problems it solves," said Woods, "but by the problems it creates."  He perhaps belonged to the same philosophical strand as Paul Virilio – particularly the latter’s book “Unknown Quantity” – but he had the benefit of synthesising the products of his imagination visually, too.  Virilio had to use a collage of photos instead.

I struggle to think of anyone comparable to Lebbeus Woods.  Historically perhaps there was Joseph Gandy, and “Mad” John Martin, who had a similar combination of virtuouso technique and visionary imagination, enabling them to create entire architectural worlds which had their own internal logic.  There’s something of the same spirit in Woods’ post-apocalyptic, post-flood, almost post-human cities: a scenographic landscape with steel tendons shooting into the sky, defying gravity.  Similarly, other drawings of war-torn interiors capture the half-light which Piranesi found in the ruins of Rome.  Yet Lebbeus Woods’ drawings are distinctive, recognisably Lebbeus Woods but never “in the style of”, as his draughtsmanship evolved and his compass grew ever broader.

It’s also a truism that Lebbeus Woods was an under-appreciated prophet: his influence spread widely, although he didn’t necessarily get his dues.  For example, he should get the credit for inspiring Terry Gilliam’s film “Twelve Monkeys”, (in fact, he reportedly sued the film’s producers and won damages for plagiarism) and he also worked briefly as conceptual architect for Vincent Ward's ill-fated film “Alien III”, although his schemes were abandoned in favour of a set designer’s stock version of dystopia.  A lost opportunity.

Lebbeus Woods took on a huge remit, searching for those architecturally-created problems across the world: from flooding on the Hudson River, to Sarajevo’s shell-scarred tower blocks, to El Malecón, the sweeping waterfront boulevard in Havana.  As well as the summer schools, he was a professor at Cooper Union school of architecture in New York.  As well as books of his own ideas, he also illustrated science fiction authors’ work, including that of Arthur C. Clark. 

If someone organises an exhibition of his work, visit it: or if you get the chance to buy one his books, then seize it, because Lebbeus Woods was a full-blown visionary in an age when visionaries are so rare, that we barely recognise them.  R.I.P., Lebbeus Woods.

By • Galleries: memory palace

I last visited the Botanic Gardens station four years ago, in the winter of 2008 … but recently had another chance to see a fascinating place which lies deep in the city’s affections. I can recall regular “Is the Botanics accessible?” threads on the Hidden Glasgow forum in the early years of the millennium, but by then it was already rooted in folklore. A background to the station’s early life is gleaned from Frank Worsdall’s book, “The City that Disappeared”: the Botanic Gardens railway station is part of a long-closed line which runs underneath the west end of Glasgow: it was last used in its original capacity in 1939, after which the surface buildings became a nightclub, and the tunnels were used by goods trains until 1964, after which the Glasgow Central Railway’s tracks were lifted.

The eastern lightwell from ground level

Kirklee tunnel portal

The Glasgow Central Low-Level route was mainly built using the 'cut-and-cover' method, so the line runs in a shallow tunnel for three quarters of a kilometre directly under Great Western Road. The track is exposed at the station, creating a couple of ventilation shafts which are also giant lightwells. The Botanic Gardens station was designed by James Miller, a Perthshire architect who trained with Andrew Heiton before he joined the Caledonian Railway Co. The surface building at the Botanics was a strange affair, a rustic cottage with two minarets – quite a contrast to his later St Enoch Square Underground Station – but it burned down in 1970. Everything below ground remains, from the surprisingly intact concrete platforms, to the vaults spanning between the cross beams, faced in white glazed bricks.

The midwinter sun casts a ray deep into the tunnel

Fading embers of the midwinter sun

After closure, the station became disused, but never truly abandoned. The tunnels were regularly used by ravers during the 1990’s, and in 2001 the station became the centrepiece of Hamish McDonald’s novel, “The Gravy Star”, about a modern-day recluse who takes refuge here from modern society. Farchar MacNab retreats to "a black airless hole with pigeons for neighbours and a park full of beauty on the roof of his world". Scared of the light, he leaves his tunnel only at night for the safety of The Coffin - Glasgow's first death-themed pub - and The Gravy Star, a cafe where people don't stare at him. When his epiphany comes, he leaves the darkness of the tunnels and takes a journey across Europe, which also illuminates the terrible damage done to Glasgow by Thatcher’s government.

The station platform in 2012

The station platform in 2008

Although Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark” is still the best novel of and about Glasgow, “The Gravy Star” joins Jeff Torrington’s “Swing Hammer Swing” and Archie Hind’s “Dear Green Place” to show it sloughing off its industrial clothes as it became a different kind of city. Just how different was illustrated when we surfaced, like Farch, from the underground, and headed across the gardens towards the Kibble Palace. The first figures we saw were a hipster in a homburg hat and winklepicker shoes, with his girlfriend in tow leading a French Bulldog. It is hard to imagine a less Glaswegian breed of dog..

A colourful “piece” from 2008

Tagging on the skew arch brickwork at the Kelvinbridge station portal

I worried that the huge fabricated steel knuckle braces which were installed a year after my last visit would ruin the atmosphere of the station, but I admit that they add another layer to the composition, especially now they’ve been integrated by decorating them with a coat of graffiti. Perhaps the most striking parallel is with New York: just as the City Union Line is Glasgow’s “High Line”, the Botanic Gardens station represents this city’s “Freedom Tunnels” complete with screeds of graffiti and shafts of sunlight penetrating down from the public park above. The High Line in Manhattan is a celebrated example of old railway infrastructure – simultaneously very visible, yet difficult to reach – made accessible and brought into the public realm. Nevertheless it loses something in the transition, as you will see when you compare images churned out by the publicity machine of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with the melancholy photos which Joel Sternfeld took years before the work took place, when the overgrown trackbed wound through the West Side at second floor level as a linear wilderness.

The old Kelvinbridge station platform

Kelvinbridge tunnel, around 700 metres long

The Botanics is perhaps the perfect example of a ghost station, made all the more enigmatic since you can gain glimpses of it through the ventilation shafts in the gardens, and through the railings of the tunnel portal. From previous years, I recall a couple of thesis projects by students at the Mac, one to revive the Botanic Gardens station as part of a railway system, and another for an entertainment venue, probably on the back of Stefan King’s thwarted scheme of 2007 to convert the station platforms into a nightclub. Before that, Strathclyde Passenger Transport laid plans to re-open the station and tunnels as part of their "Strathclyde Tram" scheme in the mid 1990s: that similarly came to nothing. Perhaps the station should be maintained as it is now, a walk through the darkness towards those giant lightwells and a trackbed overgrown with etiolated shrubs.

The knuckle braces, supporting the edge of Great Western Road

A final glimpse along the platforms…

Eventually, all traces of Botanics will disappear: if the tunnels aren’t brought back into use, they may be backfilled to prevent ongoing maintenance costs. So far, the giant steel knuckles are the only evidence of structural problems, but the trackbed to the north-west of Kirklee tunnel has already been built on, part of the endless demand for flats in the West End. Yet the wildcard which has preserved the station and platforms for over 70 years is the speculation of transport planners and council chiefs – proponents of reopening old rail lines, building tram networks, Glasgow’s Crossrail – schemes which may never happen, but can never be completely discounted. Unlike a previous Lord Provost’s madcap plan to build a cable car system from George Square to Port Dundas...

All photographs are copyright Mark Chalmers - none are in the public domain

By • Galleries: memory palace

I had planned to write about the Terris Novalis sculpture as my next feature for the website … but my recent visit to County Durham coincided exactly with Biblical flooding, so I don’t have any photos of that wonderful, strange pair of multi-legged instruments which appear to wander over the former site of a huge steelworks, like creatures from a medieval bestiary.  Maybe next time.

Instead, I crossed the Pennines on the A66, stopping briefly at a glum and windswept service station, then stopping again to mourn the ruins of Scotland’s brick industry, before reaching home.  Back to work: last week, while I was developing a concept for a site on the west coast which needs to sit happily in a mature landscape, I was reminded about the work of Aldington, Craig & Collinge.  I thought it would be worth unearthing some photos of one of their more recent buildings, as their architecture is a model of how to approach such things.

Aldington, Craig & Collinge are best known to the generation of architects who came before me, the men and women who taught my peers at architecture school.  Peter Aldington’s house received huge publicity in the 1960’s, thanks to its close integration of people, building, and landscape: Richard Einzig’s crisp photos captured its buttery-coloured timberwork and firmly lodged in architects’ minds.  However, by the 1990’s, the practice had fallen from view, until they received the commission for a new library and archive in Ludlow, a market town in the Marches close to the English-Welsh border.

Dubbed “Romantic Pragmatism” by the Architectural Review, AC&C’s approach uses traditional materials to connect buildings to their local context, but with complex programmes allied to a sophisticated sense of composition, these buildings are also inherently part of the late 20th century.  Since the practice, now led by Collinge alone, was amongst the most sensitive of the late Modern era, comparable to Cullinan or MacCormac, it seems Ludlow commissioned the right kind of practice to create a carefully-considered building.

The library sits on an elevated site overlooking the town, and Collinge’s treatment of the roofscape responds subtly, perhaps, to the outline of Ludlow Castle.  You could see the profile of the stepped roofs as a response to the broken-down curtain wall of the castle, as well as a device to pull light into the depth of the library’s plan; the stair towers of the resource centre serve to signal the entrance of the building, whilst echoing the turrets of the castle.

If this is contextualism, it’s more sophisticated than the mock-Tudor timber and brickwork which laypeople are familiar with.  In fact, from some angles the library achieves a faceted geometry similar to Stirling & Gowan’s “Red” period.  However, the tones of the brickwork betrays the practice’s continuing interest in texture and richness, rather than Stirling’s smooth surfaces: Aldington’s own house, “Turn End”, used overburnt bricks for their colourful variations and warped shapes.

In terms of architectural context, it’s interesting to see that Ludlow has one of the highest (architectural) quality supermarkets in Britain – the flowing curved roofs of the Tesco just down the hill from the library, designed by one of Aldington’s contemporaries, Richard MacCormac’s practice.  It shares the red brick walls, asymmetry, and well-modulated glazing of the library, along with a strong roof form.  These characteristics, perhaps, are key to understanding the notion of context in Ludlow, rather than trying to shoehorn a 21st Century programme behind a grim photocopy of an 18th Century facade, which is what some people intend when they think of historical context.

The new building was completed in 2003 and received good reviews in the architectural press: once a few nits had been picked about the over-articulation of columns, it was acknowledged that Ludlow could propel AC&C back into our collective consciousness.  Although I haven’t seen reviews of any of their buildings since then, Alan Powers wrote a book about the practice three years ago which praised their well resolved, site specific and overwhelmingly human-centred work.

Happily, the library is a success as a piece of townscape and as a piece of humanist architecture: naturally lit, with internal spaces on a human scale, and with a socially cohesive purpose.  However, the one difficulty in Ludlow is that its social context includes gift shops, tea rooms and antique dealers: rural Shropshire is the natural home of the Barbour and Labrador Set.  Indeed, Jonathan Glancey noted that Ludlow is “a difficult town in which to build anything new without falling foul of pretty much everyone who lives there”. 

Bearing that in mind, the Ludlow Civic Society reckoned that - “visitors should once again avoid lingering over the prospect of Ludlow’s ill-conceived library, designed by modernist architects, Aldington Craig and Collinge and completed in 2003, despite the vigorous objections of the majority of the inhabitants of the town, including the Ludlow Civic Society, on grounds of both inappropriate style and sheer scale within the context of the town.  As so often happens when money is to be made, the aesthetic views and preferences of the people were overruled.”

Modernist, in their cultural context, is a filthy imprecation.  However, the final sentence raises an interesting issue, which Peter Aldington himself grappled with during his time in practice.  Are the Planners there to apply a rationale to the way towns are zoned, and to protect historic buildings … or should they wield a pen and design the building for you?  Similarly, should pressure groups and vested interests dictate how a building is massed up, what it’s made of, indeed what it looks like, or even whether it’s built at all?

Architects, after all, study for seven years and work for many more to gain experience  before they’re let loose to design a building on their own.  I imagine that the complexity of the briefing process for a building like the Ludlow Library would be a revelation to the Ludlow Civic Society, and similarly I wonder how much they understand about the front-loading of an architect’s work on a civic scheme like this.  In order to get it to the point where there is a proposal to discuss, the architects will have undertaken weeks of research on the building’s functions and how they inter-relate, will have interviewed various client representatives, drawn up functional diagrams and probably activity data sheets, too.

All of that work is hidden to laypeople, although Alan Powers’ book makes it clear how thorough the practice’s briefing method is: but the care with which the outer expression of the building was conceived is apparent.  That makes it all the more surprising that there is virtually nothing on the internet about this building … or perhaps not so surprising, when you consider that the big-name design websites ignore the subtle and nuanced work of practices like Collinge’s to the same extent as small town civic societies misunderstand what the term “context” actually means.

By • Galleries: memory palace

Preface: I wrote this piece in November 2011, when the winning proposal was revealed after the conclusion of a design competition.  As it explains the back story behind the Gardens fiasco in my previous piece, I thought it worth uploading here.

The current proposals for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen are a perfect demonstration of Mark Twain’s belief that, “History doesn't repeat itself - at best it sometimes rhymes.”  They are the latest in a long line of unbuilt, and unbuildable, schemes which chime down the decades.

Lying to the north side of Union Bridge, there have been many proposals to gentrify Denburn Park and the Gardens.   At the moment, they look similar to Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh: a linear park with mature trees, grass and flower beds, part of which is shaped like an amphitheatre.  In both cases the gardens lie in the city centre where the higher edge is a busy city street, and the lower edge a railway line.  The grassy slopes are well used on sunny summer afternoons, although at night they tend to be deserted other than by a few dossers and drinkers.

Most previous schemes relied on roofing over the Aberdeen-Inverness railway line and Denburn by-pass: the top level becomes a park raised up to the same level as Union Terrace to make access easier; part of the gardens remained sunken, with the railway running under that; and finally the suppressed Denburn flowing in a culvert beneath it all.  As it happens, these proposals have been rejected several times, just like the original idea by Tom Scott Sutherland was before the war.

The first modern-era scheme came from Gordon Cullen, the well-known urban designer who came to Aberdeen in 1985 when the Scottish Development Agency invited his consultancy, Price & Cullen, to undertake a study of the city centre.  The brief was to examine Union Terrace Gardens, with a view to roofing over the railway line and the Denburn Link road, as well as increasing the size of the city’s “green lung”, and remaking connections across the valley of the Denburn.  Cullen’s recommendations were rejected, but his ideas were seized upon by Ian Wood.

In fact, re-shaping this area has become something of an idée fixee for Ian Wood, a local businessman.  His first attempt to transform the Gardens came in 1987 under the guise of the Aberdeen Beyond 2000 campaign, where a committee of local business and civic interests attempted to masterplan the city centre to promote economic growth.  Wood was chairman of the group, but Aberdeen Beyond 2000 failed to gain much traction, so nothing was built.

Gordon Cullen’s and Aberdeen Beyond 2000’s failures were followed by the Aberdeen City Centre Partnership’s unsuccessful 1991 “Heart of Aberdeen” scheme, promoted by a mixture of business and public figures.  A few years later came the £30 million Millennium Square project of 1997, which once again proposed to irrevocably alter the Gardens – but a Lottery bid for funds to create a giant glass-roofed winter garden alongside Union Terrace came to nothing. 

By now you can tell that a pattern is developing … yet Wood’s preoccupation wasn’t forgotten.  He was interviewed by Jeremy Cresswell for the book “North Sea Oil Moguls” in 2005, and spoke about his ambition, a massive collective enterprise to improve the city – “When I was chairing Grampian Enterprise, I saw the revamp of Union Terrace Gardens as one thing that might have a huge impact.  It’s that scale of enterprise that’s lacking.  It might still come.”

The latest iteration of the “City Garden Project”, known until recently as the “City Square Project”, was launched by Ian Wood at a press conference in November 2008.  He pledged £50 million towards the new scheme to redevelop the Gardens, although that only meets part of the anticipated cost.  In fact, on the City Garden group’s own figures, the project will cost £140 million.  Much of that will come from “Tax Incremental Financing”, which means that increased business rates will pay for it.  That must raise anxieties amongst Aberdeen’s hard-pressed businesses.

The project has taken three years to reach this point, where a design competition has yielded six schemes.  Now, the extent of the proposed transformation is clear.  There is the serious matter of destroying the city centre’s only green lung, and chopping down many handsome trees: each of the six schemes reduces the extent of greenery in order to form large areas of hard landscaping.

In several schemes, the gardens become more like Castle Terrace in Edinburgh, creating a “plaza” on top where farmers’ markets, carnival jugglers and political rallies can do their respective piece.  Yet the north-easterly aspect of Union Terrace is ill-suited to public gatherings, and creating a vast open space will open the Terrace up to the biting wind which howls in from the North Sea.  The sunken form of the current gardens provides very necessary shelter.

If you’re dead set on creating a City Square, you should first consider that Aberdeen already has a large urban plaza, at the knuckle of Union Street and King Street, and it was the hub of the city’s life for hundreds of years: the Castlegate.  The City Garden scheme aims to create “a civic space for major outdoor events, gatherings, festivals and concerts”.  Perhaps the Castlegate could be better utilised?

Creating a “cosmopolitan city centre café quarter” is another aim of the City Garden Project, yet nearby Belmont Street has innumerable coffee shops.  The proposal also aims to create “an inspirational building to house art and artists, sculptures and sculptors, dance and dancers, music and musicians.”  Yet just across the road from Union Terrace Gardens lie His Majesty’s Theatre, plus the city’s art galleries. 

It is also telling that Peacock Visual Arts had a scheme to build a new gallery in the Gardens: it had received full planning permission, secured £9.5 million of funding and was scheduled to break ground late November 2009… before being rejected by the city councillors once Ian Wood’s proposals broke cover.  It seems that a realistic prospect was sacrificed for an unbuildable vision.

The City Garden scheme certainly doesn’t have broad support - a majority voted “no” in the public consultation exercise - yet at the launch of the project in 2008, First Minister Alex Salmond said: “I cannot emphasise more strongly that for anything like this to happen and to be able to harness public funds it has to have the support of folk in the North-east, and Aberdonians in particular.”

Perhaps the final word should go to Professor Robin Webster, whose students looked at the Union Terrace Gardens “problem” many times.  Webster wrote a letter to the P&J, “The schemes propose an all or nothing approach, whereas some more modest links across the road and railway, along with redesigned graded access from the perimeter, could resolve the problems without sacrificing the gardens themselves.”  Judging by other letters to the local papers, it seems that many Aberdonians hope that this proposal will go the way of previous schemes…

Postscript:  And so it came to pass.  On 22nd August 2012, Aberdeen City Council rejected the Ian Wood scheme by 22 votes to 20, and the day after, Wood retracted his offer of £50m.  You can be sure, though, that the scheme will resurface some day, in another form…

By • Galleries: memory palace

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…

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