Don of a new era
14 Nov 2008
Aberdeen is the land the credit crunch forgot. As Trump’s new scheme delivers yet another shot in the arm for the North East Prospect visits the Granite City to assess if all this cash is translating into decent buildings
Some cities need to build high. Others aspire to the High Stuff to express their civic pride. A few, like Aberdeen, are more fortunate. They benefit from their setting to give them presence. Aberdeen is a low-rise city: with the single exception of a handful of Brutalist multi-storey blocks, 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.
Talisman House is 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.
Its recently-completed rival is Union Plaza, a speculative office block designed by Halliday Fraser Munro. Again, from the south side of the Dee it breaks the unity of Aberdeen’s roofline with a two-storey overshot of curtain walling and white render: closer up it overpowers the nearby streets and its black-tinted glass glowers down in a sinister way. The need for large floorplates has generated a U-shaped building of great bulk, which is accentuated by the flatness of the façades. With almost no articulation on three faces, Union Plaza does nothing for the urban scene; on the fourth, the entrance elevation is a re-entrant court with an overscaled copper canopy like Michael Wilford’s portal to the Lowry Centre in Salford. However, the real disjunction of scale is on the north side, where it overpowers a stranded tenement in Summer Street – and casts enormous shadows during the shortening winter days.
Union Plaza sits behind Grampian House, which is the Scottish home of Exxon Mobil. Exxon is the only one of the Seven Sisters to have a city centre HQ: the others are based in Dyce (BP), Rubislaw (Chevron) or Tullos (Shell). The sisters are the seven multi-national oil companies which dominate the world petrochemical business. The Exxon building was designed by Glass Murray in the 1980s, and is a more successful piece of urbanism than Union Plaza thanks to a few simple differences of emphasis. Exxon addresses Union Row with its entrance frontage – whereas Union Plaza faces north-eastwards into the teeth of the winter storms, away from the town. Grampian House wraps around the existing streetline of Union Row and Union Wynd – Union Plaza is set back from them, creating a windswept no-man’s land across which the litter blows. The former features an intriguing Doug Cocker sculpture, Meridian, which sits like a cap badge on its cornice … the latter has that copper canopy set at a jaunty angle like a monstrous green hackle.
In lieu of the energy sector headquarters buildings which might have shaped a commercial district in the city, a late lamented loss to the inner city was the Conran Roche scheme for “Bravo”, the Aberdeen Oil Experience on Beach Boulevard, which was put forward in 1988, but never built. Its metabolist High Tech approach would have rung true in this context, as it relates exactly to the tectonics of oil production platforms, each one a structural skeleton with modules plugged into it. Most people will never experience a North Sea oil rig, but an analogue in the city centre would have give meaning to the succour of Aberdeen’s economy – and left something of the oil business for posterity. The current scheme for the same site, twenty years on, is an Energy Futures Centre designed by RMJM. The architecture is diffusely SuperDutch, with some ecological bolt-ons such as a twelve storey tower of wind turbines. The building is about Aberdeen’s post-oil economy (with tidal- and solar-powered Rockefellers), rather than a celebration of, and memento mori for, the North Sea oil boom. It remains to be seen whether the EFC fares any better than Bravo in raising enough money to be built.
Talisman House and Union Plaza are untypical – but whatever the reasons for their bombastic architecture, these aliens emphasise that the city centre doesn’t need a radical reconstruction. Instead, Aberdeen wants incremental improvements to the existing building stock: fewer emblematic buildings which claim attention for themselves, more ensemble players which are happy to fit into the greater scheme of things. Hence I would argue that Aberdeen’s successful contemporary architecture is infill architecture – with designers piecing in glass-fronted facades to act as mirrors for the city. The Maritime Museum (designed by Aberdeen City Council’s Architects Department in 1997) and the more recent Vue cinema – both on Ship Row – have different takes on this approach, using structural glass walls to reflect the Sheriff Court on one face, and shipping activity in the docks on the other. During the day, they create doppelgangers of Aberdeen’s Victorian buildings … at night, they have another life altogether. The 2006 extension to His Majesty’s Theatre, also by the local authority’s architects, adopts the same methods: in each case, the architects understood that you can’t compete with Aberdeen’s granite idiom by using modern masonry.
Until the 1950s, every building on the city centre was built from the grey granite which was blasted from the ground, cut and dressed locally. With the exception of the massive and currently derelict Broadford Works whose redbrick walls prove the rule each structure was built using stone from Rubislaw, Kemnay, Sclattie, Dancing Cairns or Corennie. However, as the cost of working our native granite soared, each succeeding generation of architects tried to find an acceptable alternative for the sparkling silver stone. We tried precast concrete with a granite aggregate (RMJM’s Aberdeen Market); bush-hammered concrete (Trinity Shopping Centre); “Fyfestone” synthetic granite (MacMon’s New Century House); and even foreign granite (Chinese stone has appeared in several schemes lately) – but structural glass is the most effective, because it respects its granite neighbours, without competing. Of course, the very stuff which the city is built from, which caused the poet Iain Crichton Smith to conceive of Aberdeen as a Sparkling Cage, not only unifies the city’s architecture but also traps contemporary architecture. New buildings need to accept the constraints of the cage (in some parts of the city, you must build with either real or synthetic granite), or break out of it.
A more serious issue than merely fitting in with the city’s granite context, is the creation of new retail space at the expense of empty buildings such as E&M’s department store at the corner of Broad Street, and many empty units on Union Street. The Triple Kirks site on Schoolhill consists of a derelict and crumbling spire which points an accusative finger skywards. The empty stretch of the Timmermarket, at the knuckle between King Street and Union Street, which was the locus of several architectural competitions over the years, is only now being built out by Richard Murphy. The nearby Marischal College, which the cash-strapped city council is intent on converting into its new HQ, lies empty meantime. One huge residential conversion project has stalled, whilst on the other side of the city centre, a large retail and leisure scheme is now on site. The varying fortunes of these two schemes spring an important question about the city centre’s future.
The first, potentially lost opportunity, is Broadford Works, a complex of mills in the inner city which has stood empty since 2004. Proposals for its conversion into an urban village appear to have ground to a halt and meantime the site – which encompasses the complete evolution of flax mill architecture from the 1700s to Edwardian times – is decaying. This is one case where Historic Scotland should take decisive action before weather and vandals destroy a significant part of the North-east’s heritage. Broadford Works is very much in the Functional Tradition beloved of Richards and de Mare, and it is certainly possible to deal with its gaunt brick shells in an architectural fashion, as the Bastille next door proves. It was once a warehouse for Broadford Works, but a conversion in the mid 1990s by Mark Wilson of Architectus proved that blind brick walls could be opened up to create spaces adapted with guts and integrity. Broadford Works has the potential to become a successful regeneration, like Camperdown Works in Dundee (once Europe’s largest textile mill).
Union Square is the second scheme, a vast new mixed-use complex on the site of the old goods yards beside Aberdeen Station. Developed by Hammerson and designed largely by BDP, construction is well underway – but its aim to pull the city’s centre of gravity southwards is potentially destructive. It may well be completed in the trough of the great forthcoming financial depression of 2009 – and as a result, it might generate even more retail voids on Union Street, George Street and the various existing shopping malls. It will be instructive to find out whether Hammerson can pre-let all the retail units … and just how a “sustainable” development (with integrated bus station, fair enough) can justify its multi-storey car park with 1700 spaces! So far, the grey crinkly tin cladding visible from the south suggests that Union Square will be a mere container, whose blind walls will contribute nothing to the city centre. Potentially, the only architecturally-expressive part is the multi-storey hotel whose steel frame already looms eight storeys over Guild Street … and that overscaled block brings us back to where we began. Aberdeen is – or should be – a low-rise city.