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November 17 2008

Weekly Wrap 14.11.08

All square in the granite city
It was Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French statesman, I believe, who stated that ‘truth is simply a matter of timing’ and nowhere today can this aphorism be more apt than in Aberdeen.
This thought was, I have to say, stimulated by last Wednesday’s Scotsman in which three different and conflicting messages about the city were presented. The first came in the letters page, where Trump’s Triumph continues to disgruntle or embolden the natives in equal measure.
Mark Sinclair, the captain of the hitherto unknown Newburgh-on-Ythan golf club in Aberdeenshire seems to think a forthcoming extension of the city’s airport and “an anticipated increase in direct routes to Aberdeen” will, in combination with the proposed new links course at Comb-over Crags, bring unquantified riches in terms of local business expansion and new jobs to the area.
Skip a few pages to the business section and lo – Aberdeen suffered the sharpest decline of all Scottish airports last month, with its passenger total down 5.3% from a year ago to 302,243. That plus recent news that BA is likely to pull all of its UK domestic routes and you begin to think the only future flights arriving at furry boot city will be ones of fancy.
Thank goodness then for the double page spread earlier in the paper highlighting the benevolence of Sir Ian Wood, head of the Wood Group, in putting up £50m of his own fortune to create “a new beating heart for the Granite City”.
Described as ‘his bold vision’, the plan is to create a new city square above the valley containing Union Terrace Gardens, the Denburn dual carriageway and the main (sic) Aberdeen-Inverness rail line.
All well and good and not before time you may think, but wait – Sir Ian is quoted further as saying that his aim is to transform the five acre site into a square that would be “a combination of a grand Italian piazza and a miniature version of New York’s Central Park” and “reflect both the success of the region and its position as a leading northern European city”.
There is no doubting Sir Ian’s philanthropic integrity, but there seems to be some confusion here, given that the piazzas of Italy and the parks of New York would have some difficulty passing themselves off as northern European. Visions of Charles Moore’s ghastly post-modern Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans spring to mind and it can only be hoped that the feasibility study into the new city square will find models that are a bit more Hanseatic than Adriatic.
Spare a thought too for architects Brisac Gonzalez whose designs for a new £13m centre for Peacock Visual Arts look almost certain to be kiboshed by Wood’s benevolence.
Any hopes that their project - which was due to start on site early next year - might form part of the new city square have effectively been punted into the long grass by Wood’s statement that “I am only prepared to provide the £50m for the ambitious, transformational Option 1…if Peacock achieve their funding and go ahead as is, my vision could not proceed.”
I could be wrong, but I somehow don’t get the feeling that Brisac Gonzalez will be appointed to carry out the feasibility study. In any case - as with the Trump precedent - Wood’s plans have the backing of the First Minister so a planning shoo-in shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone.
And let’s not forget that in parallel with the proposal for the new square and the rapido-production of detailed designs for Trumpville, the city’s press and public have for some time been exercised about the need or otherwise for a new bypass. Given the sketchy, but troubling, information released so far about the two aforementioned projects I’d say Aberdeen already has a bypass: the tragedy is, it’s a cultural one.


Spilling the pearls
Once again the twin guardians of the capital’s urban realm – the World Heritage Trust and the Cockburn Association - have found common cause with which to stalk the streets or, more accurately, one street - that of the Princes.
The subject of their Knox-ian ire this time is a proposed glass-fronted department store and a 100-bed hotel that together will require the demolition of two listed buildings. Nothing unusual in this, you’d be forgiven for thinking, but the novelty this time is the retention of a Georgian façade behind a new glazed frontage, a proposition that has apparently won the backing of (un-named) senior councillors.
True, it’s also reported that planning officials in the city has so far received the scheme coolly, despite the fact that the properties proposed for removal at 121-122 Princes Street have been covered in scaffolding for the past five years.
As anyone familiar with the planning process in Scotland’s capital will know, months – even years - can elapse in discussion with said planning officials with no white smoke ever allowed to find its way up the chimneys of the City Chambers.
The need to streamline planning is the current business and economic development mantra, but really it’s a far more transparent process that’s required if public confidence in the system is ever to be restored.
The bleat, as ever, from the WHT hq in Charlotte Square is about the loss of “historic buildings” but with no accompanying distinction made between the merely old and the parts of the city’s built heritage that have genuine architectural merit.
More importantly – and in a week when UNESCO inspectors came to review Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site (WHS) status – there seems to be some real amnesia about the responsibilities conveyed by the title. For the record, preservation for now and the future is not the sole reason it is conveyed, but rather to ensure that any development within or adjacent to a selected WHS is appropriate and empathetic to the values that have made it noteworthy.
Some Sites are well nigh untouchable – the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal being two obvious examples – but in the main UNESCO recognises the need for new development with the crucial proviso that it should enhance the World Heritage Site itself.
Now, it has to be said that Scotland with only a handful of Sites has all too little experience in these matters, but Spain with nearly 150 Sites seems to have no problem in marrying the old with new and extremely elegant forms of architecture that unquestionably complement and indeed illuminate the context within which they are situated.  
The problem here is not that the few gaps that emerge in Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns are unable to accommodate new, modern architecture but rather that too much of what is proposed is simply not good enough for the location.
Why Edinburgh – still, despite the credit crunch, a financially-strong city – cannot find the way within its economic development, planning and political apparatus to demand architecture that is absolutely world class in conception and delivery is an enigma: is it simply lack of will, lack of leadership or just plain ignorance?
Whether one or other or all three, this endemic problem will not be solved by feet stamping in Charlotte Square and Trunks Close: the considerably louder sound of heads being banged together needs to be heard.


High Street? It’s Lower Middle Street more like
The current state of Princes Street merely highlights the need to address the root causes of the problems that are blighting high streets up and down the country.
In Edinburgh, the City Council’s business rating and transport policies have rendered the capital’s once principal shopping boulevard unattractive to quality retailers and their customers, but similar circumstances exist in almost all of the country’s towns and cities – once vibrant high streets have been reduced to hosting poundsaver and charity shops, neither of which generate the revenues needed to maintain this aspect of the public realm.
Beholden to stop-gap solutions, politicians and business leaders seem incapable of reading the writing on the wall: the future of our high streets will not be based on the kind of retail experience currently on offer.
Aside from their counterproductive parking policies, councils themselves have been instrumental in creating out of town shopping parks, filled with the large stores that once occupied prime retail space within the city.
The advantages to the retailer are clear: easier deliveries, lower rates and ample parking for staff and customers. Together with the omnipresent credit crunch and a massive increase in stay-at-home internet shoppers, the normally busy run-up to Xmas looks like being a very bleak period for inner-city retailers and the beginning of 2010 is likely to see quite a few more of them disappear into administration.
With the big retailers missing from town and city centres, only small specialist shops are likely to remain. Or at least that would be the scenario if times were more economically vibrant – sharp increases in rent and rates make many small operators vulnerable too, and with their demise the high street will be left devoid of commercial purpose.
So, if its not to be a future of mobile phone outlets and charity shops, alternative scenarios for the high street can’t come too soon: trouble is, who will underwrite the necessary research, conferences and debates?
Central government? Councils? Forgive my scepticism, but it does seem a bit unlikely that those who have milked the retail sector for tax and rates since time immemorial will have either the imagination or sense of urgency to confront the challenge. Time then for the architectural profession to get visioning: its what it’s trained for after all.

This week’s awards
Last Friday proved to be something of a triumph for Reiach and Hall Architects, the practice taking the top prizes at both the Inverness Architectural Association Awards and the Glasgow Institute of Architects for the Pier Arts Centre and the Beatson Institute respectively.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognise the exemplary design quality of both projects, nor to understand what it took to produce them – exemplary clients, excellent builders and architects at the top of their game.
What makes these projects special is the way in which they demonstrate that good architecture doesn’t need to be all-singing and all-dancing in form and appearance, an approach that seems to be working well for the Darnaway Street team. Would that more practices took such an elementary route to success.

Postscript to Inverness
The IAA Awards, Conference and Dinner last Friday were outstanding in their ambition and organisation and a real achievement for such a dispersed chapter of the RIAS.
It’s usually the speakers that merit comment in the journals but in this instance the extraordinary commitment of HRI Architects in Inverness deserves recognition – congratulations to Andrew Bruce and Mark Williams and to Fergus Bruce who drove thousands of miles to pull the awards together.
These boys deserve special reward from the RIAS for their efforts to promote good architecture in the Highlands and Islands. And if we are to mention celebrities it has to be Muriel Gray for her hugely entertaining contribution to the success of the Awards Dinner - the less said about Wayne Hemingway’s self-indulgent speech the better.


New ideas wanted, not old tub thumpers
The end of the Edinburgh Festival is not always the best time to release a story to the press since by that time arts journalists have developed something to akin to snow blindness and the public is, like Goebbels before them, ready to reach for their guns at the very mention of the word culture.
Hence the re-running in the Scotsman last week of the story about some wealthy but anonymous wealthy financial backers putting up £3m for a new arts venue in the capital.
Regular readers of the Wrap will have to cast their minds back to 29 August for this one and the suggestion that the money could be used to create a new centre for the Edinburgh International Film Festival or move forward the idea of converting the old Royal High School to a National Centre for Photography.
I have news though for Tim Cornwell, the Scotsman’s arts correspondent – the money is supposed to be for a new project idea, not the hackneyed old ones he listed last week. In any case – and to paraphrase the time honoured words of Kirsty Wark when referring to another, far larger project - £3m, even in these troubled times, barely gets you a garden shed, never mind a major new arts venue.
Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen, mentioned earlier is budgeted after all at £13m so it seems fair to anticipate the proposed cash injection comes with some caveats requiring additional backing from the public purse, a highly unlikely option at this particular juncture. Still, with a closing date for the competition of Hogmanay 2009, there’s a little bit of time for things to pick up.


And finally…
Mention of Tim Cornwell, though, brings us to his other recent revelation that Zaha Hadid is actually a man. An article in last Saturday’s Scotsman by our man on the ball about Glasgow’s ‘Guggenheim’ (sic) – the new Riverside Museum  - suggests that ‘Mr Hadid’s design’ will be complete by May 2009. Clearly it’s not only the city’s waterfront that is being transformed.

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