Where lies the heart of Aberdeen?

Aberdeen at nightIf you’ve been in Aberdeen recently, you won’t have escaped the furore over the plans to turn Union Terrace Gardens (right) into a big square.

The idea came from Sir Iain Wood, one of the city’s richest oil industrialists, who has wanted to give £50million of his own money back to the city that helped generate his wealth.

On the face of it, it’s a striking and thoroughly altruistic gesture.  However it’s proved to be a hugely divisive one because the plan involves building over Union Terrace Gardens and raising the ground to the level of the buildings around it.

There are six options, and a consultation has recently been running to gauge public views about them.  I noticed it when I was in Aberdeen on Wednesday, and given that I had a spare hour I decided to pop in to have a look.  I discovered the next day that it closed just a couple of hours after I’d visited, so my being in the area with a little free time was a lucky coincidence.

Let me explain the basic idea of the plans.

The night-time photo above is, I’m afraid, the best one I have on Flickr of the area in question.  To set the scene, Aberdeen was, a little like the Old Town in Edinburgh, a medieval city built on a number of hills.  Later developments such as bridges and new streets effectively raised the city, leaving parts like the Denburn Valley, pictured, a little below the new street level.

St Machar Cathedral

If you explore the side streets around Aberdeen city centre you get a real sense of that historic heart  lurking beside (and often below) the city centre’s main artery, Union Street, and such explorations will show you how the city was raised to a higher level (1|2|3).

And this is all, by the way, entirely separate from the beautiful atmosphere of Old Aberdeen proper, lying about twenty minutes’ walk north, the main features of which include Aberdeen University (Scotland’s only medieval campus university, founded in 1495) and the gorgeous St Machar’s Cathedral (left).

Belmont Street, at the heart of Aberdeen’s nightlife and cultural scene, is just out of the big photograph above, running along the other side of the buildings which back onto the left of the picture.  Union Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, is at the far end above the arched bridge.  The three gorgeous Victorian icons of “education, salvation and damnation” are behind where this photo was taken from.  The road and railway run through the centre of the picture, and Union Terrace Gardens are to the right.

You can see from the bridge in the background, plus where the gardens meet the street on the right, the level to which it is proposed the ground is raised.  The road and railway would be covered, but so would Union Terrace Gardens.

There has been substantial opposition to the plans in the city, with protesters claiming that the beauty of the gardens and an important green space at the heart of the city would be lost forever.

I am not convinced I ever had much sympathy for the opponents of the plan.  I never thought that Union Terrace Gardens were particularly well-used or promoted enough, and while they were certainly pretty they seemed to be more of a spot for sleeping rough than enjoying the serenity of a public park.  Having lived in Aberdeen for over five years and still being a regular visitor, I can say that I’ve probably been in the gardens no more than a handful of times, barely for more than a few minutes, and never to spend any prolonged time in.  The lack of footfall through the park is surely in the main due to the lack of sunlight that come from it being at a sunken level.  Yes they are nice gardens but they are just not sunny enough compared to the city’s other lovely public spaces such as Seaton Park or Duthie Park.

Moreover, building over the dual carriageway and railway line will be of great benefit to the aesthetics of the scene, and the idea of connecting Union Terrace (the road to the right of the gardens in the picture), Belmont Street, Union Street and Rosemount Viaduct (behind the photographer’s vantage point) seems quit sensible on paper.

Not that I am unequivocally in favour of the proposed new city gardens, however.

It was with a mixture of lazy ambivalence and only mild curiosity that I ventured into the exhibition to see the six options, and having considered them briefly I am somewhat underwhelmed by them all and unpersuaded that any  would truly add something to the city that couldn’t be done in other ways.  They all represent sledgehammers lining up to crack a nut that nobody can agree requires cracking in the first place.  So that’s my main reason for being concerned about the plans.

Castlegate

Secondly, I passionately believe there are better ways of thanking or cheering up Aberdeen than by giving it a square it’s not sure it wants.  If I had fifty million spare, I’d give it to Aberdeen Football Club.  Nothing would enthuse the city’s overoptimistic football fans, not to mention wider population, more than its perennially underachieving and underfunded football team returning to former glory.

And sadly it is down the highway of massive investment that you achieve things in football these days.  So what better way of using your wealth to restore morale, profile and exposure to the city of Aberdeen than through rebuilding a European-class football team?  Plus, you’d never have to put your hands in your pocket in a city pub for the rest of your life.

But my third reason for being sceptical of the city square plans is that I think they’re picking the wrong spot.

I reckon that the true heart of the city is further east, at the Castlegate – the historic connection between King Street (the road north), Union Street (heading west) and the roads down to the harbour and beach.

Castlegate – so called because it was the site of the city’s castle, destroyed in the Wars of Independence in the 1300s and never rebuilt – is perhaps a tired spot, and no doubt it lost some of its purpose when the city’s trams were removed along with the Castlegate’s role as its interchange.

And incidentally, I think Aberdeen would really suit and benefit from having trams back and it’s a tragedy that Edinburgh has given the mode of transport a bad name.

But anyway.  Surrounded by a mixture of the imposing and the ornate, the medieval and Victorian, and across from the Town House and the magnificent pub designed by and named after Archibald Simpson, Castlegate is an impressive spot and could easily be more so.  The neglect it has experienced over the years could easily be repaired, and if the beautiful Citadel and other buildings fronting the square could be used for a more inclusive civic or cultural purpose then you could have a magnificent setting in the making.

Restoring life to the Castlegate would be much cheaper than trying to create it from scratch over Union Terrace Gardens, more effective, and – as it would draw more obviously upon the city’s historic layout and architectural heritage – significantly more in keeping with the character and soul of the city.

But maybe, just as I found with the exhibition and consultation I browsed round in its final few hours, my not being an Aberdeen resident perhaps negates the validity of my views.

For what they’re worth, though, you’ve just read them.

7 thoughts on “Where lies the heart of Aberdeen?

  1. Why would your views be less valid? You know the city and how it works very well.

    I think, and agree with, that the heart idea is a literal “centre” rather than a “metaphorical” heart. I daresay the Castlegate is more of a heart and, by the way, I think it is indeed being redeveloped anyway.

    That big space around UTG and the road/rail, if at Union Street level, would be a major crossroads, as the routes east/west (Union Street), south (Bridge Street and the foot traffic from Union Square and the station), from Rosemount, and north (George Street & Woolmanhill) all converge at or around there. Now imagine that, instead of roads, you actually turn this convergence point into a public space. Not only does it provide a large space for bespoke/modern facilities etc, but it makes the city centre much more convenient to criss-cross. When in the city, how many times do you skirt around that general area? And how many times do you go through the Castlegate or around it?

    That’s what I have taken out of the exhibition. I was mildly skeptical before and am broadly in favour now. I tend to disagree that the designs were underwhelming: yes, there were a couple of stinkers and a couple that were “blah”, but two of them were, to me, outstanding. I reckon that well over half of them would have a dramatic positive impact on the city centre.

    I’m not going to bother commenting on the AFC suggestion; I know you were just being provocative there…

  2. I wasn’t being provocative at all with the football suggestion – putting the money there rather than in the square would be a whole lot more popular and, in terms of civic mood and pride, more successful.

    Good to know that Castlegate’s getting a makeover. I think it has the makings of a lovely continental square, with cafes, some performance spaces, that sort of thing. It could be a real social and cultural hub.

    Out of interest, which two options for the city square were your favourites? i think 2 was my favourite (though the best of a fairly weak bunch, and not by much). I can see your point in terms of it being a much more effective crossing point for all the pedestrian traffic coming from all those different directions; I just think that none of the ideas really live up to the potential of the brief, and as I say Wood’s money could achieve a better impact on the city being spent elsewhere.

  3. Let’s get real, here: the £50 million donation is from a private individual with the stated aim of creating a city square at UTG. The council can turn down the money if they don’t agree with the particular use for it. Wood is rich enough to have already bought AFC and pumped money in if he wanted to. He obviously doesn’t. And public investment into a (sort of) self-sufficient sports team? That’s a minefield, which wouldn’t be helped by the fact that the minority of those in Aberdeen city would identify themselves as AFC supporters. This is not the Shire council, remember.

    I may be wrong about the Castlegate but am sure I have seen something about improvement works.

    The 2 designs that I liked were the glass worm one (I think it was number 2) and the monolith one (I think number 6). The worm one seems to be by far the favourite with the public and Lucy is sure that is the Foster one. I liked it because of the linking routes (as discussed above), the public space in the worm, and the retention of some aspects of UTG in the sunken “amphitheatre” area with pond. The strong points of the “monolith” design for me were the creation of a landmark building (I accept that it’s a love/hate design) and the way that it linked in other areas in the city centre. The design included walkways to Golden Square (which also becomes gardens), St. Nicholas Kirk, and a new garden behind the HMT on the other side of the Denburn viaduct. I could go with either of these quite happily, and would also accept the “spider web” one and the “floral pattern” one. I hated the modernist 2-bridges-across-the-road one (bland copy-and-paste “could be anywhere” look), and thought that the one with recessed triangles was ill-defined and difficult to judge.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the 6-man panel who make the decision think…

  4. p.s. from here: http://acsef.co.uk/infoPage.cfm?pageID=43

    The brief is:

    “This transformational project aims to create a more attractive, greener, better-connected and safer city centre by raising the under-used and inaccessible Union Terrace Gardens and covering over the unsighlty Denburn dual carriageway and adjacent railway line. This will result in a new five acre civic space, with a further two and a half acres of covered concourse beneath it, with enhanced green space and places for major outdoor and indoor events and activities for the whole community.”

    Little room for wriggle there, I think.

  5. Wood obviously didn’t want to put money into AFC – but what sort of culture is there in the business community, the football club etc, such that people dont have a ready-made list of opportunities for philanthropy? Let’s face it, Aberdeen’s a rich city with some rich people in it. There really ought to be some civic/charitable foundation whose prospectus would-be benefactors are encouraged to browse. So if someone pops up with fifty million, it’s clear to them that there are a range of social things to invest their money in – sports facilities, community centres, widening access programmes, anti-crime initiatives, housing improvements, and yes AFC opportunities. There are many things this money could be spent on before thinking of the square.

    Again, I’m not against the square, I just think there are other priorities and other better prospective hearts to the city.

    Though if it goes ahead it I agree number 2, the glass worm, is the best of them and let’s hope it’s that one. It could do some real good if done well.

  6. I have to agree with Simon that the designs were overall underwhelming.

    My initial description – not as bad as I’d feared, not as good as I’d hoped (in my wildest dreams.)

    Ultimately, the plan to build a gallery into the slopes was ruled out because it wouldn’t allow the road and rail to be covered. From at least 2 designs, we see this is clearly untrue.

    Considering that this plan will draw in all of the likely public investment for some time (and the loan will be repaid over 25 years – not inexpensive), it needed to have 1. a “WOW” factor, and 2 something that will draw people to Aberdeen, and help develop the city.

    None of the designs have that. At best most of them (and I was there over an hour), have a neat touch here or there (number 6’s triangle arches reflecting the arches of the original gardens, number 1’s viewing platform above the exhiition space (although getting that design to work in practice would lose most of the nice aspects.)

    Each design had at least one major flaw.
    The monolith neatly hides the huge new office buildings behind Belmont street, the visitor centre looks like shipping containers, and the ‘gaps’ between the new raised level and the road below remain.

    I think it’s such a shame we’re spending so much on something that simply, could be a lot better.

    Alternatively, a civic space by Marischal, the original peacocks plan, turning Golden Square into a Japanese style underground parking space and garden, and covering the road and rail could all be done for less money.

  7. Hi Michael, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, where St Nick’s House is right now will, once the monstrosity is destroyed, present a lovely open space in front of Marischal (which incidentally is probably my favourite building anywhere). It would be a fine setting, though I suppose the city square advocates would say this doesn’t connect enough places, especially cultural places like HMT etc.

    I do think with the brief in question the plans could have been better, I agree. If one had really “hit the jackpot” in terms of visual and cultural impact, it could have really fired the imaginations. As it is, we’re left with the somewhat ambivalent response from the city to the plans.

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