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.
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.
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.