February 2012



Some years ago I was one of a group of town planners taken on a trip around Aberdeen’s Bon Accord shopping centre, then under construction.

Before the tour we had a briefing in the site office.

One of the many architects’ drawings on display showed the two-storey bridge that now connects the shopping centre with the John Lewis department store (shown to the right of this photo of the store).

The glassed-in sides of the bridge were alive with what can only be described as a hanging garden of Babylon of shrubs and plants, trailing over the entire façade of the bridge, providing wonderful cover and colour.

When we reached the nearly-completed bridge and without mentioning the drawing I asked the builders’ rep showing us round whether the bridge would be covered with greenery.

He said

God, no.  You couldn’t have all that vegetation hanging over the public highway.  It just wouldn’t be safe.

I tell this story to illustrate the universal truth that no construction project is ever completed to look like the informal drawings of it prepared at an early stage, usually when the project is being sold to someone – client, funders or planning authority.

The disconnect is greater when a design has been prepared for a competition when, inevitably, the effort and resources a designer puts into a proposal will match the chance of gaining the commission.

I thought it would be interesting to look at the drawings released of the proposed Union Terrace Gardens (UTG) replacement civic plaza in the light of this universal truth.

First, just orientate yourself with the overall sketch plan of the site (North is to the left of the diagram, roughly, and South to the right)

Now consider the view taken looking North West across the site that has been widely used in the media recently (and in my earlier post on UTG)

Observe the triangular area of what looks like about twenty trees to the left.  This is labelled ‘orchard’ on the overall sketch plan.  What sort of fruit trees will grow successfully in a wee triangle in the middle of this northern city with the good citizens (and dogs) of Aberdeen wandering all around and between them?

Note the high walkways over the site at both its southern and northern ends.  Consider the graffiti, skateboarding and drop-your-litter-over-the-side potential of these walkways.

Observe also the warm glow cast over the site, bathed in the intensity of a wonderful sunset somewhere to the North (ergo the image notionally at least must represent some time around the summer solstice).

Note the pedestrians strolling through the foreground casting long shadows to the South notwithstanding the fact that the sun seems to be almost below the horizon behind the tall buildings on Union Terrace.  Given the latitude of Aberdeen and its weather, speculate how many evenings a year the site will look anything like this.

Then take a closer look at the flower garden (also seen above) and the structure behind it.

Marvel at the intensity of colour achieved by the massed planting of flowers, an intensity I’ve yet to see in the city.

Note the steep slope of the sustainable grassed roof of the ‘cultural centre’ behind the flower garden.  See how people are strolling up this steep slope without any apparent restraint of a barrier on its edge.

More could be said about all this sort of detail but I think the point has been made.  With any design proposal be very careful how you read the first sketches, especially if they’ve been prepared to sell the concept.

What you can’t see on these drawings (although you can on the official web site) are all the other elements of the proposal.  It’s not really the purpose of this post to go beyond the points I’ve already made but I just note that there’s a 500-seat theatre tucked away underground, scarcely metres from Aberdeen’s HMT where last Saturday I saw an excellent National Theatre of Scotland production written by and starring a well-known TV star.  Even with this pedigree, the theatre can scarcely have been half-full and the top two tiers of seats were closed off.  Less than a mile away a private businessman is trying to restore the Tivoli theatre to theatrical use and ten minutes’ walk from the UTG site there’s the Arts Centre theatre.  I’m all in favour of culture but does Aberdeen need another sizeable theatre?


Renowned environmentalist and protector of the Scottish coastline Donald Trump was reported yesterday to be funding an anti-wind turbine campaign called Communities Against Turbines Scotland (CATS).  He’s upset that offshore turbines may be built within sight (rather distant sight it has to be said) of his new golf course on the Aberdeenshire coast in Scotland.

Speaking from New York to the BBC Mr Trump said

There’s a whole lot of hoop-la about windmills.  They’re horrible looking structures…yadda yadda yadda…

Speaking from Indianapolis about Communities Against Turbines Scotland, George Soriel of the Trump Organisation added

We were very impressed by them…yadda yadda yadda…

Memo to CATS – remember the proverb about the employment of a long spoon should you wish to sup with the old gentleman downstairs.

PS – at the time of writing it’s not clear from their web site if CATS have accepted Trump’s funding or indeed whether he has formally offered it and if so how far his munificence extends


I voted today in a referendum organised by our local council (Aberdeen City) to help determine the future of a green space in the heart of our city – Union Terrace Gardens.

Anyone in the North East of Scotland will know what this is all about but for anyone else here is a brief summary.

A local businessman has offered £50 million to transform these Victorian gardens into a new civic space that will include various facilities, link parts of the city centre currently separated by the gardens (they are in a deep valley), and hide an unsightly dual carriageway road and railway that run alongside the gardens.  A preferred option has been chosen after a period of public consultation.  It is currently estimated that this would cost up to £140 million, the remainder coming from an anonymous donation of £5 million, £15 million from the private sector, and up to £70 million from a TIF (see below).

The proposal has sparked major local controversy, with strong lobbies both in favour of the scheme and of retaining the gardens.

In one way, the issue is fundamentally simple – keep or redevelop the gardens.

But as so often happens with these things there are innumerable complications lurking in the wings, from what could be described as opposing political ideologies for the future of the city through what the council has or hasn’t done with this major civic asset over the years, to concerns about the TIF – and much more besides.

This is not the place to reprise all the arguments.  A Google search on ‘Union Terrace Gardens’ today threw up 1,940,000 hits and anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the controversy can immerse themselves for ever in everything to do with the subject.

Anyhow, all this is a preamble to saying I have voted, reluctantly, against the proposal.

Reluctantly because I think it is magnificent that someone is willing to donate £50 million to help ensure the future of the city they were born and brought up in.

Reluctantly because the heart of any city needs constant rejuvenation and the gardens in particular need a lot of TLC.

But I just can’t see it working, from the design chosen to the money needed to make it work.  I’ve seen too many architects’ drawings over the years that turned out to be triumphs of optimism over reality.

Well, voting closes on 1 March and who am I tell fellow Aberdonians how to cast their ballot?

I do know that come 2 March a significant proportion of the population of this city will see the result – whatever it is – as either a tragedy or a triumph.

TIF – tax increment funding scheme

TLC – tender loving care


 

There’s an old song lyric

It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it

 

On that basis I guess you’d have to concede that Barack Obama is up there with the best.

Take a look (not the whole 1 hour and 5 minutes unless you’re a real enthusiast) at his 2012 State of the Union Address to Congress.

I guess most people in the UK saw the tiniest clip from his speech on the TV news last month.  What that wouldn’t have shown is his mastery of public communication – the words, the pace, the body language, the eye contact, the back-up facts on the related presentation, the ordinary Americans up there in the gallery as Michelle Obama’s guests – the works.

Of course it’s all geared towards this year’s presidential election.  But based on this performance, how could any sane citizen not rush to re-elect the man later this year?

Well, I guess the answer lies in who the Republicans eventually select to put up against him, not to mention how the US economy does over the next nine months or so.

But they say incumbent politicians lose elections, opponents don’t win them.  And on this performance you’d have to admit Obama’s got a damned good chance of serving a second term.

In none of this, you’ll notice, do I comment on the many facts favourable to Obama in his speech and the related presentation.  But hey, what do you expect, there’ll be plenty who do that and after all this is politics.


The next two or three years are going to be fascinating for those concerned as the political and other interested parties gear up for the Scottish government’s (or – just maybe at the time of writing– the UK government’s) referendum on independence.  More will be written and said about it than most people will care for and I’m sure I’ll be contributing to the avalanche on the subject.  Here are my first thoughts.

It’s about one of the points of contention between the two governments – whether or not any referendum contains one or two questions.

For those who’ve been suffering a news blackout for the last few months the one or two proposed questions are (I paraphrase) along the lines of

  1. Do you want Scotland to be independent? YES/NO
  2. [Regardless of your answer to 1.] Do you want further devolution? YES/NO

The advocates of the second, additional, question say the Scottish electorate should be given the choice of expressing a view on whether they want further devolution short of independence – often characterised loosely as devo-max.  Most polls suggest many do, perhaps more than say they want independence.

The prime advocates of the devo-max question are the SNP (Scottish National Party) – the current governing party.

Before I decide how I voted on that question I would want to know the answer from the SNP to a further question

If a minority vote for independence but a substantial majority for devo-max will you accept that this is the settled will of the Scottish people and cease your calls for independence?

I think I know the answer because the SNP’s political credo begins with the definitive statement

The SNP is a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence.

You see, I think the problem is that if they lose the first question this time round they will still NEVER give up their fight for independence.  For many Scots, devo-max may be an end point but for the SNP it will only ever be a step on the way to their greater goal.  So the constant bickering that characterises their relationships with the UK government will continue as long as they are in power in Holyrood and whoever forms the UK government.

Not a tantalising prospect.

Footnote for those unaware: the phrase ‘settled will of the Scottish people’ is one with considerable resonance in Scotland, used – optimistically – by the late Donald Dewar to characterise the current devolution settlement