For a long time I’ve wanted an excuse as a (very) ex-town planner to write about completely useless additions to our public spaces. I came across one on the web today – a ‘black blob’ glass entrance to the great city of Manchester’s central library. You can read all about it here, where the author points out that it cost £3.5 million, has virtually no function, and has to have the word ENTRANCE written in large letters above so people know what it is.

This municipal folly brought to mind one of my home city Aberdeen’s own follies – ‘improvements’ to the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), shown in this photo, and made some time ago.

aecc3

A bit of history for non-Aberdonians. You’ll know the city is the ‘offshore oil capital of Europe,’ and a power of good that industry has done for the city and whole area. Shortly after the industry took root its first trade show was held – in tents on a site that turned muddy when it rained. There was widespread agreement that this was a nonsense and the aforementioned AECC was built. Not an architectural masterpiece but it fulfilled a function. Time moved on, it became a little long in the tooth and it was renovated and extended.

Many of the renovations no sensible person could argue with – more exhibition space, better facilities in the permanent building shown in the photo, and an office block that included rented space.

Also part of the changes were the additions shown on the right hand side of the photo, the tower and covered arch.

Here a little explanation is needed.

The main entrance to the centre is under the letters ‘AECC’ you can just about see centre-left on the photo. Vehicles can draw up in front of that area, and there’s a covered walkway to the entrance and reception area beyond. All very sensible.

You can also just see the day-to-day car park for the centre off to the right of the photo, beyond the arch and tower (there are larger car parking areas further away for when there’s a major event on).

First, the tower. When it was built it was heralded as an observation tower and tourist attraction. Visitors would be able to ascend in a lift and see out over the city from the deck at the top. Given the location of the AECC on the city’s northern fringe, I’m not sure you’d get much of a view of the city, although beyond the exhibition halls and tarmacced area around the centre there is an attractive coastline. But, and I need to emphasise this THE TOWER HAS NEVER BEEN OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. The initial reason given, if my memory is correct, was fear of terrorist attacks happening around the time of construction. But they faded and it never opened. The tower’s only use to my knowledge has been for an advertisement that ran up it for a local commercial radio station but long removed.

Now the real cracker, the arch. Entrance to the arch from the outside is at its right hand side, near the tower. Go inside and you are confronted with an escalator. The escalator takes you up, there’s a short walk then another escalator takes you down … to the main entrance and reception area. Apart from looking a bit better than a row of office windows, the arch HAS NO FUNCTION WHATSOEVER. Although I haven’t visited the centre for a while I have never seen anyone use this way in to the centre. Why would you would you when it just makes your walk to the reception area from the car park twice as long?

Anyhow, the whole nonsense might became a small foot note to local history in a few years’ time as a new exhibition centre is planned in a more sensible location near the city’s airport. Let’s hope that one respects the old architectural dictum that form should follow function.


Phew! Talk about being caught out – see my post yesterday about the graffiti appearing on municipal buildings in Aberdeen overnight.

Caught out because I seem to have missed a whole political sub-text to these scribbles.

I taxed the mystery graffttist with lacking education because of their mis-spelling of ‘Wield’ as ‘Weild.’ A Facebook friend tells me:

methinks they have, in part, found education in the pages of graphic novels such as ‘V for Vendetta’…it’s also a film. Anarchists recently used main character ‘V’s mask. Lots of quotes in Olde English and refs to Guy Fawkes.

Ahh, now I get it, sort of.

The mystery was further alleviated by today’s local Press and Journal newspaper, which explains the Marischal College reference could be to a letter distributed anonymously to farmers during the Swing Riots in England in 1830 – they were mechanising their farms and making labourers redundant:

Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions. Ye have not done as ye ought.

This is either exciting or scary or pathetic stuff according to your point of view.

At the pathetic end of the scale I think our local protester has somewhat misunderstood the role of councillors as ‘weilders’ [sic] of power and blackguard enemies of the people.

Councillors did not send our armed forces to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Councillors did not manipulate financial markets on a massive scale to cause the current economic crisis. And they are scarcely responsible for climate change.

On the other hand, if the graffitist is concerned about the mechanisation of council work it’s a lost battle. Quill pens and ledgers were replaced by computers a long time ago.

The other tit-bit in today’s Press and Journal was that similar graffiti have appeared on the Aberdeen University campus.

So are you drawing the conclusion I am?

Yep, could be a student. Perhaps the combined resources of city-centre CCTV footage, Police Scotland and University security staff will deliver the answer soon. But they’d better get a move on because the young people will  all disappear on their summer hols soon.

To be continued (maybe) …

Footnote: never thought I’d add ‘anarchy’ to my list of tags but I have.

Update 14 November 2013 I was taken to task by someone commenting on this post for saying that the Marischal College graffitist ‘could be a student.’ The local media reported today that someone has pleaded guilty to vandalising the College and other buildings. He is … a student. The council says it cost them £10,000 to remove the offending words. Social reports are awaited before sentencing.


I noticed today that Police Scotland are looking for the idiot who scrawled this graffito (HelpGov is nothing if not grammatically correct) on the façade of Aberdeen City Council’s headquarters, the wonderful and newly-restored Marischal College.

The ‘Ye’ bit suggests the perpetrator aspires to at least some learning and that the admonition may be a quotation from somewhere historical. But a Google search, while throwing up various biblical possibilities, didn’t recognise the actual words.

Given that this is Scotland and there’s an independence referendum next year (you hadn’t heard?) I toyed with the scribbler having a national or nationalistic purpose. Notice I don’t say which nation, so no rude comments please. They’ll only be blocked.

There are also numerous local possibilities about his concerns ranging from a new ring road to the state of our main shopping street to a disputed roundabout to new bus lane cameras to…

Perhaps The Idiot might like to submit the answer. I’ll be happy to publish it complete with his name.

To my surprise, my tweet on the subject was almost instantly re-tweeted by an English council chief executive (thanks @Relhyde) and that presumed fellow-feeling got me thinking about what it is that councils have not yet done as they ought.

Here’s my top list of things councils have not yet done as they ought.

  • Ye have not yet kept all the people happy all the time
  • Ye have not yet proven that democracy is not merely a good system of government but, yea, it is perfect
  • Ye have not yet squared every problem that doth present itself as a circle
  • Ye have not yet overcome an ever decreasing treasury in order to meet all demands upon your services
  • Ye have not yet insinuated yourself into the mind of every citizen that doth own a dog in order that canine defecation in your public places is entirely unknown
  • Ye have not yet conducted all your affairs in a state of complete harmony, unlike every other public institution in this United Kingdom of ours
  • Ye have not yet understood that ye are simultaneously too large and too small, too rich and too poor, and too arrogant and too supine
  • Ye have not yet reversed climate change, increased the longevity of your citizens’ lives, eliminated social exclusion nor solved any of the other small issues that are entirely reasonably laid at your door

Footnote: I have just read that another scrawl appeared in the same hand overnight on the nearby Council Town House – Weilders [sic] of Power Beware. Well that blows my theory about the perpetrator ‘s education.


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?


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