Friday, 30 July 2010

Last Exit to Modernism.

Often, the buildings which are created to fulfill spiritual needs are at the cutting edge of architectural experimentation. The medieval cathedrals pushed the very limits of what it is possible to achieve with dressed stone and the pre-medieval basilicas, mosques and temples of the levant similarly created breathtaking precedents in design, building and placemaking for communities. Buildings which to our contemporary eyes now might seem traditional and rooted in the ages were, in their time, jarringly new.

In Scotland, we are lucky to be home to one of the most important modernist buildings which is part of this spiritual tradition in St Peter's Seminary at Cardross. This at-risk building is Category A listed and is thought by some to be Scotland's most important post WWII building.

In Aberdeen, while we have nothing quite of the calibre of St Peter's, we do have an important modernist building which fits quite neatly in this category. Happily, this building is in an excellent interior and exterior condition, and is at present subject to an 'upgrade' (we have qualms about the word in this context). Of particular note is the quality of the interior woodwork, the ironwork details on gates and porticos and the bronze roofing. The stained glass is of internationally-important quality.

If you have family in Aberdeen, sooner or later, you're regrettably likely to be visiting this location. And when you do, you're likely to be in no fit state or mood to appreciate the architectural quality of the complex. So, take the time to have a look now.


On our way to seek out a prominent example of an Aberdeen Ice House (watch this space) we were struck by the cognitive dissonance provoked by the après-post-modern skyline at new Kepplestone.

Is it an Aztec ziggurat? We wouldn't mind if it were.

We had heard that taxi-drivers in the city have taken to referring to the new Kepplestone as 'the west-end Tillydrone', so we thought we'd better take a closer look. (We can, of course, read well the implication in that loaded phrase, and we don't like it. Tilly is much done-down; residents of other areas self-importantly assuming their own neighborhood to be "better", and populated by a "better kind of folk". It is not, and they are not.)

So, ready for anything, we approached via Viewfield Road. The developer has laid some engraved (if a bit breathless and ungrammatical) granite plaques giving an interpretation of the histobunk of the site.

So far, so good.


Didn't know that.


That's what we were familiar with, before the new development:


So we continued wandering about, firstly on the lower level of the site, where we remember that there used to be rugby pitches. Now there are detatched houses. Not really to our taste, but nice enough and well mannered, if you like that sort of thing.

But why do the feel they must park on the pavements?

The bizarre sense of anti-place only really started when we turned round and looked north up the hill where a orotund yet oddly asymmetrical staircase hints at a touch of unhinged, slurring megalomania in the conception of the scheme.

All Grecian Sir! Modernist detail on a Classical body!

Climbing the steps, we arrive in a neo-Grecian courtyard. If you find yourself a little tired out by the climb, you'll be glad to see that the developer has thoughtfully provided some Granitette chairs where you may sit and admire the details.

Moving on, we are ushered under a pointless arch for a view of the 'exclusive' parking. A significant and important aspect of any housing development for the sort of people who want to live like this, we understand.

And so to the tower-blocks. Note the astroturf on the un-balcony. Honestly. Why?

Thrilling juxtaposition of old and new.

Turning round to re-orientate ourselves, we notice the remains of Kepplestone House. And we begin to lose hope.

We remember the College of Domestic Science - 'The Dough School'. Slab and plinth modernism, not to everyone's taste - fair enough - but it sat back from Queen's Road and down an embankment. Today's residential towers loom boastfully and alarmingly over what remains Aberdeen's premier residential area.

They rejected plans to build a supermarket into the profile of the slope, so they got this residential development instead. We'll wager that the longer-established residents of Queen's Road, Royfold Crescent and Anderson Drive would much sooner have the Dough School back.

Turning our eyes skyward (in search of hope), we looked up in the darkening gloom and we could see that the residents of three of the apartments, each flat atop the other, were watching television. The television screens shone out over Queens Road in the gloaming. Identical large screen LCD's mounted in identical positions on their respective identical and otherwise unadorned walls, all identically tuned to the same channel. There was an ad-break being transmitted.

From the 22,000 mile high 'Clarke-orbit' geostationary Sky satellite to the dishes of Kepplestone, via the walls of the over-mortgaged residents, the tired eyes of the rush-hour motorists - furiously becalmed in the tea-time gridlock at the Earls Court roundabout - were invited to consider whether or not they were paying too much for their car insurance.

We note that the entire complex is guarded by a tank. The gun points towards the development and its residents. We approve of that, and wonder if any of them have noticed...

By Gad! A tank!

Mounthooly Urban Country Park

"The largest urban roundabout in Europe!" Or so they used to say, puffed-up proud with no hint of irony. It's probably not true any more. It's probably the second-largest urban roundabout in Europe.

How road-users see Mounthooly

Now, just to clear this up and get it out of the way: "Mounthooly" is not a corruption of the words "Holy Mount" or anything like that. That's just a lazy assumption on the part of people who can't be bothered looking into the etymology of Scottish place-names. (qv Apardion).

From John Milne, M.A., LL.D.
Celtic Place-names in Aberdeenshire

Monthooly, Mounthooly, Monthillie. Both parts of these names mean hill.
Monadh, hill;
choille, coille asp., hill.
Several places in the county of Aberdeen have this name. In the city it is given to the part of the road to Old Aberdeen between Gallowgate and Canal Street

So, there you go; it's just a bit of tautology. Like the modern "daily journal", "new innovation" or "business entrepreneur" - "Mounthooly" says the same thing twice - "Hilly hill".

Right, having dealt with that, we can move onto the subtance...

Mounthooly was, within living memory, a road through a community of mixed use buildings. Shops and houses and factories and schools and churches and civic stuff and industry all bustled along together. We can probably correctly assume (as this is how human beings live when left to their own devices) that daily life proceeded against the background of this normal and usual built environment since the days of antiquity.

Bartholomew's 1912 Atlas

That arcadia is two generations gone now, swept away by post-war slum clearances and socialist optimism - all done before our time, so we cannot honestly lament it. In any case, why should we lament it? Surely that past belongs in the past, along with rickets and yellow fever, conscription and consumption, right-less unpaid housewife-mothers and strict class boundaries. A brutal past without opportunities and without freedom - we're glad we didn't live through it.

So, what have we got now at Mounthooly? Well, it's quite a large bit of greenery, right in the centre of our city. Indeed, and surely with a hint of irony, Aberdeen City Council have designated it as sacrosanct "Urban Green Space". There's not much of that in the city centre, Union Terrace Gardens is threatened with comprehensive redevelopment, and St Nicholas churchyard is subject to arbitrary access restrictions and is not public land. Mounthooly suffers no such strictures - it's ours, all ours to enjoy whenever we want to.

How ACC sees Mounthooly

But how is it possible to enjoy a roundabout? Firstly, we need to look at it through new eyes (or rather, retro-modern eyes). The idealistic planners' eyes of the post war comprehensive redevelopment frenzy. Those planners saw a rational (rather than what we would today call market-led) approach to planning and the built environment, and with the best of intentions set about creating the utopia which they thought was within their grasp.

Secondly, if we actually take the time to physically use the space which was created at Mounthooly (we don't mean by driving round it!), we can catch a glimpse of that modern vision out of the corners of our eyes.

How modernists see Mounthooly

Clean, salubrious apartments in the sky, surrounded by spacious parkland where we can enjoy our extensive leisure-time: "À nous la liberté". Motor-traffic is segregated away from people, who are free to enjoy the greenery and wildlife in peace. Sustrans National Cycle Network Route 1 transects the roundabout, providing traffic-free access for cyclists between the city centre and Old Aberdeen.

How cyclists see Mounthooly

Over the last couple of years, ACC have adopted an enlightened "rough cutting" policy for the grass on the roundabout, allowing native wild plants to flourish naturally and encouraging the development of a wildlife corridor with a selection of wild flowers, birds, insects and small mammals. The topsoil benefits from the absence of herbicides and increased biomass mulching, watercourses and drainage channels benefit from improved water retention in-situ and biodiversity obviously benefits. We like this kind of benign neglect.

How wildlife sees Mounthooly

The largest barrier to the uptake of Mounthooly as a place for leisure and recreation is the pedestrian and cycle access, which is only via that urban-horror, the underpass. No-one likes using underpasses. Crime may be falling quickly, but the fear of crime is not. We would greatly prefer to see overpass and Toucan-crossing level access to Mounthooly. This enhanced access would greatly improve the livability of the north end of the city centre by contributing to the permeability of the transport network for cyclists and pedestrians.

Oddly, the only people who we hear complaining about Mounthooly do so from the narrow viewpoint allowed from behind the wheel of their cars. Tied to a chair in a hot locked iron box, they see Mounthooly only as a barrier to their importantly swift trans-urban progress. We always suggest that they should slow down a bit, get out of their metal box and actually start taking part in the life of the city. Will they? Or will they continue to see the city only as its roads, its shopping destinations and their workplaces? At Other Aberdeen we know the city to be much, much more than that.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Lost Dreams of the Potential Lions

These are Aberdeen's quiescent lions. They will sleep eternally within the rocks - existing only ever as potential lions.

Originally intended as heraldic gatekeepers to the George VI bridge linking Ferryhill and Kincorth, their birth from the rock was still, interrupted by the Second World War. After the war, the will and means was never mustered to complete their sculpting.

The fourth dormant lion now roars silently as the Ertchie 'Petch' Simpson memorial in Bon Accord Square. The three seen above are in Hazlehead Park's Sculpture Garden. Along with this orphaned plinth which has never seen the statue which it was to host:

All a bit sad, really...


One of the lions got a bit closer to being born from the stone than the others:

With a little imagination, we can see the curve of his back, leading to his haunches and rear paws as he sits neatly. The hint of a swishing tail. The curve of the back of his head is visible, with pointed ears sprouting from his lush mane.

Woodlands at Pitfodels.

The Woodlands at Pitfodels Executive Housing Development.





Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The A to Z of Aberdeen - D

D is for The Dutch Disease

(Hmmm, we've got a bit of a Netherlandish theme going here - it's just a co-incidence.)

Anyway, here's the meat... it's all a bit pencilneckish, but stay with it, it is worth it, honest.

The Dutch Disease is a concept in economics which explains how the development of a natural resource extraction business sector (like oil and gas) and its associated economic boom can over-balance an economy, causing decline in non-extractive value-adding sectors - particularly the manufacturing sector, but also in agriculture. The pathology of the Dutch Disease is accompanied by moral decline in the personal sphere (affluenza) and turpitude in the public sector (government) as it becomes entangled with big-money business interests. Hmm... sounds familiar?

The term was coined to describe the decline of the manufacturing sector and moral fall-out in the Netherlands in the 1970's following the discovery and exploitation of the gigantic Groningen gas field. The worlds largest ever public-private-partnership (Gasunie) was formed by Shell, Esso and the Dutch State to exploit this resource. At its height, it was not possible to say where the state ended and Gasunie began. Or vice versa. The question was meaningless.

The mechanism goes something like this...

The booming sector (resource extraction) increases the demand for labour and capital which in turn causes the movement of production away from other sectors (in particular, away from value-creating manufacturing and agriculture).

This is compounded by what some economists call the 'spending effect': As personal wealth (for some) increases, it causes an increase in demand for capital and labour to be directed towards the service sectors (including business and personal services, catering, retail and real estate). This, of course, further draws production away from the manufacturing sector and agriculture.

Moreover, this increased demand for service sector goods leads to an increase in prices for these goods and services. The price for the primary resource in the booming resource sector (in our case oil and gas) is set internationally, and so cannot be affected by local economic factors. As price levels for service sector goods and real estate in the local economy boom, this in effect increases the effective exchange rate for individuals and enterprises looking to move into or out of the area. Of course, we are part of the UK and use GB Pounds Sterling as our medium of exchange, it's just that, in this town your GB Pounds exchange for fewer service-sector goods (from haircuts to real estate) than they do in most of the rest of Scotland.

The Oil and Gas industry makes up almost a quarter of the value of our economy in the North East of Scotland. It employs around a fifth of our workers. According to Aberdeen City Council, at current rates of extraction, the currently proven reserves will be effectively depleted by 2016.

From ACC's City Centre Development Report (big PDF).

...peak oil production is now in the distant past and current predictions suggest that as much as 25 billion barrels of oil might still be able to be produced with most of that being in the next 10 years. The current position is that there are 6 years of proven reserves.

It is not our intention to hold forth on Peak Oil, or start a debate about enhanced oil recovery techniques, which will surely improve upon the council's bleak forecast. However, the question must be asked - where is the world-beating marine renewables industry which we were promised would form a centre-of-excellence energy-hub? That was supposed to be in Aberdeen, ready to step in and take up the slack as oil and gas ran down, wasn't it?

When I talk to oil industry people about their intentions, they don't discuss cross-sector transferrable subsea technology. They don't speak of marine skills transfer towards renewables. They don't talk of renewables at all.

Rather, they talk of High Arctic Russia and of Azerbaijan. They hold forth about the Falklands and deepwater Angola. They dream of Sakhalin Island and Equatorial Guinea.

D is also for Denial.

Monday, 26 July 2010

March Stones 12 to 15 ABD - Cults & Bieldside

More March Stones, you know, the stones which mark the boundaries of Aberdeen's 'Freedom Lands'. You know, the lands 'gifted' to Aberdeen by Robert the Bruce in 1319. You know... oh never mind. Read this:

Leopard Mag 'Aberdeen's Stones of Time'.

Having walked the straight line along Craigton Road from Mannofield to Rocklands for stones 7 ABD to 11 ABD, we now descend Friarsfield Road (one of many braes in or around Aberdeen known as "Jacob's Ladder") into the valley of the Cults Burn, where we find stone 12 ABD.

Stone 13 is at the very summit of Cults. Just keep going up until you can't go up any more. We had a lot of trouble finding this stone - it would be much easy to find in the winter. Eventually we resorted to asking dog-walkers. The first, a teenager, looked at us as if we were talking Mandarin. The second, a middle-aged woman, was happy to help, knew what we were looking for and knew where it was. Though she did say that she'd always thought it marked a grave, or just the summit (like a trig-point) or a milestone. She was fascinated to hear about what the stone actually meant. We could barely get away.

Anyhow, while you're there, go and take a look at the Cults quarry - again, surprisingly difficult to find in the summer.

And so to stone 14 ABD. What a nightmare.

It's right by a primary school. The first time we went to look for this stone, it was in term-time and it was lunchtime. The noise of seven-hundred children playing was simply unbearable, it was like a washing-machine on high-speed spin. The stone is well-hidden and we just couldn't concentrate on looking for it because of the noise. Eventually, we thought that we looked so dodgy hanging about the bushes close to a primary school with cameras in our hands that we just gave up.

But, now that it's holiday time, and the school is closed, we could take our time, relax, concentrate, and after some rooting about eventually found the stone. Whew.

After that, stone 15 ABD is thankfully a doddle and is visible from quite some distance on Bailieswells Road.

While you're in the area, go and see the Bieldside Cairn. Huge. Impressive. 4000 years old - about the same as the pyramids. The early farming people who built this clearly had time and a large economic surplus on their hands. The individual for whom it was build must have been either greatly feared or greatly respected. Perhaps both. There is, of course, no way we can ever know.

These interesting houses are in the area around stone 15 ABD:


The principals of filtered permeability and shared space for transport corridors and thoroughfares are ideas which were pioneered in Groningen and other towns in the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany to encourage walking and cycling by giving them a more attractive environment free from traffic and a time and convenience advantage over car driving.

The Dutch call the shared space concept "woonerf", a term increasingly used in the English-speaking world to mean an area where motorists have priority equal to or lesser than other road-users, thus increasing the livability of the city at the human scale, even as residential density increases.

These measures were pioneered in Groningen in response to severe city-centre congestion which reached a gridlocked crisis point in the 1970's. Until that time the Netherlands - now known as the number one cycling country - actually had fewer regular cyclists than the UK. Amazing.

Here's a woonerf in Bergen-an-Zee in Holland.

Amazingly, we found a woonerf in Aberdeen!
But it's not for the likes of you. It's in Rubislaw Den.

Blight, Neglect (Benign or Otherwise), Decline

As we walk through our city, it becomes clear that we are living through a time of flux, of change. In the built environment this manifests itself as a dynamic tension between shiny new-build developments on the one hand and blighted, declining buildings and areas on the other.

It's clear to us that a lot of the decline we see around Aberdeen is part of the private-sector bust, not just council bankruptcy or intransigence. We're equivocal about what we feel about this...

Being aware that possibilities are generated on the edge of things, at the border between something and nothing, in the interface of new and old and in the no-man's land between the past and the future, we are thrilled by this dynamic tension and its potential. A creative current flows between these areas and in the metaphorical conversation between them; if only we can calibrate our eyes to see the current's arcing like lightning discharges - if only we can tune our ears to the murmuringly quiet whispers - then we can feel the city shifting beneath our feet as it finds its new 21st century identity. Opposing forces out of balance produce motion.

Union Plaza

A lot of the recent developments in Aberdeen seem over-confidently out of scale in the current business environment. Developments for which, of course, the funding was in place and business plans written before the onset of market crunch and public austerity.

Public austerity is something which we can expect to see more and more of in Aberdeen. Our council's funding difficulties are structural and a legacy of the imposition of unitary authorities by central government. We understand that Aberdeenshire Council's legacy from Grampian Regional Council was a funding surplus, whereas Aberdeen City Council's inheritance was a budget in permanent deficit - a deficit now compounded and exacerbated by the banking-sector provoked recession and public sector tightening which is its outcome.

Sometimes, like the city-wilderness verge in the photo below, this neglect can turn out to be benign and beneficial. The topsoil benefits from the absence of herbicides and increased biomass mulching, watercourses and drainage channels benefit from improved water retention in-situ and biodiversity obviously benefits. C'mon the bees! And it looks really good. Other folk see nothing but 'weeds' and are outraged.

The pink rosebay willow herb combines with the yellow ragwort to give a
very distinctive colour scheme in mid to late summer Aberdeen.
(With thanks to Mike Shepherd for photo and words)

Other examples of benign neglect can be found all over Aberdeen as domestic outbuildings are 'retired', no longer required for the storage of solid fuel, no longer needed to house boilers and sinks and mangles for the wash. We find that results of this benign neglect (if properly stewarded) can be beautifully picturesque.

Blight is something else again, and is seldom caused by direct neglect. Rather - blight is usually provoked by development elsewhere or nearby, for instance, the new office development on Justice Mill Lane runs the risk of blighting Bon Accord Crescent and Square.

Just as the recent Union Plaza development provoked vacancy on Union Street, we are concerned that vacancies will proliferate in the business district around Bon Accord Square as offices move into the 'IQ'. This shiny new-build is the largest office development built in Scotland since the RBS HQ outside Edinburgh and no doubt offers the best and most fit-for-purpose state-of-the-art office facilities. Though we've no idea what that actually means. Same applies at the 'City Wharf' development on Shiprow.

Union St, blighted between Union Row and Huntly St.

Vacancy is the greatest risk to the structural integrity of buildings, as no occupant is present to have an interest in keeping the building weatherproof. In time, and nature's changing course untrimmed, the fabric of the building is breached and the structure is compromised. Demolition and comprehensive redevelopment are the inevitable consequence.

We'd never ever ever suggest that property developers would ever find it in their interest to allow decline of a building to progress to such an extent that comprehensive redevelopment were necessary. That could never happen. Particularly not in a conservation area.

See comments section below for correction of our understanding on council funding.