Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Top Deck Trials

A little while ago, wandering around the centre of town, we crossed the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre. We think it's fair to say that this is now a strange place. There used to be a bustling Post Office, a Job Centre, a baker, a cafe, a cosmetic shop, the stationary outlet for WH Smiths and something else which we can't remember. Now, though, it has failed commercially; the shop units are boarded up and vacant.

It seems counter-intuitive that there should be this void, this vacuum at the very centre of the town, and of course, we have to ask: "why?"

We've already mentioned the unpleasant attitude displayed by those who enforce the already unpleasant surveillance system which blankets the deck with it's foul intrusion. But consumers are used to that sort of invasive prying, so that's probably not it.

No, we think that the big problem for the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre is two-fold. These are problems which the late-seventies master-planners and mid-eighties architects could not have foreseen. These are problems which cannot be overcome at this site, for they are problems which reside within the consumers themselves, not with the design of the shopping centre.

Firstly, the top-deck of the St Nicholas Centre is outside. This obliges hapless unsuspecting consumers to expose themselves to the wind and other meteorological phenomena for which they might not be psychologically, physically or sartorially prepared. It now being technologically possible (and therefore de-facto desirable) to upgrade to a life lived completely behind closed doors. Like a sort-of saturation-diving system but for producer/consumers.

Whereas the industrial diver goes from living-chamber to diving-bell to seabed worksite, all the while never exposed to the ambient environment; likewise the producer/consumer can go from apartment underground carpark into car to underground (or multistory) carpark at the workplace (or shopping centre), all the while never exposed to the ambient environment. It is revealing that the top decks of Aberdeen's multi-story carparks are invariably deserted - it is as if the producer/consumers are afraid to see the sky.

Secondly, the top-deck of the St Nicholas Centre is upstairs. This obliges the consumer to climb some stairs, thus unavoidably taking some exercise. Don't be silly! If you must exercise, the place to do that is in the controlled and mediated environment of the gym, where it's paid-for and therefore safe. And indoors.

Now the stationary outlet alone operates on the top of the St Nicholas Centre - solitary amid the foot-fall depleted devastation. Look upon my post-it pads and dispair! Nothing beside remains.

We like stationary well enough, but self-sealing envelopes and rollerball pens seem, well, somehow just not enough to justify the existence of this prime piece of real estate right in the heart of the city centre. And so, nature abhorring a vacuum, a sort of social market in urban space takes over. Re-development, re-use or re-invention inevitably follows (sooner or later) when a piece of real-estate becomes blighted.

Some people, when they see an area becoming run down with vacancy and blight, get all hand-wringingly "something should be done - it's a disgrace - etc". We don't - we find it thrilling to watch the urban environment weaving it's cocoon of vacancy - who knows the shape of the metamorphosed creature which will emerge! We think that such areas can become "edges" - and so we welcome blight, we embrace the run-down and we seek out the vacant.

Zimmer-rock guitarist "The Edge" (out of pension-pop outfit U2) once embarrassingly told an interviewer that he'd chosen his nom-de-plectrum because "the edge is the difference between something and nothing". Cringeworthy though this self-regarding aphorism might be, we think that there's something to it, especially when we look at the urban realm. Edges are where things are juxtaposed. And when diverse items (artifacts, attitudes, activities, architecture, people, whatever) are put together, opportunities exist for new developments (and not just real estate!) to take shape through a process of serendipitous accident or coincidence - this is the fountainhead of creativity.

So we were delighted to notice a few "edges" forming on the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre...

We watched some guys doing reeeeaaaaallly impressive trials-bike stuff there, much to the delight of a group of young asian girls who were hanging about eating pakoras in their eyecatchingly beautiful multicolour printed headscarves. Much preening and giggling and flirting and stunt-riding and otherwise showing off. We felt that there was quite a good community feel on the go. (Is this the Big Society?) The stunt riding was really entertaining; the riders were proud to show off their abilites to old farts like us.

A grumpy fat woman opened a window from the offices above and shouted her disapproval with threats. We shouted back at her to leave the kids alone. Was she never young herself? Perhaps she envied their fitness and good looks.

We've been in touch with the best of the trials bikers we saw that day. He's a young guy (damnhim) called Greg Wright who you can watch displaying his impressive skill on this video:

Like the best public art, activities like Greg's add colour, excitement, entertainment and diversity to our town. People like Greg and his parcourt and skateboarding colleagues are assets to this town and so it really bothers us when people do them down and try to marginalise them, as if they were street-drinkers or aggressive beggars or somesuch. They are not; they are athletes and artists on the cutting edge of something new. They are role-models and exemplars of skill development, fitness and an active life.

Greg is the only trials biker at his elite level who lives in Aberdeen. He's recently enjoyed the success of being placed 2nd in the elite section of a competition held in Edinburgh. The trials biking community is growing rapidly in Scotland, and there is the possibility of a Scottish tour competition developing with around six different locations around the country. Fort William is already a world centre of extreme cycling sports, and locations around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen would be included on the itinerary.

Keep your eye out for Greg - he's well worth watching, and he's one to watch. His progression in the sport is something we should support. Our non-commercial dogma at Other Aberdeen prevents us from sponsoring him directly, but if any of our readers are interested in helping Greg out with a bit of cash for bike parts, travel expenses and the like, we can put you in touch. E-mail us using the link at the top left of the page.

We find it deliciously ironic that he should practise and hone his outdoor active skill on the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre - a place which failed in it's primary function as a shopping centre because it required a small level of outdoor activity on the part of its users.


John Aberdein said...

Brilliant article: a mind-opener! Haven't mounted these stairs for years: and now am eager to. This should move some stationery – and some to biker-envy...

Anonymous said...

The Post Office move to the basement of WH Smith really reduced foot traffic and its not really a shortcut to anywhere if the St Nicholas centre doors are open. The measures (odd bits of fencing and the like) put in place to curb skateboarders etc trying to do stunts on the hard landscaping really made the whole place less attractive.

Anonymous said...

great spot... perfect for lunch on 'fine' days.. and smoking and enjoying said urban performance..