Wednesday, 26 October 2011

An Open Goal, An Uncontested Scrum

If you're familiar with local planning issues in Aberdeen, skim this first couple of paragraphs. If you're not, then you might be surprised to learn that in Aberdeen we have a sunken town-centre park called Union Terrace Gardens (very much like a pocket-sized version of Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens) which is under threat of redevelopment for the sake of business profits. The vision of one man (oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood), this proposed redevelopment has been branded as the "City Gardens Project" and is being 'driven' forward by local business development quango ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) along with some other local tycoons. Visit the website if you want.

Other than a scrubby swatch in the centre of a large roundabout on the Inner City Ring-Road, Union Terrace Gardens is the only open green space in the centre of our town. We've covered some aspects of this proposed redevelopment before, and we've even proposed our alternative 'vision' for what could be done to improve and safeguard (rather than destroy or jeopardise) this open green space in the town centre. Against stiff opposition, the business-orientated boosters of this commercial annexation of public space have pushed forward, ever onward - and last week opened an exhibition of the competing submissions to the international design competition which they had taken it upon themselves to organise with public funds. Members of the public are invited to view the proposals for the destruction of the gardens and are asked to vote for which of the six on offer they prefer. No minimum intervention option to restore the park to its originally-intended amenity is offered. Radical change is presented as a fait accompli.

Concept #1.
For visual interest, we've sprinkled this post with images from the submissions to the design competition, which we got from STV local. You can download big PDFs of the full submissions and read all the usual starchitect boilerplate for yourself from design competition gatekeeper Malcolm Reading Consultants' website here.

Interviewed on local TV channel STV, ACSEF-styled "heritage expert" Malcolm Reading himself, interviewed at the VIP-only opening of the exhibition which showcases the six competing designs, said:
It's a testament to Aberdeen haha really, in a sense of er it is a world city and these are world class design teams who're interested in building in this city. I, eh I think its a - its a - really it is, it is, a testament to an interest in design quality about what cities are going to be like in the twenty-first century [sic]
Concept #2
OK. Notwithstanding what's written specifically below, we're not going to examine the various proposals. To do so would be redundant, for friend of OtherAberdeen Fraser Denholm has already examined the six proposals and has written a blistering critique in his trademark style, which we endorse. Go and read it here.

Right, did you read it? Good. So we continue...

With urban generation from the turn of the twentieth century picking up, economists forecast that globalization and the powers of multi-national corporations would shift the balance of power away from nation states towards individual cities, which would then compete with neighbouring cities and cities elsewhere for the most lucrative modern industries, and which increasingly in major Western Europe and US cities did not include manufacturing. Thus cities set about 'reinventing themselves', giving precedence to the value given by culture. Municipalities and non-profit organizations hope the use of a Starchitect will drive traffic and tourist income to their new facilities. With the popular and critical success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry, in which a rundown area of a city in economic decline brought in huge financial growth and prestige, the media started to talk about the so-called "Bilbao factor"; a star architect designing a blue-chip, prestige building was thought to make all the difference in producing a landmark for the city.
Concept #3
The trend [named] “the Bilbao Effect” after the huge success of Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain—is just about over. 
The phenomenon of using iconic architecture to promote a city, an institution, or a real-estate development was a product of the economic boom that began in the late 1990s and ended with the recession in 2008. As Western economies begin to recover, extravagant, eye-popping architecture is giving way to a subtler new aesthetic. In the U.S. and Europe, architectural values are shifting from can-you-top-this designs toward more efficient, functional building. Innovation and experimentation are increasingly directed at sustainability and new technology. For a younger generation of architects in particular, “the spectacle building is kind of a dinosaur,” says Rosalie Genevro, director of the Architectural League in New York.

Two years ago, the Boston Globe article 'Marking the End of the Bilbao Decade' said: "…times dictate a shift away from vanity projects" and asked: "have we reached the climax and termination of a whole era in architecture?…" And now, Maria Misra writing in last month's Prospect magazine says: "We can expect the monstrous regiment of 'starchitects' who have strewn crass monuments to their [and their clients'] own narcissism across our cities to embrace a more sober, elegant and functional style…"

Concept #4
Alas, here in Aberdeen we must suffer the detritus left after the retreat of the waves at the high-water mark. In our tycoons we have a reservoir of not only the single minded monomania but also the narcissism necessary to power the last of the starchitects forward on one final vanity project, one last triumph of the will. And just as fast-fashion garments are remaindered unsold stepwise through the logistical chain all the way north through the towns and cities of the UK until at last they wash up last-gasp last-chance-to-sell in the shops of Aberdeen (next stop Africa!), so we see the last gasp of this will to "wow factor architecture" expire in our town centre.


Whatever your feelings about the quality (or otherwise) of the conceptual proposals for the destruction of Union Terrace Gardens, it's important to realise that it's the choice of site that's the problem. We must be careful not to confuse context with content. Imagine, for instance, that these proposals instead were for a building/gardens project to be sited at:
  • Mounthooly Roundabout / West Nth st. (Brownfield/transport land-use at present) 
  • Timmer Market/Hannover St car park (Brownfield/transport)
  • Denburn Health Ctr (Brownfield)
  • Holburn Valley North Slope at Justice Mill Lane (Recently redeveloped brownfield - now commercial)
  • Site of Union Square (Recently redeveloped brownfield - now retail)
We imagine that, on any of these other sites, the starchitect proposals would have been "grasped with open arms" [sic, per ACSEF] by the people of Aberdeen.

Concept #5
But, of course, the great big open goal which the tycoons and their bagmen have missed is the site of the now empty and soon to be derelict St Nicholas House, former headquarters building of Aberdeen City Council. Leaving our own feelings aside, the building is (rightly or wrongly) generally regarded as a much-loathed buck-tooth turned rotten, an eyesore in the heart of our town. Were the tycoons to have proposed a city garden or civic square on that site, they would have been pushing at an open door and been assured of the wholehearted support of the vast majority of Aberdonians. They would have reaped the benefit of citizens' goodwill for years to come (along with all the consent thereby manufactured for their atmosphere-jeopardising hydrocarbon production activities - but that's another story). How could they miss so obvious a wide open goal? What's wrong with them? We thought they were supposed to be clever.


As mentioned, this project is being forced onward by local enterprise quango ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) on behalf of the oil-tycoons for who's interests they provide the necessary administrative fig leaves. But the name ACSEF itself points to the problem these people have in defining the necessary content for our local community and wider society as they and we collectively face an uncertain future, for they have a demonstrable problem in defining the context in which they work. The name ACSEF - Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future - is a misnomer, for these people concentrate their efforts on maximising benefits for local business (which is the concern of discrete private individuals, and is limited in its time horizon by reporting seasons and tax-return basis periods) rather than the local economy. The local economy, which is by definition the entirety of the local area, its land, its people, its society, its natural and human resources, its knowledge, its potential and its limitations - in addition to its businesses - is not delimited by time horizons either in the past or the future, and is much larger in scope than can be encompassed by mere business concerns. Thus, by viewing everything through the myopic lens of business, ACSEF blithely have alienated significant sectors of local discourse, which they simply cannot see.

So, having established that, we examine sceptically ACSEF's assertions that this redevelopment project is a "fundamental plank" necessary for "businesses and investment to secure jobs for our children and grand-children" and is required to "transform the economy". All this, somehow, from a small city centre park. It's clear that the problems facing the economy are several orders of magnitude more grave than any which might be solved by a real estate deal involving a town centre park. Again, from Prospect Magazine, from back in 2008 - close to the start of the current economic difficulties:

Gelrald Holtham writes:
The freeing of capital movements in the 1980s combined with the collapse of communism, releasing billions of new workers into the world economy, has recreated a global reserve army of labour. That in turn has contributed to a rise in the share of world GDP accounted for by profits and an accompanying decline in the share accounted for by wages. Such a development easily leads either to over-investment by businesses or a shortfall of aggregate demand. When wages lag, spending can keep up with output only by an expansion of consumer debt.
Since Keynes was unfashionable and Marx unmentionable, no-one asked what this would mean for the level and pattern of demand.
Yet here was the central problem with the globalised system. If profits and output rise persistently faster than wages, who will buy the output? A lack of effective demand, in Keynesian terms is averted for a time [by the expansion credit], but ultimately shows up in a problem of "the realisation of capital". 
So we in the developed world find ourselves here: globally defective demand caused by an imbalance between wage and profit rates, made worse by a collapse in the availability of the very consumer credit which had masked the problem for a decade or more, and severely aggravated by the necessity to pay down that debt at both national and personal levels.

But here, in our small corner, those who have taken it upon themselves to secure an 'economic future' for Aberdeen believe (or, rather, would try to have us believe) that a real-estate deal involving a small public park and benefitting a handful of local construction companies and property developers will fix it. It will not, of course. The imbalance between wages and profit took decades to reach this crisis point and so it will take comprehensive attitudinal shifts in society; a change in the local, national and international conversation, and a widespread paradigm shift to remedy this imbalance. It's tasteless in the extreme that a local business development quango should use the global crisis as a smokescreen for what is, in fact, a project to privatise - for the benefit of a tiny handful of already-affluent local business-people - a relatively small (but high-value) patch of what has been community-owned land since the middle-ages.

Concept #6


Above, when we pointed out the 'open goal' we mocked the boosters of the City Gardens Project for their choice of site. But maybe, just maybe they are cleverer than we give them credit for. We are particularly worried about the Concept #6 proposal, with it's bizarre monolith. Go and look at it again (pdf). Maybe we're just paranoid, but we worry nonetheless. Throughout this entire controversial debacle, we've had the feeling that we're being scammed in some way - and not the obvious one - that this whole thing is some sort of shell game. Large real estate deals have always and everywhere been characterised by the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't misdirection of bad-things-made-to-look-good and good-things-made-to-look-bad conjuring. Our concern is that this Concept #6 has been chosen for us, pre-selected. On internet chat forums, blogs and social networking sites, we're all too busy having a damned good laugh at its egregious MONOLITH to notice that this is, indeed, the only proposal which 1. nearly fits the tycoon Sir Ian Woods' parameters and 2. is said to have a 'feasible payback strategy'. We're all too busy being misdirected by the big flashing red herring MONOLITH to notice the 13000 sq metre three-storey public car-park which sits beneath the MONOLITH, and the unspecified area of private car-park which occupies the airspace above the Denburn Road dual carriageway to service the parking needs of the workers in the the 7000 sq metre commercial offices which straddle the valley and 'add to the urban grain' along the eastern slope of the Denburn valley.

For this design, rather than take the approach of all the other designs which are, in fact singular, genuinely monolithic buildings filling the valley. Concept #6 is actually modular, consisting of several discrete buildings which can be pick-mixed to suit. And, indeed (MONOLITH aside) to the vast majority of the public, proposal #6 looks OK. The gardens -particularly the natural [sic] amphitheatre - are shown to be left more-or-less untouched. With a push and a rush, we might envisage this proposal being adopted as Aberdeen City Council favourite, with the proviso that the horrid monolith part is left out (thus making it 'even' cheaper). Of course, the ever-promised arts centre was intended for location in the monolith - but you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs! So, in the end what we get is Concept #6 sans monolith (sans arts centre) but including its large development of commercial offices straddling the Denburn at Union Bridge and several new blocks of offices along the eastern slope of the Denburn valley. These commercial developments along with the large new carparks occupying the current 'dark' area of the gardens and over the Denburn Road dual carriageway. These commercial enterprises, carparks and offices, forming the 'payback strategy'. Brilliant!

We have heard members of the public mentioning that the #6 concept has nice things included in it - for instance the extension of the gardens to encompass the William Wallace statue and the inclusion of a spur which appears to extend greenery a hundred metres north as far as Woolmanhill. It has also been pointed out that the Concept #6 plans include the re-greening of Golden Square. But the 'nice' things about this proposal are merely the (very cheap) quid pro quo for developing the currently green backlands of Belmont St for commercial offices and turning fully one third of Union Terrace Gardens into a multi-story carpark.

Surely we need hardly point out that the extension of the park to Woolmanhill and Wallace, and the greening of Golden Square do not require the polity of Aberdeen to give consent to a real estate deal which will see the rest of the Denburn Valley at Union Terrace and Belmont Street fall prey to overdevelopment. Yet, having been presented with a fait accompli, we fear that people will feel compelled to choose the 'least worst' option. The 'least worst' option - we have heard and read a number of our townsfolk opine - is option #6.

And so the moneyed interests which would benefit from this privatisation of common land are offered an uncontested scrum. Amazing. We have heard a great deal from the promoters of this project about "World Class Architects". We have no particular comment on their competence as architects in the usual sense of building design. But we must offer our complements on the developers' heresthetical skills in the design of the "Choice Architecture" which is being presented to the people of our town. World Class.

Submission #6 - Multi-storey carpark on common ground

Submission #6 - Overdevelopment of Belmont backlands

Submission #6 - Overdevelopment of Belmont backlands


Lena said...

From what I've seen of the proposal models I'm assuming they are part of the UTG campaign as they are truly awful. So awful that it looks like none of those behind the designs actually want the job.

Jack Burnett-Stuart said...

I have to agree with Lena. I can't believe the heads of these offices ever saw the designs, and now they surely will want to remain anonymous. Though its obvious where #2 came from.