Friday, 28 January 2011


A brief follow-up to our ongoing "dunno" about whether we like or dislike the redevelopment of Justice Mill Lane.

We were intrigued by the double-handed backhand technique exhibited by renowned local architect Norman Marr in the award citation given to the IQ/Radisson Park Inn building at the 2010 Aberdeen Civic Society Awards (PDF here - see p4). The citation demonstrates what we believe is called "plausible deniability", and Mr Marr himself deserves a Blondin Award for his rhetorical high wire act.

There can be no doubt that the blight, vacancy, neglect, filth and dilapidation which characterised the location until recently was a blot. We're definitely glad to see it gone and we believe that hotel accommodation and commercial offices are ideal uses for such a central business district location. The question remains, though: Should we praise what we've now got on this site, simply because it's better than waste ground? Or should we be more critical, believing that the site deserved buildings of better quality and/or execution?

Well, we're still not ready to decide.

But today we'll draw attention to something we most certainly do not like: The new terrace of buildings has annexed the skyline with vulgar commercial branding.

Both from the West.

And from the East.

We dislike this brash subsumption of our town's skyline under these commercial banners. It serves as a psychogeographical negative, a minus point, a black mark towards our eventual evaluation of this new piece of urban placemaking.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Cognitive Dissonance, Churnalism, Think Tanks, Category Errors and Social Division

We couldn't help but wonder at the brain-clanging contradiction of some of the news about and affecting Aberdeen this week.

Firstly, on Monday, we had very upbeat local press and TV reports "Aberdeen to lead in economic recovery" This is from local TV station STV.
Aberdeen has been named one of the “cities to watch” as it is predicted to help Scotland come out of the recession and be protected from the effects of the Government's spending cuts.
The Grantite city is best-insulated from the economic impact of the government's spending squeeze and the best-placed to grow out of the economic downturn, the Center for Cities said.
Well, that sounds like great news! We noticed that local newspaper The Press and Journal (P&J) displayed street banners which said something like "Aberdeen: The Economic Dynamo That Will Pull UK Out Of Recession". (To be as fair as possible, the actual headline was marginally less hubristic "Aberdeen a key city to power UK recovery". Yet the following day we saw: City council confirms 900 jobs to go. And the day after: Double-dip fears grow as recovery nosedives. So, what's really going on? This needs a closer look...

The articles on the Monday spoke to and of a certain hubristic character in Aberdeen, one which we've mentioned before, and one which novelist Christopher Brookmyre fingered in his novel A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away.
Europe's Oil Capital. Honestly. The first time he heard the expression, he'd assumed it was a bit of self deprecatory humour. That was before he learned that there was no such thing as self-deprecatory humour in Aberdeen, particularly when it came to the town's utterly unfounded conceit of itself. It was a provincial fishing port that had struck it astronomically lucky with the discovery of North Sea oil, and the result was comparable to a country bumkin who had won the lottery, minus the dopey grin and colossal sense of incredulous gratitude. The prevalent local delusion wasn't that the town had merely been in the right place at the right time, but that it had somehow done something to deserve this massive good fortune, and not before time either.
We remember similar reportage in May last year when Aberdeen was given a "Top Rating" in an international survey for quality of life. What the local press failed to report then was the context of the survey. While rightly saying that "London is the only British city placed higher than Aberdeen", what the report did not say was that only 2 towns in Scotland were included in the survey; Glasgow and Aberdeen. In the the rest of the UK, the report only included the four towns Belfast, Birmingham, London and Oxford. We all know that the results would have been very different if had included the likes of Manchester, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, York, Norwich, Brighton, Portsmouth, Southampton, Leicester, Swansea, etc. all of which were excluded from the survey.

Moreover, a little look at what exactly the purposes of the survey were proved enlightening. The survey was undertaken by global human resources consultancy employment agency Mercer. One of the activities of Mercer being to set up global moves for expatriate employees for whom they are agents. The quality of life survey is produced by them to help employees demand 'compensation' from their employers by way of hardship payments. The baseline is 100. Aberdeen's ranks below that 100 base. We might therefore provide our local press with an alternate headline:
Human Resource experts recommend hardship payments for international workers coming to Aberdeen.
But that wouldn't play well to our civic hubris reality distortion field, would it?

Returning to this week's overblown press reports of Aberdeen's economic dynamism, we note that the stories were prompted by this press release from the Centre for Cities "think tank". We can see that both the STV and P&J reports have simply cut-and-pasted text from the press release into their reports. This process is known as "churnalism", a practice exposed in depth in Nick Davies book Flat Earth NewsThe book was reviewed at the time in The Independent Newspaper as painting "a damning picture of a dysfunctional national press which is spoon fed by government and PR agencies and incorporates wire copy into stories without the most cursory fact checking." Clearly this practice is as widespread, if not more so, in the regional press as in the national.

The Centre for Cities think tank (or "policy institute") declares itself as independent and non-partisan. Fair enough. In the same declaration they say that they are committed to improving the economic performance of UK cities - but there is no immediate mention of the social, environmental or communitarian aspects of the urban sphere. Cities are, of course, more than just the sum of the businesses which operate in them. The Centre for Cities does recognise this, and in their report "Grand Designs" heralds and recommends a wholistic approach to urban liveability, which they recognise as a prerequisite of improved economic performance. They say:
  • Local and national politicians should accept that using regeneration plans to ‘go for growth’ hasn’t worked in every urban neighbourhood and can have negative as well as positive consequences on a city’s economy and residents.
  • A new way forward might mean building a park rather than a science park, or turning tiny terraces into larger homes, rather than knocking them down and building one bed flats. Communities should be given the power to decide on plans, testing out the neighbourhood planning approach expected in the Localism Bill.
Naturally, we approve. These recommendations are, of course, in contrast to initiatives announced and facts on the ground here in Aberdeen. And, unfortunately, in the Cities Outlook 2011 report (PDF), the Centre for Cities has looked only at the broad statistics which relate to economic performance without looking at the context in which those statistics sit.

For instance, the report is completely correct to point out that unemployment is low in Aberdeen when compared to the national average. But this is also true of other areas which are either rural or have a large agricultural hinterland and, therefore, primary-sector economies. Orkney, for instance, has lower unemployment than Aberdeen. It doesn't make Aberdeen a place with an especially dynamic or diverse and nimble economy. Check out our earlier post about Dutch Disease. Primary sector economies (agriculture, fisheries and resource extraction) have a lower equilibrium (or 'natural') rate of unemployment than economies based upon manufacturing, retail and services. In this second category a higher equilibrium rate of unemployment is required to maintain the profit rate. As the economy approaches full employment, wages are bid up and a crisis of profitability ensues (UK 1960 - 1973). In primary sector economies, no such 'reserve army of labour' is required, as wages are determined by yields and commodity prices, while the profit rate remains constant.

The Cities Outlook 2011 report compares Aberdeen with Milton Keynes, Reading, Leeds and Bristol. We feel that this is not comparing like with like. These other cities have diverse economies based on businesses which operate in secondary sector (value-added manufacturing) and tertiary sector (services). These four other cities create their prosperity and wealth via the judicious operation of capital combined with innovation which creates value. In Aberdeen, our primary sector economy dictates that we primarily sook what wealth we have from beneath the seabed, the value of that wealth being determined on international markets which no amount of local innovation or judicious operation of local capital will influence.

The Centre for Cities made a category error when they linked Aberdeen with these other four cities. Our local press has compounded and exaggerated this error, and indeed today continues to do so, calling for next generation broadband connectivity to "let Aberdeen lead [the economic] recovery". We are exasperated that this boosterism based upon fallacy continues to characterise our town, both in the local press and amongst credulous bloggers who's cupidity is such that they allow it to amplify their gullibility.

Now, let us not be misunderstood, there's much to be proud of in the business sphere in Aberdeen. But there's no need to try to enhance these good things with slavish cant which actually misrepresents reality. To do so devalues that which is genuinely good and praiseworthy. To do so undermines our standing amongst our competitor regions. And to do so undermines calls for the greater support from central government which will be necessary if we are to progress successfully through the transition to renewable energy. The rebalancing of our economy means changing from reliance on primary sector activity into exploiting secondary and tertiary sectors in the burgeoning renewable energy market. This will not be easy.

Despite all this, the reports are right to an extent. High oil prices do mean that the immediate and medium terms looks like being a profitable time for our local primary sector industry. However, affluence for some is not the same thing as wealth for our town as a whole. Aberdeen is already one of the most socially divided towns in the UK, with the most uneven income distribution in Scotland. The immediate economic prospects for our town suggest that this trend will only continue.

A handful of extremely wealthy tycoons and their executives will give our town a veneer of affluence, while the remains of the city and its society rot away beneath. Outsiders like the Centre for Cities might continue to see the veneer. Aberdonians will have to live with the rot.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Unfortunately, though we greatly prefer not to, from time to time necessity brings us to the Bridge of Dee Parking and Shopping Experience. It always leaves us feeling a bit dirty (metaphorically). Today, we learned that it literally makes us dirty, inside and out. Contaminated. Polluted.

Not in the least bit dehumanising.
One day soon, we'll do a full psychogeographical exposé of the zone which sits on the broad flat floodplain of the Ruthrieston Burn. But not today - we've got more indignant fish to fry.

A few years ago, following an overwhelming inflow of transatlantic capital, farmers co-operative ASDA became an arm of joint stock/private equity Wal-Mart and expanded exponentially on their site at the Bridge of Dee. Their premises and carpark were renewed and in the process part of the Ruthrieston Playing Fields was annexed. By way of a bewildering social payment sweetener the Wal-Mart management paid to also have part of the playing fields fenced off and covered in astroturf. Something to do with the formal to the real subsumption of leisure (as well as labour) under capital, probably.

We walked past this privatised and artificialised part of the playing fields on our way back to Pitmuxton via the Old Deeside Line. And a horrifying sight transfixed us.


A great deal of snow fell on Aberdeen during November and December, and that snow, having been cleared from the pathways and carparks and the astroturf surface was piled up in huge berms. Over the weeks since, these snow-piles have been melting and leaving their formerly hidden toxic payload in situ.

This cargo of filth, this residue of disgusting dirt was consigned within the snow which had pulled it, dissolved it, from the very atmosphere through which it fell and which surrounded it as it lay in drifts and piles. Hidden in the pure white drifts and blankets, this toxic lading was concealed, now revealed as the water and ice which fixed it from the sky dissipates.

As we survey the huge double-deck Wal-Mart carpark, the carpark of Boots and PC World, the carparks of B&Q and Sainsbury's, so close to the playing fields where youngsters run and shout (albeit on an artificial surface, behind a fence, their leisure bought and paid for and itself generating revenue) we need not ask the source of this polluting filth, this literal and metaphorical stain.

But what we should ask is whether it is right for young people to be exercising aerobically in such a polluted atmosphere. We will not waste our effort in calling for a reduction in the provision of parking spaces; the exigencies of local realpolitic are far more likely to acknowledge the "facts on the ground" and close the playing fields - thus allowing Wal-Mart to further expand their car-park.


Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Big Brother is Now Listening.

If you pause for a serene moment while walking or cycling down Aberdeen's Airyhall Road / Rocklands Road at sunrise you might be treated to a view of crepuscular rays.

Which is nice.

Buddha's Fingers. Sun Drawing Water. Ropes of Maui.

By chance, I'd stopped at the rear gate of the new private sector International School of Aberdeen at Pitfodels. Where I discovered that they reserve the right to surveil me not only by image capture, but also by audio recording. For my personal safety!

Operators name and contact details left blank, we notice.
Which is less nice.

According to their website, the International School of Aberdeen provides:
(Their emphasis.)
"a safe and caring learning environment where students are challenged to reach their maximum potential through academic success and personal growth, becoming socially responsible and active global citizens." 
Indeed. One of the ways in which they hope to achieve this "mission" is to spy upon passers-by who use the ancient right-of-way which runs past the rear of their high-tech new building.

We cannot help thinking that rather than producing high-school graduates who are "socially responsible and active global citizens", the poor expat kids who are educated behind this ring of stone and steel which bristles with such suspicion are more likely being engineered to become socially paranoid and insular, segregated from the society in which they live - implicitly and explicitly being taught that those who live in that society need watching. And listening out for.

Why do they want to hear us as well as watch?

Monday, 24 January 2011

Rubislaw Quarry. Update.

A lovely day for a look at the quarry loch.

Some months ago, we conducted a thought experiment with the water in Rubislaw Quarry Loch as the subject.

We'd been prompted by news coverage that the quarry loch had been purchased by Sandy & Hugh, friends of a friend of a relative of ours. They refused to confirm exactly how much they'd paid, only going as far as saying that it was "less than a one-bedroom flat". A reasonable answer to why anyone would want to buy such an obvious liability was, similarly, not forthcoming.

So we'd gone and had a look at the site where the great part of the stone for Aberdeen's 19th and 20th century buildings had been extracted. We were impressed by the level of water which had filled the 200 metre deep hole. Indeed, by dead reckoning from our viewpoint we could see that the level of water was higher than Aberdeen's prestigious, upscale Queen's Road, which orbits the south of the site.

This might be something to be concerned with, as we darkly fantasised at the time. [For those not familiar with Aberdeen - this site is in the very centre of the affluent and aspirational "West End" of the town. Just to the west of the town centre; an area of tree-lined avenues, stately terraces and the modernist offices of Big Oil. This is an inner urban issue.]

Returning to view the quarry loch some six months later (again, to our chagrin, neglecting to bring along the Other Aberdeen theodolite) we were forced to use dead reckoning and pour over the photographic evidence which we gathered. Loupe to eye, we can confirm that, in our opinion, the water level has risen about 1.5 metres in the last six months.

Is this really a cause for concern? Truthfully, we don't know. But what we can say is that published minutes of Queens Cross/Harlaw Community Council for November and December 2010 reveal that the Community Council has significant concerns.

It seems that since November 2010, the Community Council has been in disappointingly one-way correspondence with Sandy & Hugh regarding their intentions for the quarry loch, and seeking information on whether any progress had been achieved in their discussions with civil engineers at Aberdeen University regarding means of permanently reducing the water level.

No response has been forthcoming from the grinning new owners who say they want to "share" the quarry loch with the residents of Aberdeen. Just what form this "sharing" will take is what worries us!

Sandy & Hugh: Silence.
Living in the heart of upscale downtown Pitmuxton (down the hill from Rubislaw), as we do, we'd very much like to have an answer from Sandy & Hugh.

We can attest that the Damoclean threat of two megatonnes of water thundering down the valleys of first the Holburn, then Geldieburn then Newlands burn and Ruthrieston Burn on the way to washing the entirity of the Bridge of Dee parking and shopping experience into the Foords of Dee is an intolerable source of fretful stress to the residents of Pitmuxton, and may have an adverse impact upon the upscale and aspirational character of the neighbourhood, thus rendering it less nice. (But what really bothers us is that Ferryhill is well out of the way of this threat. Dammit.)

We'll be following the future minutes of Queen's Cross/Harlaw Community Council with close attention.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Urban Dual Carriageways. The Future from the Past.

As our council continues pushing ahead with measures to "enhance" traffic flow at speed into the heart of the town centre to the exclusion of other transport options via the controversial "Berryden Corridor" (pdf) urban dual carriageway project, we continue to be nonplussed that such a discredited policy for traffic management continues to even be considered, let alone implemented.

It is telling that the report linked above is titled "Berryden Corridor Improvements", thus prejudicing it's own conclusions. That the creation of extra road-space exclusively for motor transport is an "improvement" is a conclusion which is increasingly seen as mistaken. We have written on this subject on one or two occasions before.

We so very much wish that it were true that congestion could be solved by the simple, seemingly common-sense expedient of building more roads. But, unfortunately, world-wide and decades-long experience of the building of relief-roads, bypasses and linkroads confirms without even a hint of doubt that it is not.

Note the "Proposed foot bridge over railway line".
Thanks for that.
As if this new pedestrian link will compensate for loss of
pedestrian permeability throughout the length of this new "corridor"

all the way from Woodside Fountain to Skene Square.

More and more, in every part of the world from Australia through Asia to Europe and even including the USA where the car is King, it is realised that more roads means more congestion and that the only thing which will reduce congestion is a policy which delivers fewer journeys undertaken by car.

It's a cliché and a truism to say that one of the definitions of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. So why do we expect that building additional road capacity will have a different effect this time? It will not; it will merely impoverish us by further devastating parts of our town which are already suffering blight and degeneration.

We are reminded of lessons unlearned elsewhere:

From Report on A highway Plan for Glasgow 1965.

These paper-bound utopian visions, unfortunately, turned into an alienating horror in the real world.

From At War With the Motorist's splendidly psychogeographically logged visit to Glasgow: Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow.

Glasgow continues on to repeat the same errors with new urban motorway and dual carriageway projects. It seems that we in Aberdeen cannot bear to be left out. As one commenter puts it: "Why would anyone want to walk anywhere when they can drive through the remains of the city at 50mph." And another: "Worth every penny, so it is. Heaven forbid that anybody might have to go anywhere, anytime at less than a respectable 60mph."

Should the Berryden Corridor urban dual carriageway be built as proposed, it will fulfil one function only - it will bring more motor traffic into the centre of town at an increased speed. From this function, effects flow: It will increase congestion; it will increase noise and atmospheric pollution; it will act as a barrier to east-west permeability and mobility for pedestrians and cyclists; it will isolate communities and it will have a detrimental impact upon the liveability of the inner part of our town north of the centre. It will thus increase social exclusion and alienation. This is the direct opposite of the study aims which, in the very first paragraph state that the project will "contribute to making Aberdeen’s transport network more efficient and sustainable over the coming years, ensuring that the city remains an attractive place to live, visit and work."

In the past, we have praised Aberdeen's surprisingly good cycling profile and we regularly revel in it's fantastic network of quiet and serene pedestrian paths which take walkers away from the stress of interacting with motor traffic.

We'd hate to have to reverse our position on this, particularly when our non-car infrastructure is beginning to gain International Fame.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Building Societies to Pawnbrokers. Doughnuts to Donuts.

Timely and perceptive article in today's Financial Times (registration required):
The changing face of Britain’s high streets
Today’s high street is very different to a snapshot of the average one in October 2008, a month after the Lehman collapse.
Building societies, recruitment agencies, estate agents and pubs have vanished from neighbourhood shopping streets, according to data compiled by the Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency.
However, not everybody is shutting up shop. High street bookmakers were the only category to see significant growth, with their numbers up 5 per cent over the two-year period.
Demand from pound shops, pawnbrokers and bakers is also in evidence, demonstrating the increasing social stratification of the high street as wealthier shoppers drive to out-of-town retail parks and malls.
And saucy FT comment here:
Lombard: Bookies inherit the high street
The meek will inherit the earth, but the bookies are inheriting the high street.
Building societies, temples of prudence staffed by priestesses in polycotton, are closing branches by the thousand. Betting shops are springing up instead, luring the populace with the cash-gulping idols that are fixed-odds gambling machines.
We've certainly noticed this happening in Aberdeen. Pawnbrokers, pay-day-advance moneylenders, pound shops and plush-looking bookies (bookasinos) all join the dots with vacancy, dilapidation and blight to plot a psychogeographical picture of our transvolving town.

The British doughnut, a lump of indifferent carbohydrate with jam in the middle, describes rich inner-city development surrounded by acres of gloom.
Easy credit money flows into city-centre apartment and commercial development in the 1990's and early 2000's. The near-centre residential and light-industrial zone which surrounds the centre is abandoned. That was then, but now...
The “doughnut effect" ... confusingly describes the opposite phenomenon to the “donut effect” that American planners talk of. The American donut, a sugary ring with an empty centre, is a fine metaphor for the rich suburbs around a collapsed inner city.
...the British  "Doughnut Effect" of the 1990's and 2000's turns out to be a chimera, a bubble blown by easy finance and collapses into the American "Donut Effect" after all. Confusing.

However, in Aberdeen we are optimistic that not all is lost. We have noticed some multiple grocery retailers (Tesco, Sainsbury, Co-op) beginning to re-occupy medium-sized and small town centre and local node sites. These car-park-less small scale need-responsive shops are designed not for customers to buy a month's worth of food, but rather just to pop in for something which is needed today. The large multiples are going back to the future and re-inventing the corner shop. Indeed, the Co-op's TV advertising campaign seeks to make capital of the fact that that, as a customer on foot - buying food fresh whenyou need it - you reject car culture and contribute to the pleasant livability of the town and your own well being and quality of life. But then, the Co-op are just a bunch of communists

As opposing forces both seek to hollow out and re-occupy the town simultaneously, we are thrilled by the dynamic of this unfolding urban narrative. We are particularly interested in the fact that Tesco, for one, seem to be playing on both sides.

We truly have no idea where to place our bets on how it will land.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Granite Crisis!

Over the years that we've lived in Aberdeen, we've noticed a tendency amongst the population: an odd attachment to "The Granite" and a willingness to fetishise it beyond reason. We find it odd, because there's nothing unusual in a town to being so homologous in its predominant construction material - most are.

Let's be sure not to be misunderstood. The architecture of late 19th and early 20th Century Aberdeen is unquestionably magnificent and praiseworthy. But this is now the early 21st Century. Architectural alternatives to the still-prevailing Victorian paradigm do actually exist and we should not be afraid of them. Indeed it's true that the dove-grey and shimmering stone from Kemnay and Rubislaw and other quarries is a very high quality building material, but - in the final analysis - a building material is all it is. And now there's none left that can be economically extracted. Alternatives do exist; we should, similarly, not be afraid of them either. Indeed, our irrational attachment to "The Granite" might now have more psychogeographical drawbacks for us than it has benefits.

We are nonplussed that every so often there's talk of a "Granite Museum" (!). We are perplexed that Big Oil manages to manufacture consent amongst the population by paying documentary-film lipservice to our town's granite heritage. And we are downright confused that "matching" granite for new development is sourced from far-flung quarries on the other side of the world. Why is it necessary that new buildings ape the old in every possible respect? If there's one good thing to be said about Stewart Milne's risibly Disneyesque Dalhebity House, it's that he chose to transcend the granite paradigm, build it from sandstone and so perhaps set a precedent which will allow our town to move on.

Next, we are faintly embarassed that Aberdonians continue to boast of Marischal College: "The Second Largest Granite Building in the World." Honestly, "second largest". It's like that Community Chest card you get in Monopoly: "Congratulations, you have won second prize in a beauty contest". It's an insult. We insult ourselves with this bathetic and vainglorious hubris.

We also feel that -  just as the Georgian/Victorian fakery of kilt and highland games and gathering of the clans to this day helps keep Scotland down: in its place, in the past - likewise this fetishisation beyond reason of our granite heritage has the potential to act as a brake upon the realisation of a progressive Aberdeen of the future.

But finally, and most importantly, (and it is important that we admit this), The Granite is now, after a hundred years in situ, mostly just a disgusting mess.

Truly horrid


Embarrassing (click the pic to see the full-size HORROR!)

We have already discussed on more than one occasion the difficulties and pit-falls which are experienced when building owners attempt to clean their facades. Aberdeen is turning yellow with the failures.

And then, if a building is successfully cleaned, it merely serves to highlight the grimy dilapidation of its neighbours.
Dirty to the left, as if new to the right.
Given all this, we think it's now time to think the unthinkable, time to slaughter a few sacred cows. Now is the time to break this restrictive tabu.

We are prepared to offer a radical solution:

Paint these troublesome buildings

A precident already exists in Aberdeen. Rather than clean modernist concrete buildings, many have recently had their fascias painted. Johnstone House in Rose St. is the first which comes to mind, and we think that Shell's Aztec Ziggurat at Altens Farm Road recently got the treatment too.

Baby blue Johnstone House
Indeed, Aberdeen has some modernist tower blocks which combine concrete elements with granite rubble decorative insets. These have been painted. Nobody moaned.



Looks great. As if brand new.
The benefits of painted facades for Aberdeen's troublesome granite buildings are manifold: The building's facade becomes flexible and easily and cheaply refreshable - changeable to suit fashion or function, whim or caprice; we could at last move away from our dour "Granite City" image and become something altogether more attractive and approachable - the "Ice Cream Pastel City by the Sea"; in the fulness of time, this could become a distinct new aspect to our heritage - unique in the UK - perhaps at long last we would gain the spot on the tourist map which we deserve.

Here are some examples from Do You Know:

Of course, not all of these will be to everyone's taste, but that's part of the beauty of the idea - it's diverse, thought provoking, de-familiarising and playful. And, once you've made the leap to decide to paint a building, you have literally rendered it's appearance infinitely changeable.

[Puts on flame-proof boiler-suit]

Monday, 17 January 2011

First Look - Marischal College

A heartbreaking few minutes spent looking at the reconditioned frontage of Marischal College on saturday, now that the scaffolding has been struck. The Marishal College building is being re-developed as a new headquarters for Aberdeen City Council.

Looks OK from a distance...
But it seems that Greyfriars has been left untouched,
contrasting nastily with the Marischal frontage.

Moss, lichen and grubby filth on Greyfriars spire
detracts somewhat from the newly-reconditioned Marischal frontage.

Actually, the closer you get, the nastier the Marischal frontage looks.  
Mmmm. The more you look - the nastier, blotchier, more stained and uneven it looks.
Something's wrong.

Blotchy. Patchy. Uneven finish.

Stained, burned(?), blotchy. 
Stained, burned(?), blotchy, scuffed, scratched, uneven, patchy.
Earlier in the year, Aberdeen City Council's Enterprise Planning and Infrastructure Committee slashed £2.5 million from the Marischal College redevelopment project's contingency budget. The funds were re-assigned to the Aberdeen roads budget, following the harsh winter which had caused issues with the 'state of the roads'. Oops.

We pretend no expertise in these matters, but we really hope that what we've pictured above is just an intermediate stage, and that when the contractors leave the site, these issues will be resolved. We've noted similar issues at other sites around town.

On the council website, this update was published earlier in the spring:
Marischal College's stunning "new" look is being gradually revealed as refurbishment work on the landmark building continues.
While McAlpine carries out the construction work on Aberdeen City Council's new corporate headquarters, Glasgow-based LaserClean is steadily restoring the stonework to its former glittering glory.
The face of the grey granite building was steadily blackened over the years as carbon deposits polluting the air took their toll. But the listed building's true colour, which has never been seen by many Aberdonians, is being revealed by the cleaning work.
About 40% of that cleaning work has now been completed and decorative features which were barely discernable in the grime, including the leopard's heads which protrude from the Broad Street walls, are now clearly visible.
Marischal College Advisory and Monitoring Board convenor and council leader John Stewart said: "The difference in the colour of the granite as the cleaning work progresses is really quite striking. It is hard to believe that what most of us know as an almost black building will soon be a light grey granite again, sparkling in the sun and once again reminding locals and visitors why Aberdeen is known as the Granite City.
"Marischal College will look quite spectacular once the work has been completed, not least because of its dramatic change in colour restoring the stonework to its former glory."
Hmm. "Stunning new look", "dramatic change in colour".

Yeah, but we don't think it was meant to be brown and yellow.

Psychogeography for Edinburgh & Glasgow!

Edinburgh based psychogeographical best-practice from a guy called Ed.

He's got a couple of books coming out later in the year - one on Edinburgh and one on Glasgow, so we're looking forward to that. Meantime, check out the splendid website:

"knit one street, purl one city"

"creative, critical, playful city+hinterland journeys using psychogeography and urban topography"

Friday, 14 January 2011

March Stones 37 to 39 ABD

Regular readers will know that, over the weeks and months, we've been touring the ancient boundaries of Aberdeen, and the marker stones or "March Stones" which identify the extent of those boundaries.

There's all sorts of histobunk available online, and we recommend having a look at both this article in the Leopard Magazine, and this heritage trail leaflet from Aberdeen City Council. Both are excellent sources of information.

The March Stones we're cataloging today are all on Tulloch Road. This road runs round the north east face of Brimmond Hill and borders the now failed Craibstone Golf Centre which went into liquidation in the autumn with debts of half-a-million pounds. Our thoughts about golf are a matter of record, but we don't like to see businesses fail. Let's hope the employees will be OK.

Though perfectly visible and accessible, March Stone 37 is up against a wall in somebody's garden at the south east end of a renovated and converted former outbuilding of Ashtown farm.

37 ABD. Ashtown Farm.
East of Stone 37 towards Newhills, March Stones 38 and 39 are within 50 metres of each other on either side of the road, close to the Gough Burn and its source: the Moss of Brimmond; an area of boggy ground to the south and west of the road. Run-off fom the Moss is drained via a system of channels which empty into and form the Gough Burn. Stone 38 is on the south verge of Tulloch Road, Stone 39 on the north. Stone 39 is also thought to mark the boundaries of the lands of Craibstone.

38 ABD - a bit worn. On the bank of the Gough Burn.

39 ABD
You can just see the golf course in top left quadrant of the shot.

The detail route plan drawings for Aberdeen's proposed bypass - the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR) show the new "special category" road passing very close to the location of March Stones 38 and 39. Indeed, as drawn, the embankment for the Ashtown Overbridge will necessitate the re-siting of Stone 39.

AWPR - Special Category Road. Whatever that means.

If and when it is built, the AWPR will mark a new de-facto boundary for Aberdeen, one which at its westernmost extent tracks surprisingly close to the boundary set by Robert the Bruce in the middle ages.

Psychogeography is not primarily about history, fascinating though that can often be. We have journeyed to the various March Stones not only for their own sake, but also and more importantly as a semi-arbitrary construct upon which to hang the variety of many of our psychogeograpical adventures. We must take care not to get hung up on the historical aspects of Aberdeen's ancient boundaries, so in that context, it's enough for us to reiterate that the March Stones mark the extent of the "Freedom Lands" which were "gifted" to Aberdeen by Robert the Bruce in 1319. Bruce is to be commemorated in a new statue which is to be sited outside the redeveloped Marischal College.

And it is at this point, where history and deep topography and politics and urban placemaking combine to affect the lives of modern and future people that the subject of Robert the Bruce and his interaction with Aberdeen takes on a psychogeographical significance for us today.

We have qualms about this forthcoming statue. We cannot help but wonder whether Bruce is a suitable person to be commemorated in this way, in this town. Firstly we have (both municipally and nationally) plenty enough statues to Powerful White Men who's stock in trade was violence. Secondly, do we really want to commemorate the man who, in order to crush an enemy's power-base, conducted an ethnic cleansing genocide in Moray, Buchan and Aberdeenshire in 1308: the Harrying of Buchan?

The Harrying was a devastating event for this area, characterised by its (surprisingly modern) ruthlessly systematic nature. This was a policy, managed and executed with businesslike efficency; entire towns like Ellon were completely eradicated, livestock and crops were burned in the fields, infrastructure was dismantled and dissipated. Some historians say that so complete was the destruction that the innate and potential wealth of Buchan was damaged for centuries after. A terrible and exceptional act of vengeful spite, unparalleled in these islands before or since.

Small wonder the Aberdonians cowered and offered Bruce whatever he wanted. The  fearful and pusillanimous capitulation of Aberdeen's burghers (who had been loyal to the English crown until the pogrom in the hinterland) no doubt, in time, pricked Bruces' conscience and lead to his eventual largesse. According to the Aberdeen City and Shire website, the ordinary people of Aberdeen also "furnished" Bruce with "large supplies" of cash, food and other goods. We cannot help but wonder under what levels of terror and sword-edge compulsion this "furnishing" was obliged. In this context, the "gift" of the Freedom Lands more than a decade later might be seen as a form of belated conscience-stricken compensation from Bruce to Aberdeen's craven burghers.

Those craven burgers, the pattern of their behaviour - their contemptible gutlessness - reinforced and rewarded by their eventual payoff from Bruce, set the precedent for a peculiarity of Aberdeen's civic character which is evident to this day. It is telling that, even now, our local paper adopts a fawning tone when writing of the "heroic" Bruce.

In pointing out that, in order to win a little monetary gain, the Aberdonian is content to humiliate and debase himself grossly, Paul Theroux was no doubt tuning in to this mercenary venality. As he said in his psychogeographical masterpiece "The Kingdom by the Sea" :
The average Aberdonian [is] a person who would gladly pick a penny out of a dunghill with his teeth. 
O Paul, it's actually much, much worse than that.