Thursday, 31 March 2011

Aberdeen's Incarcerated

We worry about the conditions of Aberdeen's incarcerated. They are denied the liberty to move freely. Their view of the outside world is obstructed by steel bars and unbreakable laminated glass. And - we understand - they are often inhumanly tied to chairs (this is said to be for their own "safety") in confined conditions, denied what we would regard as adequate bodyspace. In their cramped confinement stress positions, there is never enough room to stretch arms out; the dimensions of the space severely restricting even the smallest bodily movement. They are forced to obey seemingly arbitrary rules which govern their every activity, and are subject to autarchic punishment dished out by the wardens - there is no appeal to this form of summary justice.

We believe that they are often subject to repetitive loud rock music or sugary-facile pop ditties, interspersed with bizarre and recurrent exhortations which are designed to condition their behaviour and outlook; to bend them to the conformity required by society.

This mind-control conditioning is so successful, we are given to believe, that so institutionalised have these poor people become that, that, even when given the opportunity to walk free and flee their captivity, they choose of their own free will to return again and again to what they without irony call their "safety cell". Their minds cleansed of any original or nonconforming thought, as a substitute for their own wit or creativity they mouth to their fellows the repetitive shallow cant of the conditioning disquisitions which they gladly and voluntarily absorb passively again and again....

> "Ooooooooh Yes!"
> "No No No No No!"
> "Simples!"

As for the prisoners in SPS Craiginches - pictured in the background of the photo, we understand that conditions have improved significantly since the ending of "slopping out".

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

So, just what will the future look like?

We've seen the future. We can afford it. Yes we can.

A gem from the home of dynamic capitalism:

The Future of Manufacturing is Local.
Think manufacturing, and most likely your brain defaults to abandoned factories, outsourcing and economically devastated regions like the Rust Belt ...
But there are many parts of this country [USA] where manufacturing is very much alive, albeit in a different form. The monolithic industry model — steel, oil, lumber, cars — has evolved into something more nimble and diversified. As this country continues to figure out how to crawl out of its economic despair, we could benefit from focusing on the shift.
The article quoted above comes from a design and architecture commentator on The NY Times' opinion pages. In that context our thoughts turn to the future for our own town as we read that oil and gas giant Statoil is re-considering the future of some of its North Sea activities.

Yes, they do make things
in San Francisco
We've said before that, at some point, we'll wish that we in Aberdeen had started the process of rebalancing our economy sooner than we have (indeed, have we started at all?) The article in the NY Times which examines the re-balancing of parts of the US economic activity towards a nimble and diversified model of re-thought manufacturing might provide us with some inspiration. The article focuses on the work of SFMade, a grass-roots bottom-up charitable organisation, which is demonstrating great success in providing real help in regenerating the shattered economy of California. The SFMade community (for that is what it now is) stands in contrast to top-down hierarchichal organisations such as local enterprise companies and chambers of commerce.

Key phrases stand out from the NY Times article:
Times have changed. So has business, and it's time to rethink, and indeed rebrand, American manufacturing. 
From one member of the SFMade community:
“For decades we have developed a culture of disposability — from consumer goods to medical instruments and machine tools. To fuel economic growth, marketers replaced longevity with planned obsolescence — and our mastery of technology has given birth to ever-accelerating unplanned obsolescence. I think there is increasing awareness that this is no longer sustainable on the scale we have developed.”
From another member:

“Pick your community well. You’re not there solely to make money; you’re there to play a larger role.”

About SFMade's corporate structure:

The decision to be a non-profit was borne out of the belief that trade organizations (like the Chamber of Commerce) often serve more of a business development function rather than address the needs of the local manufacturing community. In contrast to government-initiated programs, SFMade emerged from the community, the culmination of a grassroots movement. The group allows that community to reconnect, share resources, receive education and assistance on everything from zoning to sourcing to taxes.

It is particularly interesting to note that this important bottom-up work on economic rebalancing is being done in San Francisco. That's one of the cities used by Charles Landry as an exemplar of best practise for creative human-scale liveability during the recent presentation he gave in Aberdeen. The presentation was hosted by ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) at the event which marked the relaunch of their misconceived and controversial City Gardens Project which, if realised, would cause the destruction of Aberdeen's Union Terrace gardens. 

It is vital that we see alternatives to ACSEF's monolithic proposal emerge in Aberdeen. We believe that their top-down approach to regeneration is out of its time and reflects their inability to grasp the fundamental and disruptive change which the nature of capital is subject to at present. Where once capital was embodied in factories and large chunks or arrays of machinery; monolithic amounts of liquid currency, tracts of land and large workforces - today, rather, capital is increasingly ephemeral; being comprised of ideas and individuals; ones-and-zeroes and the people who've created them - and mercurial, being much more mobile and subject to the whims of fashion and disruptive innovation. Our oil industry heritage with its big lumps of machines and money, tracts of (seabed) land and traditional working practices - largely unchanged in decades - has ill-served our town in preparation for the furious pace of change which now predominates in the new world of creative and social capital. All that is solid melts into air. 

Torry Rocks!
In our own small way in Aberdeen, we have, perhaps the seed model of something resembling the SFMade movement in the Torry Retail Rocks initiative, where young people can get access to subsidised (otherwise vacant) retail and workshop space in Aberdeen's historic Torry area (it's its own town, really). The streetscape and livability is already improving along Torry's Victoria Road thanks to this grass-roots bootstrapping work. We believe that this sort of initiative, which resembles the granular scale of SFMade, has much more to offer Aberdeen by way of a sustainable economic future than anything which traditional capital (and the traditional thinking that implies) can offer.

We feel that ACSEF have only partially grasped this point that capital has now a much greater social and creative aspect than at any time before the rise of capitalism itself. That's why they give the appearance of believing that a huge real-estate deal at Union Terrace is the means by which Aberdeen's economic future can be secured. It is not. The truth is much more granular - fractal, even, and impossible to encompass within one man's "vision"

While we've seen the future, we can't tell you exactly what it'll look like - this vision is panoramic, inclusive and cannot be assimilated in one glance. But we can tell you that we can easily afford to implement this vision. We can also tell you that we can't afford not to.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Woonerf for the Denburn Valley Development.

Word comes from the European Commission that, for the sake of the future, for the sake of sustainability and for the sake of liveability, it is their aspiration that petrol and diesel vehicles be banned from urban centres by 2050.

As radical pedestrians and utility cyclists, naturally, this is exactly the sort of thing we want to hear. This weekend, the taste of exhaust pollution in the centre of Aberdeen was quite disgusting, the noise-stress was unbearable and the vast majority of people (pedestrians) were, as usual, crammed into their tiny pavement allocation by the car drivers who use the space allocated to them on our town centre's roads to the exclusion of all other potential utility that might be gained from that precious urban space.

Future carpark.
In the light of this new anti-motor transport policy development in Europe, it seems all the more perverse that Aberdeen's political and business interests are intent on pushing ahead with urban dual carriageway projects which will deliver large numbers of high-speed drivers into the town centre at a higher rate than ever before. This, of course, will necessitate the creation of more car parking space, which will in turn induce more journeys by car into the city centre. It's like the 1960's version of urban planning. Quite embarrassing, really. One of the places earmarked for a big new car park (sometimes euphamistically termed or "traffic hub") appears to be the city's historic Union Terrace Gardens. This is deplorable.

A radical daydream creeps into our consciousness, a vision of a pleasant city centre which is proud to display both its heritage and its faith in the future. One of the major arguments put forward by those who want to redevelop Union Terrace Gardens is the fact that they are 'poorly utilised'. Well, we're not sure that a city park loses utility when unoccupied by people - it continues to provide ecological services; oxygen generation, urban wildlife habitat, sound baffling and the like - but, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and it has been pointed out elsewhere that the Denburn urban dual carriageway is, likewise, 'poorly utilised'.

A woefully underused urban asset.
No pavements. WTF?

Another argument for decking over the Denburn valley is to conceal the unsightly urban motorway. But, wait a minute - why conceal something which is barely used? Why not just do away with it? Keeping such a big road seems a bit, em, short sighted when private petrol vehicles are to be banned from town centres in less than 40 years time. We say dig it up and lay turf. We say plough it up and plant trees. A small service road on the woonerf model could be retained for emergency vehicles and utility services, but, most of the time it would be used by pedestrians for pleasant sunlit walks in the serene and valley. Maybe the Denburn itself could run in the open once more.

Aberdeen Woonerf!
A "woonerf" is a shared space urban landscape - it's a policy pioneered in the Netherlands in the 1970's. "Woonerf" is 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. Based upon principals of filtered permeability and shared space for transport corridors and thoroughfares these woonerf areas 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. Why can't we have that?

A further argument put forward for decking over the Denburn valley is that the current gardens are often shaded - and this is true in the evenings. With our new plan to turn the existing dual carrageway into a new contemporary garden, the Denburn Valley Gardens (if you will) would encompass both east and west slopes of the valley, so some part of the gardens would always be in direct sunlight. The existing Victorian gardens would be fully retained at practically no cost, and when the sunlight moves off them, garden users can cross over to new, modern gardens on the east bank, terracing down from Belmont Street, accessed by footbridges over the railway line which itself would be retained lending scenographic drama to our showpiece city centre and displaying the latest tilting train TGV technology.

One of the intentions of the European Commission's policy is to move half of journeys under 200 miles onto rail. Retaining sight of the railway (and, perhaps, new platforms for passenger embarkation) would display the fact that rail travel is at the heart of our city's vision of the future - not the dead-end car-dependent motorcentric vision which today predominates to the detriment of our environment.

And so our radical daydream turns into achievable vision. We're not joking. This is now our stated vision for Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley, including Upper Denburn (you'll be hearing a lot more about Upper Denburn over the next few years - you heard it here first!).

It would look a little bit like this original human-scale vision for the valley, with greensward and gardens on both sides, a tiny Denburn Road woonerf full of dawdling pedestrians and the latest high-tech railway on display:

We'll be examining this radical new proposal in a bit more detail over the coming weeks with site-visits and the like. We'll do this in comparison with similar projects which have been delivered elsewhere, such as Cheonggyecheon Park in Seoul:

This is more-or-less exactly what we have in mind.

The "High Line" regenerated a disused railway viaduct.
At Denburn, we will turn a disused dual carriageway into a park.

We will also look at our new woonerf proposal in the context of the City Gardens Project "Turning Vision Into Reality" presentation material (particularly that provided by Charles Landry), which we believe supports our vision for high-liveability, human scale, mixed use, walkable places of refuge and tranquility, where creativity can flourish.

Here are some of Charles Landry's slides, as presented to ACSEF and as available to download from the City Gardens Project website:

High-liveability - Mixed use - Places of refuge

Human scale - Walkability

Comforting to read this.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

"Nothing to See Here" in "Run Down Aberdeen"

Other Aberdeen is not, of course, a review column. But, over the last week, we've attended a couple of events (for want of a better word) which chime with our desire to to see the creative and arts sector help lead in the regeneration of Aberdeen's built townscape, business landscape and political mindscape through grassroots bottom-up inclusive creative initiatives. Whatever that means!

Well, impressions of what that might mean began to flit across our minds at last night's premier screening of "Run Down Aberdeen", a new documentary film by Aberdeen video-artist Fraser Denholm (we've linked to his blog once or twice before), and at the performance of "Nothing to See Here", a unique piece of site-specific interactive promenade theatre by Extreme Aberdeen - a collaboration between Aberdeen City Council and the National Theatre of Scotland in partnership with extreme-sports social-enterprise "Transition Extreme". (We saw "Nothing to See Here" at the weekend, but have embargoed our review, because it would be full of spoilers for anyone who has not yet seen the 'performance'. The run is now finished.)


Fraser Denholm's documentary film "Run Down Aberdeen" was commissioned by the creator of the Facebook community group which shares the documentary's name. The film rolls our sleeves up for us and does the necessary job of setting the terms of reference by which we might, with eyes open and the spirit of steely realism (which will be vital), begin to grasp the future in our medium-sized northern town, out on the edge of Britain. The documentary does an exemplary unflinching job of investigating the reactions, impacts and causes of our current condition. For a backdrop to interviews with politicians, writers and citizens [picks up own trumpet - the author of this blog being one - puts own trumpet down] Fraser uses contradictorily heartbreakingly beautiful photography featuring our egregiously dilapidated built environment. Fraser asks the right questions of his interviewees, the backing music woozily plink-plonking an atmosphere of unease to accompany the soft-spoken understated voiceover.

Last night's screening was followed by an open-floor panel-session, the film-maker flanked by local politicians. We were unsurprised that - having just watched the film - Deputy Leader of our local council, Cllr Kevin Stewart, said that he "didn't like the title". We feel that this is typical of the reality distortion field which sometimes characterises discourse in this town, and was at sharp variance with the realism from which the documentary does not flinch. Timely and relevant to the state of our town, Fraser has demonstrated - by examining the political, economic, commercial and creative background (psychogeographical) context - that our town is, indeed, run down. And he has done so in a technically excellent, flawlessly paced and balanced way that reflects the "grey strangeness" (per Betjeman) of our town; the edge on the edge.

Mentioned both in Fraser's film and in the floor discussion afterwards was the hope that a grass-roots creative sector movement might have a pivotal role to play in the regeneration of Aberdeen. Clearly, there is no amount of capital which can be mobilised to comprehensively recondition the built environment (the townscape, if you will) any time soon, but in the engagement of the audience and in the unflinching eye of the documentary maker we perhaps begin to discern the mobilisation of creative capital which might bring about the right conditions to recondition the mindscape of our town - something which we think is a pre-condition of future social (as well as commercial) sustainability for Aberdeen.


Another creative initiative operating to modify the mindscape of Aberdeen is the Extreme Aberdeen initiative; a grass-roots project involving more than 250 young people, the project has sought to inhabit the edges of our town to create an "adrenaline fuelled mix of worlds". We mentioned their "By Order of Me" project last month. In the finalé event "Nothing to See Here" we are audience and player in an interactive site-specific theatre performance art event.

This promenade-theatre production is a phantasmagorical journey through the soon-to-be-demolished Linksfield Academy and Community Centre building. The audience is split into groups of two or three and propelled physically and mentally through the building. Themes of loss, trust, betral, confusion, lack of control, injustice, wrongful imprisonment, surveillance, inspiration, celebrity culture and triumphant redemption are explored via a series of dream-like tableaux; now visiting a man on his hospital death-bed, then being hooded and kidnapped out of a van by baseball-bat-wielding balaclava'd thugs, next participating in a rigged game-show, finally redeemed as a rock-star singing solid-gold soft-rock High-School-Musicalesque to a crowd of ecstatic and adoring fans. (No, really.)

The production uses a mix of professional actors, student actors, schoolkids, young musicians and extreme sports like parcourt and BMX to create the immersive scenarios which don't so much require suspension of disbelieve on behalf of the audience/participants as de-condition us from normal reality in favour of the non-linear dreamscape which becomes our lives for an hour or so. And, all the while in the production we find echos of the way we live today and of our own lives. The specifics of certain of the episodic elements continue to swim unbidden into our minds for days afterwords. We suspect that this may continue for some time to come. This production is truly transformational - not just for the lives of the young participants who will retain this experience and gain strength and inspiration from it forever, but also for us. We will never forget it.

"Nothing to See Here" perhaps goes part of the way to answering the implicit question of "Run Down Aberdeen"; that question being what happens next? The obsolescence and decrepitude of the site is one of the themes of the production, and the building itself is one of the 'stars'. The site-specificity of "Nothing to See Here" relies on the fact that a derlict and condemned building gave the producers the once-only chance to create something huge and something unique - something unrepeatable and special for the community which shared in the production on all sides - in front of and behind the curtain and also behind the scenes, the edges between all three aspects of performance being is intentionally blurred, indeed - demolished.

In projects like these, both the documentary film and the site-specific theatre production, we begin to see that grass roots creativity - the kind which involves people and improves lives - does not require a "big name arts and culture brand" as some believe they should attempt to attract to Aberdeen rather than support home-grown arts organisations. Likewise, the kind of creativity which is inclusive and innovative does not require any new-build "iconic" building in which it would be stultified and suffocated behind figurative and literal glass screens. Creativity is always and everywhere something for everyone. Creativity has no boundaries, no walls. The whole of Aberdeen is our playground, it's one big edge...

You've just got to get out there and be in it, live in it.

[edit: We just learned the spendid news that Cllr Stewart has requested that a special screening of "Run Down Aberdeen" be arranged for Aberdeen's Councillors.]

Here's Fraser's film, pass it on:

Run Down Aberdeen from Fraser Denholm on Vimeo.

And here's cast and crew (and maybe you) on an "All Time High" at "Nothing To See Here":

Twenty-eight Percent.

Last night, we were along to Peacock Visual Arts to attend the premier screening of Fraser Denholm's timely and apposite documentary film: "Run Down Aberdeen."
(Own-trumpet-blowing warning: Other Aberdeen's Alan was one of Fraser's interviewees in the doc.)

The film was followed by an open-floor and panel discussion, with the film-maker Fraser flanked by local politicos Deputy City Council Leader Cllr Kevin Stewart, Cllr Martin Greig and Lewis Macdonald MSP.

Here's the film to watch online - pass it on:

Run Down Aberdeen from Fraser Denholm on Vimeo.

We'll write a bit more about the film and the issues it covers later today, but for now we want to explore one particular statistic - mentioned in just one sentence during the floor discussion - from our Deputy Council Leader, Cllr Kevin Stewart.

A question from the floor relating to Aberdeen's role in the Oil and Gas industry was being handled by the panel. Labour and SNP agreed wholeheartedly that Aberdeen was an "economic powerhouse". And that's not just for the North East, but for the whole of Scotland and the UK, according to Lewis Macdonald MSP. Deputy Council Leader, Cllr Kevin Stewart, said that Aberdeen contributed 28% of UK tax revenues to the UK Exchequer.

This is not true. And the fact that both Stewart and Lewis believe that it is tells us more about these politicians than they mean it to. Just have a think about it... that statement suggests that of all the revenue collected by the UK government, more than a quarter comes from the economic activity of less than half-a-percent of the population. What an assertion to make! Really, if this were the case the whole world would beating a path to our small corner to learn the secrets of our special sauce.

But we've seen this error trotted out before by local press and local business-sector bloggers. (We trust that it is a genuine misunderstanding - and not a willfully disingenuous manipulation - politicians wouldn't do that, would they?) So, let's see where the source of the error comes from:

Firstly, like all misunderstandings of this type, it contains a kernel of truth. The 28% figure is within this document (big PDF) from special-interest business lobby group Oil & Gas UK.
[Edit: The figure has actually been revised recently, and now stands at 30% - even more than Cllr Stewart asserts!]

But, that 28% figure relates to Corporation Tax revenue - not all revenue, and it relates to the entirety of the oil and gas sector, not just the 'upstream' (finding and getting) activity which dominates business in Aberdeen.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, Oil & Gas UK rightly assert that the oil and gas industry generated 28% of UK corporation tax receipts during the tax year 2008/09.  But ask yourself: "What else happened during that period?" It's then quite easy to see why the oil and gas industry banked more than the "Square Mile in London" (as has been said elsewhere) at that time: As the oil-price spiked to that $147/barrel record, the energy companies enjoyed windfall taxable profits against the dark background of the financial sector falling into more-or-less ubiquitous loss. It is also relevant to point out that many UK Oil & Gas sector companies operate in a variety of overseas locations, but are stock exchange listed in the UK.

It is also telling that our local representatives to attempt to attribute the entirety of that oil and gas activity exclusively to this town. This is risible. Upstream (finding and getting) oil and gas is a cost centre for the energy companies. Profits are generated in transport, refining, trading, electricity generation & transmission and value-added retail. None of which impinge much on this region. We are exasperated that this boosterism based upon fallacy continues to characterise the discourse in this town and is continually repeated by our local press and politicians. We find it a bit nauseating.

Our local politicians appear to have fallen into the trap of believing Aberdeen's hubristic self-styling as Oil Energy Capital of Europe. It is not. London, Rotterdam, Paris and Moscow vie for that title. No-one outside Aberdeen who works in this huge industry which spans many regions and activities calls Aberdeen "Energy Capital of Europe". When these people in the industry outside Aberdeen hear the term they snigger, as a rule. In the words of novelist Cristopher Brookmyre:
"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."
Now, please don't misinterpret what we're saying. There's definitely much to be proud of in the business world in Aberdeen "City and Shire" (ugh). But there's no need to "enhance" these good things with disingenuous or demonstrably false hubristic misrepresentations which make us look vaingloriously stupid. To do so devalues that which is genuinely good and praiseworthy about our town. To do so undermines our standing amongst our competitor regions. And to do so undermines calls for greater support from central government and other non-governmental actors - help which Fraser Denholm's pertinent and well-timed new documentary aptly demonstrates that we need.

The future will contain many challenges. We need to face them with open eyes and realism. As we've said before, oil and gas reserves are finite. The day will come when we will all dearly wish that we had started down the difficult road of re-balancing our energy supply earlier than we have. In Aberdeen we will, additionally, wish that we had started down the road of re-balancing our local economy a little earlier too.

At Other Aberdeen we greatly fear that the currently high oil prices, the hubris they inspire and the offensive (and, as we have seen, ill-founded) triumphalism they provoke militates against the redirection of capital towards the development of a sustainable economy in Aberdeen, be that in the shape of the switch to renewable energy technology, the burgeoning development of the Scottish life sciences sector or other more traditional business sectors. We, unsurprisingly, would be happiest to see the creative and arts sector help lead in the regeneration of Aberdeen's built townscape and business landscape through grassroots bottom-up inclusive creative initiatives. We were gratified to hear during the panel discussion that Lewis Macdonald MSP supports this hope.

But then, there we were, at Cineclub hosted by Peacock Visual Arts. Should we have been surprised to see a politician (who is seeking re-election) wearing his metaphorical "I support the Arts" badge? Not for the first time this week, we realise that to ask the question is to answer it.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Unplugged Panopticon Brimmond Hill

The young man, pulling his overcoat around him against the late-winter windblast, sits enthroned on the topmost cairn which marks the summit of Aberdeen's Brimmond Hill.

The summit of Brimmond Hill is overburdened with a surfeit of psychogeographical artifacts: An OS trig-point pillar; the large summit rubble-cairn; a flagstaff - the saltire flapping and snapping, the banner new this year but already fraying from its extreme exposure; a dual-use war memorial/orientation rose; picnic benches and an earth-station for the microwave relay network. The summit of Brimmond Hill thrums with metaphorical and real-world significance. A nexus of networks offering different meanings to all the different (but few) people who come to the summit - every one for a different reason.

From his vantage on the summit cairn, the overcoated man can scrutinise the airport and its splendid new Buckydome-encased landing-radar station and he can discern the harbour's sea-wall and its guiding light. He can make out the route of the current A90 and he can pick out the planned route of the forthcoming Aberdeen bypass. He can see the Aberdeen exhibition centre, the telecoms relay station at Cairncry and the industrial estates of Altens, Bridge of Don, Kirkhill and Westhill. On a clear day, and if his eyes are good enough, he might be able to make out the standing stones at Tyrebagger. Maybe, if he squints, he can see some of the public art on the side of Elrick Hill. And, if he's really eagle-eyed, he'll be able to detect the OS trig-point pillar on the summit of Kingshill.

As I approached the cairn. I noticed that the young man was hunched over - intent on his task; earnestly working at a sketchbook. I didn't interrupt his work, and stayed out of his eye-line. I wondered what was the specific subject of his sketch. So much to see - too much, surely, to draw as-seen in one panoramic artwork from the viewpoint of this natural Aberdonian panopticon. Perhaps he was sketching the topography of our town, for this would be about the best place to discern the three-dimensional shape of the landscape we inhabit. Perhaps he was drawing something unrelated to the view - sketching from memory or imagination and his location here was merely for the peace and solitude. Maybe he wasn't drawing at all, maybe he was writing. I don't know.

One thing I do know is that - as I sat at a picnic bench sipping my coffeeflask and regarding the transmitter trusses and stanchions, taking photos and speculating upon the young man's endeavours - both of us were engaged in activities which some officers in our police force would like members of the public to report to a special hotline.

[On March 1st this year, Assistant Chief Constable Bill Gordon of Grampian Police appeared on local TV news, calling on members of the public to report "suspicious activity". This "suspicious activity" taking the form of individuals snapping photographs or making notes regarding (amongst other things) "significant buildings", "locations" or "bridges". This is supposed to protect us from terrorism. Yes, our police are actually encouraging people who live or work on the coast to register with them as "members" of what they call "Project Kraken". We can't remember the name of the society to which the child informants belonged in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we'll assume that being a member of Project Kraken is something like that.]

As the pair of us surveyed the world we live in (I cannot know what conclusions my summit-companion was drawing - either literally or figuratively) I asked myself whether the police's incitement to suspicion is a characteristic of a country which I would choose to live in had I any other choice. To ask the question is to answer it.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Biting the Hand.

Union Terrace Gardens as they are.
People who live in Aberdeen will not be unaware of the controversy surrounding the business-community-driven redevelopment of the town's famous Union Terrace Gardens. The intention had been to create a very large new civic square. Promotional efforts used the name "City Square Project". This redevelopment scheme has since been rebranded as the "City Gardens Project".

Original concept
Here at Other Aberdeen House, our personal greatest vexation with this proposed redevelopment was the way than an opportunity to anchor a progressive arts and creative sector in Aberdeen was so thoughtlessly as to appear maliciously squandered. The City Square proposals caused the collapse of the Peacock Visual Arts Northern Light initiative which would have created a new contemporary arts centre for Aberdeen and the north of Scotland. Those unfamiliar with the controversy can read comprehensive and in-depth analysis on Fraser Denholm's excellent blog: Blerr De Blerr Blerr.

The creative sector forms an impressively huge part of the UK economy, contributing as much in Gross Value Added as the financial services sector and is a predominant source of export revenue. With the securing of the Victorian & Albert Museum's northern outpost, Aberdeen's 'competitor' city, Dundee, is now poised to take a leading role in this economic sector for generations to come.

Over the last few days, the City Square Garden Project has launched a new promotional website, presumably with the intention of winning 'hearts and minds'.

Revised concepts
Browsing the pages of the site is an odd experience. We mentioned earlier that some of the use of language and content came freighted with information which we might infer about the promotors of the scheme to redevelop the existing Victorian-era Union Terrace Gardens and replace them with a hyperreal diorama of our town's heritage.

Then, we looked at the "Cultural Space" page. What most disorientated us was the use of these words:
Imagine ... mixing with art lovers and tourists
It took a little while for us to pin down just what it was that troubled us about this. Then we worked it out, we managed to unpack the statement. It's that conflation of "art-lovers" with "tourists". The promoters of the City Garden Project talk to readers of their website as if they are not the art-lovers. The implication is that art lovers are, like tourists, outsiders; they are 'other'. It is clear that they believe that the people of Aberdeen are not, therefore, art lovers. In effect they are inviting us to: "Come and look at the funny art lovers - aren't they strange?" They obviously cannot see how insulting this is. Their assumptions are showing, and, in turn show us that it is the promotors of the scheme who are themselves not art lovers.

Original concept
The promoters of the City Garden Project have, by use of this one sentence inadvertantly dropped the poker-face by which they had hoped to assuage the concerns of Aberdeen's beleaguered arts community. They have by use of this unguarded phrase exposed their bluff which attempts to revise project instigator Sir Ian Wood's ill-considered and temerarious words in Scottish newspaper The Herald:
... this is ... for the wider interests of people in Aberdeen who don't care about the arts. Eighty per cent of the people who spend time in the square will have no interest in the arts.
Revised concept
From such a local-press-lauded "man of vision", this displays a breathtaking lack of perspective. We hope not to fall into the trap of condescension, but we would point out that all people who participate in our civilisation are consumers of the arts, almost all the time. We live and work, relax and consume in an architect created environment; we listen to music; we read literature; we watch factual and dramatic films and television; everything we touch, wear or see has been brought into reality by a designer - these all are branches of the arts.

One of the ways in which anthropologists working at the edge between archaeology and paleontology discern the human condition in the artifacts they unearth at early hominid sites is the artistic content of the objects. Art is not strange and other, it is ancient and basic to the human condition. It is the fundamental fountainhead from which all other culture and civilisation emerges.

From the earliest rock art and clay fetishes, through the anatomically super-perfect and beautiful statuary of Ancient Greece, we discern, understand and participate in our world in the way we do because of the filters and guidelines which the artists of those artifacts have created for our cognition to follow. You do not "feast your eyes" on art. Rather, you feed your brain. The arts is the branch of human striving which provides the context for our society and civilisation to then fill with content. That we think the way we do; that we say the things we say; that we behave the way we behave is all the product of the artists who have provided us with the collective cognitive tools to interpret and interact with the world around us since the beginning of human civilisation.

When the controversy surrounding the redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens was raging at its height, we remember hearing and reading opinions to the effect that the arts community should be careful not to "bite the hand that feeds it".

We would counter that by suggesting that it is rather those who propagate condescending material like some of the words on the City Gardens Project promotional website should be careful.

They should be careful not to bite the hand thats create the context in which civilisation thrives.

Hyperreality Update. Taxidermy for Aberdeen.

As part of our ongoing occasional series "The A to Z of Aberdeen" we most recently posted "H is for Hyperreality". In that post, we gave the opinion that one of the dangers which confront our town as we face the future is our collective condition of hyperreality, which ill-equips us for the challenges ahead. It ill-equips us, because, by definition, it is a way of avoiding confronting reality and the implications which flow from realism.

Hyperreality can be thought of as the way in which modern life can cause us to seek and experience satisfaction through a "simulated version of reality". A sort of reality by proxy - where the real world or experience has been replaced by a simulation at surface level only: a "real fake" which is thought of as "even better than the real thing". By finding (or believing to have found) satisfaction in simulation, the boundary between the "real" and the "fake" becomes blurred to the point where we cannot perceive the difference. The substitution of the simulacrum for the authentic article or experience is no longer noticed, and, indeed the substituted item (the simulation) is sometimes considered to be superior to that which it has replaced (the original). In this way the artifacts and experiences of our lives become authentic simulations, "real fakes"; "hyperreal".

So it came as no surprise to us when we read the following words on the website which promotes the proposed redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens as The City Square Gardens Project:
Imagine ... coming up onto street-level to be faced with displays showcasing physical pieces of our history and telling the story of our rich heritage.
Em. Isn't that just kind of all around us, all the time and everywhere? We do not require special permission or a roped-off display area with a 'look at this' sign which tells us what to think; dioramas are redundant for the story of our town is always and everywhere evident by the lives we live in it - we exist within the heritage, we are it and we have no choice but to participate in it. Attempts to put it in a box are futile. Anything in a box is already dead. What is being proposed here is a sort of taxidermy for Aberdeen.

By promoting this type of hyperreality integral to their scheme - this boxed, displayed and pre-interpreted version of 'heritage' - those who are intent on the redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens via this project are demonstrating that, while they may reside in Aberdeen, they do not know what it is to live here.

(With thanks to Mike Shepherd for pointing us to the web-page in question).

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Fernhill Unconfined

Looking north towards Fernhill over the Bucksburn Valley
Fernhill is a hill, a farm, and - by extension - the name of an area which sits in the greenbelt between Sheddocksly and Kingswells, to the west of the built-up part of Aberdeen off the Lang Stracht. A network of farm tracks and footpaths - some in use as farm access, some maintained by our favourite quango Aberdeen Greenspace - provides access throughout the area and connects with the splendid recently-completed Bucksburn Valley Paths network (also the work of Aberdeen Greenspace). These paths are part of Aberdeen City Council's (ACC) Core Paths Network. 

Looking at the ACC Core Paths web-page we see that :
Under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, all Local Authorities and National Park Authorities in Scotland have a statutory duty to prepare a Core Paths Plan that will "provide the basic framework of routes sufficient for the purpose of giving the public reasonable access throughout their area. The basic framework of routes will link into, and support, wider networks of other paths" 
The vision for Aberdeen's Core Paths Plan is to "form a complete paths network throughout the City, encouraging healthy and sustainable access opportunities for all". The Core Paths Plan will form a key part of outdoor access provision and will help to support wider national, regional and local policy objectives on health, recreation, education, economic development, social inclusion, community development, sustainable transport and tourism.
This, of course, is right up our street. Or rather, right up our Core Path.

Heading north up Fernhill to Greenferns
From Fernhill, we get views west to the Grampian mountains and east down to the North Sea. But perhaps surprisingly, very little of Aberdeen itself is visible. From this location the majority of the town is hidden below the ridge which runs from Cairncry to the Hill of Rubislaw. At the summit of Fernhill, we stand on the watershed of our town. A raindrop falling to our immediate north will find its way to the sea via first the Bucksburn and then the Don. A drop of water falling to the south will travel via the Denburn and Dee. The sources of the Bucksburn and Denburn are both to the west of Fernhill, and are surprisingly close together at Kingswells, surrounding Aberdeen in its own 'ring of bright water'. Sort of.

The Fernhill reservoir occupies the very summit of Fernhill, looking for all the world like a truncated stepped pyramid built by an ancient civilisation. Its sepulchral forms devising an apposite (but surely coincidental) mirror of the Aberdeen Crematorium, which sits at about the same elevation at Jessiefield across the Denburn valley towards Hazlehead. 

The stepped forms, splayed walls and truncated summit of the Fernhill reservoir remind us of the Peel Ring of Lumphanan and the vitrified fort at Tap o' Noth, and this thought in turn puts us in mind of some of the things we said when we berated the panopticonic "Project Kraken". Fernhill reservoir is today a crucial piece of infrastructure, crucial to the provision of a vital life-sustating service to the people of Aberdeen. But all things pass, and one day, in the normal course of development (or decline) its function will be redundant, and its structure will be left to decay back to the landscape, function all but forgotten, the arcana of its operation the subject of esoterica.

Peel Ring of Lumphanan - Motte.

Tap o' Noth - Vitrified fort.
Fernhill - 20/21st Century Reservoir.

As if to illustrate this point, an earlier (yet still from the 20th century) reservoir is visible just to the east of the presently used facility.  Heavy manhole covers protect path-users from the tank-voids of the redundant facility. The words "CAUTION - CONFINED SPACE" are stenciled on the face of the manhole covers as a warning to adventurers who are tempted to explore the formerly watery void below. 



The paths at Fernhill link working farms, old forges, semi-rural cottages, stately old stands of impressively mature trees and (last week) just-ploughed fields, the scent of the good earth rising from the newly-broken winter's crust of working farms. The very picture of Aberdeenshire. 


The good earth

One of these working farms is Greenferns, and is on council-owned land. This land at Greenferns is one of the so-called "pockets of market failure" which have been identified for "remediation" by the forthcoming work of the City Development Company "One Aberdeen" (which we wrote about a little while ago). We would like to point out that this definition of failure is not the same as ours.  We fear that the City Development Company appears to be set to fall into the trap of believing that a community is nothing more than the sum of the businesses which operate within it and that the market should be the final arbiter of success or failure. We deplore this pencilneck-narrow vision. 

The Core Paths at Fernhill do not in and of themselves make money; of course they don't. But they create value by enriching in non-monetary ways the lives of those that use them and the environs of Aberdeen. This is the true definition of wealth. The generation of money and profit is merely the creation of affluence. The two things are not the same.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Ferryhill's Mystery Masonry; Enigmatic "S"

A little while ago, we posted about "unknown stones", and in the post, we included this picture of an "S" marked stone in Ferryhill.

At the acute angle meeting of Ferryhill Road and Ferryhill Place
We had assumed that, like so many marked stones we see around Aberdeen, this was a boundary stone, marking someone's commercial or political property. These stones are very often shown on the large scale Ordnance Survey maps, but there's no sign of this one on the 1869 25 inch-to-one-mile map. So, it's later than that...

The map shows a couple of 'stones' on the northernmost curve of Ferryhill Road. That'd be close to where the defunct public toilet is situated. We hear that the toilet is still in occasional use; No 17 bus drivers having a key! Brilliant!

Stop the bus!
Walking down (northward) Ferrhill Road from Ferryhill Place towards Crown Street, we see these:

This one's got an OS Cut-Mark and Rivet Bench Mark,
down at the bottom.

They're all the way down the road, each about 50m from the next. A neatly incised "S", surrounded by a perfect rectangular border, on a piece of flat-faced granite - ashlar at the top (southern) end of the road, rubble at the bottom (north). The bottom (north) end of the road is characterised by a large retaining wall which encloses the steep-sloped common green of Archie 'Pech' Simpson's Marine Terrace.

By the time we reached the bottom, our eyes were well-opened, and we also noticed this wall-bound artifact:

"Presented by
Andrew Lewis Lord Provost
So regularly spaced, so unlike the other boundary stones; these "S"-marked stones are perplexing. Often, boundary stones are marked with the initials of the landowner, like this one at on the top of the Broad Hill:

Marked "R" to the north, "ND" to the south. Grooved on top.
So these stones in Ferryhill aren't the usual Aberdeen boundary stones, they're quite different. We've got a few theories:
  • We've often noticed the words "sundry proprietors" marked on older maps of our town, and we wondered whether the single "S" might refer to that. 
  • My old dad thought that the "S" might stand for "Simpson": that's Archibald Simpson, who built Marine Terrace, up above the stones.
  • Someone suggested an infrastructure connection, referring to Soil- or Sewer-pipes.
  • Similarly infrastructure related - Aberdeen's first source of electricity - the "Corporation Electricity Works" is at the bottom of Ferry-Hill, and so at the bottom of Ferryhill Road. Might the "S" be something to do with that? Substations?
  • Aberdeen's first electrified tram ran up Ferryhill Road to the south and Crown Street to the north, it's source of power being the "Corporation Electricity Works" at the bottom (south) end of Crown Street. Perhaps the "S" is related to the trams?
  • Ferryhill Road connects with the bottom of Crown Street, and so is close to the Masonic Temple. Amongst many things, the Masons are/were know for "masons marks". Is it possible that the "S" is a latter-day and more literate version of these ancient esoteric signs?
I grew up and went to school in this specific area, and I played on Ferryhill Road and the Marine Terrace green countless times. Since my childhood I've walked up and down Ferryhill Road regularly. It's amazing to me that I'd never noticed these plain-as-your-face marked stones before the day that we walked down Ferryhill Road looking for anything out of the ordinary. 

Neither our local council's Sites and Monuments pages, nor RCHAMS "Scotland's Places" pages mention these "S" marked stones on Ferryhill Place. So, if anyone knows for sure what they are, or has any other theories, we'd be delighted to hear about it.