Feb 032012

January and February always seem to represent a low time in the year. Christmas and New Year have been and gone and there seems little to look forward to. The days remain short and the nights long. It’s usually raw cold. Unwelcoming. The opening months of the year always cause something of a gloom to hang over Mick Miller’s household. Bung in a global recession for good measure and things seem pretty bleak. Then it got worse. What’s up, Mick?

The post arrived on Monday and out of the two-for-one pizza offer junk mail fell a gaudy catalogue.
Only it wasn’t a catalogue – it had “VOTE” written on it. Promotional blurb for the City Gardens Development.

How profoundly depressing. The front ‘cover’ illustration is of some futuristic landscape from another place.
Only on closer inspection it isn’t. It’s Aberdeen, or, more accurately, a version of Aberdeen which can only have be conceived in cloud cuckoo land.

Real people, in a REAL garden.       

It’s lurid, horribly-coloured, glib and vacuous. It is pervaded by a complete sense of the unreal. Semi-transparent people wander aimlessly inside a cartoon-flowered version of reality. Children trample unrestrained, yet the flowers survive.

Out-of-scale human forms laze in some sort of airborne meadow whilst below them, in a throwback connection to the real world, trade waste bins lurk ominously. A woman of Amazonian proportions accesses a laptop whilst sitting on surprisingly unbending grass stems. The remnant spire of the Triple Kirks emerges from a scrubland of low growth stock image shrubbery.

It all looks vaguely ill-tended, neglected, as if within this futuristic vision lie the discards of the past. Or perhaps its a tacit admission that should, god forbid, this monstrosity go ahead, there is just no way that the upkeep will be affordable. Delving deeper, the background is found to comprise of a realigned His Majesty’s Theatre and a hugely-inflated and decapitated William Wallace. A victim of the guillotine perhaps?

But the history, like the whole of this charade, is just plain wrong. Landscape dressed up as farce. A cityscape for Anywhereville. Inaccurate. Disjointed. A cut-and-paste pastiche.

Opening up, things don’t improve. A drab labyrinth of pathways which look like bridges over a motorway, criss-cross manicured lawns and monoculture grasslands. In one image the sun sets….or does it rise? Either way, it’s in the wrong place. What on earth, if we are still on earth, is going on? This is lazy work, a Standard Grade project gone catastrophically wrong. Everything is confusing.

The front page image shows a gaudy flower bed appearing to lie on a lower level of the structure. Moving inside the pamphlet the same floral, er…..’bombshell’, is miraculously elevated. Or is it that those bloody bins are just absolutely HUGE? I’m confused, disturbed even.

   I’m going to have a lie down, maybe I’ll feel better and ‘it’ will all have been a bad dream. Only it won’t. It isn’t.

In the sunset image, an oddly-inclined piece of lawn totters precariously into the largely obliterated Denburn valley. In Woody Allen’s Manhatten, a character in a TV show is observed to have a toupee so badly-placed on his scalp that it looks like it has been dropped on to his head from a great height in an uncontrolled way.

This elevated savanna has the same feeling about it. There will be a need for avalanche warnings in the snowy depths of winter.

In another image, a pipe band plays beneath a Formica-lined dome with random cut-outs that give the feeling that the design is based on half a panelled football booted around Pittodrie of a Saturday afternoon. Below this, a winter scene shows people so cold they have started to vapourise as, it would appear, has the Formica football, associated terraces and denuded trees, miraculously large for such a recent planting.

A lone child in a blue jacket has something so contagious that the populace in the foreground seek to distance themselves as quickly as possible. Is he the cause of the vapourisations? Oh I get it – we’re on the set of War of the Worlds and soon tattered clothing will rain down upon us from the sky. I know that was the only good bit. It all has an apocalyptic feel. I’m going to have a lie down, maybe I’ll feel better and ‘it’ will all have been a bad dream. Only it won’t. It isn’t.

Aberdeen is a beautiful city, notwithstanding some recent disastrous architectural additions. It doesn’t need or deserve such ill-thought out attentions as this abomination.

Union Terrace Gardens are an integral part of what allows Aberdeen to maintain its architectural, cultural and civic dignity. The Gardens need some tender loving care, but they don’t need annihalation by the ‘solution’ that this tacky pamphlet proposes.

A heartfelt plea. Please, people, don’t let this thing go ahead. Make sure you vote to retain Union Terrace Gardens.

Union Terrace Gardens – Their Use And Value To Aberdeen City

 Aberdeen City, Articles, Community, Featured, Information, Opinion  Comments Off on Union Terrace Gardens – Their Use And Value To Aberdeen City
Feb 252011

By Mick Miller.

Over the months that the debate over the development of Aberdeen city centre has raged, one argument often fielded by those in support of the City Square Project is: “Union Terrace Gardens aren’t used.”
This raises the issue of “use” – what does it mean for a space to be used?

Here are some reflections on this.

Firstly, Union Terrace Gardens (UTG) are used. They are used by people, like most parks and open space, when the weather is good and people have the free time to use them. They are used regularly by people who live in the city and own a dog for example, or who have no garden of their own. They are used by office and shop workers when the weather is good and the need to take lunchtime relaxation is fulfilled by sitting in the sun rather than perhaps a stroll around the art gallery or shops. I know this because when I worked in Aberdeen city centre I used to struggle to get a seat in UTG on a sunny lunchtime!

They provide safe space for families away from traffic concerns. Union Terrace Gardens are used at the weekend by those who live close, and not so close, as recreation and relaxation space. They are used by visitors to the city who value them as part of their visit ‘experience’; that is as a part of what makes Aberdeen distinct as a place to visit. The above photograph  shows quite clearly the gardens in use on a good sunny Saturday.

Of course they are used in many other ways. They act to define the city space, to give a ‘green heart’ to the surrounding city scape. Because they are sunken they give a unique perspective on the city . Looking up from the garden towards His Majesty’s Theatre and St Marks with the Wallace statue in the foreground is one of the defining views of Aberdeen. Like the UTG itself Aberdeen would not be Aberdeen without it.

Ornithologists can spot the peregrines that nest on the ruined steeple of Triple Kirks. Bat lovers can gather at dusk to watch these enchanting mammals flit in and out of the gardens lamp light chasing their prey in a silent whirlwind. It takes a long time for a park space to achieve the diversity and richness that is UTG – destroy it and it would never be recovered.

Just by being there, Union Terrace Gardens are used. This is in common with all city centre garden space. The photograph attached shows Princes Street Garden in Edinburgh.

Not packed – but valueless because of it?

One would hardly think so.

Edinburgh residents would never contemplate decking over this space. The gardens in Edinburgh are as much a part of the City as the Castle.

Of course Edinburgh do utilise the garden space in a far better way than Aberdeen. They are maintained better; at Christmas they are bedecked with lights and an ice rink installed. Aberdeen Council used to do this sort of thing too but over the years have allowed UTG to fall into disrepair. This represents an appalling neglect of a valuable public asset.

UTG is of course not used in a ‘commercial’ way. The commercial interests that would likely dominate any development on the site would doubtless seek to maximise the value of the space primarily in terms of monetary and commercial value. The City Square ultimately must ‘improve’ the space in this regard in order to have any chance of viability.

This discontent with Union Terrace Gardens seems to have some link with the need for Aberdeen to emulate somewhere else. But why?

Sir Ian Wood has argued that he wants to see a combination of a mini – Central Park (as found in New York City) and an Italian piazza. Central Park, co-incidentally, was established in 1873 – just about the same time as Union Terrace Gardens, give or take a few years . It serves a population of some 1.7 million people – and that’s just Manhattan without the other 4 Boroughs that go to make up New York as a whole or the tourists that frequent the city.

It has more in common with Union Terrace Gardens in terms of maturity, make-up and value to the community than anything that the much touted design competition for the city square might come up with. Central Park has history that makes it what it is today.

The piazza concept should give cause for concern. Wikipedia describes it thus:

“In Britain piazza generally refers to a paved open pedestrian space without grass or planting”.

Piazzas work in Italy and other Mediterranean countries because they have long hours of hot sunshine and, more importantly, a historical significance that embeds them in the country’s culture. You can’t import them into a place that has no connection with the way of life that they reflect. Look at the upper deck of the St Nicholas Centre to see how it works in Aberdeen.

This discontent with Union Terrace Gardens seems to have some link with the need for Aberdeen to emulate somewhere else. But why? Where Aberdeen has attempted such an approach the results have been dismal. Go to any of the shopping malls including the horrendous Union Square and you could be anywhere, in any shopping centre, in the UK.

Meanwhile the old E&M premises, an icon of Aberdeen, crumbles its way through another winter. The City Square Project will have the same effect; stripping away yet another facet of Aberdeen that actually makes Aberdeen, well, Aberdeen! As a consequence adding to the catalogue of destruction that has over the years de-valued the city’s architectural significance; eroding that which makes Aberdeen a unique and beautiful city.

Mick Miller, 9 February 2011.