Monday, 6 July 2009

Wood can't see for the Trees

Well, its been a while. Busy things happening all over the shop, visuals in glasgow, performance residencies, visuals in Aberdeen, a Degree Show and none of them have been reported on. However there is a massive pressing concern which is going to take the most of this blog post.

As many will know Peacock Visual Arts, who are spearheading the new Contemporary Art Centre to be built in Union Terrace Gardens, (which will not only rehouse Peacock in nice new bigger, built-for-purpose facilities, but will also provide a home to CityMoves Dance Space and Whitespace, Aberdeen City Council's Arts Development and Education Teams, who are for all intent and purpose homeless) recieved the last of it's core funding at the end of October last year, which you can find out about here or if you think maybe from the Peacock's website might be biased try the BBC.

For about a week things were looking up for Aberdeen, it was looking as though we might follow on from Dundee's example with the DCA leading way to cultural regeneration and a brighter future up here. Unfortunatelly a week later Sir Ian Wood, local Tycoon who made his millions in... you guessed it: oil...announced a "generous donation" of £50 Million to build a 'new civic heart' for the city, which would see the beautiful Union Terrace Gardens filled in with cement, the road and the railway covered and paved over from Union Terrace to Belmont street, and from Union Bridge to the Denburn Viaduct. Supported by the "Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Futures" (ACSEF) organisation, who made a miraculous appearance around the same time as this proposed scheme. Apparently this project will provide a "buzz" and breath new life into the city, and go some way to turning Aberdeen into a "Houston of the Eastern Hemisphere."

To attempt to put things in Context, Aberdeen has been after a significant Centre for Contemporary Art for a while now, and is the only of the four major cities to not have a significant centre for Art. When the plan was coming together for the centre ACC and Peacocks held a competition for an Architect to design a building which was complimentaqry to the gardens, which brought them out a little more but didn't change or destroy the image of what was already there, Union Terrace Gardens. The Gardens are an ideal get-away from the bustle of the city, yet so close. It has a victorian heritage, is a sun-trap on good days and from it's place you can see the skill that was involved with building Union Street and is the last part of an ancient forest which pre-dates Aberdeen itself and is home to trees which are around 200 years own and support their own ecosystems. The winning design was an inovative and groundbreaking approach by Brisac Gonzalez which actually places the centre under the gardens on three levels working with the existing slopes.

As you can see in the above two images the Art Centre is planned to be housed in the centre of the gardens, below the existing Robert Burns Statue, and leave the main basin free for public use as they are already. The lighting plans for the building show how it will compliment and highlight the gardens, bringing light to the areas which are dark and unwelcoming towards Union Street, which can only be an advantage in opening up the space to people who may be too scared to venture down there. Peacock themselves say they see the Centre as being a caretaker of the gardens, ensuring safety throughout the day and into the evening.

The project has been highly commended by Architecture and Design Scotland, a body set up to "advise councils on the merits of building plans" and had recieved full planning permission and 70% of funding which came to £9 million, which you can read about here. Although it wasn't all rosy for the plan, a group called the Aberdeen Greenbelt Alliance were against the plan factoring in that they would be uprooting trees (There is a need to remove several trees in the garden to make way for the centre, although these are a minor amount of trees already in ill-health) and Norman Marr, of the Aberdeen Civic Society believed that "this is the beginning of the end of the gardens" going on to say that ""There are some magnificent mature trees and I believe 16 could be destroyed."

Make of that what you wish, but it is a very interesting point when we go on to discuss the new option unvieled by Sir Ian and ACSEF. After the announcement in November, which was alarmingly vague about exactly what would happen in this development would be “cross between a grand Italian piazza and a mini Central Park.” A few weeks ago, after the six month 2 million pound feasability study carried out by Chartered Architects, Planning Consultants and Project Managers, Haliday Fraser Munro, came back with some interesting findings, the full study can be found here.

The 130 page document outlines three proposals for the space, the first a full leveling of the gardens, second a partial covering and thirdly go ahead with the Art Centre Brisec Gonzalez plan and spend an extra 6 mil landscaping the Gardens. The plans came back a little more vague than the original announcement with some 3D renderings by Martha Schwartz of the possible outcomes of the leveling, revealing a concrete plaza with some futuristic bubbles, a subterranian "boutique" level and, in the pre-existing basin of the gardens: a two story car park. The Art Centre is paid lip service in these plans, but teniously pinpointed under the ground at the Schoolhill end of the development, which pretty instantly makes the Architectural work by Brisec Gonzalez obsolete and places the centre somewhere close to these underground car parks. Sir Ian has said that he will only donate his £50 Million to the first of the schemes.

So here we have some images of the civic square from the feasibility study, a five Acre development for a city that “already suffers from dislocations of scale.” The square could come to a surface area of around 11 acres should there be the underground space which is apparently heated and lit by the giant orange Eden Project-esque bubbles on the ground. All in all in comparison to other cities is where we see exactly the scale of this project: "[it]covers approximately the same amount of ground as St Peter’s in Rome – including the Basilica – and is as large as the open space in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.... three times the size of Trafalgar Square in London and would easily contain all of Edinburgh’s Waverley Valley including Princes Street Gardens."

The week after the results of the feasibility study were published by ACSEF, Sir Ian, supported by Dave Blackwood of ACSEF, gave a presentation to the youth market in Tiger Tiger. I, along with a few others from the Art School, and other artists went along but found ourselves in the minority but at least we had the chance to quiz Sir Ian on his plans, and the details. Firstly, this was in no way a consultation, when challenged Sir Ian showed absolutelly no willingness to compromise and the exercise, as well as being about banging your head against a brick wall, was just about him justifying the plans. Although it did give me, and others a chance to challenge the plan face to face, although we did get called "cowards" for it.

When challenged about the costs of the project, both men stayed within what had been publicised, £100 to £140 million for the project, and with £50 mil of that coming out of Mr Wood's own pocket, I asked where the rest of the money was coming from, considering that the City Council was already £50 million in debt and unable to keep swimming pools, ice rinks, parks open or even manage to clean the streets (which last week the Evening Express decided to blame on the central belt, not Aberdeen City Council at all) In reply I was chastised for not knowing the difference between capital and revenue funding and that they were expecting a large part of the project to be paid for by Government, going on to continually site Edinburgh City Council paying out £80 million to settle a dispute, and that if they could pay that much for a dispute why couldn't we raise it to build this. What was failed to mention were any details into the context of the payout, or the possibilty that once work gets underway in this project there isn't going to be a similar dispute requiring a similar payout.

When asked by my good friend, Anita, whether there was any way to maintain the trees and build around them because of their age, beauty and indiginous wildlife he simply poo-pood the idea saying that it wasnt possible but there were new technologies and sciences for growing new trees, and essentially he claimed that the trees in Union Terrace were the very problem with the space, that they blocked the view of the architecture on Union Terrace and were responsible for keeping the sun out of the gardens, which is very interesting when you compare this to the previous statements by Mr Marr (linked above) and the Greenbelt Alliance about preserving the trees in the gardens. Also the images being touted around as the future prominently feature large trees on the surface, sustained on the level above the subterranean shopping precinct. Now, as I said in the meeting, I'm no tree surgeon, but I'm pretty sure trees of that size need substantial roots to grow, which is more than allowed by the concrete crust which makes up the top layer of the design, to which I was ignored. Right enough in the small print of the study it claims that it cannot support trees of any great size, definately not the ones pictured, due to lack or root space.

When asked to consider other plans, by Architects in the audience, Sir Ian was unwilling to compromise at all, no matter how many suggestions were made to achieve this connectivity he wished but retain the park. The connectivity issue was one that came up again and again, with both Wood and Blackwood talking about how the gap where the Gardens and the carraigeway are spoiled the act of getting around Aberdeen. Again we come back to scale. This would equate to the council, and us the taxpayer, spending in the region of 100 million to turn a five minute walk to a two minute walk. Aberdeen isn't that big, and face it, you get in some exercise in walking that little bit further, not that its a great distance from Union Street to Schoolhill.

Other points raised were mostly about the allocation of monies, in that spending this amount on one area can only be detrimental to the others. Aberdeen already has a civic square in the Castlegate, which Mr Blackwood described as "OK a hundred years ago, but not fit now", or something to that effect. The green fits in with his cafe square idea. There are other areas around the city in need of regereration, Torry, Froghall, Seaton, Tillydrone, Woodside (Some of the places, incidentally, which are part of community Arts Projects set up by both Peacocks and Whitespace, which are going to be housed in the Art Centre) which, once again, will miss out on any of the funding which may come this way. Words to this effect were my final statement, and the final words of the meeting, after a show of hands on "who's interested" (Which was reported by the Evening Express as a recognised poll of wholehearted backing) which most of us didn't raise our hands, which led to Sir Ian asking "What do you have to say, cowards at the back."

Again missing from the report or the meeting or any of the publicity are the sustainability and running costs associated with the square, which actually do come from revenue funding, which is where the council deficit lies, and concrete isn't exactly the most sustainable of options. Questions were asked of the Art Centre's place in the scheme, which it was claimed they had been involved every step of the way, which later turned out to be a total of two meetings, which was one of the many contradictions in the meeting. Another being the car parking spaces, was originally claimed may not happen, but then when questioned about 900+ spaces Sir Ian's reply was "No not 900, 500."

There is no way that we, the people of Aberdeen can let this project go ahead. Firstly the cost for the city is going to be immense, and for what? The way they are trying to promote this civic square is to highlight all the problems with Aberdeen that we all see and all face every day and try to sell this as some sort of solution. I'm pretty sure that people from around Scotland are going to go for "Oh lets take that four hour drive to Aberdeen, they have a really big square", there can be no retail angle from it as this city's main street is already covered in empty shops, The Bon Accord Centre has empty units, as does St Nicholas, the Academy and Union Square development on Guild Street has nowhere near filled itself. There will be countless disruption as the Council plans to pedestrianise Union Street and the Denburn Underpass will be expected to take most of the weight, and worst of all, we will lose our chance to move forward culturally with the rest of Scotland with the Contemporary Art Centre at the centre of it all. If you look at how attractive Dundee has become and how many people are attracted to visit because of the DCA and soon their own Victoria and Albert Museum.

If the city really wants to be like Houston, then maybe Mssrs Wood, Salmond and Blackwood need to read this, and see exactly what is transforming Houston at the moment, or this which explored the benefits of Arts in improving a city.

I urge anyone reading this to show your support in a number of ways, firstly sign up to the Facebook group, please sign the online petition set up by my pal Katie. I'm calling for a letter writing campaign, please keep it respectable, fair and peaceful, to the First Minister, Alex Salmond to register your complaints, both at Parliament and his constituency:

Rt Hon Alex Salmond MSP
84 North Street
AB51 4QX

Rt Hon Alex Salmond MSP
The Scottish Parliament
EH99 1SP

And a copy to new leader of ACC:
John Stewart
14 Cairncry Terrace
AB16 5JZ

And while you are at it copy all three of the Aberdeen City MSPs:

Aberdeen North:
Brian Adam MSP
825-827 Great Northern Road
AB24 2BR

Aberdeen South:
Nicol Stephen MSP
173 Crown Street
AB11 6JA

Aberdeen Central:
Lewis Macdonald MSP
70, Rosemount Place
AB25 2XJ

Lets appeal to the people in power who represent us, to do the right thing for the future of this city rather than sink further and further into debt. I'll post my letter online in the next few days.


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