Monday, 8 February 2010

Thorn In My Side

Manhatten's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was opened in 1959 to house the extensive collection of "nonobjective" artworks belonging to the aforementioned Solomon Guggenheim by a foundation established in his name. The building (pictured) was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and has become one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th Century, as well as one of the most popular destinations for Modern and Contemporary Art. The Guggenheim Foundation has a number of museums throughout the world: Berlin, Venice and Bilbao as well as three more due to open in 2010/11 in Vilinius Bucharest, Abu Dhabi, and Guadalajara Mexico. Of these, the Guggenheim Bilbao is of significant note.

Opened in 1997 and designed by Frank Gehry this particular offshoot has been described as "the greatest building of our time" and is responsible for the so-called "Guggenheim Effect." The Museum and Gallery was part of a larger rejuvination project for Bilbao and the Basque Country, and as soon as the facility opened it became a massive tourist attraction drawing over a million visitors per year and contributing greatly to the international profile of Bilbao itself.

The Guggenheim Effect is a term which describes the case for arts-led urban regeneration in the wake of the Bilbao development. Following from this there was a demand from cities across the world and attempts were made at further franchising of the Guggenheim brand to other cities across the Globe. The attempt at simple replication of the concept failed, as Stuart MacDonald described on BBC Scotland's Radio Cafe on Wendesday "cultural centres are important, but that they need to be rooted into the creative industries community and education infrastructure, and integrated into broader regeneration strategies." However following the model of Culture-led regeneration, building on broader strategies rather than replicating Guggenheim Bilbao led to a number of successful projects such as Tate Modern Dundee Contemporary Arts, Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, and more recently Glasgow's Trongate 103. What unites these four examples is their differences, unlike the Guggenheim Bilbao, these centres have mostly occupied and adapted existing landmarks and integrated themselves within the landscape of the cities they occupy. Not even all of these centres do exactly the same things, not only are their buildings site-specific, their purpose and remits are too.

Despite Sir Ian Wood's opinion that "Eighty per cent of the people who spend time in the square will have no interest in the arts”, public-private sector partnership ACSEF, backer of The City Square Project now "says it wants to attract a major international gallery such as a Guggenheim to the site." Dave Blackwood has stated "There is no reason why Aberdeen cannot aspire to securing a major arts brand and establishing our own Guggenheim, a gallery and museum which has led the transformation of Bilbao.” Apparently this is as well as a Contemporary Arts Centre as Sir Ian claims "The door is always open to Peacock and I’m still hopeful that we can work together" which means that even though they would only interest twenty percent of the square's users, there could be two Arts facilities housed there. Never mind the issue of Sir Ian's "vision certainly doesn’t see significant building above ground" making it difficult for the successors of Mssrs Gehry and Lloyd Wright to design the an iconic building, with which Guggenheim are famous, undergound.

Of course, looking back to the HFM appraisal the purposes of the heavy, and contradictory, emphasis on arts and culture. Section 8.4, point 7.4 "Issues with developing in Parkland" states "Public acceptance of loss of open space unless replaced with similar type of space. Response will depend on the type of development brought forward. A scheme that appears to be multi-storey car park and retail space led, with a contemporary arts centre put into a corner may be less acceptable to the public/planners than one which leads with the arts centre." going onto say in the actions "Solution will depend on how the scheme is developed and the emphasis on the type of development. There may be significant issues if the scheme appears to be a case of replacing one of the few green spaces in the centre of Aberdeen with mainly retail and parking development."

The problem is, as everyone is aware, that there is already a scheme on the table which fulfils those cultural and civic criteria. The Peacock-led "Northern Light" Centre for Contemporary Arts is Aberdeen's first realistic stab at having an up-to-date world class Cultural centre, which also houses Aberdeen City Council's CityMoves Dancespace and Arts Education and Development teams. In terms of cultural buildings, Brisac Gonzalez' Centre falls somewhere between the Guggenheim Bilbao and those centres closer to home. Like the Bilbao Gallery, the centre is a newbuild of iconic design but like Trongate, Baltic, DCA and the Tate Modern, it finds itself seemlessly integrated into the surrounding environment. Unlike the four centre mentioned, however, this does not reside within a relic of the city's industrial past, but rather lives within the slopes of a unique and much-loved Victorian Garden, one of the last remnants of pre-industrial Aberdeen.

Incorporated within it's remit and at the core of the centre is the regeneration of Union Terrace Gardens themselves. For years Union Terrace Gardens were a vibrant space, with concerts, bandstands, ice rinks, large scale draughts boards and quite possibly the most exquisite Victorian conveniences in Scotland, however in recent years Aberdeen City Council has cut these provisions, closed the toilet facilities, locked away the draughts boards in the arches and thanks to the Evening Express' high profile campaign against the placing of "needle bins" in the Gardens has gotten a reputation as dangerous and home to Junkies, although I can't seem to recall the last time I read of crime happening within the Gardens outside of an Ian Rankin novel.

There is direct correlation between those activities that used to happen in the Gardens and those activities which ACSEF suggest could happen on the CitySquare. Again, this brings us back to the well-trodden issue of funds and funding and the fact I, and others, have been over, that despite ACSEF's assurances that "the City Square cannot take money away from the council's annual revenue budgets" yet it is selling itself as a cultural and civic project made up mostly of the sort of amenities which ACC cannot afford to keep running currently because of the huge deficit in it's revenue budget. If the space which is being created is primarily civic, and it has been pointed out that to move the project forward on the basis of shopping and car parking would not be advisable, then it will belong to and be maintained by the city. As the Square has been recognised as " currently unlikely to create substantial new office/technology space targeted at industry sector growth", then, by its nature the Square will not generate wealth, but instead be a huge drain on already stretched resources.

Last week the Press and Journal, posed a number of importing and quite scathing questions to Sir Ian, reflecting the questions being asked by opponents of the Square or people who are rightfully confused by many of the plans contradictory points. Not-so skillfully avoiding answering any of the questions with anything tangible, Wood described Union Terrace and Princess Street Gardens as "totally different" because "Princes Street itself hasn’t lost its former glory", " The Denburn dual carriageway and the rail line make up about half" and that "They're 45ft down and they get very little sunlight." indeed the Waverly to Haymarket line cuts through the middle of Princes' Street Gardens, they are 65 ft down and the suggestion that the only reason why no one had decked over Princes' Street Gardens was because Princes' Street itself hasn't gone the way of Union Street is simply laughable. Anyone would think that Union Terrace Gardens were soley responsible for the decline of Union Street, and again there is absolutely no way of proving exactly how the Square will combar Union Street's decline. The placing of an outdated grandiose plaza is directly opposite the Trinity Centre and Travel Lodge and can only serve as the real architectural chasm splitting Union Street in two and making a mockery of the engineering ingenuity and architectural vision which defines Union Street.

The answers to the questions speak for themselves, and fail to actually address any of the issues. Wood claims that the balustrades and arches can be retained, and it "may even be possible to engineer the square so that some of the other existing trees can grow through" despite reports of Weber-Shandwick's "consultants" claiming that "most of them are elms with Dutch elm disease and would be destroyed." The claim of disease within the trees also appears in the consultation FAQ however is refuted by members of the planning department who state that "Any consultant who says the Elm trees in Union Terrace Gardens are infected with Dutch Elm Disease, without having evidence to back up their claims, does not know what they are talking about." Any consultant wishing to work the trees would need to apply to the council for permission under the terms of the Tree Protection Orders on the them.

Sir Ian also uses the point that "schools in Aberdeen have even banned their pupils from going into Union Terrace Gardens" but again representatives from the council have confirmed that there are no standing orders in any of the city-centre schools advising pupils to avoid the Gardens, with the exception of Robert Gordon's College.
The fear of losing Sir Ian's "generous gift" was expressed in a letter in Saturday's P&J "I find it hard to imagine that any other city in Scotland – or, indeed, the UK – would risk throwing away £50million of private money like we seem about to do." Yes, indeed turning away £50 Million investment does seem like a rather silly idea, but that is not what is happening here. Personally, I find it hard to imagine that any other city in Scotland would be entertaining this "gift" given the numerous conditions placed on it. Far from being a saving grace to Aberdeen, it requires twice that to complete the bare bones of the project, it stymies another project which has gone through due process and has been granted full planning permission, and destroys a historic and Category B-listed garden. The concern expressed from Rupert Lumsden would certainly have more gravitas if it not for the fact that he had his own plans for "100 acres of much needed land for business use and 500 acres of land for mixed housing alongside a new 900 acre country park" on land which "is currently farmland and would need to be re-zoned in the local plan", which are currently being backed by ACSEF. Mr Lumsden's company Banchory & Leggart Estates, is even represented by the same PR Company as ACSEF.

Even though ACSEF "do not want to pre-empt the consultation" Zoe Corsi of The Big Partnership, working on their behalf has been attempting to engineer vocal support for the plan as an email passed to the I heart UTG group shows:
From: Zoe Corsi
Date: 6 February 2010 09:35
To:


Dear all,

Gary Atkinson has passed me your details as he reckons you may be prepared to write to the P&J In support of the project. As you will probably be aware the objectors are writing to the P&J with increasing frequency and we need to counter-balance the negativity. I am looking for people to write letters to pj.editor@ajl.co.uk

This is obviously quite sensitive as I cannot be seen to be encouraging people to do so but if you are willing I am happy to provide you with the key messages about the project....

Gary has written in along with some others but I am trying to maximise our chances of getting letters printed...

I look forward to hearing from you.

Zoe
And contrary to Scottish Enterprise assertions that it is "not a numbers game" and the refusal of ACSEF to comment on the I Heart UTG Petition, this does not stop the PR manager from urging her contacts to sign the Pro-Square petition:
To: All at Aberdeen
Subject: FW: City Square Project - THIS IS IMPORTANT!

Dear all,

If you want to see the City Square Project in Aberdeen come to fruition, you need to sign this and pass it on to all your contacts for signing. This only takes two minutes and is very important.
We need to demonstrate that the opposition is the minority.
The City Square project aims to create a better connected, more attractive, greener, safer city centre with a civic space and gardens that have something for everyone by raising Union Terrace Gardens and covering over the Denburn dual carriageway and adjacent railway line. For images and information on the project log on to www.thecitysquareproject.com

To sign the petition, click on link below…

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/support-the-city-square-project.html

Zoe Corsi
Director
The Big Partnership
Similar emails encouraging people to sign have been sent out to all staff at the Wood Group, directly from management. Staff at Talisman Energy and Shell have reported similar emails being received within their organisations.

From: CURRAN, Alan (WGENS)
Sent: 19 January 2010 15:19
To: WGENS Staff; WGENS Contractors
Subject:

You are probably aware Sir Ian has offered £50m of his own funds to help create a civic heart for the City of Aberdeen with the transformation of Union Terrace Gardens and covering over the railway and dual carriageway that runs through the heart of Aberdeen. It is believed that this project will act as a catalyst for the much needed regeneration of the City Centre. The attached one page article from the P&J outlines the key benefits of the project for Aberdeen's future

There is significant opposition from Peacock Arts who would prefer to proceed with their own development of a contemporary arts centre in Union Terrace Gardens although the bigger City Square project includes a good facility for them at lower cost and with better chance of viability. The arts community are very focused on their own plans as opposed to the more ambitious City Square which would provide a wider range of facilities, both cultural and recreational, for Aberdeen citizens.

Some of the larger companies in Aberdeen are encouraging their employees to participate in the public consultation exercise and make their views known on this very important project. For images and information on the project log on to http://www.thecitysquareproject.com and complete the online survey which forms part of the public consultation. There is also a petition in support of the project which you can sign by clicking on to http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/support-the-city-square-project.html. All of us need to reach our own conclusion but it would be good if the outcome of the public consultation genuinely reflects the views of as many of Aberdeen's citizens as possible and I would encourage you to participate and express your opinion, whatever it is, through the survey and the petitions.

Thanks

Alan Curran

Chief Executive

Wood Group Engineering (North Sea) Ltd
John Wood House
Greenwell Road
Aberdeen
Scotland, UK
AB12 3AX
Support for the square appears to be mostly coming from sources close to ACSEF themselves. A number of Pro-Square of anti-Peacock single post blogs mostly come from members of the Aberdeen City Youth Council who are led by Paul Robertson, a member of the City Square steering group. On Monday another ACSEF board member property magnate Stewart Milne backed up up previous statements by claiming that a "vital part of the strategy had to be the proposed City Square" when discussing "steps ... taken to improve road, rail and air links", directly at odds with claims made by Sir Moir Lockhead, chief executive of FirstGroup that "Other developments, such as a major revamp of Union Terrace Gardens, were being considered with little or no thought for the traffic implications." Were Mr Milne a member of the Council, and not ACSEF, he would be not be able to comment on the project due to his personal professional interest in the Denburn Valley area.

Meanwhile support for saving Union Terrace Gardens is widespread and not, as ACSEF would have you believe, simply restricted to the "arts community" or "supporters of Peacock Visual Arts" but to a great number of Aberdeen residents and ex-pats who have a deep emotional attachment to Union Terrace Gardens, which is so much more than a simple "allocation" of green space. The six thousand and ninety first signature on the petition to save the gardens was from Eurythmics vocalist and one of Aberdeen's most famous daughters, Annie Lennox. In a blog post on her myspace page, Ms Lennox described the City Square plans as "idiocy and madness." and making a plea to the people of aberdeen "“Aberdeen is your home town. Are you going to sit back, and do nothing while it’s beautiful historic center gets ripped out and concreted over”??!! It’s down to you to stop this happening."

ACSEF's response to this high-profile opposition was that "Ms Lennox appears to have made her comments based on a wholly inaccurate description of the project " affirming their opinion that anyone who opposes the project does not understand it. However the plans are so vague that not many people could claim to fully understand it, let alone ACSEF themselves. There are many mixed messages being put out there by ACSEF concerning the content, and purpose of the square as they attempt to appeal to every possible demographic no matter how contradictory their messages are between one group and another. While the only certainty of the project requires the full excavation of the current Union Terrace Gardens, ACSEF can use the undefined nature of their scheme to avoid any criticism. Pauline MacLean, arts correspondent for BBC Scotland revealed on the BBC Scotland Radio Cafe programme that when she "reported on this for news purposes I got a row from ACSEF saying 'we don't know for sure it's going to be concrete yet' although they're obviously going to need something tough and grey in order to build up what is essentially this piazza area."

"Politicians have now invited representatives of the two bids, along with nearby residents, a town planning expert, councillors and members of architecture, heritage and civil amenity groups to a meeting at Aberdeen Citadel, in Castle Street, on February 18 at 6.30pm."
Labour MPs and MSPs Anne Begg, Lewis MacDonald, Frank Doran and Richard Baker have arranged a full public debate in order to combat what they call a “polarised and far too narrow” debate. Unsurprisingly Tom Smith of ACSEF was quick to "strongly refute Mr Doran’s claims that city-centre residents have not been given the opportunity to make their views known" against the tide of criticism of the consultation process. The event will be a rare opportunity for both the City Square and the Peacock Scheme to be presented together fairly and the public given the opportunity to hear independent expert opinions and discuss options for the site within the "context of what the city needs and how these developments would meet that need." A much welcome and overdue event will give the public of Aberdeen the ability to question those behind the proposals directly.


7 comments:

lepeep said...

Wow. I wonder what reaction those emails are going to cause? You expect that sort of stuff to go on in the background - but seeing it is pretty amazing. Open and honest indeed.

AJ said...

Hi - Thanks for this. I've sent out a few e-mails myself and posted the info on my facebook page and on my band's facebook and myspace. Although my feelings on the subject are very clear I've made a point of posting links to as much of the available information as possible including both the pro peacock's and pro city square petitions. It's very interesting to note that a very high percentage of the folk signing the pro city square petition are declining to leave their location, maybe as many as 40%. I wonder if this is significant.

Jack Keenan said...

Excellent work again sir!

Shikha said...

A terrace gardenis an element where a raised flat paved or gravelled section overlooks a prospect. A raised terrace keeps a house dry.

Story Quine said...

Wow Fraser! That's fantastic. You should get Donal McIntyre involved in this, or, alternatively, offer to help him the next time he's after a bit of investigative journalism. You should get a medal, mate!

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