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LDA redesigns and opens up Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens

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Words:
Isabelle Priest

After years of frustrated efforts, LDA has transformed access and the experience of the green leisure space, while three new Stallan Brand-designed pavilions recall the historic trams

Union Terrace Gardens is the main park in the centre of Aberdeen. It is located between Aberdeen Art Gallery, His Majesty’s Theatre and the Central Library at the northern end, and the city’s primary shopping avenue Union Street skims along the south side. A block further south is the station and to the east the quays and beaches beyond. The 1ha park was opened in 1879 in the river valley of the now-culverted Den Burn, and enclosed by Rosemount Viaduct, which arches over the railway that cuts through the park on its eastern edge. Hence, despite being a mini Aberdeen equivalent of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, the park’s topography and features present significant challenges. The site is essentially a 12m-deep, circa 300m-long basin, accessible on three sides and with sharply sloping terrain.

Alongside the longer-term history of Union Terrace Gardens is a more recent one about it falling into difficulty from the early 1990s. Its mature trees had become overgrown, making the space dark, and overshadowing the lawns at the bottom which often became a quagmire. The Victorian public toilets closed, and the park was inaccessible because steps on all sides gave little reason to go down and through. It also lacked passive surveillance and became a no-go area because of drugs use.

The gardens have therefore been on Aberdeen City Council’s agenda for some time. In 2010 a Brisac Gonzalez proposal for it fell through, as did another in 2012 from an international competition. Diller Scofidio + Renfro won that with a major intervention that would have seen little of the previous design retained. The plan narrowly passed a local referendum but was later canned by a change in governance. Nevertheless, the park remained a priority as part of the City Centre Masterplan alongside Aberdeen Art Gallery.

That was the story when LDA Design came to the project in 2016 via competitive tender. However, there had been so much water under the bridge by this point that a major component of the scheme, as director Rory Wilson explains, was ‘needing to regain the people of Aberdeen’s trust’. The brief was to reimagine the park but respect its historic nature, as well as create a green heart for the city and open it up as a venue for public events. LDA’s first move was about engagement. It drew up a list of key stakeholders, 40 in total, and carried out workshops to tease out concerns, wishes and feedback. The design firm set up a stall at the Christmas market and spoke to 4000 people over nine days, in addition to other events involving artists and installations.

  • The new high-level walkway loops around Union Pavilion, the largest of the three pavilions and designed as a restaurant.
    The new high-level walkway loops around Union Pavilion, the largest of the three pavilions and designed as a restaurant. Credit: Christopher Swan
  • The elongated granite steps now have a  ramped accessible route that winds between  the flights and is an enjoyable experience itself.
    The elongated granite steps now have a ramped accessible route that winds between the flights and is an enjoyable experience itself. Credit: Christopher Swan
  • The ramped path acts as an amphitheatre, with clear views over the lawn and as a space to enjoy the more varied and resilient contemporary planting.
    The ramped path acts as an amphitheatre, with clear views over the lawn and as a space to enjoy the more varied and resilient contemporary planting. Credit: Christopher Swan
  • The restored granite steps have been  relaid at a more leisurely incline than previously.
    The restored granite steps have been relaid at a more leisurely incline than previously. Credit: Christopher Swan
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This led LDA to six core objectives, which formed the backbone of the now-completed design. These centred on preserving green space, celebrating heritage, improving facilities, creating space for events and accessibility. Key to the proposal was the idea for three new pavilions along Union Terrace to provide additional capacity for different activities and attract visitors, but also to provide a better connection between the garden and street. Architectural practice Stallan Brand was invited on board to design the pavilions. Both firms are based in Glasgow and had worked together before.

In terms of the landscape design, much of the work that has been carried out is deliberately undetectable. You might be forgiven for thinking the park looks much the same, just better. Broadly speaking the structure is unchanged – the embankments, lawns at the bottom, existing statues of Robert Burns, Prince Albert, King Edward VII and William Wallace, and the cascade of granite steps from the north-west corner that lead to the bottom of the basin. However, the effort that has gone into preserving the design continuity of the new with the site’s heritage is phenomenal and it is this that makes the project special. 

LDA’s design splits the garden basin into three principal areas: the wide open lawn and hard standing for events at the north end, a playground in the centre to draw people in, and an intimate woodland glade at the narrower, darker southern end. These areas each have their own planting characteristics. A huge new halo light suspended on three jaunty posts above the central lawn animates the space and provides essential lighting for events or at night.

Magnificently restored Victorian urinals are awaiting use – perhaps as an underground bar

The new bronze powder-coated safety extension to the original railings across Union Bridge picks up themes from both old and new. Credit: Andrew Lee
The beautifully restored urinals in the Victorian gents’ toilets, preserved for a new use. Credit: Isabelle Priest

Across the whole site excessively large trees and thick planting have been stripped back to bring daylight into the park, as well as visibility from street level. New trees include lime, oaks, cherry, Scots pine and sycamore to ensure biosecurity (some of the previous trees had to be felled because of Dutch elm disease) and the glade has a small spinney of birch trees. Annual bulb planting has been replaced in favour of contemporary prairie planting that emphasises seasons and builds in resilience. In in early March, hellebores were starting to come out among the grasses, hostas and Japanese box. Later there will be asters, anemones and ligularias.

To improve accessibility while maintaining continuity, LDA has made several key moves. The first is where Union Terrace meets Rosemount Viaduct. Here, a section of the gardens with the Prince Albert and William Wallace statues had been severed from the park by a short slip road. LDA has reclaimed this as part of the park, extending its reach and presence at street level with a new public plaza that has become a gateway to the gardens.

The other advantage of this design move is that it gives the gardens additional space. The granite steps leading to the bottom lawns from this corner were one of the main historical features of the existing design. They comprise 69 steps over six flights. Yet they were inhospitably steep and difficult to use, and had no alternative accessible route. Pulling back the park at this junction has allowed LDA to redesign and re-lay the steps using the original stones on the same axis but over a deeper area to reduce the incline from 45° to 30°, making a much more leisurely and comfortable experience.

A new embankment-height accessible route weaves between the relaid staircases to provide a gentle route to the lawns

View from the north of the Union Pavilion showing the precast concrete facade with bronze aluminium inset panels. Credit: Andrew Lee
The slide through the woodland glade into the playground. Credit: Christopher Swan

While other terraces had previously met the stairs at several levels, a new embankment-height accessible route now weaves between the relaid elongated staircases to provide a gentle route to the lawns. This is one of the most spectacular elements of the redesign as it is visible while walking around the gardens at street level. Its openness and colourful planting tempts you to follow it and have a closer look. Along the length of the new ramp 450 linear metres of stone seating, which doubles as the retaining structure, has been reused to give people a place to pause. This end of the gardens, always seen as a natural amphitheatre, is now more generous and sweeping than ever.

At the opposite end of the park similar problems regarding accessibility have been resolved with the addition of a high-level walkway. This area had been almost a dead end, with a tall staircase linking park to street. Now, the raised walkway winds down past the Union Pavilion to join the mid-level perimeter promenade below Union Terrace. From here you can continue to the granite steps ramped walk, take in the view from one of the project’s two new belvederes overlooking the lawn (again useful for public events) or go further along another sloped path down into the woodland glade. 

Other essential civil works have taken place at street level. To improve accessibility further, one lane of traffic along Union Terrace has been removed to create a wide pavement with new seating and multiple disabled car parking spaces to give easy access the gardens. All around the park the surrounding decorative stone balustrading has been restored and reinforced. Again undetectably, each post has been deconstructed and a stainless steel structure embedded within it. Likewise, LDA has designed an elegant freestanding railing to extend the balustrade height of Union Bridge for security and suicide prevention. Bronze powder-coated, it continues the theme of the design for the railings and walkways across the gardens.

  • Rendered drawing of how the interior of Union Pavilion may look once it is occupied as a restaurant.
    Rendered drawing of how the interior of Union Pavilion may look once it is occupied as a restaurant. Credit: Stallan Brand
  • The middle Burns Pavilion houses a wine bar and contains a publicly accessible lift linking the belvedere and gardens with the street.
    The middle Burns Pavilion houses a wine bar and contains a publicly accessible lift linking the belvedere and gardens with the street. Credit: Andrew Lee
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As for the pavilions themselves, it would be a challenge to realise that these have been designed by a different firm from the park itself, such is the collaboration and cohesion between the architecture and landscape design. Three pavilions in total are spaced out along Union Terrace. The largest is at the junction where Union Street meets Union Terrace and they incrementally shrink – proportionally in X and Z dimensions – with the Burns Pavilion in the middle and Rosemount Pavilion at the north-west. Each adopts the same freestanding object, lozenge-shaped floorplan design that, alongside their bronze powder-coated detailing, is inspired by the trams that once journeyed up and down Union Terrace. 

From the street, none appears to be taller than one storey high. However, both the Union Pavilion and Burns Pavilion drop two storeys below ground level to provide an additional link to the lower levels of the garden, again improving visual and physical connection. The facades use precast concrete made with marble aggregate from Skye, creating a deliberately bright white contrast to Aberdeen’s grey granite. One pavilion is intended to become a restaurant while the other two are already occupied by a wine bar and café. The spaces inside have the same alluring classical combination of textures and materials as the exterior, here using terrazzo floors, red Venetian plasterwork, oak panelling and bronze detailing. At the southern end of the site, Union Pavilion also now links into the original Victorian gents’ and ladies’ public toilets, which have been magnificently restored and are awaiting use – perhaps as an underground bar where urinals form seating coves. Again, a lot of unseen work has been part of the architectural aspect of the project. The corner of the street above the gents’ toilets had to be completely removed and reinforced for the statue of Edward VII – which is why the ceilings in the WCs are exposed concrete and steel.

In all, the project hits every necessary aspect of the brief and recreates Union Terrace Gardens for the better and the long term. 

  • Rosemount Pavilion is at the junction of Rosemount Viaduct and Union Terrace, now a public plaza.
    Rosemount Pavilion is at the junction of Rosemount Viaduct and Union Terrace, now a public plaza. Credit: Andrew Lee
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IN NUMBERS

Total contract cost  £25.7m
Site area 1.6ha
GIFA 1019m²

Credits

Client Aberdeen City Council 
Landscape architect and lead consultant LDA Design
Architect and conservation architect, buildings Stallan Brand
Structural, civil, MEP engineer and lighting designer Arup
Contractor Balfour Beatty
Conservation architect, landscape David Chouman Architect
Project manager and planning consultant Ryden
Cost consultant and principal designer McCloud + Aitken

 

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