And so the debate over the Aberdeen City Garden project rumbles on. And it should, because at the heart of it is a right of a city’s population to have a say in whether their city will change or not.
Ever since oil services Sir Ian Wood tycoon put his hat in the ring with £50M of his fortune to redesign the city centre’s 1879 Union Terrace Gardens, as long as Aberdeen City Council came up with match funding, the site has been a battlefield for those who wish to see the city centre reinvented and those who like it very much as it is, thank you. Lest we forget, in 2009 London firm Brisac Gonzalez actually had planning permission to build a £13.5M arts centre built into the garden’s slopes, but was ultimately rejected by the City Council.
An international competition was set up inviting proposals for the £140M redesign. Despite public consultation, in which 55% of respondents said they didn’t want a new park, it attracted 55 submissions, before a shortlist of six of the usual suspects was announced, cosseted in some very divergent landscaping proposals. These have now been whittled down to two. The winner was supposed to be announced this month, but the jury wishes to see both schemes worked up more. As Malcolm Reading Associates, who are organising the competition delicately put it, ‘clarification in the spirit of the competitive process’.
But what about the democratic process? Well, with a large amount of public protest over the proposal, the latest is that last week the City Council deferred a vote on whether they should hold a second referendum with Aberdeen’s citizens about what they want for the Gardens. There’s some debate as to who’s going to stump up the £250K cost to run it; but the City Gardens Trust, a private organisation funded to take the project through to planning has already said it won’t - understandable, given they are not remotely interested in a ‘no’ vote. Of equal interest is the fact that a Special Purpose Vehicle will take over the gardens to develop them and manage them once they are complete. Does this mean it will stop being public land, as it is now?
LSE’s Professor Richard Sennett talks about the ‘need for danger’ within modern cities. I don’t think he means real danger, but raw, urban spaces that are unmonitored, unmediated and uninfluenced by other agendas. Union Terrace Gardens might look rough round the edges, but it’s nothing a bit of TLC can’t deal with. It is a big thing in the urban consciousness to tear up a park that has defined a place for nearly 140 years and replace it with something imposed and alien. I’m no fan of herbacious borders and garish floral clocks- but I recognise their role in the collective memory of the city.
As for the two designs standing, I’m taking a punt. All those ‘desire lines’ criss-crossing the park in ‘Granite suggest the ogsessions of Space Syntax made concrete, and its white triangle of stage reminds me of Niall McLaughlin’s Bexhill-on-Sea bandstand, so I’m thinking Gustafson Porter/ Niall McLaughlin. The ‘Winter Garden’, with its hi-tech diagrid Winter Garden heavily referencing Victorian Engineering as precedent, but looking suspiciously like a rehashed roof of Florence train station and Canary Wharf Crossrail is possibly Foster+Partners and Vladimir Djurovic.
But at stake here is more than ‘good’ design- it’s the nature of the democratic process and the right for a city to decide its future form regardless of commercial concerns. And if it were up to me, I’d think long and hard before losing Union Terrace Gardens in all its dowdy, flawed but public glory.