Union Terrace Gardens versus the City Garden Project

The Victorian Union Terrace Gardens in the heart of Aberdeen create an unusual feature which alludes to the city’s historic past around the valley of the Denburn. It is a public park paid for by public money and not private land for a select group to remove. Or is it?

Few of Aberdeen’s historic landscapes have escaped developers. The city has a reputation for failing to recognise what is important to preserve for future generations. The city does not convey any sense of pride in its heritage. It chooses to ignore it instead.

So, Union Terrace Gardens are up for grabs. If you have money there’s a chance you can determine what goes and what stays in the city.

For a moment it looked as if the ordinary citizens would also have a chance to voice their opinions. A questionnaire attracted a big response and when the people gave a resounding ‘no’, the questionnaire was rubbished.

The proposal went ahead despite opposition. Some councillors began to get cold feet; shifting their stance on the subject but only after a working group to push ahead with the plan was set up. Some people have asked who the people on the working group are and what gives them the right to make decisions about the future of a public park. We haven’t been given an answer to that.

So the proposal went out to tender and 6 finalists were selected and the results displayed for the public to see and voice their opinions.  Well, up to a point. The choice for the public was to number the designs in order of preference. There was no box to say they wanted the gardens to remain with a few alterations  – such as improved access. Sleight of hand there.

There was no reference to the proposal by the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens to work with the Council to restore the gardens and improve the space, at a fraction of the cost, were it to stay on budget, which we all know it won’t.

Like the bulldozers of the future ploughing up the grass, the mature trees, this unique urban green oasis the plans were drawn up, models shaped and Perspex-covered boxes built in preparation for the people to look upon.

‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Yes, there are plenty who have despaired.

Firstly they promise ‘A new green space’ but there is a green space there already. They promise a ‘civic space’. It already is a civic space – owned by the people for the people, remember? It will ‘provide a home for an international arts centre’ – what does this mean? An internationally important architect had his innovative design for an arts centre, partially sunken in keeping with the shape of the gardens first accepted, then when Wood came along, rejected by the council. And what is an ‘international arts centre’?

These are old ideas. The difference is the people behind them.

The official document promises the creation of a ‘natural amphitheatre to host events. There already is an amphitheatre, natural or not there. So nothing new in this, either.

There were 55 submissions. All I can say is there must have been some shockers if the 6 remaining are the best. Still it’s not down to me, or you little people, to choose the design. This will fall to – well, see below. `

No matter –  let us take a look at what is on offer.

Number 1 The Granite Web

This is incredible. It’s like someone’s idea of a joke. For starters we have raised walkways, streamlined with figures wandering around. Now call me picky but can you see health and safety allowing people to walk at these heights without tall fences along the walkways? And quite right too, I could take a dizzy and topple onto the folk eating below, or if I was less polite I might… well.

Cutting through the turgid descriptions of nature and culture fused into a ‘vital network’ – what ?  – ‘an elastic web’  – ‘stretching across the historic river site – ’ which river would that be then? No rivers there. The Denburn. Far fetched calling that a river, ‘multi-tiered archaeology’ has anyone checked what this guy’s been drinking? ‘quiet hang outs to meadows’,  ‘the city’s emergent future’.

Cutting though the crap. This design is a mess, misleading in its visualisation and frankly, an eyesore in the making.

Number 2  The Winter Garden

Hmm, sounds a wee bit like the Winter Gardens which already exists in Aberdeen.

This one appears to be most in favour with people who have looked at the plans, perhaps because it looks most like Union Terrace Gardens  – only much, much more expensive.

They want to preserve and enhance the existing park’ – good. So do lots of people.

They talk of decking over the railway and road, hope that doesn’t mean decking as in patio style.

The decking feature is where they build what looks to me like a long glass caterpillar – i.e. the winter garden- singular friends of Spike. Now they compare the caterpillar to the Crystal Palace, uhm don’t think so, or the Kibble Palace, never heard of it. It is to be home to cultural events, a garden, restaurant and cafés. Now can you just see Aberdeen Council paying to heat this place in winter? Can you?

That said, this looks like UTG. It’s even keeping the arches which are wonderful. And hopefully the balustrade which a councillor assures people is rotten – so of course ready for removal. Well the council’s rotten but no-one’s talking of removing  …oh, yes, so they are.

Number 3 Sculpted Landform & Connections

This design is deceptive. I thought at first it was just rubbish – a technical term for substandard design. Then I read the water feature is actually two quartz pavilions and I thought, really? But I looked again and decided I was right the first time.  It says one is opposite Her Majesty’s Theatre – so it’s not Aberdeen ,then? That’s good. There isn’t any Her Majesty’s – some attention to detail.

It goes on about a cairn, more about culture, fine views of the park – must be different from the view I was getting which I wouldn’t describe as remotely fine. Horrible, horrible.


Number 4 The Flower of Scotland

Nice tune pity about the design. Blah blah ‘latent potential’, blah, blah ‘harmony’, ‘truly rich’ blah, ‘grand iconic space’ Is there anything that isn’t iconic nowadays? Aye, most of Aberdeen.

It’s all glorious and beautiful and – well flat. Floral patterns ‘meanders’ over the site. I can’t tell you how much I dislike this horrible, overworked, disappointing expanse of nothingness.


Number 5 The Cultural Plaza

This one is not going to simply ‘deck over’ the existing valley’ – thank god for that. It is aiming to created ‘interconnected spaces’ ‘variety of scales’ ‘a ‘Ramblas’ no less-  Barcelona! A city of inspired public art. A spectacular city so like…no. Anyway I don’t like the caged birds on the Ramblas so that doesn’t work.

The impression of multiple slopes which look like it might be decking with some tufts of grass poking through. All over. That’s a helluva lot of decking. How much decking can you buy for £150million? Quite a lot.

Number 6 Cultural Podium

Straight in with ‘arborial wealth’ – didn’t know we had that, did you?

They want to create a promenade ‘framed by an alée (no an alley, I think it’s Frinch) of London Plane trees’ Fit! London! Yer in Scotland! We hiv trees.

References to Aberdeen’s granite heritage – that’s good – even the council doesn’t do that. And they’ll give us ‘visual, tactile and fragrant’ They’ll provide an art and cultural museum – more than the council does. But wait – does that museum look like something out of the Flintstones? I’ve been to Flintstone Park.  I know it when I see it. It really fits into that corner on Union Street. See that guy who designed the Peacock centre – that’s where he went wrong – create an eyesore – and if you’re going to create an eyesore might as well make it a big one.

Now, personally I don’t think anyone who doesn’t know there’s an ‘r’ in Aberdeen should be given any say on UTG.

The gardens from STV


The Jury

Sir Duncan Rice – Former Principal Abedeen University

Sir Ian Wood –who began the project

Councillor John Stewart, Libdem

Tom Smith MD of a large telecommunications company

Charles Landry Provides toolkits for urban innovators

Lavina Massie  I have no idea either

Malcolm Reading  a consultant on capital projects

STV’s link to the garden designs


The council’s monitoring group.


As Shelley might have continued –

‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Thanks Mr Shelley.

Ian Wood’s fortune comes from…

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