Move along now, nothing to see here – Aberdeen’s latest Civic Square debacle

marischal square plan 1

REVEALED! the latest vision aiming to regenerate Aberdeen city centre.

Yes plans for the hugely anticipated Marischal Square is moving on apace and it is worrying.

The publicity comes studded with those all-too familiar V words promising us a vibrant vision no less. Let me add a V or two of my own  – vacuous, vile, vulgar, very vulgar, vomitory.

Vibrant is usually a tag attached to something decidedly un-vibrant, hence the need for a tag to persuade people the emperor really is wearing clothes. For vibrant read bog-standard,  unexceptional and ordinary, very, very ordinary and here, dated designs.

marischal college old pic (2)

Marischal College is a magnificent building, world-class, a testament to the granite masons who sawed, carved and polished its fabulous frontage. It is the second largest granite building in the world and size matters in these things. It is the worthy public face of the city that has become Scotland’s economic powerhouse, a role reluctantly shouldered and modestly underplayed by the players who should be using the current economic climate to highlight its best features.



Consider Marischal College as the backdrop to a large expanse of nothingness but charm and wonder, let’s call it a square, in which people could congregate and marvel at the granite tour de force before them – this square would become a magnet for locals and visitors alike – on a par with squares in, and let’s be modest here, Brasov, Nuremberg and Sibiu.




Sibiu, Romania

Sibiu, Romania

The current version of the proposal from Muse Developments is to partially conceal Marischal College with dated looking boxy offices, shops and a hotel.

This is risk-averse bog-standard city centre development at its weakest and will convince no-one to come to Aberdeen, instead confirm to exasperated residents of the city and shire that Aberdeen’s decision makers really should not be allowed out on their own but be secured in a place of protection. They are recidivist dullards who never tire of displaying their woeful lack of civic self-confidence.

There have been the usual ‘consultations’ over the Broad Street proposals which has been development-led . What should have been done was to let the public come up with ideas for the gap left by the demolition of the St Nicholas House complex.  The people of the area, not developers, are better placed to inform the council that works for them (supposedly) how best to preserve and flaunt both Marischal and the 16th century Provost Skene’s House. After all the people who live and work in the city are the ones whose lives will be most affected by the changes to this environment. Once it became clear what the majority wanted the concept should have been put out to an international design competition.

Broadgate, later Broad Street, where Lord Byron lived as a child

Broadgate, later Broad Street, where Lord Byron lived as a child


What we got was a developer, Muse, ‘incorporating’ we are told the wishes of the public following their initial design.

It is no secret in Aberdeen that people want a square i.e. an open area where they can congregate and absorb the magnificance of Marischal.What they don’t appreciate is having the wool pulled over their eyes by a developer and council banging on about Marischal Square when that is precicelsly what is not being offered.


marischal plan 2

This ‘public space free from traffic’ is council and Musa otherwise known as a street.

It is a street with hotels, shops and offices – how unique and brilliant a concept is that?

Marischal College will again be mostly hidden and so will the 16th century Provost Skene’s House relegated to a corner at the back much as it was with the St Nicholas House development.

16th century Provost Skene's House

16th century Provost Skene’s House

Where the traffic will go is chaos waiting to happen.

Marie Boulton is an independent councillor and the council’s deputy leader who tells us the plans have reached an ‘exciting stage.’ There are a lot of people who view the refined plans as depressing more than exciting. Nothing Councillor Boulton, nothing about this proposal is in the least exciting.

Don’t believe the propaganda accompanying this latest architectural outrage threatening the city. Pedestrianised shopping streets are ten a penny around the country, around the globe.

Aberdeen had an opportunity to make its mark with a real show stopper of a civic square. If retail and hotel space are essential why couldn’t they be designed to run around an open square instead of closing in the area?

Why can’t the many unused storeys above shops along the length of the decaying magnificence of Unions Street be turned into hotel rooms and offices or even shops?

Regenerate Union Street and create a civic square worthy of the city and Marischal College.

It is clear from statements coming from the council that the very people trusted with responsibility for taking vital decisions affecting the future of Aberdeen  are not up to the job. Is there anyone among them who knows anything about world quality architecture? Anyone of them with ambition? (aside from personal).

Remember the dreadful design chosen for Union Terrace Gardens? Well they haven’t raised the game since that.

The council administration has changed but no lessons have been learned in terms of design or aspiration. This administration for all its criticism of the last one who pushed the misguided Union Terrace Web fiasco are pursuing civic irresponsibility in their own right. Are these people stupid?

Muse Developments controversially became the Labour-led administrations preferred bidder for the Marischal site. There were questions raised at the time over the bid process but it was declared legal by the Court of Session.

marischal plan 3

Last year criticisim was made of Muse’s design to develop Chester’s city centre, their plans described as ‘a missed opportunity to create a high quality and attractive area within the city.’ Quite.

In both cities business backed Muse’s plans in the hope of realising promised economic returns. Should short-term economic interests rather than civic integrity really be the driver in sensitive civic sites? Depressingly Chester’s experience is being repeated in Aberdeen.

Move along now, nothing to see here – nothing bold, nothing striking only a bleak row of boxes cutting through the splendour of Marischal and Skene’s.

Really could there be any design more out of sympathy with these architecturally interesting buildings?

Where is the cultural sensitivity? Where is the architectural merit, a sense of aesthetics in all of this?

Demolition of St Nicholas House complex reveals interesting aspects of Aberdeen

Demolition of St Nicholas House complex reveals interesting aspects of Aberdeen

This is a plan designed for people of a nervous disposition – frightened of change.

If you’re looking for an architectural legacy for Aberdeen’s children and future generations don’t look to this development – there is none.

It would make you weep.


Some comments on this proposal.

‘No surprise the Aberdeen Mafia aka HFM have been let loose on yet another swathe of the city. Sorry guys but this is still a truly grim proposal. You are really just replacing like for like in terms of the city scape. Not just the design of the buildings themselves but the whole site strategy – the same windswept square in the centre, blocked from any daylight and surrounded by windfunnels. There have been dozens of student projects that have come up with vastly more enjoyable and viable spaces for this same site.’

‘Reintroducing Guestrow is a nice idea but given the scale, massing and footprint of the new buildings it seems pretty disingenuous. If this is really to be reintegrated into the townscape and street pattern surely the site needs to be broken down further – this is still essentially one large building, mixed-use or not.’

‘Aberdeen city continues to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Aberdeen was one of the most architecturally beautiful cities anywhere in Europe but gradually it is being replaced with poorly designed concrete and steel monstrosities that are not in scale with the surroundings and clash with the design of the historic buildings. It is deeply depressing! We are consulted and then ignored which makes it worse.’

‘Contemporary, stunning, sympathetic, sustainable, long term, visionary, well considered… Some of the things that seem to have been missed with this one.’

‘You say that this is a refined design? i am afraid that it is still failing….a very poor design response to the opportunities presented by this site. What you have produced to date, lacks creativity and shows a complete insensitivity to the adjacent listed buildings. This design proposal is repeating the mistakes of of the 60’s/70’s. We have come a long way since then in our understanding and management of scale, relationship, materials etc.  The architectural solution on this site should be an iconic building which reflects the dynamic nature of the city not some bland compromise which fails to excite. Stop “refining ” your original concept for the site. Scrap it and start again. Employ an outside creative architectural design agency if your in-house people cannot respond to the requirements of this brief . The people of Aberdeen want an exciting aesthetic solution.’




8 Responses to “Move along now, nothing to see here – Aberdeen’s latest Civic Square debacle”

  1. A truly missed opportunity to integrate a beautiful but dysfunctional city. What a shame not to create an open square where what is ALREADY there can be admired. Any good architect would tell you that squares give a town cohesion and are great spaces for the development of the arts and cultural events. Aberdeen lacks a natural place for folk to congregate.

    • I agree. Isn’t it frustrating that Aberdeen Council demonstrates such a lack of ambition and (hate to use it but) vision. It wants to attract people to the city yet cannot see what’s in front of its face. Tourists gather in squares in cities they visit. They take photographs of the squares and themselves in it and this publicises the attractiveness of a place. No-one – just no-one will be taking photographs of shops and offices and encouraging friends and family to come here.

      And yes it would be an obvious place for great cultural events with the dramatic backdrop of Marischal.

      The council is mad, bad and sad – and more importantly make decisions for all kinds of spurious reasons. This is a REALLY bad one.

      Thanks for your comment. L

  2. When I first saw the “artist’s impression” of Marischal Square on the BBC Scotland website my first thought was that this design makes no sense. It shows the area as completely pedestrianised.
    So I’d ask – 1) Where do 50% plus of the city’s bus routes go, since, at present, they all use Broad Street.
    2) How do the police whose Divisional HQ is situated on Queen Street get in and out of their building? On foot? By bicycle?
    3) Where does all the rest of the traffic which uses Broad Street go?
    4) What effect will this have on traffic using Littlejohn Street?
    5) What problems will be faced by elderly and/or disabled people trying to access Aberdeen City Council’s sparkling new HQ? (e.g. How far will they have to walk to and from the nearest bus stop – wherever that’s located)

    That’s 5 questions from a GLANCE at ONE artist’s impression of the brave new Marischal Square. What sort of moron was the person who designed this? Do Aberdeen councillors have any sense at all? Do they care about this city? Answers on a postcard to Barney Crockett, Heid Numptie, Aberdeen City Council.

  3. V is also for Villains which is what ACC are. I see this ‘artist’s impression’ being filed in the same place as the Union Terrace Garden proposals – neVer gonna happen.

  4. I feel like we need a big, inclusive, city-wide debate about where on earth Aberdeen is going wrong. Get the whole city together and say “right, let’s get this sorted once and for all”. What do we need, what are the priorities, and what are the stumbling blocks?

    It seems to me the council’s number one priority is shopping. That’s all a city centre is to them, a shopping district. This seems like yet another case of the “if we build it they will come” mentality which has seen numerous shopping malls and arcades built, moving the centre of gravity of shopping for a few years until the next one comes along – assuming they don’t fail right from the start. It was the same mentality that seemed to be the entire case for the Ian Wood Memorial Carbuncle and the TIF funding.

    A city centre is more than just shops. When I visit another city, I rarely do any shopping, but I still go to the city centre to look at stuff, and hopefully to visit museums etc. According to the council website, we have just FOUR museums and galleries in the city (, one of which (Provost Skene House) is currently closed while they demolish St Nick’s House. Surely that should ring alarm bells in and of itself? Imagine having to close down 25% of your already-meagre cultural spaces because it’s too close to something that’s getting knocked down? What happens when this next monstrosity has to be knocked down as well?

    Aberdeen has a rich history. Why do we not have a museum dedicated to the history of Aberdeen? You’ve got Byron, Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first whole-body MRI scanner at Aberdeen University, the Alex Ferguson era (the Museum of Liverpool has a whole section dedicated to LFC, and it would make the museum appealing to visitors with an interest in Manchester United too) and loads of other stuff. All we have at the moment is a maritime museum which is off the beaten track a bit; Provost Skene House, which is hidden and seemingly destined to remain so; and the Tolbooth museum, which is so well advertised that I had no idea it even existed until looking at the council website today, despite having lived in Aberdeen most of my 31 years.

    Instead of trying to turn Broad Street into yet another mass shopping area (repeating the same mistakes of thinking more shops = more shoppers, rather than simply displacing custom from existing areas), why not try to turn it into a cultural quarter? Stick a museum there to be the centrepiece instead of another glass shopping centre, and then you’ve already got Provost Skene House beside it and the other two museums within spitting distance. Sell it to tourists properly and you’ve basically got Berlin’s Museum Island (albeit admittedly less impressive). Unless, of course, retail space rent is the sole motivation for doing anything in the city, but I’m sure our council leaders and city luminaries wouldn’t be so crass…

    But even that ignores the city’s real problem: shite public transport. I genuinely hate the idea of trying to get anywhere in this city by bus, because it’s slow, it’s unreliable, and often you can’t even get where you want to go with just one bus. (It seems utterly bewildering that to get from Broomhill to Hazlehead, you need to get a bus all the way into town just to get another one out again, when both areas are on the same side of the city – oh for a “ring” route like Berlin’s S41/S42 S-bahns…) So I take the car. But then you’ve got to try and get parked, which is a nightmare as well and almost as expensive as the bus (that “almost” hinting towards another problem). Result? I avoid going into the city centre unless I absolutely have to, meaning no matter what they do to the city centre, I won’t be using it. How many others are like me?

    • The concentration on shopping is all part of this lack of self-confidence whereby development is only seen in economic terms with no aspiration to anything greater.

      Like you when I travel abroad I rarely shop, having checked out the local culture before I go I head straight there. Don’t get me started on a social history museum of the area. So many have ploughed that particular furrow and it’s going nowhere. That was one of the reasons I found the city’s bid as City of Culture risible.

      Everything Council-led in Aberdeen is small-scale and therefore ineffective. But then look at the people in the Council. Really if you know who they are it’s hardly surprising. They’ve never shown any spark of ingenuity or ambition beyond the most ordinary.

      Getting around the city is another area left untackled by administration after administration. First’s grip on transport resulting in obscenely expensive fares is an area long overdue overhaul.

      Back at Marischal Square – wouldn’t it be magnanimous of Ian Wood to throw his cash at creating the city square he was after in front of Marischal? But I’m forgetting his UTG square was a sop to retailers as well so I doubt that’ll happen. And you are right shoppers will simply abandon one centre for another which is what happened to Union Street when retailers and their customers walked (now isn’t that a rare Aberdeen phenomenon) straight into the first of the hideous shopping malls.


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