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News analysis: Aberdeen Council dumps proposed gardens scheme after narrow vote

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Bon Accord citizens at loggerheads over decision to ditch design by prestigious New York practice for £140 million gardens revamp

Aberdeen Council has ditched Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s (DSR) proposal for a £140 million ‘Granite Web’ revamp of Union Terrace Gardens.

Last week’s decision draws a line under one of the UK’s most controversial and high-profile international design competitions, whose finalists included Foster + Partners, Snøhetta, Gustafson Porter, Mecanoo and West 8.

Described by competition organiser Malcolm Reading as a ‘wonderful opportunity for Aberdeen to signal its appetite for change and regeneration’, the scheme would have been the first UK project by New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the studio behind New York’s High Line raised park. Reading claimed DSR’s scheme could yet ‘reappear somewhere else in the zeitgeist before too long’.

A ‘disappointed’ David Ross of Keppie Design – which collaborated with DSR on the competition-winning proposal – said the company would continue to do everything it could ‘to support the area in the future on this or other projects’.

He said: ‘Too much passion and belief has been poured into the Granite Web design for us to shut the door on it completely.’ DSR was unavailable to comment.

But Barry Mitchell, of Aberdeen-based Michael Gilmore Associates, questioned whether Aberdeen’s public finances could have justified the project’s ‘extravagant cost’, arguing that Foster + Partners’ second-placed winter gardens scheme should have been chosen instead.

He added: ‘Had [the Granite Web] been in the Mediterranean, it would have been appropriate, but not in Aberdeen, where you have bad winters and bad summers.’ 

Last Wednesday’s vote provoked angry exchanges between the project’s backers and opposing councillors in the council chamber.

Immediately following the decision, the City Garden Project’s principal backer, Ian Wood, withdrew his £50 million donation towards the scheme, warning that Aberdeen’s future citizens would ultimately lose out.But, within a day, the billionaire oil tycoon had announced his offer would remain on the table for 12 months, should a ‘fundamental’ change take place in council thinking.

Giving no guarantees, Wood said he would be ‘happy to talk’ with the council if ‘the project comes back on the agenda in its present form and the council are prepared to back it and give it full support’.

Supporters argued the scheme to raise the Victorian gardens to street level and create a new arts centre and landscaped civic square would boost jobs and enhance Aberdeen’s international standing, but critics warned that its tax increment financing (TIF) funding mechanism was too risky. 

Abandoned: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Union Terrace Gardens regeneration scheme in Aberdeen

Abandoned: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Union Terrace Gardens regeneration scheme in Aberdeen

Councillors had been asked to endorse a £92 million TIF model for the City Garden Project scheme but voted 22 to 20, with one abstention, in favour of an amendment to pursue several alternative regeneration opportunities in the city.

Carried by members of the council’s Labour and Independent Alliance groups, the vote marked an about-turn in the council support the project had enjoyed under the city’s previous SNP and Liberal Democrat coalition, which governed Aberdeen until May’s local elections.

The council’s newly incumbent Labour leader, Barney Crockett,  a key campaigner against the City Garden Project, called on Aberdeen’s residents, politicians and business people to ‘start afresh and support us to the hilt’ in delivering the substitute improvements. He said: ‘We are extremely keen to work with everyone to deliver our vision for city centre regeneration, without the divisive City Garden Project, which never won the whole-hearted acceptance of the people of Aberdeen.’

Under a revised TIF scheme, the council is now aiming to refurbish Aberdeen Art Gallery, redevelop its old St Nicholas House headquarters and invest in city centre pedestrian improvements.

A resurrection of Brisac Gonzalez’s £13.5 million Peacock Visual Arts centre proposal, which would have been built into the side of the gardens and had been approved before the all-star competition was launched, was not discussed. RIAS treasurer and secretary Neil Baxter praised both Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s and Brisac Gonzalez’s proposals but said: ‘The greater loss was that of the scheme that was actually realisable. As much as I admire Charles Renfro, there was no certainty it was ever going to be fundable.’

The politician who tabled the amendment, deputy council leader Marie Boulton, heralded the new direction as an opportunity to ‘heal the wounds’ of a divided city.

Public opinion about the scheme has been divided. A city-wide referendum in March found 45,301 of voters were in favour of the DSR scheme and 41,175 against. But two years earlier a public consultation on early proposals returned a different outcome, with 55 per cent of the public against Union Terrace Garden’s transformation and 44 per cent in favour.

Edinburgh-based architect Malcolm Fraser described the latest twist in the Union Terrace Gardens saga as a ‘mess’. He said: ‘Pity the folks of Aberdeen, with leaders like this. First they tried to push through a rubbish, horrible proposal, that people had voted against. Now they’ve dumped a good one, that the public voted “yes” to on a turnout greater than the local elections that voted these same councillors in.’

Professor Alan Dunlop of the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen said: ‘I’m amazed at the rejection, I believed big business involvement would swing it. I thought it was a project more suited to Tenerife than Aberdeen and poorly thought-out, but was happy, as a Glaswegian, to leave it to Aberdonians to agree.’

Peter Wilson, director of The Wood Studio at the Forest Products Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, said: ‘Some political accommodation will quickly be found to try to ensure his project goes forward. The decision can, after all, always be attributed to a belligerent Labour Party that has still to come to terms with its loss of power in Scotland.’

Further comment

Ben Addy of Moxon Architects

Aberdeen is a very fine city in terms of urban design but as a casual visitor you could be forgiven for not noticing – the extravagant wealth that has flowed from the North Sea in the last few decades has had barely any effect on the quality of recent architecture.  In a topographic and certain romantic sense the Union Terrace Gardens are valuable but they are also compromised by amongst other things a dual carriageway at their foot - the Briscac Gonzalez Peacock scheme would have been a very positive intervention but would not have remedied all the negative aspects of the space.  In a more transformative way for the city centre as a whole the DS&R proposals were certainly positive in intent - and the arguments about concrete underpasses and so on are a red herring – but the scheme was somewhat of a blunt instrument where a more nuanced approach given the unusual starting point might have been more appropriate.

Fundamentally the motivation to do something constructive with - or in - the gardens has got to be right – they are the key to realising the potential of the City Centre.  The broader point that Ian Wood and others have intimated regarding the squandering of opportunities afforded by the oil is the real shame. 


Timeline: Union Terrace Gardens

Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen

Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen


Union Terrace Gardens – a former bleaching green historically known as Dove Cot Brae – came under council stewardship in 1872 to prevent it falling into disrepair. Architect James Matthews proposed a £1,735 overhaul which opened to the public in 1879. A bronze statue of poet Robert Burns was installed in 1892.


Brisac Gonzales' Peacock Visual Arts centre project in Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen

Brisac Gonzales’ Peacock Visual Arts centre project in Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen


In May, Brisac Gonzales won a competition to design a £13.5 million arts centre for Peacock Visual Arts. Located within the sloping landscape beneath Burns’ statute, the 3,900m² scheme featured a gallery, television studio, restaurant and offices for the council’s arts development and education department. The proposal won planning in November.


Halliday Fraser Munro's feasibility study for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen

Halliday Fraser Munro’s feasibility study for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen


Aberdeen entrepreneur Ian Wood pledged financial backing of £50 million towards a ‘transformational’ overhaul of the gardens in November. But the Wood Group chairman also warned that this overhaul could not proceed if the arts centre were to go ahead, casting Brisac Gonzalez’ proposal into doubt. A feasibility study by Halliday Fraser Munro estimated that Wood’s project would cost £140 million.


Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen

Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen


Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Futures conducted a public consultation which found 55 per cent of the public were against the Woods-backed project and 44 per cent were in favour. Former Lighthouse director Stuart MacDonald argued that proceeding with the scheme represented a loss of democracy. In May, the city council voted in favour of launching a design competition to take forward Woods’ vision. The RIAS refused to run an international contest for the scheme, branding the idea ‘inappropriate in the extreme.’ The Friends of Union Terrace Gardens group calls for a government inquiry, claiming the project’s true cost could be £300 million. Meanwhile, Peacock Visual Arts project lead Elly Rothnie was laid off.


Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen

Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen


An international competition for the newly named City Garden Project was launched in April, calling for green space, an events area and cultural centre covering Union Terrace Gardens and the neighbouring Denburn Valley dual carriageway. Local Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald hit out at the contest as a ‘farce’, saying he would support a boycott by architects. By June, organisers celebrate ‘exceptional’ interest in the contest, claiming to have received 55 entries from architects including one Pritkzer Laureate and several Stirling award winners. In July, a star-studded shortlist of six was announced including Diller Scofidio and Renfro, Foster and Partners, Snøhetta, Gustafson Porter, Mecanoo and West 8.


Abandoned: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Union Terrace Gardens regeneration scheme in Aberdeen

Source: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Abandoned: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Union Terrace Gardens regeneration scheme in Aberdeen


In January Diller Scofidio + Renfro won with the ‘Granite Web’, featuring gardens and an arts centre. A city-wide referendum in March found 45,301 votes in favour and 41,175 against. Following local elections in May, Aberdeen’s new Labour-led coalition threw the project into doubt. Charles Renfro presented his studio’s winning scheme at the annual RIAS convention in the city. In August, the council voted 22 to 20 with one abstention in favour of scrapping the project and distributing the funds on other schemes. Ian Wood withdrew his £50 million donation then said it would remain on the table for one year should Aberdeen see a ‘fundamental’ change in council thinking.


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