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Union Terrace Gardens faces new threat


Aberdeen’s newly elected council is threatening to pull the rug from under Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s £140 million competition-winning Union Terrace Gardens redevelopment scheme

The city’s new Labour-led coalition council is planning a vote on whether to proceed with the high-profile project this week, even though the proposed overhaul of the Victorian park has already received public backing in a city-wide referendum.

Supported by the previous SNP/Liberal Democrat council, the controversial scheme has been left hanging in the balance just one year after an international contest for the site was launched.

The new leader of Aberdeen City Council, Labour’s Barney Crockett, campaigned against the project in the run up to the election having previously described the contest as ‘farcical’.

Last week, Crockett thrashed out a Labour, Scottish Conservatives and independent coalition after Aberdeen’s Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrat administration was soundly beaten at the recent local elections.

It is understood 18 out of Aberdeen City Council’s 43 elected members now publicly oppose the project.

Billionaire oil tycoon Ian Wood, who had pledged £55 million towards the Union Terrace Gardens redevelopment, warned that future generations risk losing a ‘world-class design’ if the scheme was shelved.

Malcolm Reading, who organised the competition, described the council’s move as ‘disheartening’.

‘It would be a great loss if the project is abandoned’, he said.

A spokesperson for project backer, the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust, said rejecting the scheme would signal a lack of ‘ambition or vision’ by the council.

‘The development agreement, the [tax increment financing] business case, the appointment of the design team, the development of the business plan and the land assembly work are all underway. Considerable investment has been involved to date.’

Robin McIntosh, treasurer of anti-development campaign group Friends of Union Terrace Gardens, said Audit Scotland had deemed the project’s funding model ‘risky’, adding the group would be happy to work with architects on alternative ‘imaginative solutions’ for the site.


Further comment


Alan Dunlop, professor at The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment, Robert Gordon University

I encouraged my students at Scott Sutherland to vote, it’s important that architecture students engage with important projects happening in their city. My students were overwhelmingly supportive of the DS+R proposals, in much the same way that they were supportive of the Schmidt Hammer Lassen library. They recognised that the proposals had flaws but were happy that at last Aberdeen would have a project by internationally recognised architects in their city. As a Glaswegian, I was content to remain impartial and felt it was up to Aberdonians to decide.

As an architect though, I think the DS+R Union Terrace Gardens proposals are frankly ridiculous and have no grounding in any understanding of context, location nor place. Instead have relied on computer generated images of happy smiley people enjoying  open air concerts while basking in the warm Mediterranean sunshine and within a flexible and sensuous structure built from probably thweworld’s least flexible and sensuous material, granite.  

It looks now like that the new Labour Council will overturn the decison to go ahead, which makes it even sadder that the original Peacock centre was scuppered before it went on site.


Peter Wilson, director of the The Wood Studio Forest Products Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University

Let’s cut to the chase here – as a city, Aberdeen has effectively been bankrupt for some time and doesn’t actually have a spare bean to to put into this project. There has never been a clear reason given as to why the city needed such a grandiose transformation of a tired Victorian landscape. Sir Ian’s trashing of the Peacock Art Centre’s competition winning project by Brisac Gonzalez set the tone for this whole farrago and it is shocking that having volubly supported these architects in their efforts to sustain the future of their project at its 2010 Convention, the RIAS has moved on to the point at which it’s Convention today in Aberdeen is happy to play host to Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the authors of Sir Ian Wood’s competition-supplanting scheme for the gardens.

But back to cost for a moment. This has always been an attempt to leverage upwards of £100m of public money into a vanity project. True philanthropy would have either mooted a project scaled to the funds being made available or have mobilised some of Aberdeen’s other oligarchs to stump up the difference. That neither solution has even been discussed – or raised - by the city’s politicians simply shows how much in thrall they are to the Granite City’s mercantile masters it it shouldn’t therefore come as too much of a surprise as and when the new ruling Labour group on the City Council announces that Sir Ian’s project is really ok after all.

As regards alternative ideas for the gardens – aside from simply delivering the excellent Brisac Gonzalez project (£15m) for the Peacock Art Centre, what about a line of statues of the men who have profited so hugely from the oil wealth of the city but have so demonstrably failed over a period of 40 years or more to commission a single decent piece of architecture in Aberdeen? And don’t please suggest that the Diller Scofidio + Renfro project is the exception that breaks the rule – even the most minimal scrutiny reveals it’s spectacular lack of substance and appropriateness to the location. Unfortunately my knowledge of Doric (the local dialect) is limited, so I don’t know if it has a word for bling.

Oh, and by the way – it’s wrong to say that the Brisac Gonzalez scheme was rejected by the city – the public voted in favour of it in a consultation that was immediately ignored by Sir Ian and the various political and quasi-political lackeys that make up ACSEF. Sadly, the recent change in the composition of the City Council is unlikely to bring a new wave of democracy to Aberdeen.

Muriel Jaffrey, Scottish National Party elected council member for Bridge of Don in Aberdeen

I personally voted ‘No’ for the raising of Union Terrace Gardens having previously voted for the Peacock Scheme which would have fitted I with the existing topography of these very historic gardens. However I said that whatever the people voted for in the referendum I would abide by and the people’s choice is for the development to go ahead.




Readers' comments (4)

  • Surely, if Peacock Arts and Brisac Gonzales are still prepared to deal with not just the new Aberdeen city council but also a local population that seems to be deeply divided, then the ideal outcome would be to resurrect what was clearly an excellent project.

    It's time for Sir Ian to swallow his pride, stop leading ACSEF by the snout, accept that Aberdeen's not some post-communist central Asian thug-state blowing its wealth on monuments to the great and the greedy, and put his very substantial reputation - and money if necessary - behind the proposals that promised to deliver much needed arts facilities while showing genuine respect for the character of the gardens. Proposals that won the original competition, and the vote of the people. If Sir Ian has been persuaded that the key to reviving the truly crummy state of Union Street is the replacement of Union Terrace Gardens by a fragmented building of sub-Hadid style (sorry Zaha, no insult intended) that has only its stone in common with its setting, he's been had. For my money the key to the problems in the city centre are traffic management - you've only got to walk up from the station into the city centre to see how traffic engineering in decades gone by has shown scant regard for the quality of life in the city, and if Sir Ian wants a really effective legacy he could promote an international ideas competition to sort out the traffic and bring back the quality of urban life that the centre so desperately needs.

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  • Muriel, make a stand for what is right. The'consultation' and 'referendum' were skewed by lavishly-applied council monies and, latterly, by the private business sector bankrolling an intensive professional publicity deluge on the city, notable for its wild, unsubstantiated, claims about jobs and prosperity. All we now know is that opinion is split about 50/50. The gardens are not being 'raised' by Sir Ian Wood but destroyed, with, nearly, 100 century-old trees set to be felled. Please reconsider your position and move to have the area over the road and railway developed as a sympathetic extension to the priceless Victorian gardens. Negotiated unanimity is more than possible, if the gardens are saved from Wood's bulldozers.

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  • Believing the project has no value is so very narrow minded. Aberdeen has been presented with an opportunity to build a city defining feature. This could be Aberdeen's Sydney opera house or our very own Tayside bridge, features that sell Aberdeen to investors and tourists as a city of international culture. Why would business's and international ex pats desire to come to Aberdeen?, fact is nothing. But by producing projects such as the UTG and Cliffhanger centre is the way to revitalise aberdeen.

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  • Industry Professional

    The whole thing is utterly farcical at every level?

    But continual reference to the Peacock centre as the wronged panacea seems disingenuous when comparing UTG proposals?

    Both looked technically challenged, and in a city blighted by empty buildings, and with no shortage of city centre gap sites, why put an Arts Centre or anything else for that matter (more trees maybe) in a hole, in a public Victorian Garden?

    Sort out the basic infrastructure of the city, and the gardens will continue to look after themselves.

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