The past months have been healthy ones for Aberdeen Football Club. Indeed, the current Aberdeen team look like they’re in with a shout of winning the Scottish League Cup for the first time in thirty years.
But it was announced last week that Aberdeen – the city, not the football team – has already won a trophy for 2015. This, though, is a rather less edifying prize than the League Cup. It’s the annual Plook on a Plinth award that Urban Realm magazine hands out to the town deemed to be the year’s most architecturally dismal one in Scotland. To win the League Cup, Aberdeen-the-team will have to overcome some strong opposition from Celtic FC, but Aberdeen-the-city has already won the Plook on a Plinth award by overcoming equally strong opposition from the likes of East Kilbride, Greenock and Cumbernauld.
Now anyone who’s familiar with Aberdeen will know immediately that it’s not as architecturally dreary as East Kilbride, Greenock or Cumbernauld. It has districts like the majestic west end along Queen’s Road, and the picturesque university campus at Old Aberdeen, and the quaint old fishing village, Footdee, at the edge of its harbour. It also has buildings like Aberdeen Grammar School and His Majesty’s Theatre and the mighty Marischal College, the second-biggest granite building in the world. Yes, parts of it are impressive – they could hardly fail to be, given that they were constructed with crystal-flecked granite blocks hewn out of nearby Rubislaw Quarry.
Rather, the givers of the award have made it clear is that it’s meant to be a kick up the arse for the city’s council. Over recent decades they’ve made a string of dire planning decisions. As Urban Realm’s editor, John Glenday, observed: “Aberdeen is a great city but despite its enviable financial clout and rich heritage legacy it has become the poor relation of Scottish cities… The time to turn things around is now, in a few years’ time it may well be too late.”
None of this surprises me. When I thought about this entry, I realised with a shock that I hadn’t actually set foot in Aberdeen during the 21st century. But as far as the ignominy of receiving a Plook on a Plinth award is concerned, the writing was already on the wall while I lived there in the 20th.
I spent five years in Aberdeen, mostly as a student, during the 1980s. The city made a big impression on me, though admittedly at the time I had a pretty impressionable young mind. The High Street and Chanonry parts of the university campus, with landmarks like King’s College and St Machar Cathedral, looked so antiquated that I felt I’d stepped through a time-warp and arrived centuries back in the past. Their venerability made it a perfect environment for an academically-minded student. Not that I was academically-minded, though – the rest of the city held too many distractions.
That city was a strange, sometimes uneasy combination of the traditional and modern – modernity coming largely in the form of the North Sea oil boom, which had made Aberdeen Europe’s unofficial oil capital. There was Union Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, a wide, straight corridor of granite that ran for a mile and was lined with busy shops. Supposedly, it’d nearly bankrupted the city when it was built in the 19th century. Beyond the top of Union Street was the west end, full of granite buildings on a more upmarket scale – these included several hotels that’d been glitzed up with oil money and attracted an oil-industry clientele. For a while, I worked nightshifts in one of them, the Belvedere Hotel, as a kitchen porter. Later, in the same area, I worked as a warden at the city’s youth hostel, which was full of aspiring oilmen, in town to do the training and sea-survival courses necessary before they could get industry jobs.
Meanwhile, the estuary of the River Dee was home to the city docks. These were hardly scenic but they possessed an exciting buzz as hordes of dockers, sailors and oilmen went about their work and – in the district’s rough-and-ready pubs – about their play. The granite streets leading down to this area always seemed eerily quiet and empty to me, though. There were vestiges too of the city’s fishing industry, in the form of rundown and messy wee dockside streets that remained home to a couple of dozen fish-processing companies. Another job I did was to work briefly as a dogsbody for a consultancy firm that’d been tasked with revitalising Aberdeen’s fish-processing sector.
There were districts of municipal grandeur like the late-Victorian Rosemount Viaduct; and, simultaneously, hard-pressed ones like Sandilands, which was paradoxically a few minutes’ walk northeast of Old Aberdeen and which was deemed so undesirable that students were offered extra-low rents to live there. South of the Dee, meanwhile, was Torry, an area I’ve seen described as a ‘granite Gorbals’. In fairness, though, no part of Aberdeen ever seemed as desperate as certain areas in Glasgow or Edinburgh.
For my first half-year there I was not enamoured with the Aberdonian temperament. The locals didn’t seem particularly warm or welcoming. Legend had it that in 1728 a Greenland Inuit, in his kayak, had been unlucky enough to be swept out on a current across the North Atlantic and was eventually picked up by fishermen close to Aberdeen, where he died three days later – a popular joke was that it wasn’t the coldness of the journey that’d killed him, but the coldness of the hospitality he received when he reached his destination. For a little while I could believe that.
But later, I realised that the locals simply preferred to take their time to get to know you. Once they’d sized you up, and decided you were worth talking to, you were in. You got along with them fine. And I have to say I found their gradualist approach to forming friendships more honest than the instant, you’re-my-best-pal-forever bonhomie I’ve encountered in certain other cities in the UK.
Meanwhile, in the university community there, I quickly met a good number of idiots, exhibitionists, megalomaniacs, oddballs and simple pains-in-the-arse; and I could understand why those Aberdonians might seem cool towards anyone they thought was a student. For this reason, I seemed to spend a lot of time drinking in the city’s pubs – the rougher and more disreputable the better – to see if I passed the test, i.e. to prove to myself that I could hold my own, and chat to ordinary local people, and not be taken for a poncy student.
Actually, much of what I remember about Aberdeen seems to involve pubs. I wonder if any of those venues like the Bridge, Castle, Clansman, Clouds, Criterion, Crown and Anchor, Drift Inn, 524 Cocktail Bar, Gilcomston, Grampian, Grill, Kittybrewster, Lochside, Martin’s Bar (the interior of which a friend of mine likened to “what life will look like after the bomb has dropped”), Moorings, Neptune, Peep Peeps (which I once, subsequently, saw featured in an episode of Sky TV’s Britain’s Hardest Pubs), Royal Antheneum, Seaton Arms, Schooner, St Clements, Yardarm, etc., still survive.
One pub that definitely no longer exists, because it was knocked down while I was still in Aberdeen, was the Cragshannoch on George Street. I remember it being housed in a concrete bunker with metal grills on its windows and run by an ill-tempered old woman. It also contained an antiquated metal cash register that had figures in old, pre-decimalisation money pinging up at the top of it. I find it impossible to think of that pub now without being reminded of the ‘local shop for local people’ featured in The League of Gentlemen TV series.
Another abiding memory of Aberdeen is how schizophrenic it could be. All of Scotland’s cities have a certain schizophrenic quality to them, but in Aberdeen it was literally embodied in the place’s fabric, i.e. in its granite. When the sun shone and the flecks of crystal glittered in the granite walls, the city looked gorgeous. When it rained, however, all that granite turned black and the mood became desolate indeed.
I generally considered Aberdeen to be a handsome city and felt proud to be living there, but soon after I arrived I noticed two buildings that seemed monstrous in their ugliness. On George Street, which with Market Street formed a north-south thoroughfare that intersected Union Street at the city’s heart, there stood Norco House, the supposed showcase-building for the now-defunct Northern Cooperative Society. Basically, this looked like a stack of giant concrete egg cartons. Meanwhile, the city council headquarters were contained in a 1960s structure called St Nicholas House. I suppose this towering box was no more hideous than a hundred other, 1960s municipal buildings that blighted the centres of a hundred other British towns and cities. Unforgivably, though, this one had been plonked down just across the road from the soaring Marischal College and ruined the view of it from the south, west and north.
One project that was announced while I was living there didn’t inspire much faith in the city planners, either. The axis formed by Union Street and George Street / Market Street had already been throttled by the construction of the St Nicholas Centre, a corridor-like shopping centre that blocked off George Street just before the two thoroughfares intersected. In the late 1980s another swathe of George Street behind the St Nicholas Centre was demolished and a much bigger and uglier shopping centre, the Bon Accord Centre, was erected – making the rest of George Street seem even more like a backwater, cut off from the city centre. Amazingly, the one George Street building that should have been levelled by this new development, Norco House, was left standing – I believe it’s still there, operating now under the auspices of John Lewis.
(One of the many reasons why the new Bon Accord Centre annoyed me was that two more dodgy old pubs I drank in, the Swan and the Harriet Street Bar, had to be demolished to make way for it. Although I inspected it the other day on Google Maps and discovered to my amazement that a third dodgy pub, the Balaclava, still seems to survive at the back of it.)
I’m sure that similar shopping centres followed in the 1990s and the noughties. And I’ve noticed that in Urban Realm’s comments on Aberdeen, it mentions how shops have closed along Union Street, caused while shoppers “retreat to covered malls, sucking the life out of surrounding streets”.
One wise thing that the city did last year was to finally demolish St Nicholas House. On the day that the bloody thing finally toppled into the earth, one blogger described “the smiles on the passers-by as they stood and watched or took pictures on their mobile phones. It didn’t seem to me as if anyone was upset to see St Nicholas House ruined.” (http://www.stronach.co.uk/2014-06-27/farewell-st-nicholas-house.) Alas, rather than turn it into a square, so that Marischal College can be observed in its full unimpeded glory, the powers-that-be seem hellbent on letting the developers into the vacated space to erect more buildings, of the retailing variety, which will no doubt be depressingly familiar in their crap-ness.
(c) Urban Realm
Aberdeen City Council’s response to the news of the Plook on the Plinth award has been indignant and defensive. Among the protests, council members have pointed to a new ‘City Centre Regeneration Project’, which will be unveiled this coming summer. But hold on a minute. When a town or a city talks about ‘regeneration’, it’s usually after the place has suffered from recession and economic decline and something is badly needed to turn it around and push it away from the post-industrialised brink. Aberdeen, however, has been awash in oil money for a good three-and-a-half decades. It’s wealthy. It’s rich. And if somewhere so fortunate and privileged is suddenly talking now in terms of regeneration, it’s clear that the people in charge, for a very long time, have had their heads full of mince.