Granite City looking grim




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.”  (  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.


Dubai? Goodbye


Dubai – the main city in the emirate of the same name that, with six others, comprises the United Arab Emirates – is remarkable in many ways.  It has taken the city just over a century to grow from a population of 10,000 to a population, in 2005, of more than 1,200,000; and that figure is almost double what it was only a decade before.  Oil kick-started its prosperity, of course, but now the city has become a major hub in the financial world and it doesn’t do badly out of real estate or tourism either.


Dubai’s name is synonymous with massive and massively-ambitious construction projects, and it’s home to such architectural wonders as the Burj al Arab, a 60-storey, $1000-a-night (minimum) and allegedly ‘seven-star’ hotel that stands on its own artificial island and resembles a cross between a truncated accordion and a sunken G clef; and the crooked needle that is the Burj Khalifa, which supplanted the Taipei 101 as the world’s tallest building in 2010.  (Though no doubt billionaires in Beijing, Hong Kong, Rio and Moscow have architects working this very moment on plans to build something even taller, as part of the never-ending global contest of architectural penis envy).


Despite being a Disneyland of corporate deal-making, financing, shopping and building, Dubai has no shortage of critics.  Many claim that it isn’t necessarily a nice place to live or work in, especially if you’re not a UAE national or a Western expatriate.  Perhaps the most comprehensively damning piece of journalism written about it was a feature called The Dark Side of Dubai, published in Britain’s Independent newspaper in April 2009 (, which focused on various groups who have suffered grievously from the city’s culture of rapacious capitalism or otherwise have an axe to grind about it: the legions of Asian construction workers who toil in pitiable conditions and for pitiable wages building the place, the Filipino and Ethiopian maids and nannies working 24 / 7 to look after the children of wealthy Western expats, the environmentalists alarmed that the authorities in one of the most water-stressed parts of the world should be attempting projects like the construction of a giant ski-slope with real snow, and even some Western expats who once flew high there but then fell back to earth with terrifying bumps.  (In Dubai, if you go bankrupt and can’t pay your debts, you go to jail.  End of story.)


I should say that the feature was written by a journalist called Johann Hari, much of whose work has since been discredited.  In 2011 Hari confessed to serial plagiarism, especially with regard to borrowing his interviewees’ quotes from other sources and embellishing them (  However, the other week, I visited Dubai for a couple of days to attend a managerial meeting and I have to say that I saw little to contradict the general thrust of Hari’s article.  In particular, his description of the city as ‘a motorway punctuated by shopping centres’ chimed depressingly with my own impressions of it.


I’ve visited some bland spots before, but Dubai was something else.  It was the first city I’ve been in where the airport terminal, the hotel I was staying in and everything between and around those two places seemed to constitute a single, uniform entity – as if the city had been replicated endlessly from the same, simple scraps of architectural DNA.  It presented a soulless urban landscape of lobbies, malls, overpriced restaurants, personality-free ‘theme’ bars and acres of concrete, asphalt and glass.  In fact, I could have spent my couple of days there without leaving the airport and had pretty much the same intellectual and aesthetic experience.


I had some inkling of what to expect, I suppose, as prior to travelling I’d consulted Dubai Time Out’s website and done a little research.  In particular, I’d checked the website’s recommendations about the best pubs in the city, since (as readers of this blog will know) I have a tendency to assess cities by the quality of their pubs.  On Dubai Time Out’s list of the eight best Dubai pubs, three were Irish chain pubs with names along the lines of Kneecapper O’Shea’s; and three more were English chain pubs with names that sounded like The Radish and Cowpat.  When three-quarters of a city’s top pubs are franchise ones pushing tired national stereotypes, I fear that city is in trouble.


As it turned out, I ended up in one of the pubs on the list – the Irish Village – one night when I arranged to meet some ex-colleagues who were in Dubai temporarily, running a training course.  Looking at some of the Westerners drinking around us, I had a feeling of déjà vu.  Those beefy guys with shaven heads, their muscle beginning to run to fat, their thick necks oozing over the collars of their rugby shirts…  Those cackling and rather porky women padding around the premises in flip-flops, their dyed-blonde hair scraped back into ponytails…  Where had I seen them before?  Eventually, I realised I’d been mentally transported back in time to a typical expat pub in Hong Kong during the 1990s.  At the time, Hong Kong was overrun with a type of Westerner that was infamously known as the F.I.L.T.H. – an acronym for Failed In London, Try Hong-Kong.  Yes, like Hong Kong twenty years ago, Dubai gave me the impression that, no matter how mediocre your talents, if you possessed the right passport, the right skin-colour and the right connections, you could make very large sums of money indeed for yourself.


On another occasion, somebody I was drinking with made the point that no matter how bland or materialist it was, Dubai was at least ‘a great place to bring up kids in’.  Well, no doubt.  When your kids are toddlers, you can give them to that hard-pressed but underpaid Filipino or Ethiopian nanny to look after.  And when your kids reach teenager-hood, you can release them into the shopping malls, where they’ll spend many contented hours shambling around like the zombies in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.


When surveying the concrete, asphalt, glass and logo-laden façade of Dubai, I did occasionally feel a moment where good, old-fashioned humanity seemed to break through.  Mostly, those moments came courtesy of the city’s army of Indian workers, who lubricate the giant cogs of the city’s economy by manning the reception desks, carrying the luggage, driving the taxis and so on.  On my first evening, the hotel bar was for a time packed with Indian cricket fans cheering their country on in a televised cricket game against Pakistan.  The bar’s atmosphere was as noisy and raucous as anything I’ve ever experienced during a football match.  And I observed a nice detail on the morning of my departure, barely after the crack of dawn, while I was being driven to the airport – a handful of Indian guys could be seen getting in some cricketing practice on a grassy square by the roadside, surrounded on its three other sides by hulking concrete buildings.  In another hour, I imagined, they’d be starting their daily shifts as receptionists, concierges or drivers.


I’m reluctant to damn a city on the strength of having been there for a very short time.  I’ll always remember what American writer Paul Theroux said in his travel book The Kingdom by the Sea about the city of Aberdeen, which he visited for a couple of days but which I lived in, generally very happily, for five years of my life.  Theroux did not enjoy his visit – he was especially nonplussed about being denied entrance to a country-and-western night at the Happy Valley nightclub because he was wearing jeans.  (“I could be Willie Nelson for all you know!” Theroux protested.  “Ye’re no Willie Nelson,” replied the Happy Valley’s bouncer.  “Now piss off.”)  Thereafter, he wrote that “the average Aberdonian is someone who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth.”  And that, I thought, was a damning statement based on wildly insufficient evidence.  Two or three days are not enough time to make an accurate assessment of an entire city, write it up and stick it in a book.


With Dubai, however, I felt that the place was not endowed with shades or tones, depths or details, nuances or stories, which required a visitor to do months of research before he or she could describe the place accurately.  What you immediately saw was pretty much what you got – and I didn’t like most of what I saw.  (My apologies to Dubai-lovers if I have got anything wrong or have missed anything out.  Feel free to email and correct me.)


It wasn’t until I was in Dubai Airport again, about to leave, that I saw something that reminded me I had a camera with me and inspired me for the first time during my visit to take a photograph.  It was a creepy life-sized hologram-lady instructing travellers on how to prepare themselves as they approached the passport desks and security checks.  An elegantly dressed and groomed lady instructing you on what to do in impeccably polite English – but a lady with a disturbing aura of unreality about her, a lady whom, when you looked at her up-close, you discovered to be artificial and two-dimensional.  Yes, she seemed to symbolise Dubai perfectly.



So now I’m back in Tunis, with its leaky buildings, smelly drains, feral cats, King Kong-sized cockroaches, bags of uncollected rubbish and grumpy old guys sitting smoking shishas and cluttering up the pavements.  It feels wonderful to be someplace human again.