3rd February 2010
Peacock Visual Arts & Union Terrace Gardens
Having spent 8 years in sunny Dundee, I moved back to my hometown of Aberdeen at Christmas and found the city to be in the midst of an epic battle.
Peacock Visual Arts (PVA) is Aberdeen’s little equivalent to my much-loved Dundee Contemporary Arts. In 2007 they launched a project which saw them secure £9.5 million of funding (in particular £4.3 million from the Scottish Arts Council, SAC), full planning permission in the city’s Union Terrace Gardens and top class architect Brisac Gonzalez to design and build an amazing new arts centre for the city and restore the historic Gardens to their former glory. The vision was stunning, a diverse and dedicated center for Arts, Culture and the Community, a creative epicenter for the north east. As a Designer and an Aberdonian the potential consequences of having a world class arts centre in the city were life-changing.
Dundee Contemporary Arts opened its doors just 10 years ago, but in one short decade has heralded a chain of events which has dramatically changed the future of this city. Cultural centers like these shine a spotlight on existing talent whilst drawing in fresh generations, it supports the growth of enterprise (along with San Francisco, Dundee powers the multi-million dollar Computer Gaming Industry), it promotes regeneration, investment and development and boosts civic pride to lofty new heights. Recently, the Victoria & Albert Museum announced its plans to open an outpost as part of the dramatic Waterfront Development in Dundee; the ramifications of which are simply mind blowing.
All this, sparked by the opening of a visionary Arts Centre.
The proposed site will become the new home to PVA when its current lease runs out in 2 years time. They were ready to break ground with the development in late 2009 – when Sir Ian Wood, owner of one of Aberdeen’s biggest Oil firms The Wood Group, stepped in and announced a rival proposal of a £140 million pound “City Square” which would be backed by £50 million of his own fortune and was supported from the outset by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Futures (ACSEF) – a body of predominately business interests.
The plan involved felling 80 mature trees and the loss of the only city center park by drowning it in concrete and filling in the gardens to street level. The result, a concrete square, with the potential for retail and multi-story car parking development.
I’m not going to bore you explaining the aesthetics, it’s easy (and painful) to imagine.
As Wood plans to destroy the historic gardens completely, the 2 plans cannot co-exist. Instead, Wood has offered Peacock a scaled down version of their vision, underground and devoid of essential daylight. Furthermore, the £4.3 million grant secured from SAC is project specific and therefore will be lost unless the venture proceeds as originally planned.
To compound matters, the crucial SAC funding will be lost in April 2010 when the SAC ceases to exist.
For a more detailed and terrifying comparison of the 2 proposals, visit comparethesquare.com
With this in mind, Peacock proposed a joint venture, the ‘What If?’ project. A collaboration which saw the 2 funding budgets pooled together and elements of both schemes combine to create one super-powered regeneration of the city center across several sites. A compromise which would allow both parties scope to create what they felt was the correct vision. No agreement could be made.
ACSEF has since launched a Public Consultation, to discover what the citizens (and tax payers) want for the Gardens. They have refused to consult on the Peacock option. The consultation, which is being run by an organization which has backed Wood’s scheme from the start, only asks the public about their own proffered ‘City Square’ option.
I know, surely no democratic society would allow such a mass stifling of freedom of speech and the right to choice – particularly when £70 million of tax payers money is required?
Wood’s proposal is littered with grenades; queries over land rights with Network Rail, acquisitions of surrounding buildings etc which have the potential to blow the existing £140 million budget out the water. Guess who will have to foot the excess…
There are so many planning and outside issues involved with Wood’s plan, that it may take years to resolve – if ever. By which time, Peacock will be long since dead…
Wood talks about growth in the economy, retail, jobs etc… in fact, you can read an interview with Sir Ian here. Suffice to say, Aberdeen already has multiple (half empty) shopping malls and car parks a-plenty. Far from being a continental style piazza as in their proposed sketches, the square will be a concrete ashtray for smokers from neighboring offices. Lovely.
In some ways though, Wood is right. Aberdeen’s oil WILL run out. We DO need to look to the future and start creating new industries, new economic growth. But shopping malls is not the way to do it. An inspired Arts Centre, a green City Center, these are the things which will form the foundations of a Creative Industry sector in Aberdeen which could rival that of Dundee or Bilbao.
It breaks my heart to see a proposal which kills dead the potential for Aberdeen to become one of the most cultural and creative cities in Europe. We have the talent, we have the skills, the people and the vision to make Aberdeen spectacular and prosperous – long after the North Sea lies barren.
This is a call to arms, take action, help shape the future of our city.
This is our only chance to stop the choreographed vandalism of our city centre by pinstriped bullies. We must not let Aberdeen’s heart, creative potential and economic future be suffocated and entombed in concrete.