(Union) Terrace Talk

Justboy57‘s no holds barred take on the controversial turf war currently taking place in Aberdeen over Sir Ian Woods and Peacock Visual Arts plans for Union Terrace Gardens. This is an essential read to anyone who cares about art and culture in the Granite City.

They may take our lives, but will they take our gardens?

All throughout history, Scotland has had its fair share of battles with the auld enemy and all for one thing and one thing only; land. The Battle of Bannockburn, the battle of Culloden and even Wembley ‘99 when they had to defeat the English by two clear goals to reach the Promised Land of an appearance in the European Championship Finals have all involved a battle for that prestigious piece of green turf; a piece of turf that means so much to both battle weary sides. Now in Aberdeen, we see the next instalment of the history lesson taking place. A civil war is breaking out and the area in question is the city’s Union Terrace Gardens, a picturesque park, slap bang in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city centre of Aberdeen.

So who are the two opposing sides? In the red corner we have Peacock Visual Arts (PVA) and their plans for the city’s only contemporary arts centre to be built in the gardens of Union Terrace. £9.5 million has already been raised for the project, which contributes to 70% of the total development costs. The project itself would see the majority of the gardens left the way they are, with a contemporary design allowing the centre to be built into the existing slopes of the garden. In the blue corner we have Sir Ian Wood; the millionaire chairman of the oil services giant Wood Group and the development forum Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF) who plan to raise the sunken gardens to street level, connecting the adjacent Belmont Street to Union Terrace and the train station. Sir Ian Wood’s plans would cost on estimate £140 million, with £50m of that generously coming from his own pocket.

So why the mighty uproar surrounding this battle? Is this really a battle for ground? Or is it a battle of principle? Cast yourself back to 2008 and it appeared the future of art and culture in Aberdeen had been secured thanks to PVA’s plans for their new £13.5m home in the city’s Union Terrace Gardens. The location was there. The planning permission had been granted. The majority of the funding had been awarded. Backing from the Scottish Enterprise, the European Union, Aberdeen City Council and the Scottish Arts Council had been gained. What could actually go wrong? Enter Sir Ian Wood and his plans for the exact same space. This has put a bee in many people’s bonnets, not just because of the proposed decking over of the existing gardens, but because of the threat it poses to Peacock Visual Arts, the city’s only contemporary arts centre.

Fraser Denholm, Peacock Campaigner, blogger and audio/visual artist explains, “If the Peacock plans get shelved, that means that Aberdeen loses out on £4.3 million worth of Scottish Arts Council capital investment, this money is one of the biggest awards SAC have granted and one of the last as Scottish Arts Council will become Creative Scotland as of April next year, which has a much wider remit than SAC currently and a more stretched budget which, as yet, has not confirmed any Capital funds. Peacock themselves will become homeless in 2011 which means they will be forced to find another location and would cost immediate redundancies at the centre and the dismantling of its campaign team.”

Although it is quite evident what sort of effect this will have on Peacock’s plans, the problem has the potential to stem even further.

“The Wood/ACSEF scheme is so vague and cost worthy, which means it will be very difficult for it to attract funding, as similar schemes have proved in the past have failed. There is a high chance that the square project will not be able to go ahead either, which means, in this case, Aberdeen will simply end up with nothing again.”

This underlying worry that Aberdeen could be left with nothing appears to be spreading through the city, with over 4000 signatures appearing on Peacock’s own petition to save Union Terrace Gardens. A campaign entitled the, “I love Union Terrace Gardens Campaign”, orchestrated by Peacocks, has attracted widespread press throughout Scotland and like the petition suggests, there is perhaps more resentment to Sir Ian Wood’s plans than the local Aberdeen press give credit for.

Hannah Redpath, an art student at the city’s Gray’s School of Art, who is due to graduate in May next year stated, “Art and culture has an important place in the heart of a modern day city like Aberdeen. The DCA in Dundee has put Dundee on the map, showing the successes of Duncan and Jordanstone for its amazing ability. This is something Grays needs, as it has become a forgotten art school which has so much talent. Visually Aberdeen needs a complete rehaul which I agree the shopping centre (Union Square) has added, but the soul of the city is not gained through the huge spending of money from the public, but our connection to art, music and the performing arts.”

Try finding the current Peacock centre and you will have great difficulty. Located in two buildings, separated by a dark and dingy alleyway, the centre is in desperate need of a revamp but lack of space and room for development does not that make this a viable option. There is no working heating in some of the main print rooms and as you know, Aberdeen in autumn, let alone winter is toe curling and mind numbingly cold.

So is it just budding artists that the new centre will benefit? Not at all is the answer, with numerous other activities, interests and local groups being catered for within the centre itself.

Fraser Denholm explains, “The new Centre would hopefully benefit more than those interested in art! Yes it will be a great facility for an Artist, locally or nationally to use and visit: The workshops and facilities it would provide, print studio, TV studio etc would see use by a great many people around, the Galleries would be big enough to house shows by internationally renowned Artists, Designers, Performers and who knows what else which would be a great draw to encourage people from outside of Aberdeen to visit.

It would also give both Universities a city-centre platform for presentations, talks, certain deliverable results from projects, and be a place where students can get experience of a way of working or living which is somewhat alien to Aberdeen.”

As well as art related projects, the centre would also be home to CityMoves dance group, who are currently based up above Triple Kirks pub and nightclub, at the end of Union Street.

“It will allow CityMoves users and dance groups a chance to work in new purpose-built facilities and Whitespace’s continuing devotion to Arts Development throughout Aberdeen, including a lot of work they do with vulnerable communities, to have a very accessible, visible headquarters which will only go further to highlight the important work they do and show visitors what can be achieved and perhaps inspire them to volunteer and join in on some participatory projects.”

Sir Ian Wood and ACSEF plan to turn Union Terrace Gardens into a, “cross between a grand Italian piazza and a mini Central Park” and they see their proposal as having the potential to make Aberdeen the Houston of the western hemisphere. They want to create a cultural hub with water features that recognise the significance of Aberdeen as a port and harbour; as if it wasn’t obvious enough already. They want an area that they can use for seasonal displays and activities such as an ice rink in winter and music festivals in summer. At the moment, Union Terrace Gardens can already cater for such purposes, and has done in the past and this would not change with Peacocks plans for the same piece of ground. They propose a green space with lawns, formal gardens and tree-lined avenues to offer a reflective place for recreation, exercise and informal sports. How raising the sunken gardens and concreting over the existing grass allows this to happen is a mystery to me.

So what now? Does this turn into a public popularity competition not too far away from the likes of X Factor? Sort of. ACSEF have announced that a period of public consultation will begin on the 11th of January 2010 and run for eight weeks. The aim of the public consultation is to ensure that their proposals are fully understood and is a chance for people to put their views across on what the space should compromise. However, new information revealed through Fraser Denholm, suggests that Peacock will not be part of this consultation at all.

“ACSEF’s public consultation begins on 11th January and runs until early March. Information has just emerged that the Peacock development will not be part of this consultation at all, and that “The public will be asked to rank what they consider the most important features and activities for the City Square project. They will also be asked to register if they support the development or not.” By not including the Peacock development the Public Consultation could be seen, in itself, misleading concerning the options.”

A main debating point expected to be raised in the public consultation is the matter of funding and where Sir Ian and ACSEF will get the required finance from. With the current economic climes as bad as they have ever been and with a City Council constantly making cut backs, it does appear that this could be the main stumbling point for their joint dream. This perhaps rubs even more salt into Peacock’s wounds, with the majority of their funding as we know in place; it seems almost inconceivable how the joint Wood/ACSEF proposal can be considered.

The Union Terrace Gardens have been the topic for heated debate in Aberdeen for the last twenty years. Frank Gilfeather, renowned journalist and adopted Aberdonian since 1969, had actually raised the issue of development almost ten years ago.

“I put forward a scheme almost ten years ago for part of the gardens to be brought up to street level into a square with something called The Genius of Scotland – a world-class visitors attraction showcasing all the great things Scotland has given the world – as the centrepiece of the building under that square.”

For the majority of 2009, the two proposals appear to have been at each other’s throat, albeit reluctantly. Could this still be classed as a turf war? Surely the whole debate on Union Terrace Gardens has developed into something more than merely a battle for some grass. It is a matter of principle. Whether you love or hate the job Peacock Visual Arts are attempting to do in Aberdeen, it does appear that they are being unfairly persecuted by a man who sadly carries more stature in a city that appears to be built around oil and money. This was meant to be Peacock’s time. This was to be their moment of glory.

Let’s just hope justice prevails and Peacock Visual Art’s get the home that they and Aberdeen as a whole deserve.


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