Had some planning committee decided otherwise, had an architect been influenced by a different stylistic movement, or had the protestations of local people been heard then any and every urban space would be quite different from how it is today. Aberdeen is therefore like any other city. The current appearance and layout of its urban space are the outcomes of struggles and contests that have raged both politely and impolitely over prior decades. Different competing forces seeking to create what exists and what does not exist according to their desires and ideologies.
I want to discuss here an Aberdeen that didn’t happen. The image below is a vision of lower George Street and the city centre that never came to pass. It is quite different from the Bon Accord Centre shopping mall situated there today. It was a proposal by the George Street Traders Action Group in 1979, their alternative to the Bon Accord Centre proposed at the same time by private developer Bredero. The Bredero plan was understood by the Action Group to be favoured by Aberdeen City Council when it was grappling with how the city centre could be redeveloped in the 1970s and the 1980s. A whole separate posting is required to explore the ins-and-outs of that period in Aberdeen’s urban history. In short, it was acrimonious, bitter, exhausting, and bad bloodied. The George Street Traders Action Group comprised of the small and medium businesses on George Street, and nearby streets. Their businesses were to be swept away as part of the construction of the Bon Accord Centre, which called for the bulldozing and erasure of a considerable swathe of lower George Street.
The Action Group’s plan was part of their ‘Don’t Tear the Heart Out of the Granite City’ campaign. The focus of which they claimed in an interview with the Evening Express in 1979 was ‘…retaining the essential character of the city’. They feared that The Bon Accord Centre would lead to the loss of both a vibrant shopping area consisting of mainly local businesses and the loss of historic streets that still bore some relation to old mediaeval Aberdeen alongside many signature and distinctive buildings.
Their plan also called for a shopping centre, but one that was constructed within the existing buildings. No large-scale demolition required. The buildings were to be hollowed out and shops inserted into the void. The space at the rear would be converted into outdoor seating area with pocket parks, and the street in front pedestrianised.
Their proposal did not come into being. What we have instead is the Bon Accord Centre, a typical mall. You know the format: enclosed structure, lots of glass with multiple corporate retail outlets, food court, with very little relationship with the vernacular architecture and aesthetics of the city in which it sits. The Bon Accord Centre radically altered George Street. To give you some idea, in the previous image just about all the buildings behind the facing row were demolished. The images below also indicate the change that the construction of the Bon Accord Centre has made. The image on the left is of George Street in the 1950s, the one on the right is from 2020.
Neale Elder’s Flickr stream of Aberdeen in the 1980s records some of what was lost. Search for the images of George Street and of Loch Street. The latter street, which has its origins in the 1400s, was particularly hard hit. Significant buildings such as St Pauls Street Church and School, which became the Aberdeen Education Authority’s Music Centre, the Co-op headquarters and Arcade, were all demolished to be replaced by the multi-storey car park that exists there now. Some of the buildings may look a little worse for wear in Neale’s images. But remember there was a period of neglect and that the granite of which they are constructed is highly durable. Repairs, renovations, and a cleaning of facades were options that we have seen work very well for other older granite buildings in Aberdeen.
As we know this version of George Street lost out. So, why bother thinking about it? Surely just a historical curio that is of passing interest. There are lessons that are more than a romantic exercise in sentimental nostalgia. Imagine if the Action Group’s plan had won the day and present-day George Street was a realisation of their proposal. How would that possibly differ from we have today given the facing the same objective conditions (Brexit, Covid, downturn in the oil industry, and shifts to online shopping) with which the Bon Accord Centre is grappling.
It too may have a 50% vacancy rate as the Bon Accord currently has. But despite all that empty retail space the historic George Street would still be there, maintaining its integrity as long straight road connecting the city centre with the suburbs of Aberdeen and what would have historically been once-upon-a-time the countryside. All the historic granites (their frontages at least) would still exist, exhibiting the variety of the styles, flourishes, idiosyncrasies, and motifs that run through the city’s architecture. Some form of continuity with the past of Aberdeen would have been preserved: a major gain. So much of the city’s built history has been lost in the last few decades. Too many distinctive local buildings that are the material record of Aberdeen’s history and identity have bitten the developer’s dust.
The space could also be more flexible to alteration and changes. Converting the empty shops back into residential spaces would be easier than working out what do with a mall that may never again have full occupancy. The future of Bon Accord Centre is a matter of conjecture. At the time of writing, it doesn’t look good. Units are empty and the closure of the John Lewis, department store, which connects to the Centre, has resulted in a substantial loss of footfall. Big name franchises, such as the Disney Store, are leaving. What would happen if the Bon Accord Centre drifted into disuse? What could be done?
The lesson here is that large-scale big bang projects like the Bon Accord Centre need to be consider much more cautiously. I am not arguing for Aberdeen to be dipped in aspic and preserved with no changes ever being made. Instead, I follow Lefebvre’s recommendation that cities develop best in evolution. Adding to and working with what is there, rather than a simple binary of keep it or knock it down. All cities must progress, transform and are endlessly in a state of becoming. To call for a halt to all and any new developments flies against what makes cities the vibrant spaces they are. Cities need to move, to change and develop. But how that dynamic of change is managed is what is in question. Who gets to decide, whose vision and whose interests are advanced in the decision making process requires scrutiny.
Grandiose schemes have been a feature of Aberdeen over the years, maybe thinking smaller in the future might reap bigger rewards.
Dr Chris Yuill, October 2021