City of astounding normality

Our sense of history with architecture is often skewed towards the nostalgic – we look at all the beautiful old buildings still around in our city centres, often juxtaposed against something more modern and ugly and think: just where did we go so wrong?

However the reality is that ugly buildings have always existed, just on a shorter lifespan, knocked down whilst their more beautiful cousins are preserved for prosperity. The equivalent of the family scrapbook; carefully curated moments of happiness, the regretful mistakes whitewashed from memory. Perhaps there will come a time when all that is left of the modernist era will be the Wrights, the Gropiuses and the Le Corbusiers, and we’ll wonder why we ever stopped building utopia.

What is left to us of the past then is altogether atypical: the showstoppers, the prizewinners and genuine articles once hidden away in the midst of pastiche. It makes us obsessed with the building as exhibition rather than living space. This is an altogether damaging obsession. By pouring over the great works of the past (particularly those no longer in existence) we fail to appreciate the value of the buildings that are still with us, meaning their value is overlooked, meaning they in turn will be knocked down (as perceived as having no value), which we in hindsight regret knocking down, and in turn mourn the loss of, meaning more living buildings are ignored, and so on, so forth. A cycle only further agitated by architects and councils who wish to impose their own vision on a town or place with little account for locality and history, and who perhaps wish to change history itself.

The overall character of a city is not defined by its exceptions, but its normality: the bricks, the lampposts, the railings, the gates, the symbols, the repeat patterns, the motifs. Separately these things appear bland, but together are awarded their own prize, tradition.

The fact buildings conceived over a hundred or so years ago still manage to retain a continued sense of normality, buildings first inhabited by people who dressed and talked funny, whose values and temperaments were probably so different to the point of being incompatible with our own, buildings that remain modern and useable even when the zeitgeist of a given epoch makes their original function void or irrelevant…  This, to me, is nothing short of astounding.

And nowhere in Scotland demonstrates this astounding normality better than Aberdeen.

Repeat patterns

To call a place ‘astoundingly normal’ sounds not the least tongue-in-cheek – like somebody referring to a mattress in the attic as a loft conversion – but this really is something, in a time when we are ever more selective of what we choose to see and show, so badly overlooked.

Looking at Aberdeen is a bit like looking at an abstract painting that only uses one colour; the longer you look, the more subtle variations of texture and weight you begin to find within all that initial monochrome monotony. The old blue lampposts emblazoned with a detailed coat of arms. The dormer windows. The bay windows. The abundance of churches of many different eras and denomination. The often-undecorated blocks of granite that becomes an ornament in itself, the stone that brings all of Aberdeen’s buildings, regardless of era, function or style, under the same language.

But to an extent, Aberdeen’s very normality is precisely what poses its biggest risk. As a city it does not easily accommodate exceptional architecture. It sucks it straight into the fabric. Even Aberdeen’s more grand buildings, like Marischal College (the second largest granite building in Europe after El Escorial in Madrid), seem to disappear within its surroundings, only to emerge when you’re standing right outside it. Even Aberdeen’s two greatest architects, Archibald Simpson and John Smith, failed to leave a mark in the same way Mackintosh did in Glasgow, or Gaudí in Barcelona. It is a faceless city. At worst, painfully anonymous.

Sometimes you’re left with the impression that nobody really lives in Aberdeen. People are there to work or study, make their buck and then get out as soon as possible. Longevity isn’t something on people’s minds. And this attitude permeates all aspects of life in the city, including its architecture.

Bad timing

We have a real problem in Scotland with conceiving modern architecture that sits comfortably alongside our historical offerings. All major urban areas across Europe such as Prague and Paris have found that harmony. Even cities of similar size and area of business to Aberdeen, like Stavanger, have managed to find the sweet spot between old and new. So what’s wrong?

For all the faults of modernism and then brutalism, it was at least founded on a strong philosophy and manifesto, with the intention of being made to last forever – not only last, but be the full stop to replace the pondering question of how to live well. The problem of modernism was not that it was in bad taste, but that it tried to usurp the weight of history that clings to all human activity. In short: it refused to acknowledge itself as a product of its own time.

Modern architecture in Aberdeen (and across Scotland generally) is also a product of its time, but in quite a different way – it is too much a product of its time. Rather than trying to last forever, it is all too aware of its own ephemera. Where prosperity drives relentless growth while stifling the desire to make long lasting use of that drive. And in the likes of Aberdeen, where the prosperity is abundant but also short-lived and fluctuant, the effect is magnified.

All contemporary architecture in Aberdeen from the seventies onwards has been universally, unanimously rated bad, and mostly composed of glass boxes. Lots of glass boxes. Quicker to implement than granite and not nearly as permanent, with the idea presumably being that on a clear day they will reflect the image of the granite buildings around them; the ultimate pastiche, a literal mirror. It’s a shame this is Aberdeen, and that doesn’t happen too often.

Aberdeen will probably never be a city of momentous landmarks or one that drives thousands of tourists to its doorstep. But it’s for that reason it’s all the more important to understand what exactly makes its architecture as interesting as it is, and find ways to break the cycle of nostalgia-demolition-nostalgia before there really is nothing left worth preserving. As the oil industry rolls back, we should look up at their short-lived legacy and realise the reflection is not perfect, but heavily distorted.


  1. says

    Thanks David, an interesting piece. I would suggest that Aberdeen’s architecture is actually quite unusual. Most of my early years were spent in Aberdeen, so I rather took the city’s appearance for granted. But when I moved elsewhere I began to appreciate that Aberdeen has a very distinctive architectural character. As you note in your article, the ubiquity of the granite stone makes gives the city a remarkably consistent texture. You may have seen Jonathan Meades’s programme on the architecture of Aberdeen: There he makes the wonderful observation that Aberdeen looks like a 1:1 scale model of itself: the granite doesn’t age like other stones, making the city’s buildings seem as new as they were when they were first built.

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