CONTROVERSIAL plans for the redevelopment and extension of Aberdeen Art Gallery were today approved by councillors - exactly three weeks after being thrown out by the authority’s own planning committee.
Councillors voted by 27 votes to 15 to approve building consent for the £30 million transformation of the A-listed building after the final decision had been referred to a full meeting of the council.
During a stormy two hour debate, opponents of the scheme branded the plans to demolish the gallery’s historic main marble staircase as “corporate vandalism” and warned that proposals for a copper roofed extension could turn the jewel in the city’s cultural crown into a “tattie shed.”
The proposals for the council-owned building also include plans to demolish the staff wing and an extension to the balcony of the adjoining war memorial. The council plans to strip out the entrance lobby on the ground floor and the marble staircase leading to the first floor and to install a new principal stairway rising through three floors.
The proposals have already attracted fierce opposition from leading members of the city’s arts community. Eric Auld, one of the city’s best known painters, branded the proposals for the interior alteration to the art gallery as “tantamount to vandalism.” And Diane Morgan, a leading local author and historian, condemned the plans as a “waste of public money.”
Councillor John Corall, the SNP councillor for Hazelhead, today urged that the “sacrilegious” scheme be rejected. He claimed: “It would be utter vandalism to alter the facade at the entrance, to remove the marble staircase, to alter the sculpture court and to build the offending structure on the roof. Who, pray tell me, would want a bulky, ballooning 67ft high copper bahookie.”
Mr Corall declared: “Too much damage has already been done to Aberdeen’s granite heritage and I will not be party to continued corporate vandalism.”
He was backed by Bill Cormie, the SNP Councillor for Midstocket, who said the design for the transformation was “completely out of character.” And he claimed the plans for the copper roof extension could be “found in any farmyard in the North east of Scotland.” Said Councillor Cormie: “You make Dutch barns and tattie sheds from the same sort of thing.”
Tory Councillor Ross Thomson also condemned the proposals. He told the meeting: “I like contemporary design and modern architecture, but I like it where it complements its surroundings. The proposal we have before us clashes with the existing building. This is the ‘people’s gallery’ and a huge asset to our city and we want to see it enhanced - not wrecked. I recognise the befits of redevelopment but it shouldn’t be done at any cost.”
Councillor Ramsay Milne, the Labour convener of the planning development committee, moved that building consent be approved. He said the proposals for the redevelopment would make the gallery “disabled friendly” and allow easy visitor circulation of the historic building.
And he claimed: “I believe the benefits of creating an accessible user friendly gallery far outweighs the loss of a marble covered staircase which causes difficulties in its current setting.” Councillor Milne warned: “If we fail to grasp the nettle we will be left with a gallery that is not fit for purpose and which threatens our magnificent collections with water ingress and deny us international exhibitions.”
He was backed by Tory councillor Alan Donnelly who said the current condition of the building was an “embarrassment” to Aberdeen which desperately needed to be upgraded.
Councillor Calum McCaig, the leader of the SNP group, also backed the revamp scheme. .He said: “The art gallery internally has its charms but they are well worn. I quite like the design. It does enhance what is already there whilst dramatically improving the environment internally. The loss of the staircase is not a deal breaker.”
Councillor Barney Crockett, the leader of the administration, warned that rejecting the proposed scheme could place at risk the council’s prospects of securing a £10 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
He said “There is no prospect whatsoever, in my view, of them ( the HLF) coming back if we throw this out. It was a difficult decision to announce a grant for Aberdeen and they were very nervous about it because they feared what the response might be.”
He claimed that the lottery fund could be discouraged from awarding grants to a council where councillors making planning decisions were prepared to disparage applications coming before them as looking like “byres and barns and sheds.”
The Art Gallery was designed by Marshall Mackenzie and opened in 1885. It was extended in 1905 in association with the newly-established Gray’s School of Art. Further development took place with the addition of the city’s War Memorial and the Cowdray Hall, opened by King George and Queen Mary in 1926.
Valerie Watts, the council’s chief executive, said after the meeting: “Today’s news means we have reached an important milestone in the redevelopment of Aberdeen Art Gallery. The redevelopment aims to transform Aberdeen Art Gallery and Cowdray Hall into a world class cultural centre, celebrating art and music in the North east, and to provide a focal point for the creative industries and Aberdeen’s Cultural Quarter.
“This redevelopment will see Aberdeen Art Gallery become a modern venue fit for the city’s wonderful collection. This ambitious project will breathe new life into an important building so that works which have been unavailable for some time can be displayed in a dynamic and contemporary setting. “
Christine Rew, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums manager, said: “The plans to redevelop the Art Gallery will create an impressive venue in Aberdeen with a new suite of temporary exhibition galleries on the top floor capable of attracting world class international exhibitions. The project will also integrate the gallery and Cowdray Hall, more effectively creating new opportunities for visitors to engage in both art and music. We’re looking forward to developing new programmes of activities and displays with our visitors.”