Aberdeen art gallery set for controversial refit

The Aberdeen city art gallery. Picture: Stuart Caie (CC) [http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyz/]
The Aberdeen city art gallery. Picture: Stuart Caie (CC) [http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyz/]
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ABERDEEN City Council is set to press ahead with controversial plans for a multi-million pound renovation of the city’s art gallery - despite a storm of protest over proposals to demolish the building’s historic main marble staircase.

Members of the council’s planning and development management committee are being urged to approve a £30 million transformation of the A-listed building which will include a new rooftop gallery extension, roof terraces, the demolition of the staff wing and two small galleries, the McBey and Murray Rooms, and an extension to the balcony of the adjoining war memorial.

The council is also planning 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.

Council claim artworks ‘at risk’, artists blast plan

Two years ago council officials warned that valuable paintings and other works of art at the major public gallery were being put at risk because of problems in maintaining the fabric of the 128 year-old building.

And council planning officials claim the new renovation scheme is needed to both preserve and enhance the “outstanding” Renaissance style building.

But the threat to the main staircase has parked a furious outcry from leading members of the city’s arts community. Eric Auld, one of the city’s best known painters, has branded the proposals for the interior alteration to the art gallery as “tantamount to vandalism.”

Auld said: “The stairway especially should be preserved as a beautiful piece of fine marble work.”

Diane Morgan, a leading local author and historian, has condemned the plans as a “waste of public money”, and the Aberdeen Civic Society has also expressed its deep disappointment that the “existing marvellous staircase will be lost” and the internal space adversely affected by the proposed replacement staircase in what is currently the sculpture court.

Historic Scotland backs move

Historic Scotland, however, have given the their backing to the transformation scheme.

Michael Scott, the agency’s Senior Heritage Management Officer for Historic Buildings North, stated in a letter to the council that Historic Scotland supports the need to address the “numerous deficiencies” of the current gallery - “notably the deteriorating building fabric and environmental conditions, inadequacy of space, and poor accessibility, circulation, visitor and support facilities.”

He continued: “We support the need to tackle these deficiencies and recognise the wider community benefits from transforming the Art Gallery into a first class cultural centre. We have acknowledged that this requires extensive intervention and expansion. We have also recognised that a roof addition, in the absence of other options, is the only practical way to achieve the required additional space, and that considerable change to the interior is necessary.”

Mr Scott added: “While the existing 1905 marble stair is an important feature and its loss would have an adverse impact on the building’s special architectural and historic interest, we accept there is clear justification shown for its removal.”

Council planning boss recommends scheme

Dr Margaret Bochel, the council’s head of planning and sustainable development, is recommending that the renovation scheme be approved.

She states in a report to the committee: “The main gallery fabric needs attention and requires some significant repair/replacement of roofs and skylights. The current condition of roofs and glazing means there are ongoing problems with water ingress and associated damage to the building fabric, resulting in risk to the collection. The lack of thermal barriers and insulation in the roof space is also a major contributor to environmental problems.

“The proposed works to the building is culture-led. The current building has seen a number of unsympathetic alterations over more recent years and is also considered by the applicants not to meet the current requirements or provide an adequate home for the important collection. Further, the War Memorial and Cowdray Hall are underused due to existing condition and access issues.”

Dr Bochel continues: “It is acknowledged that the new extensions contrast with the Renaissance style Art Gallery buildings, in terms of design and use of materials. However, this contemporary approach is clearly well considered and makes a positive contribution to the A-listed building in itself and to the wider Conservation Area.”

She adds: “In terms of the alterations proposed within the front range, the benefits that would be realised include making the entrance more accessible. By removing the stair and reorganising the café, shop and ancillary functions away from the original gallery, the space becomes more open and welcoming, creating better visual connections and makes access easier. Having the café situated adjacent to the War Memorial and Cowdray Hall allows for this part of the Gallery to be open in the evenings and reflects the function of that part of the building and to events being held there.

“It is considered that the proposals are a creative response to the existing A-Listed building which preserve the existing built heritage.”