Stuart MacDonald: Aberdeen doesn’t need a ‘McGuggenheim’ and shouldn’t have to vote on it either

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Last week my 90-year-old mother-in-law received ballot papers for the City Garden Project.

Like other Aberdonians she is being asked to vote on the design by New York architects Diller, Scofidio, Renfro, won in an international competition, and which the scheme’s protagonists claim will have a transformational effect on the city. Like others who have lived all their lives in the Aberdeen, my mother-in-law does not like the proposed scheme but would like something to be done with the Gardens.

So, how to vote? If the American scheme is the panacea, what was the problem? It is a referendum on architecture but with no sub-structure and no touch points for the concerned citizen. That’s the nub of the debacle that has convulsed Aberdeen ever since oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood offered £50 million of his own money to regenerate the sunken Victorian Gardens in the centre of the city.

Aberdeen was recently described by Jonathan Glancey, one of the UK’s foremost architecture critics, as an architectural riddle wrapped in a cultural mystery inside a financial enigma. Glancey’s bemusement is how Aberdeen, awash with money, has not managed to produce one building of any note in the last 25 years.

It is a situation made all the more baffling by the fact that the Granite City, alongside Bath and Edinburgh, has one of the best and most readily identifiable typologies in the UK. Central to that unique architectural identity is Union Terrace Gardens. Quite how Aberdeen got into such a public tangle about a civic space, albeit a very important and central one, has become an object lesson in how not to do procurement.

The problem is that every city wants a “McGuggenheim” believing that it will keep them ahead of the competition. Aberdeen is no exception. But the city did have a more innovative alternative. It was all the things the American scheme is not: a beautiful, cutting-edge arts centre, sensitively integrated into the site by its architects Brissac Gonzales and at a fraction of the cost. But it did not accord with the “travelling ideas”, which preferred bombast and grandiosity over elegance and simplicity.

Places which are publicly owned but which come under the control of business leaders are not democratic. Aberdeen has become a case-study in the now universal battle between public and private. What has happened in Aberdeen not only makes a mockery of contemporary planning guidance, it undermines pledges to strengthen civic engagement and increase trust in politics. Certainly, the planning system is complex but in a well-functioning democracy it does allow ordinary people to voice what they believe the city is for and to stand up for the places they want to live in. Turning it into a yes or no vote is a travesty.

• Stuart MacDonald is a former director of the Lighthouse