Concern grows over Marischal Square

Judging by the petitions and demonstrations, it seems that many of Aberdeen’s citizens have a healthy ambition to set high standards when it comes to regenerating our city centre. That is surely a laudable aim.

Marischal Square

The frustration is being directed at the plans for Marischal Square, the city council-promoted new development on the site of the former St Nicholas House.

Marischal College is, undoubtedly, one of Aberdeen’s most iconic buildings. Its ornate granite frontage makes it not only the second largest granite building in the world but also an extravagant celebration of the city’s granite heritage and the skills of its masons.

A civic square to provide a suitable setting for this architectural gem has been a long-standing ambition in the city.

The Bon Accord Quarter Masterplan, published by Aberdeen City Council in 2006, grasped the importance of this vision proposing a ”new Civic Square to provide a proper setting for Marischal College and be the centre for civic activities”.

You can see a map of the civic square as it was then envisaged on page 15 of the The Bon Accord Quarter Masterplan.

The Bon Accord Quarter Masterplan goes on to proudly show that the new square would be larger than the Castlegate and states that the “new buildings must reflect Aberdeen style” and “quality architecture”.

It was a vision that seemed to resonate with the people of Aberdeen and, as the Masterplan document shows, approval ratings were between 71 and 77%.

Fast forward to 2014 and – having promised the people of Aberdeen “something better” when they killed off the City Garden regeneration proposal – the new city council trumpeted the demise of the hated St Nicholas House and built up the anticipation for its replacement.

When the new plans for Marischal Square were unveiled there was a notable tone of disappointment.

The civic square seemed more like a wide street with planters than a civic square. The buildings looked like the sort of standard concrete and glass constructions that would be equally at home in Southampton, Birmingham or Newcastle (indeed, some questioned if they were that much different from the hated concrete and glass of St Nicholas House).

Alarm bells also rang about the fact that the new buildings were going to be two or three storeys taller than the part of St Nicholas House that stood opposite the Marischal College frontage, creating a more enclosed environment for Marischal College and dramatically cutting the evening light that would reach its frontage.

Now, as the volume of protests increases, the Marischal Square website has sought to calm fears of Marischal College becoming enclosed by showing a new image of the Marischal College granite frontage seen from inside one of the new restaurants.

But, wait a minute. That’s not a square we are looking across. It’s a street.

So, in the latest twist on this story, it seems that not only are we not getting a square larger than Castlegate. We’re actually not getting a square at all. (Maybe it should be called Marischal Street… but wait, that name is taken.)

In the circumstances it seems hardly surprising that there are people in this city who feel they have been let down by a lack of vision and ambition from the Town House.

In response, our council protests that it needs the money.

For a better model, they need look no further than Dundee to see a city where they create a vision first then seek the funding to make it a reality.

It’s a formula that works, as the current Dundee Masterplan and its £1 billion investment plans show.
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