Every year I’m lucky enough to visit a pretty large number of different cities across the UK, but one sticks in my mind for being the most beguiling: Aberdeen. The Granite City, a place with an incredible layered townscape, that’s almost Piranesian with its viaducts, steps and vaults.
Aberdeen’s architecture (except for the embarrassing modern intrusions of oil company headquarters and lacklustre shopping malls such as Union Square) is sublime, possessing a great power that I haven’t really experienced anywhere else. Perhaps the granite is to blame, its sheer heft and hardness makes Aberdeen a city of crisp angles and sunshine sparkles. Where the stone is so hard that nothing ages, so that tower blocks rub up against 18th century townhouses, but all seem to drink at the same fountain of eternal youth.
Walking around Aberdeen – and it’s best experienced on foot, so you can ascend its slippery stairways or poke your head into narrow alleyways and discover unexpected squares and yards – you can really feel a spirit to the place. It’s a pyschogeographer’s dream, so perhaps unsurprising that a city of such modest population has prompted OtherAberdeen, an excellent blog with a pyschogeographical bent. Or that architectural critic Jonathan Meades devoted the entire first episode off his Off Kilter series to the Granite City, celebrating its layers, dormer windows and unique townscape. He described the city as “impervious to time and climate” like a computer-generated 3D rendering that “looks newer than the New Towns”.
So many British cities were disfigured by post-war redevelopment, and Aberdeen certainly has its fair share of bleak-looking estates, particularly on its northern outskirts towards Bridge of Don (for the residents, I imagine this bleakness is enlivened by living next to the sea) which have been reclad in a variety of nauseous local authority colours. But inside the city proper, the story is very different. A family of brutalist towers punctuate the cityscape, and unlike so many of their era, they add to the urban experience rather than subtract.
They grabbed my attention when I first visited the city in 2010. On my latest visit I made it a priority to explore them some more, aided by a wealth of on-line information.
The blocks are clearly influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, featuring pre-clad panels embedded with large granite blocks. On my latest visit, the nod towards the communal living at the Unité d’Habitation was visible thanks to a launderette at the base of Virginia Court.
The history of the blocks was expertly charted in an excellent article by Mark Chalmers in May 2009′s Leopard magazine. Aberdeen was unusual compared to many other Scottish cities in that its high rises were designed by the city architect’s department rather than a building contractor. According to Chalmers, Aberdeen was slow to embrace the charms of tower blocks, and also the last city in Scotland to build high-rise social housing, in 1985.
The city centre blocks – between 12 and 18 storeys high – replaced a number of slums and make no apologies for being located in sensitive areas, such as immediately behind the Salvation Army Citadel on Castlegate. This group in particular – Virginia and Marischal Courts, linked by two glazed bridges – are extremely powerful, located at the highest point in the city centre. The residents must enjoy amazing views.
Embedding granite boulders into the precast cladding panels has helped to preserve the appearance of these towers (although they appear to be progressively being overpainted in a not-wholly-offensive grey). They are described by Chalmers as “like raisins in a clootie pudding, to give [the concrete] a grain and texture which breaks up the streams of rain which would otherwise stain the panels”. He concluded: “Aberdeen’s City Fathers should be applauded for having invested in affordable social housing which towers above other cities’ efforts”. I couldn’t agree more.