There’s been a bit of a stushie about high-rise flats in Aberdeen that we should talk about because it touches on a few interesting questions, such as what is beautiful and what isn’t, what we should preserve and what we should pull down, the role that class plays in the way we look at buildings, and the importance of the two landscapes we live in: the real, and the imagined.
The buildings in question are ones I know pretty well. They were put up in the 60s in the Castlehill and Gallowgate areas of Aberdeen and around the Mounthooly roundabout. Essentially, they were designed to solve the same problem other cities were facing – slum housing and affordable living – but they were much better quality than many of the ones in Glasgow, for example, that have since been pulled down.
Now, I know people can’t live in nostalgia – although I give it a good try to be fair – but one of the reasons I love the buildings is they are a big presence on the map of my childhood and youth. I never lived in any of the eight blocks myself, although I knew people that did, and when I was a kid, Virginia Court in particular seemed like a wonderful place. Set high up on Castlehill, it felt like the future, like a place from Logan’s Run or Planet of the Apes, and I remember turning to my mother one day and telling her, my finger pointing at the very top of the building, that when I grew up I wanted to live up there, in the sky.
Of course, it was a childish thought and I realise kids can’t really understand the social problems that sometimes come with high-rises – and the eight blocks in Aberdeen haven’t been immune to such problems: lack of maintenance for example or the council using some of the flats for troublesome tenants. But on the whole the blocks are still reasonably popular and affordable places to live.
But the bigger question is: do they matter? Aesthetically I mean. Or historically. Historic Environment Scotland believes so and has granted them A-listed status, which some MPs and the council have described as ludicrous. Several of the residents have also expressed concern that list status will mean the cost of living in them will go up and in the end, Aberdeen Council have appealed to the Government and a decision is expected in the next few days.
The concerns of the residents are totally understandable, although I would say that listing a building shouldn’t necessarily mean that it is (expensively) preserved in the same way forever – not least because climate change means we’re going to have to modify old buildings. The cost of maintaining a building is also one that needs to be solved separately from the question of whether we should preserve it. We need to ask what is worth protecting and then work out how to pay for it.
And I do think the eight Aberdeen blocks are worth protecting – for a number of reasons. Some consider them ugly, but I wonder where that instinct comes from? Is it because we’re told the buildings that matter are churches and concert halls and parliaments? Or is it something deeper, the old British problem: is it because the buildings are mostly lived in by ordinary people? Is it because they are homes for the working class and therefore cannot really matter? Is it, in other words, all about snobbery?
I suspect this may be playing a part in what’s going on in Aberdeen, but the reasons given by Historic Environment Scotland are convincing. There are lots of examples of bad social housing, but the Aberdeen blocks are an exception. They are well built, they incorporate granite and, as examples of brutalist architecture, they fit really well into Aberdeen’s landscape: let’s face it, a city built from granite on the edge of the North Sea can be a pretty brutal and grey place.
But those high blocks of flats, particularly the one on Castlehill, are also beautiful and I don’t mean beautiful in the traditional sense, the snobbish sense. I mean they represent a good idea, or did. I mean they belong in the imagined landscape as well as the real one. And I mean that they demonstrate that because we built a certain way in the past doesn’t mean we have to build the same way in the future. You can call them ugly if you want to, but I would fight to save them.
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