William Alvis Brogden writes about Aberdeen as a “designed city”

William Alvis Brogden’s book about the development and design of the city of Aberdeen was published earlier this year. You can find out more about A City’s Architecture: Aberdeen as “Designed City” on our website, but in the meantime, here is an extended extract from the author’s preface…

Aberdeen, like other successful designed towns can be seen as The Perfect Pattern for a Town. It, indeed like many cities, despite the palpable sense of excitement felt among those in a train or plane as it approaches the city, takes some knowing before it can be loved. Venice, or Paris, it is not.

That is the first lesson: a city may be an excellent one without being at the top of everybody’s list of best towns. There is another, more profound lesson here too. That the knowing of a town takes time, and it also takes study if it is to be other than local received wisdom. Curiously such studies are rare, and the present book is the kind I would wish to read about any city but am rarely able to do so, simply because they do not exist.

Aberdeen is old and it has been fortunate not to be destroyed by hostile armies. Its prosperity has been slow of growth but sure. It has kept its records moderately well, and much better than many towns. It has been constructed out of the most durable of materials, and it has not stinted itself foolishly by building cheap. Its topography or landscape is friendly but quirky…just awkward enough to encourage leaving it well alone and so ideal designs have been accommodated to local character. And, of course, the work of earlier citizens is always there to guide, or to form a friendly impediment to change. All these have formed over a long time the way the city is, and the way it looks.

Its citizens have been more adventurous than many, and have travelled much for curiosity or fortune, in business or in service. Whatever was the fashion in whatever hot-spot, there was an Aberdonian to note it, and sometimes to bring it back home where occasionally he was able to convince his neighbours to adopt it. Although it has always been remote it has never been ignorant of current thinking, or provincial in applying it.

For its own reasons the city decided to embark on a series of urban improvements in the 18th century, none of which could have been certain of success, and in even the boldest the collateral damage to the town of these improvements was minimized. Apart from being induced to lose one’s house, at a good rate, the creation of the new South Entry at the turn of the century was conducted so fastidiously, that most Aberdonians were little troubled by mess and upset. In that decade the town simply continued about its business.

Once it had broken out of its mediaeval form the opportunities to develop became part of the town’s business, and at each stage…design, reflection sometimes disputatious, usually allowed a deliberate growth in area and population. Always the principles guiding them were, what is the best pattern or model and how does that suit us as Aberdonians. When affirmation was general then the project went ahead. Rarely was it otherwise, and on those few occasions the mess has still to be sorted.

Sadly, our collective memory needs to be tutored and reminded. That is so even in Aberdeen. It cannot be trusted to leaders of politics or business to also have the answers to design matters, and to have mastered the lessons of history. Becoming rich and or powerful is a full time occupation which does not necessarily carry with it wider wisdom.

I have been fortunate in having the job of teaching university students about design and the history of architecture, mostly in Aberdeen. From the most fundamental sharing of the works of illustrious masters such as Alberti or Wren we have engaged more locally with Gibbs, Campbell, and Adam. From them, masters and students, I have learned much, and with them we have explored all kinds of conditions and possibilities, about Berlin, Venice or Aberdeen. Aberdeen has been our focus for the last two decades in studies linking history and design, and in those studies the ideas and knowledge in this book have come about.

About the Author: Bill Brogden is a critic, architectural historian, conservationist and consultant on design policy and master planning. After training as architect at the NC State School of Design, and post graduate study at Edinburgh and in London he has spent his professional life in research and teaching from Aberdeen.

Review of the book:

‘One of the most comprehensive, readable and enjoyable books written about the architectural history of Aberdeen. A herculean labour of love, packed with humour, the substance is impressive and makes for a fascinating and revealing read. Distinguished and eloquent, I recommend this to Aberdonians and scholars alike.’   Ken Hood, Partner, Hopkins Architects, UK

More information about A City’s Architecture: Aberdeen as “Designed City”

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