Just last week, and to great fanfare, a new shopping centre opened in Aberdeen: Union Square. On its opening day, a reported 60,000 people - 25% the population of Aberdeen - poured through the doors to view a whole bunch of familiar shops in a slightly different context. Usually, the opening of a new shopping centre, whether big or large, thick or thin, or pink or brown, would not register highly on my consciousness (which is very preoccupied with housecoats these days), but Union Square happens to be on my very doorstep, and heralds the first step in a potential shift of focus for Aberdeen's city centre, making me even more central than I already am.
To celebrate this new collection of "Next" shops and "Costa Coffee" coffeeshops, I thought I'd take the 2 minute walk from my flat to Union Square to see what all the fuss and hysteria was about, and whether it really measured up. As an experienced veteran of shopping centres in many glamorous world cities, there could surely be no better choice than myself to make a studied and critical analysis of where Aberdeen's new gem figures on the world stage. And to accompany this review, for the ease of my younger readers who find my word selection tricky on their literary palate, I've included some pretty pictures. Regular readers will be pleased to see my reintroduction of the "bold" style, and some font size increases too: I spoil you. I have decided to arrange the review in the format of "pros and cons"; so here goes:
The main facade is quite attractive.
Architecturally, I'm very much a traditionalist and tend towards classical and just plain old styles over the more modern look. That's not to say there's not a ton of terrific modern architecture out there, but Aberdeen in recent times has put up a lot of pretty drab anonymous cheap-looking buildings that look plastic and nasty against the traditional granite of Aberdeen. But I find the facade of Union Square bright and open, not overstated, and even a little grand. Despite my second photo here making it look a little dingy (it isn't, it's just my poor photography), from the inside I think the facade works even better, and makes Aberdeen's Station Hotel and surrounding buildings look quite impressive.
The Giant U
I like this giant U, just outside the facade (there's another one at the rear entrance car park). It's simple, bold and makes a statement, and looks good from a distance or close up.
A lamp post
But why, oh why, after all this well thought out design, did someone have to put a big lamp post right next to it? If the person who designed this feature would like to get in touch, I will buy you a drink if you will sit down and justify this to me. Instead, they should have put some nice ground lighting, to light up the U at night.
Masterful integration of the train and bus station into the shopping centre
Let this not be understated, this is the masterstroke of the whole enterprise, and the reason alone that justifies it. Visitors to Aberdeen by train or bus were for years greeted with sheer drabbery. The area was run down, unattractive and a very unwelcoming introduction. But now, the area has been made functional, attractive and a pleasant arrival. If you don't fancy the Station Hotel across the road, there's a (slightly too gigantic) Jury's Inn Hotel attached and, indeed, dominating the complex. What has happened is a general shift in Aberdeen city centre overall, making the station area more desirable and thus the areas between it and Union Street, for years pretty shabby, much more in the public attention; indeed, council funded regeneration work is already underway.
The above photo is of the side of the train station, which has been cleaned up, and I think looks good inside the main entrance of Union Square.
Stupid Ugly Pillars
All this good work into creating a nice looking shopping centre, and the pillars, which should be a nice touch, look ghastly. Some cheap metal painted grey, already they look tattered but even brand new they added nothing of aesthetic value. I'm not asking for Greco-Roman columns (though wouldn't a "Doric Column" have been particularly appropriate to the area?) but just something that looks like it hadn't been left over from building a warehouse.
Attractive, spacious interior
Whoever designed Union Square has obviously taken some tips from other shopping centres. Nobody is asking for quirky charm in such a construct, rather a clean, bright, neutrally attractive space is requested, with a smattering of style, and this is what is delivered.
In the front facade, there's only one pair of automatic doors, and already one is broken. This may amuse me when watching people walk into it, but I'm sure wasn't the desired effect. Otherwise, all the doors are opened by the old fashioned technique of "pushing". I hate such doors in public areas as it inevitably means I feel obliged to hold the door open for someone, awkwardly, and they feel obliged to thank me, awkwardly. But perhaps this is more an issue with me.
A concise history of Union Square, before and after.
I'm afraid to see it because local "toughs" are camped out in the comfortable sofas.
Look at all these lovely shops!
Ok, fair enough, I've never even heard of "Zara", "Faith", "Cult" or "USC", but no doubt girls have. The Apple store has had legions of people literally ejaculating in their pants with excitement and though I'm not so enthusiastic, it at least means I only have to walk two minutes to complain when my iPod next breaks down. And "Next"... well, there's already a gigantic, brand new one in the Bon Accord Centre, which I went to once but found nothing to suit my tastes (this is not necessarily a criticism of Next), but I'm sure there are lots of girls in Aberdeen delighted to have the choice of two giant Next shops within five minutes of each other.
There are many other shops there, of course, but I've got better things to do with my day than take lots of photos of shops that you get in every high street in Britain, nay the World.
And in case you'd exhausted Aberdeen's repertoire of fooderies, Union Square has added to the list. I've never heard of the unimaginatively but functionally named "Handmade Burger Co" but presume it's not a misleading title (how shocked we would all be if they only sold pre-packed shellfish). "Nando's" I have heard of, though never frequented, but it's another novelty to Aberdeen that has generated mass excitement; indeed, earlier at lunchtime I saw a queue of eager people gathered, just to gaze. "Costa Coffee"... lovely, I suppose, and in the same picture you can see a "Yo! Sushi!". I'm a big fan of sushi, albeit less so of gratuitous exclamation marks, and so should welcome its arrival, but it makes me feel very guilty, because there's already an excellent Korean-run sushi stall in the nearby Aberdeen market, but I've not been there in a year because I always feel under pressure to speak Korean there, and my Korean has rusted to embarrassing levels these days. But I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I abandoned the private Korean enterprise in favour of the big chain... so perhaps I'll start paying young children to go to the Korean stall and buy a sushi selection for me. Or is that frowned upon these days?
Ok, whisper it now, but there's one big problem with this much-anticipated new shopping centre: it's a little boring. After you enter the large main hall, you are faced with two choices: short corridor or long corridor. The short corridor pretty much goes direct to the bus station; it's not meant to be exciting so is straightforward and functional. The long corridor however is, effectively, the shopping centre. Union Square is just a corridor! You walk and you walk, and a few minutes later you reach the end, which is either to an outside car park, or Boots. It's really boring. Fair enough, there's two levels, but it's all just a linear A to B layout. I just feel there should be... something more. If it was at least a ring layout, you could go round and round, which would surely encourage shopping, but the current layout is somewhat underwhelming. And at the end of the corridor, there's no escalator, just a choice of stairs and lift. And only old or deeply unhealthy people take the lift in a shopping centre (and I don't want to share with them).
There's a lovely new cinema as part of the shopping centre, which isn't of great use to me personally, but is terrific for all the youth and young lovers of Aberdeen.
Con, kind of
Lack of shops
As yet, there are still many empty spaces in Union Square, still to filled with shops or restaurants. To be fair, much of these are on the way and no doubt will make the place seem even more bustling.
But I do quite like this big poster in front of a non-shop - it acknowledges, perhaps unwittingly, the Aberdonian pessimism of something good actually happening, and the surprise when it actually - somehow - does. As if the idea of Aberdeen getting a new shopping centre was about as unlikely as seagulls ganging together to steal an entire ice-cream van... in fact, knowing the demonic nature of Aberdeen seagulls, this perhaps isn't so unlikely.
A lovely big car park, just near my flat!
Terrific, somewhere to park if I ever get round to buying another crappy car.
Parking costs money
And it's not cheap. I think it's a little cheeky to ask shoppers to pay money for this kind of car park, but I suppose it is the city centre. And I suppose it does stop people like me parking their car in it for weeks.
The barriers aren't working yet!
And when they do, I might sabotage them in the night.
I'm just stating what's already been said, but it's worth re-emphasising. Union Square marks a major step in the initiation of the regeneration of Aberdeen city centre, which will hopefully eventually be followed by an improvement to Union Terrace gardens, pedestrianisation of at least some of Union Street, an improvement to the potentially lovely Castlegate and, most importantly, escalators installed in my Market Street flat: there's really an awful lot of stairs to climb, you know.
Cheer up Aberdonians!