Sunday, September 18, 2016


It was seen many years ago and noted, remembered: this was an interesting wall, intriguing. Only this year, 2016, was it revisited to be photographed. With new airline routes opening up through Glasgow, Aberdeen is no longer the stopover on our travels north; hence the years’ delay. Our recent journey east to the Nordic regions happened to return through Aberdeen, so the opportunity was taken to spend time in this granite city, to get to know it again.

The churchyard is the patch of green behind the screen

Union Street, Aberdeen
The churchyard is the green on the right

Union Street entry to churchyard

Looking out towards the Union Street entry

Aberdeen has its memorable, axial thoroughfare, Union Street, that is the linear hub of the city. It is a street that is dominant and direct, but not as grand as a boulevard. It throbs with life and movement, with branches, streets and lanes, stretching off each side along its core length to connect to its context. It is one of the world’s great streets, such is its presence. Close to its centre is the old churchyard with its grandly framed, granite arched screen addressing the prominence and continuity of the street, enhancing it while formally framing the entrance to this ancient place of rest. To one side of this reclusive space, to the west, is a small lane linking various city business addresses - small, but interesting shops; to the east is another meandering connection that takes one through from Union Street to the rear of the church: but it is the intimate western lane that intrigues.

The green and screen of the churchyard is on the right 

The lane

The skyline

Aberdeen granite

The gateway to the churchyard is on the left

The churchyard is enclosed. It is the graveyard, separated from the living space of Aberdeen as country burial grounds are isolated from their adjacent fields with dry stone dykes. The wall that encapsulates this peaceful place changes its form with its location. Along Union Street is is a formal, open cast iron barrier encased grandly in classical grey granite. On the other side of the church it becomes a lower, informal cast iron barrier on top of a masonry retaining wall. Along the east, the enclosure becomes a tall, open fence; on the west, the perimeter wall becomes a solid, high stone barrier that snugly delineates the lane, one side of it, as it separates off the churchyard space. There is an entrance gate in this wall that leads directly to the church, its west end. This is the vehicular, or service entry to the churchyard.

It is a surprising wall when first seen. It begs the question: what and why? It is a profiled, stone wall with deliberate, exaggerated and irregular castellations. They are so bold, so measured, they astonish and puzzle. Is this an ad hoc conceit? It is not until one enters the graveyard and explores the space, interrogates it, that one discovers the simple logic of what, from the outside, appears to be an irrational, random, egocentric expression. Against this stone wall stand grand grave stones, taller than the wall in their aspiring and exuberant celebration of a life and time. These are the structures that protrude above the wall to reshape the upper line of the enclosing stones. The interaction is both gracious and audacious, randomly creating detours that easily accommodate this imposed difference without complaint or awkward disruption. Indeed the wall is improved with this challenge, this native conflict between the ambitions of the wall and those of the abutting grave stones.

The graveyard

One could say that the grave stones win, for they maintain everything they had planned; but the wall does too: it does not suffer any defeat, humiliation or put-down. From the lane it becomes a marvellous barrier that proudly fascinates with a simple humility. From the graveyard, one barely notices the ‘problem,’ such is the prominence of the sculptured edifices and their contented accommodation. If one dared, one could say it was the classic cliché ‘win-win’ situation, but this is just too crass. It is simply a conflict resolved with the happy interaction and acceptance of necessity. Do we try just too hard today to be and do otherwise; to insist on our approach being dominant, unsullied? Do we work with too much fixed in our own dreams? To see a wall that is able to dance and grow, vary with the stresses of other’s demands in such an easy resolution is truly spectacular: it is a little, ordinary wonder in an undramatic, but amazing place.

If we are to learn anything from this situation, we should: we should note the manner - the good manners – how something other than intended has been incorporated; how necessity can improve outcomes; how intentions need not be so determined, certain or singular in their egocentric drive; how we need to listen to others in our efforts and recognise their needs too. This is the making of the ‘between’ - that zone where opposites co-exist to mutual benefit. This wall is living proof of the possibility of achieving the impossible. Modernism, indeed, even the work of today whatever ‘ism’ it might be categorised as, is too singular, too self-centred to even notice a neighbour, let alone adjust to any different needs and demands beyond its own vision. It is ‘selfie’ architecture. The wall is more than this – it is responsible architecture: architecture that is able to respond to life, and death, their needs, and include apparent conflict happily and graciously. We need much more of this. Gestures like this make good cities, where each part recognises and respects the other.



25 December 2016

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence. 

from Mending Wall by Robert Frost
(the complete poem is in the sidebar)

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