Dundee's evolving riverside mountain, the V&A Museum of Design, is architect Kengo Kuma's realised imagining of Scotland's coastal cliffs. The project's impressive website states: 'There are no external straight walls in this new living room for the city.' Which echoes a lament by Dundonians aplenty, gazing at repairs to their dwellings by the council's direct labour force. That was decades ago of course; the council has put faith in BAM for the museum's construction – and the workies have heard all the smart remarks.
As a native recently returned, walking around, getting reacquainted, the changes are obvious, in some cases remarkable. Decent coffee can be had anywhere, anytime, and on a little side street, a truckle's throw from where I grew up, now rests The Cheesery.
Dundee's hipster element (or incomers like the lady ahead of me being served a mature brie) may measure the city's progress in access to stuff – free wifi, quality beans or a slender triangle of Baron Bigod. 'We're very fortunate of course – living in the West End,' smugged the lady – going on to elongate the name of an Italian eatery, the way some people do.
All the while, the cheese guy wrapped her little parcels without lifting his head. 'Our friends in Aberdeen were shocked when I told them we were moving here – but it's not too bad – something had to be done with the town centre, bit grotty really, wasn't it?' Cheese guy kept his head down so she foolishly turned to me. 'Can't quite place the accent – are you from Torry?' I enquired. Cheese guy looked up quickly, then back to folding and tucking. 'No – London originally – then we...'. The baby bell suddenly dropped – she paid and left in silence. Cheese guy smiled a cheery 'Good morning!' like I'd just come in.
At 11.20 am in the Hill Bar, local customers were offered three plates of sandwiches, which meant one plate each, two for guys at 'their' end of the bar, one for me at the other. In the late 60s we lived in the adjacent tenements, now gone, and this place, previously the Shakespeare Bar, was my local. Famous for its domino team. Half a dollar a corner seemed pretty tame after the barmaid mentioned an occasional poker school. Now that is progress. The pool table in the lower section of the bar only made it more welcoming. Opportunities to lose money here, I thought, without the journey to Glasgow.
Talk was of football and Trump. 'What a bam he is eh!' said the younger of the two men. 'Dangerous bam though,' said the other, emptying his glass. Keen to discuss anything except Potus, I asked no one in particular what they thought about the new museum taking shape on the waterfront. 'It's meant ti be an aircraft carrier is it no'?' guessed the younger man. His pal paid for two pints and reckoned 'supposed tae be mountains ah think,' looking sideways at me. Taking the cue, I repeated the website info re. cliffs. After some thought they agreed it did ('kinda') resemble a cliff face – 'but yi need ti know that before yi look at it – it's still a big mad ship ti me,' sighed the young guy. 'Could've built plenty hooses wi' ah that money.'
Opinions in the boozer reflect a divide in the wider Dundee 'community'. What benefits will accrue north of the city, or north of the McManus Gallery for that matter? Perspectives differ depending on people's demographic. A few days after the pub conversation a newsagent's billboard read Dundee residents wait 20 years for repairs
because, according to a bureaucratic quote 'there is a limited amount of money available for unadopted pavements.'
City fathers received quotations approaching £9m (in 1997) to make the monstrosity that was Tayside House 'viable for the next twenty-five years.' Nesbitt Street residents petitioned the council to have their pavement fixed in 1999, and may have to wait another three years before the job is done. Construction of the V&A began in 2015; the topping-out ceremony was in 2017. Total cost £80m – twice the original estimate. Yes okay, different budgets and all that, but another example of ordinary people being overlooked by a big vision. Nesbitt Street is north-east of the city centre, mind your step if you're visiting.
On a more positive note, it was great to sit in the cafe at The Shore – its open vista invites the eye to wander across newly created public spaces, landscaped gardens and outdoor concert area, merging in a continuous sweep towards the V&A itself.
'We remember when the demolition started,' said a member of staff, 'so we've seen it develop from start to finish.' The Shore is a youth and community project introducing a structured experience to young people's lives. 'Dundonians are quite cynical – some think the museum is really only for visitors and students,' she said, with a weak smile. But she went on to express hopes for positive outcomes for the city and its inhabitants, not just culture vultures getting off the train, visiting the V&A giftshop, then leaving.
'They need to come here for a wee bite to eat as well,' I said. She concurred, and, putting a cheese and ham toastie, with salad and coleslaw on the side, plus a pot of tea, she added, 'and that's only £2.80 – try an' get that at the V&A.' I offered to stand outside the museum with a sandwich board pointing the way.
For many, razing the brutalist carbuncle of Tayside House and the equally offensive Olympia leisure centre is reward enough. Dundee's waterfront can now breathe, as if Kirsty and Phil decided to 'knock through,' creating continuity of land, river and sky. Now all that's needed is a City Parent to adopt the orphan sidewalk.
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