Dundee does not often find itself compared to Berlin, Montreal and Beijing as one of the world’s cultural powerhouses. Even in Scotland it is sometimes regarded as a “mini-me” to Glasgow.
But the decision this week by Unesco to declare Dundee a world-class City of Design – the first place in Britain to achieve the distinction – has led to designers and engineers alike looking afresh at the north bank of the Firth of Tay.
The thumbs up from Unesco was strongly influenced by excitement over the Dundee V&A Museum of Design, the work of the eminent Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, which will open in 2016.
It’s also a boon to residents and civic leaders who were disappointed by losing out to Hull as the UK’s next City of Culture.
But Dundee’s cultural and design offerings are more or less interchangeable in many respects, particularly as it is a world leader in the creation of iconic video games, from the original, modest likes of Lemmings to the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto series, whose effect on mass culture has been extraordinary. More than 185 million people have sat hunched, and temporarily killer-eyed, over GTA games.
Dundee is a nouveau-design city. In the 19th century, Glasgow was claiming internationally acknowledged leadership in city planning, architecture and scientific and industrial innovation.
Dundee on other hand was essentially a jute-producing powerhouse , where even the mill girls were as hard as nails – overdressed, loud, bold-eyed, and often “roarin’ fou’ with drink”, according to one local historian.
They may have encouraged the progressive town planning ideas of Patrick Geddes, who taught at University College Dundee from 1888.
The standard tagline for Dundee until about 1960 was: jam, jute and journalism.
But that disguised the beginnings of the city’s design mojo, which eventually began to surface in the late 1930s when the pen of cartoonist Dudley Watkins produced memorable characters for the comics and comic strips produced by the Dundee publishers, DC Thomson.
Watkins created The Broons and Oor Wullie, a spiky-haired ragamuffin whose default remarks were: “Ye cannae win,” and “ye cannae beat a guid bucket for sittin’ on.”
That visual storytelling DNA duly morphed into the psychopathic terrains of Grand Theft Auto, where admiration for buckets gave way to one-liners such as: “Your ass is mine, punk!”
But Dundee’s 21st-century programming skills have produced something more intriguing: a video game designed by Charlie Czerkawski, called Play to Cure Genes in Space. It’s ostensibly about rockets landing on asteroids, but gamers are actually mapping anomalies in breast cancer chromosomes for Cancer Research UK.
Gillian Eason, the director of CreativeDundee, said: “I think that the crossover development of digital games design into other areas is a really strong possibility in Dundee, particularly for improving well-being – games for good, games for health. “There’s something about the gutsy nature of Dundee that’s significant, the attitude here. This is a place where people get together to make things happen. And in terms of design, we are producing a high percentage of graduates who now see that there are opportunities to stay here rather than fly south.”
Among the latest roll-out of talented creatives are the fashion designers Hayley Scanlan and Jane Gowans, proving that Dundee’s elevated design status is not entirely nerd-based.
Rory Olcayto, the acting editor of Architects Journal, says the city’s reinvention of key parts of its townscape and public realm has been exemplary, adding to Dundee’s increasingly convivial vibe.
A £1bn scheme to transform the waterfront is under way, with the new V&A Museum as a focal point. Cost constraints have simplified the museum’s original astonishing design – a boulder-cum-spaceship jutting over the waters of the Tay; the new version looks like a stripey ship.
Most of Dundee’s historic and modern architecture would not have interested Unesco’s design investigators. But there have been brilliant exceptions – the most obvious being the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre designed by Frank Gehry in 1999.
Other standout buildings include Dundee Contemporary Arts, designed by Richard Murphy, and Reiach and Hall’s civic headquarters.
As Dunde – whose setting has been described by Stephen Fry as “ludicrously ideal” – assumes its new design leadership mantle, it’s hard not to hear Oor Wullie’s captioned cry: “Smashin! I’m makin mysel mair Scottish than ever!”