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NICKY MARR: Hydro site combines function with beauty

By Nicky Marr

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Hydro Ness has been designed to resemble a salmon
Hydro Ness has been designed to resemble a salmon

Don’t you just love it when things are more beautiful than they need to be? When I remember to, I look up, especially in our towns and cities. That’s where you see all the ‘twiddly bits’ that architects and designers have added.

Sometimes there’s a practical purpose to these most lovely bits, but often they’re there just to make a building look more pleasing. As my fingers trace the patterns in hand-carved sandstone, I think of the hours of work that went into their design and creation, by people who lived centuries ago.

My eye will be caught by beautiful railings, by intricate wooden carvings around a gable, or by finials (is that what they are called?) on top of domes. They are there to enhance, and to create beauty. Which, like all good design, serves to make our lives just a little bit better. These were my thoughts last week when I went to see how Hydro Ness is shaping up. Nestling on the banks of the River Ness in Inverness, it’s a renewable energy plant that uses ancient technology, obsolete infrastructure and the continuous (free!) power of the river, to create energy that will cut the bills of the nearby leisure centre by half.

Hydro Ness is now in full working order, and as project manager Allan Henderson explained, there’s just a final piece of paperwork to sign off before it starts producing electricity.

Reader, I love it. Last time I visited, all I could see were the ‘guts’ of the thing; the concrete space to house the twin Archimedes screws, the channel for the water to flow through, and the by-pass lane for salmon, although it’s entirely fish-friendly, even without it.

Now, the mechanism is fully encased within a sleek and shapely shiny steel structure – loosely based on the body of a salmon – that invites us in and creates a whole new destination for the people of Inverness. The light that shines through the tiny holes in its 386 unique, diamond-shaped panels is reminiscent of being inside a grand cathedral. Bat-friendly LED lights allow Hydro Ness to glow at night. It will be an ethereal vision from the road above.

Salmon fry details on the railings at Hydro Ness
Salmon fry details on the railings at Hydro Ness

Tucked near the junction of river and canal, Hydro Ness is at the convergence of several active travel paths, and will become a pleasant place to stop, enjoy the river, and watch the wildlife. By the time it opens this summer, interpretation boards will explain how Hydro Ness generates clean electricity. Other boards will explain the Highlands’ long links with hydro power, from dams to tidal. We’ll learn about ecology and wildlife, climate change and sustainability, and hopefully be inspired to do a little more ourselves too.

Hydro Ness could have been housed in a simple concrete box. It would have performed exactly the same function of generating 50 per cent of the power for Inverness Leisure and would probably have done so at much less cost than this beautiful new addition to the riverside. There was no real need to landscape the surrounding area, to plant a tree to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, or to commission artwork for under the nearby road bridge.

The railings around the structure would have stopped people falling into the river if they’d just been plain metal, but instead they carry on the ‘salmon’ theme, decorated with the shapes of young fry. If it hadn’t been specifically designed as an attractive place to visit there would have been no need for the installation of lighting along the walkways, the new benches, the inspirational inscriptions, or the interpretation panels. And all that would have saved a lot of money.

The striking interior of Hydro Ness
The striking interior of Hydro Ness

But I love what has been done, and I can’t wait to see it finished.

Why shouldn’t we have something that is both functional and beautiful? It’ll be educational and inspirational too. Why can’t we have public art – and public buildings – that make us feel proud of where we live?

The River Ness is an absolute jewel in the capital of the Highlands. With The Gathering Place receiving – at very best – a lukewarm response, and the missed opportunity of the boxy new Marriott that’s just been unclad downstream, I am relieved that at least we have this on the banks of the Ness. Congratulations to all who have been involved. I’m looking forward to it opening, and to what you come up with next.

Nicky Marr - coach/writer/broadcaster...Picture: Callum Mackay..
Nicky Marr - coach/writer/broadcaster...Picture: Callum Mackay..

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