Planning in Ireland has always been inadequate – with the result that our cities and towns have a Gerry-built quality. But with iconic buildings and better civic spaces on the way, that may be about to change…
All of a sudden we’re hearing of plans for tall buildings. For so long, Liberty Hall (59metres) has been Dublin’s one and only. Then came Monte Vetro, Google’s headquarters in Grand Canal Dock at 67m. Now we’ll have the Exo in the Point Square and Johnny Ronan’s Tara House opposite Liberty Hall at 73m and 88m respectively. The last time these heights were aimed for, we were smack dab in the middle of the Tiger years.
Of course, such heady heights are old hat in Belfast where the Obel Tower and Windsor House top 80m. And in Cork, Tower Development Properties will soon seek planning permission for a building rising to around 120m. On Hog Heights, we have no major problem with all this if the buildings are as good as planned. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The Central Bank building on Dublin’s Dame Street was intended to have a plaza, a pedestrianised urban space of a kind we just don’t have. But it soon became something else – an exclusive space with fortress steps and railings.
That was not what architect Sam Stephenson had in mind – but it was absolutely consistent with the way urban space has been planned and managed in Ireland, particularly in Dublin, where the emphasis has long been on keeping people moving and on controlling, and where possible eradicating, spaces where crowds might congregate.
We visit rural places, or the sea, to have our spirits raised and our sight, as it were, comforted and restored. The same should be true of our built environment, but it isn’t.
In his polemic From Bauhaus to Our House Tom Wolfe makes the point that warfare in Europe had created the conditions for new architectural forms. The 20th century brought destruction to vast new levels. Whole districts were largely wiped. Architects could “start from zero”. The architecture deployed to rebuild those cities was, and is, of its time in terms of ambition, arrogance, technology and materials.
But that wasn’t our story in Ireland. We weren’t in the war – and neither Black and Tan arson nor later terrorist bombs were sufficient to clear the kind of space required for the grand modernist architectural expressions. No, we just had poverty and Serpula lacrymans, better known as dry rot.
Dry rot is a nasty bastard. It can go right through a building, weakening its very core. Ireland suits it perfectly, being damp and neither too hot nor too cold. If you have ever wandered through the beautiful oak-beamed medieval towns and villages of Holland and northern Germany and France and wondered why we don’t have them in Ireland the answer is simple: dry rot.
The last medieval oak-beamed house in Dublin fell in 1801. Surviving Irish relics of medieval times are largely made of stone. And the vulnerabilities of even relatively modern constructions like Georgian and early Victorian houses were greatly exacerbated by poverty in overcrowded tenement areas, often generating disasters comparable to the effects of artillery or bombardment.
Good or bad, houses are in demand again. Bulky property supplements are back, much to the relief of newspaper publishers. Cynics call it bubble wrapping. They sell notions: that people need to scramble onto the property ladder, that there is such a thing as a “dream home”.
But the obsession with low rise single housing means that once separate and distinctive urban villages have been overwhelmed by suburban anonymity. Very poor quality accommodation has been built.
Historic planning irregularities and political and administrative neglect, mistakes and omissions have seen our towns and cities sprawl. Their growth has been haphazard and often unsupported by critical infrastructural development, in transport in particular. Where is the Metro?
Given our wretched social history, one can understand the preoccupation with houses. But we should have gone up as much as out. Where are our boulevards, grand urban apartment blocks, palazzos? Instead, we’ve got large swathes of build-by-numbers apartment and office blocks rendering many areas indistinguishable from similar areas elsewhere.
That history also helps explain the tenacity with which communities demand that new municipal developments be reserved for them or their relatives, as with the Irish Glass Bottle Company site beside Dublin’s Pigeon House. This exclusivity is not a good thing.
And now, in response to blandness and brutalism we have “iconic” or “signature” buildings. They help you know where you are. But they also show, as Tom Dyckhoff argues in The Age of Spectacle that developers, not municipalities, are now the main shapers of cities.
We’ll have to wait and see how the “iconic” structures work out. But there’s one ray of light. Draft plans for the renovation of the Central Bank building on Dublin’s Dame Street indicate that the railings are to be removed and the plaza lowered to street level. There will be offices and shops and lights. You’ll be welcome to gather.
Imagine that! Citizens welcome in a civic space!! Bring it on!!
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