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Dublin's remaining Victorian pubs
Rodhlann Mossop and Alex Pollock
Rodhlann Mossop and Alex Pollock
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell
‘It is indeed by uneasy steps that the pub has wandered through the paths of history, buffeted by storms of public controversy, assailed by the slings and arrows of temperance reformers, sometimes harassed, and sometimes supported by instruments of legislation. That it has survived in so ubiquitous a way is remarkable’ .
The success of the architecture of Victorian Dublin is typically understood through the grandeur of the Curvilinear Range at the Botanic Gardens, the Reading Room at the National Library or perhaps the Museum Building at Trinity College, each an example of intricate architecture, engineering, and craftsmanship. Deane, Woodward, and Turner are rarely forgotten in the discourse around the built fabric of Victorian Dublin, nor are Harry Clarke, the O’Shea Brothers or Carlo Cambi. However, this article focuses not on such grand artefacts and their architects. Instead, it is inspired by Dublin’s sixteen remaining Victorian pubs .
This visual essay takes The Swan Bar as a case study and aims to highlight the wealth of materiality to be found in these pubs, enjoyed by generations passing through. This map highlights the sixteen remaining Victorian pubs across the county of Dublin.
The Sixteen Victorian Pubs of Dublin
The Palace Bar
The Stag's Head
The International Bar
Doheny and Nesbitt
The Long Hall
The Swan Bar (Lynch’s of Aungier Street)
The Swan Bar on Aungier Street in the heart of the city centre takes its patrons on a journey of materiality: mahogany, mirror, mosaic, clocks, brass, stained and tinted glass. Owned and run by the Lynch family for generations, the original materials which have remained in place from its 1890s refurbishment bear visible representations of the time that has passed. The tile and timber floor, patched in places, slightly sunken in others, is both a testament to its original craftsmanship and a palimpsest displaying evidence of former configurations. Quality materials not only last the test of time but often improve; a mahogany handrail is worn smooth by the million hands that have run across it. These architectural details were crafted with care and yet made to endure the thumping, scratching, cleaning, and polishing we have done for over one hundred years.
Under the front window where there now sits a cosy snug, a tea shop once faced the street. A common feature of the Victorian pub was to lend its shopfront to the selling of groceries - further suggested by the call bells in brass on mahogany and pitch pine. Division and threshold are strong features of the Victorian pub, and The Swan is no different. Within the central aisle, a forgotten porch is inscribed on the tiling revealing a large depiction of a swan which one would otherwise encounter upon entry. This patina allows for immersive engagement with the pub's history, going beyond appreciation for the craftsmanship itself.
It's an easy thing to romanticise Victorian craftsmanship. In reality, the maintenance of these buildings poses its issues, with contemporary publicans often having to navigate tricky legislation surrounding protected structures. The reasons for repairs vary, from obsolescence and natural decay, to wear and tear and intoxicated disregard. The manner and material of replacement speaks to the priorities, interest, and means of the owner. In the case of The Swan, the damaged yet original tile work tells of the stabilisation works undertaken beneath the ground floor, and a scratched mirror tells of blatant vandalism. While there is no lack of interest on the part of the owner, replacing triple bevelled mirrors and yellow stained glass panes, and bringing original brass pumps back into use is additional to the everyday demands of the service industry. Irish Licensing World claimed ‘A publican must be a democrat, an autocrat, an acrobat and a doormat’, in order to manage the wear of these pubs and fulfil contemporary conservation requirements; that list could continue .
There is a balance to be struck between reconfiguration to fit current purposes and the erasure of former use. A surface on which to light a match can be rendered obsolete by the lighter, a cashier's kiosk by modern-day payment methods, a whiskey cask by bottled spirits. While these physical Victorian details may be anachronistic, they add to the experience, as do the clock hanging centrally above the bar and, importantly, the Scottish granite countertop to keep a resting pint cool. Whether functionally obsolete or not, their presence ought to be valued by the publican and appreciated by the patron. The decision to retain such details is not driven by nostalgia but by appreciation of craft, in seeing the hand of the craftsperson in the everyday.
As artefacts in themselves, in their ornamentation and craftsmanship, these pubs should be valued. The decay and destruction of the city in the lifetime of these pubs is starkly contrasted by their permanence both materially and in operation. Their provision of an ‘escape from bleak tenement life’ and ‘a surrogate domesticity’ suggest that they were as rich and lavish an oasis then as they feel today. These materials, explored in the photographs below, offer a window through which we can gain another perspective on Victorian Dublin, scarred, rounded and smoothed by time. It is through our patronage that these pubs will continue.
December 5, 2023
Known mostly for its grand civic buildings, the architecture of Victorian Dublin is rarely appreciated for one if it's most enduring spaces - the pub. Inspired by Dublin’s sixteen remaining Victorian pubs, this article offering a unique lens through which to view the city's architectural and cultural history.
In Bride Street in Dublin’s Liberties, one of the most curious incidents of Irish planning history has recently repeated itself. The striking 1970s brutalist facade of the former headquarters of architectural practice Stephenson Gibney + Associates has been retained, while the remnants of a much-storied eighteenth and nineteenth century structure which formed a part of the same building, have been quietly demolished. In its place will be a significant new hotel, which uses the retained near-fifty-year-old facade as a contextual umbilical to the past – an arts themed relic. While the redevelopment of this site for a demonstrably more public use is certainly welcome, the brick shell will now have a merely tenuous connection to the new.
When Stephenson Gibney + Associates acquired the old Molyneux Chapel on Bride Street in 1971, their clients and collaborators must have thought they had lost the plot. Impacted by generational poverty, planning neglect, and demolition as a result of Dublin Corporation’s road-building efforts, it must have been a considerable cultural shock for the practice and its staff, moving from leafy Dublin 6 where the studio had been spread out over three separate Victorian properties, on the site of what became the practice’s Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in 1973. But like knights charging into a windmill bedecked landscape, Sam and Arthur clearly saw this approach as a way of spearheading a new colonisation of the city centre, which would inspire others into the same action, reclaiming one of the most historic parts of Dublin for makers and creators. And of course, it was reasonably cheap .
But what kind of practice was it, with the ambition and confidence to propose colonising this historic part of the city, with the buccaneering gumption, and not least the funds to do so? Sam was born at 80 Manor Street in Stoneybatter in 1933, while Arthur from Fairview, was a year older. They were almost exact contemporaries of the Anglo-Italian architect Richard Rogers and his one-time partner, Norman Foster. It’s remarkable to think that Sam and Arthur’s practice was substantially more accomplished, and certainly much larger at an earlier date, than the offices of these later titans of British hi-tech. By the early 1970s, when Norman Foster and Richard Rogers had dissolved their partnership of Team 4, the high-flying Stephenson Gibney Associates had completed the ESB buildings on Fitzwilliam Street, won in international competition, and were in the midst of design work on the Central Bank, the enormous Agriculture House on Kildare Street, the beautiful School of Theoretical Physics on Burlington Road, and projects in London and Brussels, as well as working on their custom-designed offices with space to accommodate a team of 130 staff.
At the same time as the practice were completing Molyneux House, it was also concluding one of its more controversial developments on Hume Street near St Stephen’s Green. Having originally gained consent for a series of modernist office blocks, the practice was forced by public outcry over the loss of historic Georgian fabric, via government intervention, to amend the design to incorporate a Georgian pastiche facade. Stephenson lamented this approach as an architectural response in a historic cityscape, declaring it in Hibernia Magazine “a misguided Solomon’s judgement”, opening the door for anything to happen, as long as the external image of apparent streetscape continuity was maintained. His words would prove remarkably prophetic.
Designed as a striking statement of intent, in a vigorous transatlantic style which referenced exemplars like Louis Kahn, John Carl Warnecke and Hugh Stubbins, the facade of heavily modelled brickwork extends about three metres in front of the existing frontage, which is retained, entombed in a brick skin. It is a remarkable brutalist essay in hard wire-cut textured masonry, carefully relating to the spaces formed between it and the gothic curiosity of the existing chapel. The facade itself was shockingly modern – aggressively so, even. Like an elaborate billboard, it heralded a world decidedly exotic, science-fiction like, most excitingly of all, American. A place where people in tan suits with wide lapels, even wider ties, and moustaches à la mode, were manufacturing a new Ireland through a haze of Rothmans' smoke, echoed in the bronze tint of the floor-to-ceiling frameless glazing. This stylish stretched veneer of modernity over the more prosaic historic backdrop, incorporated a stained-glass window spanning the first and second floors, preserved in situ as a relic behind the brick screen. The strength of this elevation as corporate identity clearly made signage superfluous. Only a small limestone tablet, insert into the Bride Street frontage, provided the name – Molyneux House – in vaguely Gothic lettering.
Much more nuanced than often credited, the facade treatment extended downward into a carpet of pavement finish, and smaller protective pyramidal forms, a kind of undulated brick carpet which remade the street edge robustly, terminating with a single specimen tree planted in the protective niche formed to the adjacent Victorian houses. The entrance sequence, lost in 2001 in favour of a car park, must have been a dramatic, even flamboyant space. Entering via a narrow passage between towering flanks of brickwork, with the obligatory chamfered corners and parapets so redolent of the period, the visitor entered a release space protected from the harsh environment outside. It was filled with a feature planting scheme and a waterfall, enlivened by the play of light entering from the west. Even the adjoining perimeter party walls were finished a textured brown render, colour matched to the ubiquitous brick finishes which continued unbroken from courtyard into the reception space adjacent. A remarkable introduction and one of the most extraordinarily theatrical spaces ever designed by an architect for their own use.
It couldn’t last, of course. By 1974, a collapse in the property market had already impacted on the work of the practice, eroding the kind of projects that had kept it so busy over the previous fifteen years. This pre-empted Arthur’s departure from the partnership in 1976, keen to practice in a smaller organisation, leaving – according to Sam – on the same good terms that they started together. The construction of Canon Court, across Bride Street, obscured the view of the cathedral from the upper ‘periscope’ viewing room, decontextualising the reason for the facade. In the 1980s, Sam moved much of his practice to work on London-based projects from both Dublin and a new base in London, having arranged a merger with commercial architectural practice Stone Toms. Another downturn in the early 90s in London, resulting in the sale of the building, provided the impetus for a new owner to erode the key components of the original, in search of more standard spaces. The process of denuding the qualities of the original work, had already begun.
Molyneux House represented a particular time in Irish architecture, reflecting the vigorous confidence of a brave new republic full of the optimism of the times, before the first vestiges of the energy and environmental crises of the 1970s closed the door on this period. As a bespoke environment for an architectural practice, it was absolutely unique in the country, with a facade albeit skin-deep, boldly proclaiming brutalist modernity.
In a world of city planning increasingly obsessed with the value of image as opposed to content, how do we decide what to protect? This is a particularly difficult question, given modern architecture’s supposed ambivalence to context, in contrast to the gentle formalism of classicism, which ensures that individual buildings are less important than the effect of the unified streetscape – despite being what Sir John Summerson described in the Georgian Society Bulletin as “simply one damned house after another” . In addition to the obvious imperative for retaining carbon-rich structures for new uses, the bluntness of our Protected Structure system will need to be better refined, to allow status to be conferred on particular building elements of significance, rather than on a blanket basis. In the case of Molyneux House, perhaps the most humane thing would have been to allow it to go, rather than endure a slower, undignified demise.
In contrast with the theatre of practice it once contained, it is now sadly a pantomime mask. The personages behind the facade, along with their pioneering spirit, are long gone.
November 27, 2023
In Dublin city centre, several notable erasures of twentieth-century buildings, through demolition or complete remodelling, raise questions about how we value the architecture of the recent modern past in relation to its context. Stephenson Gibney + Associates’ Molyneux House illustrates that, when architectural context is eroded, it’s often not long until the original fabric is reduced to scrap value.
The map and the story: theatre, the built environment, and the potentials of collaboration
I would like to explore the potential synergy between architecture and theatre by drawing on two examples of experimental practice which highlight their effective combination. The Parliament of the Species (POS), a performative event in Norway, and the second, Home Sweet Home, an immersive installation which has toured four continents over a period of sixteen years.
The Parliament of the Species
The Parliament of the Species (POS), a multi-species place making event, used the theatrical technique of role play and applied it directly to the realm of urban planning. Fjord City, one of the largest and most ambitious waterfront developments in Norway’s history is described by Oslo’s government as aiming to "create attractive common areas and good vibrant urban spaces that are inclusive and accessible to the urban public"  yet at the same time, through concrete dominated landscapes and landfill operations, the natural habitat of marine organisms is threatened with destruction by the construction of the scheme . The creators of the project, two artist scholars – Cecilie Sachs Olsen and Elin T. Sørensen – wished to challenge the development’s stated commitment to sustainability by experimenting with a more authentic engagement with the "non-human" stakeholders of the site. The result was a multi-species "parliament event" which included a group of fifteen to twenty participants representative of different ages and backgrounds, thus deliberately broadening the vary narrow definition of "expert" often used in urban planning contexts .
To facilitate expression of the non-human voices, the participants were split into three groups and asked to find multi-species "stakeholders" of the site. These inhabitants included: the swan family, the common periwinkle, the acorn barnacle, the grey alder, and the bedrock. Once each group’s stakeholder was identified they were asked to "get to know it better" including identifying its concerns and requirements for the site in question . A democratic council session ensued in which the human participants gathered and acted as spokespeople for the multi-species stakeholders.
The theatrical tool of role-play worked to highlight the plurality of stories that exist in any one place and urban planning context. It effectively recast the dominant story of Kongshavn from a wasted or "empty industrial site", to a site beloved and inhabited by a multitude of species who use it as a "refuge" and a "shelter" protected from humans .
POS was positioned by Sachs Olsen and Sørensen as an "experiment" into the potential for this kind of work, using theatre as a forum to listen and account for the multitude of narratives present in planning contexts . In this case, a very specific form of role-play helped to initiate and form connections and insights hitherto impossible to reach by a practice working in isolation.
Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home by artists Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe is described as a durational, live-art experience that is spectator-led. In its essence, it is a "miniature flat-packed cardboard town"  which has life breathed into it as residents, in this case participants of the project, step into and engage with the installation. At the beginning of each installation, a large white canvas is set up featuring the bare necessities of the town or area it is being held in. These will include the pre-marked boundaries of the town, key geographical features and infrastructure like unmarked roads, streets and, importantly, the plots for future residents. This decision allows audiences space to "reimagine their city, to really have fun with what they think it needs or could be" .
As the cardboard town expands with more and more dwellings, neighbourly interaction begins to take place and citizens are encouraged to communicate and to take advantage of the services available which include a postal service, a local radio station (Residents FM), the community noticeboard, and the local council. It is through these conceits, facilitating interaction, that the life of the piece "really begins, the stories really begin to grow" .
Home Sweet Home’s relationship to the built environment is recognised by those in the profession: "architects see it as a model for an exchange of ideas between citizens and designers" . Its connection to architecture is found not just in its ability to act as a conduit of ideas but also its ability to include and facilitate place-making for people who are "often excluded or oppressed from the architectural project" .
The project’s flat-packed cardboard dwellings are also uncannily reminiscent of the scale models used in architectural planning. Urbanist and critic Jane Jacobs famously felt that these scale models worked to conceal the necessary messiness of urban life and the "complex social intricacies that make the city work" . Perhaps the brilliance of Home Sweet Home is its ability to replicate these ‘social intricacies’ through immersive theatre and interaction, while still maintaining the nostalgic vision offered by the scale model.
I would contend that through Home Sweet Home’s unique aesthetic and its invitation to imagine and to create, it has the capacity to interrupt the seemingly "fixed geographies of scale" of which we find ourselves a part .
Locating an urban future that works for us all, human and non-human will require interdisciplinary work. Ideas and practices are not rival entities, but tools to be harnessed and reinforced with one another. I believe that this collective energy and imagination can be translated into better urban planning in the future through the performative and transformative elements of theatre. At the heart of this is a call to action: to play, design, disrupt and imagine, combining the world of the stage with our city stage. For social and spatial justice let us apply theatre to the city.
November 20, 2023
The connection between theatre and architecture may, at first glance, appear tenuous. Theatre operates in the fantastical, the fictitious, and the playful whereas architects tend to concern themselves with the tangible, the spatial ,and the concrete. This article suggests that their connection is more important than initially meets the eye, but what can the world and narrative building practices of theatre offer to built environment practices and, crucially, could this enable possibilities for participation and imagination?
The immediate presence of the Atlantic Ocean is felt on any exposed edge of Ireland’s 7,678km coastline  where sea winds force their way many kilometres inland.
Physical systems acting on the geology of the western seaboard – from Malin Head, Co. Donegal to Bandon Estuary, Co. Cork – have created indentations which account for approximately 75% of Ireland’s coastline. These western indentations hold 203 of our 250 saltmarshes . A saltmarsh is a low-lying distinct ecosystem in the upper coastal intertidal zone that is regularly flooded and drained by salt water carried in by tides.
Approximately half of Ireland’s salt marshes occur on the north-west quadrant of the island, from Malin Head to Galway Bay. Along this stretch, counties Mayo and Galway share the most indented coastline, with ninety-one saltmarshes.
Many of these saltmarshes are on mud or sand, but almost a third are on peat. This is highly unusual, both nationally and internationally. Examination of these peat substrates – usually two metres deep and often embedded with tree stumps – suggests these landscapes were originally freshwater-fed blanket bogs fed, but rising sea levels approximately 2000 years ago altered their composition, creating saltmarshes. These wetlands are constantly being authored by myriad forces: physical, cultural, ecological, geomorphological, technological, and political. They are dynamic landscapes, always evolving to become something else.
In a thriving saltmarsh, sediment carried in by the tide becomes trapped by grassy swards and peat soils accumulate as plants decay, allowing the saltmarsh to rise in tandem with sea levels while absorbing tides, attenuating waves, and buffering the coastal edge. This process supports a carbon sequestration rate of 218 g/m2 per year (In comparison, a forest sequesters 4 g/m2 per year) .
Recently, however, saltmarshes have become anthropogenic landscapes. Humans have adopted the role of time and two resultant accelerated changes are at work: overgrazing is causing saltmarshes to sink, and climate change is causing the tide to rise. When we thoughtlessly speed up and slow down natural processes, the effects cascade through time.
Today, sea level rise is surpassing sediment building or ‘accretion’ capacity, and saltmarshes are ‘drowning’. When this happens, grassy swards die, habitats disappear, wetlands holding 40% of the world’s ecosystems tumble, and saltmarshes become mudflats, before disappearing beneath waters of expanding bays. The weight and force of the sea then breaks the sub-surface, releasing millions of tonnes of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.
Studies show Ireland has already lost 75% of its coastal wetlands  and we can lose no more. The saltmarshes come closer to vanishing with each tidal wash. This is a time of unprecedented change and urgency. Taking the view that problems get the solution they deserve, according to the terms by which they are created as problems in the first place, humans must repair what we have damaged and intervention is required. However, we must move away from our historic tactics. To quote architect and cultural geographer Dr. Anna Ryan Moloney, ‘when we see change happening, our language and actions tend to emerge from engineering. We try to “protect” our land and use “armour” to “defend” ourselves from the sea’ .
The Anthropocene demands a freshness of seeing and new ways of working. If we continue to adopt the role of time and if speeding up and slowing down landscape processes is a design challenge of our time, we need a structure through which theory and practice directly respond to each other. Interdisciplinary research should guide design-thinking when intervening in physical and cultural landscapes, or what sociologist and academic Barbara Adam calls ‘timescapes’ .
I am developing this theoretical and pragmatic structure while studying and working with the community in Mulranny – a historically, geographically and culturally significant village located on an isthmus between Clew Bay and Blacksod Bay in County Mayo. As a pilot Decarbonising Zone , Mulranny must reduce its carbon emissions by 51% before 2030.
Analogous to many coastal towns and villages, Mulranny’s coast has become culturally and physically estranged. Its saltmarshes, sand dunes and machair are depleting, and its pumphouse, causeway, bridges and pier have fragmented through neglect. Both as independent pieces and as a collective system, the wetlands and the associated infrastructural assembly have been pushed out of sync by anthropological forces.
However, there is still time for innovation. As a first step, I conducted a site-specific M.Arch. thesis which examined how Mulranny’s historic coastal infrastructure could be used to help natural processes in the wetlands meet decarbonisation objectives for the future. This ‘one good idea’ was explored by mapping, modelling, drawing and photographing the relationship between the seascape and technical infrastructural details, which contain embedded ideas from generations within the community and thus represent ‘material culture’ .This approach sought to balance Mulranny’s cultural and physical context to help the community meet its objective of creating a thriving biosphere for future generations to build on.
The proposition saw conservation interventions, guided by local ancestral constructive-logic, intended to attune the existing coastal infrastructure to today’s environment. For example, extending the pier landwards to protect a drumlin from tidal undercutting; raising the causeway level above spring tide; and fitting cross-drains to prevent saltmarshes from being flooded. Proposals at the bridges included flap sluice gates which mediate between, and respond to, the weight and force of the sea and river on either side, while mixing freshwater and seawater to form brackish water for the saltmarshes to thrive on.
These protection measures represent a starting point for more work to be done. There will be no ‘one-size fits all’ solution to every coastal challenge presented, as all landscapes, communities and built environments require their own site-specific approach. However, lessons learned from this thesis can be carried forward.
The protection measures demonstrate that when coastal challenges arise, rather than building imposing seawalls that stop the sea from entering the wetlands, or standing back and hoping natural processes repair human damage, we need instead to consider alternative protection measures which, in performing their function, could balance the cultural and physical context to ‘provide new spatial forms and experiences that combine use with beauty in ways paralleled by the historic lighthouse, harbour, pier, and promenade’ .
November 13, 2023
One Good Idea
Saltmarshes are complex wetland ecosystems which perform a vital role in attenuating wave action, sequestering carbon, and buffering the coastal edge. Human-instigated overgrazing and climate change have accelerated the depletion of Ireland's wetlands. But by carefully studying and adapting our historic coastal infrastructure, we can work with natural processes to preserve these crucial landscapes.
The pervasive belief that owning one’s home is the only path to qualitative living has not only hindered the emergence of alternative forms of tenure, but has influenced the under-reform of the rental market for decades. Why is it that in a post-modern world, in which so many resources no longer have to be owned, but can be shared or rented, homes still have to be owned to feel truly ours? It is worthwhile taking a step, back and above, and looking at how homeownership ideology has served a precise purpose in governments’ agendas.
As seen over and over throughout history, the link between politics and housing is an untieable one. During the twentieth century, governments began to market the ownership of one’s home as a basic need of society. Interestingly, as Richard Ronalds writes in The Ideology of Homeownership, there is no evidence to suggest that owning one’s home is an indigenous need of the modern individual . Rather, it consists simply of a preference, forged by policy-making and social norms. The consolidation of such preference and the marginalisation of other forms of housing provision through specific policies can be observed predominantly in anglophone countries in the latter half of the previous century. In England, the Conservative movement recognised the full potential of homeownership as an activator of social stability. For a citizen to own one’s home meant having an active stake in the state and an invested interest in maintaining lifelong employment. The owner-occupied home becomes the only other space in which the labour class spends time outside the workplace, and family life inside the home becomes a societal ideal. Homeowners, through their choice of tenure, were believed to form an instantaneous conservative constituency . Moreover, Kemeny (1992) contends that the preference towards homeownership stemmed from a re-moralisation around privatism and individualism.
Both Protestant and Catholic beliefs favoured a tenure that facilitated privacy and family life, reinforcing the perception that the ownership of one’s home was the sole path to virtuous living. The ‘superior’ idea of privacy materialised tangibly in the structure of the middle-class home with its dividing walls, separated accesses, series of rooms, gardens, and hedges. Private property was seen as an individual right and homeownership ideology became intrinsically linked to class perception, exacerbating class differentiation. Additionally, rented tenures became stigmatised as precarious and ontologically insecure, further solidifying homeownership’s superior status. The marketed idea of owning one’s home becomes an obdurate ideal and a “self-fulfilling prophecy” .
With the commodification of housing, from being a tool for social stabilisation, the purchase of one’s home brings forth another phenomenon: the mass entrance of the population into the financial sphere. Arguably, the government's push for privatism in housing could be attributed to its desire to distance itself from housing provision responsibilities, capitalising on the public’s inclination towards homeownership. With homeownership becoming the preferred form of tenure, and with a significant part of the population becoming homeowners and entering the financial market through private mortgages, housing prices start to soar. As housing became closely tied to processes of consumption, the market became the primary agent that facilitated the freedom and progress that the middle class required. Saskia Sassen  writes that the financialisation of mortgages for modest-income households becomes a circuit for high finance for the benefit of investors, with a total disregard for the homeowners involved. The appreciation of housing becomes interlinked with the foundation of the global economy . An additional bias is made through the middle class’s perception that estate assets would be of eternally growing value and that investing in a home is not a mere need but an opportunity to store wealth. Owning one’s home is now perceived not only as preferable but also as highly desirable because of the monetary gains associated with it. The idea of a ‘home of one’s own’ was no longer simply seen as a practical necessity but also as a marker for self-identification and self-realisation . As a result of these complex, somewhat stochastic processes, the rented market lost all desirability and remained under-reformed.
Since post-war times, homeownership ideology has grown roots so deep in the public imagination that despite it now being financially impossible for a new middle-income family to purchase a house in a larger city, the paradigm remains unquestioned. In Ireland, The recent unsustainability of homeownership and the shortcomings of the market-based provision of housing are evident in the numbers contained in a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) . The report states that, in Ireland, while 80% of adults over forty years old own the home they live in, only a third of adults under forty are homeowners.
High rents, precarious contracts, and a shortage of rental housing make it virtually impossible for young adults to make consistent plans for their futures. The imperialist manner in which homeownership-centric policies have dominated the public and private housing provision system has resulted in a residualised rental market and a deeply undiversified housing landscape. The trajectory that homeownership ideology has traced in the twentieth century tells a compelling story of how policies influence preference. The problem of the persistence of a preference becomes evident when the ideology gains so much ideological weight that it becomes self-evident and perceived as ‘natural’ (Kemeny, 1995), not allowing other strategies to even be considered or imagined. Architects must detect the fallacies of the standardised ownership-based housing system and advocate for additional ownership solutions, to create a counter-speculative strategy for housing.
Architects and housing experts must not limit their focus solely on typology, because the systemic issues embedded within the housing crisis will not be improved by alternative typological formulas alone. We need a fundamental revaluation of how we own and access housing, not solely relying on a bottom-up process through the work of building cooperatives, but also through the development of national frameworks for alternative ownership models. By challenging the entrenched preference for homeownership, we can begin to imagine forms of tenure that truly meet the needs of our diverse society.
November 6, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
In the attempt to understand today’s housing challenges, it is worthwhile to explore the concept of homeownership Ideology and critically assess its role in shaping an undiversified housing landscape.
Plans for transportation or public realm enhancement, and initiatives like the government’s Town Centre First programme, are delivering real and tacit change in the Irish context, creating the conditions whereby towns and cities can really thrive. With this increasing realisation and attention given to the power that transport can yield, when it comes to thinking about and setting a brief for transport changes, I think it is important to understand what makes a place ambitious.
Firstly, the places we have previously designed, the places we have created and are living in, have defined our culture. This is because the urban settlements in which we live affect our behaviour, and behaviour over time becomes culture. If we live in a town where the only way to get to the shops with any joy, dignity or ease is to drive, then that behaviour starts to define our urban experience; driving becomes, simply, what we do. A key issue here to consider, however, is that when designers of the built environment look to improve options for moving in an urban context, some people can see it as an attack on their culture. We have seen these kind of reactions globally in recent times around Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods and 15-minute cities.
To move forward, we need to reflect more on the fact that transport is a tool for us, for people and society. It should be a servant to our quality of life rather than defining us and our urban experience. The shaping of our towns, cities, and urban areas must be governed by the maximum return on investment yieldable from the space we have available, both for individual people and broader society.
That said, investment in our public realm, in our streets specifically, is uniquely placed to target an enormously broad set of issues and deliver large returns against policy objectives. In other aspects of society we do not accept poor investment of assets, so we shouldn’t accept poor investment in our streets. Investment in streets can – and must – help us better manage surface water, reducing flooding and protecting habitats. It can target the urban heat-island effect, making better places to live. Streets need to continue to be the democratic heart of communities and neighbourhoods, combating urban loneliness and isolation. We need investment in our streets to enable active travel, because inactivity is killing over five million people every year globally, and ruining many more lives. Investment in streets is needed to tackle the affordability crisis; in the last quarter of 2022, 86% of UK adults said they were concerned about day-to-day living costs; just over half (54%) said they are very concerned. However, last year the average cost of owning a car was €3,500 a year in the UK – or upwards of €6,000 for those with car finance . With around 20% of people in the UK having no access to a car whatsoever, investment in our streets needs to target the eradication of transport poverty, making sure that everyone has access to opportunity in their lives, and that access is not predicated on owning a car.
Coupled with community, health, and mobility imperatives, we need investment in streets to yield economic benefits for our neighbourhoods and struggling high streets. When more space is given over to people; for spending time, walking, and cycling – and less to cars – the absence of customers arriving by car is more than compensated by people arriving on foot or by bike. For example, in San Francisco, the first trial ‘parklet’ increased pedestrian traffic in the area by 37% on weeknights and increased people walking at the weekend by 350%. A similar scheme in London increased takings in an adjacent shop by 20% .
The term ‘Climate Urbanism’ describes the way in which we think and act in urban areas under climate change, something we are all engaged with. ‘Climate Justice’ is the link between climate changes and social, civil, and human equity. Streets are on the front line of delivering climate justice, repairing our relationship with the environment and improving quality of life. Looking forward, we need to view our streets and transport systems as the valuable assets they are – moving away from historical views of streets as simply movement corridors – to ensure that streets are delivering a public good at the very least.
This is why programmes like the aforementioned Town Centre First are so important, giving towns and urban areas the opportunity to (re)think the way people can move about, to (re)set quality of life outcomes. Recently our practice have worked to do this at the city scale in Glasgow – developing a ten-year regeneration framework – as well as at the town scale in Roscrea, Co.Tipperary, with O’Mahony Pike Architects. Looking at the public realm and transport aspects, projects like this allow us to work with communities and afford us the space to ask, ‘What If?‘; to envision a future town or city with better a quality of life, delivering on the investment opportunities available, and developing a step by step action plan to deliver it. These strategies (re)frame the conversation so that we’re not thinking about what we might lose from making changes to our streets and spaces, rather we’re thinking about what we are losing right now in not innovating, and what we’ll be losing in the future from being left behind.
October 23, 2023
In the design of towns and cities across the globe, we are increasingly seeing a transition in the way people think about movement. There is a growing realisation of the power that movement and transport have in unlocking opportunities to improve quality of life. This article explores the potential our streets have in improving liveability, health, affordability, economy, and in tackling the climate crisis.
Too many builders gaze into the future and want to put a heliport on the roof, or perhaps build the guest room out of some edible material … but that sort of thing is too science-fictiony. We have to be practical .
If the novum  is the necessary condition of science-fiction, the validation of the novelty by scientifically methodical cognition into which the reader is inexorably led is the sufficient condition for SF. Though such cognition obviously cannot, in a work of verbal fiction, be empirically tested either in vitro or in vivo - in the laboratory or by observation in nature — it can be methodically developed both against the background of a body of already existing cognitions and as a "mental experiment” .
Envisioning future landscapes based on scientific or technological advances, and major social or environmental changes has an anchored place in the practice of both the architect and the science-fictioneer. Given the parallels in the privacy of their devotions – each occupied with a degree of prediction, invention, and resolution – mirroring neural network profiles have surely evolved amongst these design, (r)evolution and systems-orientated fields of thought.
A certain romance between the two disciplines has unfolded for over a century at their common meeting place: the cinema. Once science-fiction met the medium of motion picture, the (de)construction and translocation of the traditional set began, enabling a mass engagement with, and critique of, spatial and societal what-ifs. When the briefs of the architect and the director are overlaid, constellations of corresponding points emerge as often as polarities. For example, the director/audience and architect/client relationships (both critical driving forces of any project) have moments of convergence and divergence when compared with one another. Where the director may pitch pro-actively to entertain/meet the desires of an imagined, transient audience with a strategy to distribute the work to a population, the architect may operate reactively to the needs of a specific client, with a strategy, in many cases, to attract a population to the work. Both practices excel at, and are excitable by, agitation of the brief – the offerings of adroit out-of-the-box thinking, often prevalent with designers who maintain research and experimentation with existing techniques and emerging technologies.
The works of magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès were famously disruptive in this regard, leading him to create the transcendent set of Le Voyage Dans la Lune (or The Trip to the Moon) in 1902. His 400th short, this sci-fi pioneer followed a decade in theatre and roughly six years of experimentation with illusion, scale, perspective, material, technological resourcefulness, etc. Pioneering/popularising the use of the Schufftan Process, Metropolis – considered the first sci-fi feature and a staple architectural reference – made its bold arrival in January 1927. Interestingly, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in October of this year, indicating that, following Metropolis, all major sci-fi features adapting a silent or minimalist approach to dialogue did so by design. This was notably intentional in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey (1968), which features no dialogue in the first twenty-five and last twenty-three minutes of the film. 1958’s Vertigo piloted the use of CGI, as well as the composition of live-action film with CGI, and by the late twentieth century, screen adaptations of sci-fi scripts and texts were no longer restricted to theatrical sets and illusionary devices.
While Ridley Scott refrained from the application of digital effects in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – by some ratio of ambition and trepidation – a chain reaction of feature films followed which demonstrated the possibilities of storyboarding in the digital space. This method was well-tempered by the millennium and films such as The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009), and Inception (2010) used CGI to depict cerebral landscapes and scenes, a possibility which neuro-imaging may already be on the cusp of today. The calibration of scales of known existence was famously captured in Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977. This nine-minute journey from the cosmic to the subatomic scale remains uncategorisable, transcending its scientific, environmental, and educational functions to become a work of timeless universality. The central, yet subtle story of the sleeping picnicker is laced into an otherwise data-driven presentation, igniting the profound perspective the film is so well-associated with. Six minutes into the film, within its unique parallactic structure, the narration creates a chokehold of architectural appreciation: “a million lightyears out, as we approach the limit of our vision, we pause to start back home. This lonely scene, the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal: the richness of our own neighbourhood is the exception”.
The influential imaginings of architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, which would inevitably inspire cinematographic landscapes, were referenced in Peter Greenaway's film The Belly of an Architect (1987) and more recently modelled (using 3ds Max) for the short film, Lux in Tenebris (2019), by experimental Berlin-based practice BBB3. Brian Eno’s 1989 Imaginary Landscapes draws on New York’s urban density ‘world-building’ with sound as material. Closer to home, Cork-based poetry filmmaker Colm Scully frames fractal landscapes found in his kitchen to achieve an ambiguity of aerial scales in Philips’ Modern Atlas of the World (2017).
There is no doubt that the accessibility and wide reach of film equips the medium with an influential power – one vastly accelerated by the effective combination of information and poetics. Many modern architectural practices, obeying the profession’s role to be responsive and adaptive, often utilise film as a medium to engage. On multidisciplinary practices, architect, author and educator, James Tait argues that it "is not actually a decentring of the profession but instead the decoupling of it from its output. A separation of architecture from its reason for being – the building" . Despite being a well-established school of thought, this deviation from traditional practice still carries stigma within the profession, as noted by Holly Lewis, co-founder of London-based architecture and urban design studio We Made That: “The dexterous, multi-faceted skills that architectural training bestows can be a great asset in so many fields, and there is so much work to be done. Rather than stand in judgement of our fellow professionals, let’s celebrate the diversity that our eclectic and wide-ranging educations have successfully prepared us for” .
The architect’s potential to communicate through film remains in its youth when compared to the influence film has had on the perception of architecture, and what an architect does. The architect’s self-representation in this field is further dwarfed when television programmes are included, as well as the eclipsing consumption of content through streaming platforms, video apps, etc. Until now, these collective contents may fall under three broad production styles: the epics, the ‘glossy’, and the documentary. Though the latter injects research and reality between the dichotomy of ‘the epics’ and ‘the glossy’, it is questionable whether the architectural documentary remains a niche interest, and whether it brings enough balance to the representation of architecture on screen.
It can be argued that this representation is within the capacity of architects themselves, given both their existing skillset to communicate visually, to coordinate teams and timelines, to direct and design, etc. This is not to strictly suggest a hybrid office. BBB3 and Scullys’ shorts demonstrate that creatively high-yielding, micro-productions have never been as attainable as they are today. The use of film and video in practice may be an under-utilised medium well within reach of the architect, and its possible applications have the potential to accelerate progress in the field. In education, for example, the sporadic site visit could be contextualised by a library of local ‘construction shorts’. Audio/visual portfolios may become a tool for the process of hiring and determining optimum professional compatibilities. The ‘project pitch’ video, seductive and utopic by nature, could more often speak openly to communities and the public stakeholders, allowing for ruminations on inventive concepts and responses in urban development. After all, critical solutions may well lie with the radical architect, drawing in a territory akin to that of the sci-fi novum.
October 16, 2023
In this article, Michelle Delea discusses the representational possibilities of digital visual media within architectural practice through a deep exploration of film and the intersection of radical ways of making new forms of architecture.
Compared to the rigid lines and flat facades characterising much of Georgian and Victorian Dublin, the Ambassador Theatre’s sweeping tiers and colonnades give this squat building an organic appearance. Internally, intricate poché  spaces of niches and columns cluster in its depths, like crevices in a rock formation. The building’s natural motifs include the gaunt-faced ‘bucrania’ (a classical figure of an oxen skull) on its upper parapet; emblems of death so close to an institution of birth – the Rotunda Hospital .
The Ambassador, colloquially named after its twentieth-century cinema tenant, was completed between 1764 and 1767 . It was described in 1780 as ‘one of the finest and noblest circular rooms in the British dominions’ . Originally it served as a paid-entry entertainment complex, hosting a variety of lavish events and performances for the general public. It was, in effect, a winter-proofed extension to the adjacent ‘pleasure gardens’  of present-day Parnell Square .
In its 250-year history, the Ambassador has hosted an incredible breadth of events and experiences: Charles Dickens’ last public appearance in Ireland; the Volunteer Convention of 1783; Ireland’s first ever film screening; and musical performances by U2, Van Morrison, and Amy Winehouse. At the time of writing, the theatre is usually closed. Recent temporary events have predominantly consisted of paid attractions appealing to specific audiences. For an unsettling period in 2017, a threatening prosthetic dinosaur mounted the southern arcade, a bizarre diminution of a protected structure .
The lack of regular events in the Ambassador has not only taken its toll on the building’s appearance, but also on the surrounding public realm. The public space in front of the main entrance, which could have a civic function, is, instead, hard and unwelcoming. A spectacular mature ash tree is surrounded by a synthetic covering, and most surfaces are of cast-concrete. The space is hemmed in by fifteen defensive bollards and further obscured by street clutter at a heavily-trafficked intersection. There is little active frontage on the entire southern edge of Parnell Square, and little incentive for people to sit and linger, a situation that will surely require transformation if the area is to become a ‘dynamic cultural quarter’ .
Meanwhile, in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, a similar-scaled rotunda building is thriving. The Rotonde de la Villette, designed by Neoclassical architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, was completed about eight years after the Ambassador, in 1785. One of a series of tollgates at the edges of Paris allowing the Ferme Généraleto inspect goods entering the city, the French building’s rotunda is eighty feet in diameter; almost identical in size to that of the Ambassador. The building sits at one end of the Bassin de la Villette, surrounded by generous public space.
La Villette’s exterior is much busier and more ornamental than Dublin’s offering, with four porticoes and an upper arcade of twenty columns at first floor. A significant differentiator is that la Villette’s rotunda was originally unroofed at its centre. Ledoux’s series of tollgates were certainly not to the taste of many Parisians: Victor Hugo asked “Are we fallen into such misery that we are absolutely obliged to admire the tollgates of Paris?” . While the scorn for these monuments was undoubtedly linked to their unpopular politics, classical architects also took issue with their style and expression. Ledoux sought to create triumphal civic gateways into the city, but critics saw them as a mixture of opposing classical languages, with over-embellished features and bold geometries: an architecture unbefitting of small-scale clerical offices . Today, these buildings are admired as key experiments in Ledoux’s development of Neoclassicism.
Offering a heartening precedent for the Ambassador, the Rotonde de la Villette has been underused or forgotten for periods. Its various uses include granary, barracks, and offices; it has endured years of vacancy and damage from fire. It survived Baron Van Haussman’s destruction of swathes of Paris and the construction of the metro below . In 2011, Andrew Holmes Architectes and Lagneau Architectes restored the building, placing a glazed roof over its central courtyard. The result is a vibrant building with 24-hour uses of restaurant, bar, night-club, music and arts venue now co-existing under one roof.
There are lessons to be taken here for the Ambassador, but a nightclub beside a maternity hospital may not be one of them. Many past good ideas for the Ambassador have fallen victim to economic or practical concerns. In the first instance, more frequent usage as an exhibition space would be welcome, and a comprehensive renovation is surely needed .
With recent widespread anxiety about public safety in the north inner city, an active Ambassador could have far-reaching effects for the city’s vibrancy. At the terminus of one of the city’s major streets, in direct proximity to a Luas stop, the building’s location would be the envy of any cultural institution. In a time where we require creative solutions to protect and enhance the arts industry, a partial expansion of the adjacent Gate into some of the Ambassador’s spaces could help the theatre . With the building’s theatrical heritage, should we join Vienna, Warsaw, Munich, Helsinki and others in dedicating a museum of theatre? If not performance theatre, the Ambassador could celebrate the operating theatres of its maternal neighbour, telling the story of Rotunda founder Bartholomew Mosse’s transformative vision of healthcare in Dublin. If focused on the history of the Rotunda hospital, the Ambassador theatre could revive its original unique accomplishment, described by Maurice Craig as a “close alliance between obstetrics and entertainment” .
Flexibility to accommodate multiple retail and cultural uses, such as cafés, studios, and exhibition spaces would help with the venue’s viability. The longer-term answer is not one good idea, but multiple good ideas in one.
October 9, 2023
One Good Idea
The Ambassador Theatre stands as a testament to Dublin's architectural heritage. With its organic facade, prominent location, and its long and storied history, the building could be a unique space for exhibition and performance. Yet it stands largely vacant today. What might be possible if we restored the Ambassador Theatre as an active cultural landmark in the north inner city?
Diversity is an interesting word in relation to Ireland. We are not a very diverse country. 77% of us identified as ‘White Irish’according to the 2022 census, and this figure inflates when we account for UK/USA/Australian and other white European dual citizenships . Although our towns and cities are becoming more ethnically diverse – and this is important to address – we seem to have bypassed gender and, more specifically, class equity. This interconnected web of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage – textbook intersectionality.
Architects, as a profession, are finally addressing gender disparities due to the wonderful work of ‘Gender Equity in Architecture’, a projectby Dr Dervla MacManus at UCD. Despite the fact that for decades there have been as many women as men qualifying with degrees in architecture, only 30% of registered architects in Ireland are women. What percentage come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, we do not know, but many underrepresented groups do not understand nor value the architectural profession. This stems from a lack of personal exposure to meaningful architecture, the inaccessibility of architectural education, and the perceived instability of architecture as a viable career.
Income inequality is higher in Ireland than in any other EU country . Economic policies since the 2008 recession have worsened wealth inequalities, with a shift in income towards the top 10%. Between 2015 and 2017 the bottom 50% of people experienced a 2% fall in their share of gross income, while the top 1% saw their share increase by 27%. Architecture as a non-essential professional service is one utilised by the middle and upper classes. The bread-and-butter of Irish architectural design: domestic extensions, renovations and one-off houses are a privilege few can afford. If you are not from these classes chances are you have never enlisted an architect, nor personally know of any.
Architecture is an upper-middle-class game. To be an architect you must study for seven years minimum, five of which are full-time. There is no flexibility to study part-time or spread out your required classes, or indeed any sort of apprenticeship programme where you can earn and learn. You must have access to a decent laptop with all the necessary program licenses, and additional money for supplies such as model making and printing. Additionally, all prescribed degree programmes are located in major cities, each facing a housing crisis. A year of third-level education living outside of the family home can cost anywhere from €8,000 - €20,000. God forbid people have more than one child.
Scholarships and bursaries, while generous, are rarely mean-tested in terms of necessity and are often offered to the best students as deemed by results, but beware the false promise of meritocracy. This playing field was never even. Nepotism, access to family contacts, opportunity to live at home, ability to endure low-paying internships, and not having to work during studies all perpetuate a system that penalises marginalised people who originate far from university towns. Many talented under-represented students who do consider architectural careers ultimately detour to other professions that seem more financially stable such as engineering, surveying, project management, or data science.
The profession does little to introduce, attract, or retain diverse talent; a problem that both mirrors and worsens the profession's separation from general society. We talk about access, inclusion, and diversity – but the easiest way to gain access to a community is by already being a part of it. True representation can help alleviate the dubious data mining, coercion or implicit power differentials that sometimes take place under performative consultation programmes. No matter how well-meaning, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds often defer to others, due to deeply ingrained insecurities, power structures, systemic biases, or learned and enforced helplessness. When you have never been permitted a voice or agency, you don’t know how to advocate for yourself.
To mend gaping disparities, the architectural profession must take stock of its practices. We must address the shortcomings within our regulatory bodies and offices, and imagine alternative routes to registration. We must eradicate social and financial barriers, increase engagement, and attract a wider cross-section of society so that the profession may reflect the skills, knowledge, and experiences of a truly diverse society.
October 2, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
This article sheds light on an issue rarely discussed in relation to architectural education, training, or practice: class diversity. If you are from a lower socio-economic background and want to become an architect you will have to work hard, because the promise of social mobility hardly works.
Ireland has had a rich history of stone construction, with some of the most impressive surviving limestone structures in the world, dating as far back as 4000 BC. From the many fine examples of corbelled round towers, to the dry-stone walls of the Aran islands, stone structures in Ireland span from the monumental to the ordinary. Prior to the introduction of cement and concrete, it had been one of the most popular and valued materials to build with. One historian described how in Irish antiquity it was "regarded as the best material of all. In general, all other materials were considered far inferior to stone and lime mortar" .
The status and power stonemasons wielded in Irish society was encapsulated in an old Irish proverb: "Captaen ar an gquarter, nó saor cloiche ar an stáitse", equating to "a captain on the stern, or a stonemason on the scaffolding" . With the introduction of concrete as a cheap and readily-available alternative, structural stone has become less widespread. Today our preference for stone is typically for rainscreen cladding, external paving, or as a luxury feature in building interiors.
The energy required to process stone for construction is far less than steel and concrete as there is no heating required. Other materials require a significant amount of energy in their extraction, processing and transportation. Cement, for example, uses carbon-intensive clinker, which releases large amounts of CO2 in the kiln-heating process. It has been ascertained that making stone can be about half the carbon footprint of concrete . Furthermore, limestone, sandstone, marble and granite are all readily available in Ireland, there are approximately 209 large commercial quarries operating throughout the country . 15% of these quarries supply large pieces suitable for structural use.
The Irish government has recognised the need for low-carbon construction materials; Ireland’s Climate Action Plan 2023 aims to decrease embodied carbon in Irish construction materials by a minimum of 30% . The sheer ambition of this goal is staggering when one considers the deadline: 2030, a mere seven years away. For context, currently just 25% of our new buildings in Ireland are built from timber, while most of our construction still elicits carbon-intensive block, steel or concrete .
We need only look to projects like the restoration of Longford’s St Mel’s Cathedral, completed in 2014, to see how we can quarry in large quantities of stone in Ireland today. After devastation from a fire, the restoration this Cathedral is an homage to stone and traditional craftmanship. At least five different species were used in the rebuild, including Bath stone, Carrara marble from Rome, Jura and Dolomite limestone for flooring. The dark-grey limestone that formed the central colonnades was sourced and supplied from a quarry in Co. Carlow, demonstrating the capacity of Irish quarries to provide structural limestone in significant quantities .
Stone structures are being explored and used in surprising new ways; the Clerkenwell mixed-use building in London by Groupwork utilises a limestone exoskeleton that supports the building. The coarse limestone columns reduce in size and weight on each upper level, lightening the resultant structural load on the limestone. This solution provides cost-efficiency by shedding the need for a rainscreen cladding, the rough surface limestone performs as cladding and structure all at once. Following this success, Groupwork are now constructing a ten-storey tall residential building with a basalt structure. This would be a notable demonstration of lower-carbon material like basalt as a solution to the challenging technical requirements for medium-rise residential buildings.
We are seeing a revival in mainland Europe and the UK of the use of stone as an alternative to carbon-intensive steel and concrete. Ireland has the resources to provide structural stone, if clients and architects begin to specify it and collaborate with the supply chain to promote its usage. Projects like St Mel’s Cathedral restoration demonstrate the potential successes of such a collaboration and the opportunity for us to revive the craft of the stonemason into the future.
September 25, 2023
In the face of the climate crisis, we need to adapt the way we build, using low-carbon materials and decarbonising our material supply chains. Evidence and research have shown structural stone can produce more sustainable structures. Could the push for dercabonisation involve one of our most ancient building materials and revive a traditional craft?
From dereliction being a non-subject in Ireland, and considered normal, there has now been continuous media coverage for over two years, to the point that the story has also been featured regularly in international outlets, covering a wide range of aspects including its scale, impacts (including it significant impact on Ireland’s housing emergency), and untapped potential and solutions, of which there are many proven options waiting to be implemented with the right cultural and political will.
Starting with a single tweet on 24 June 2020, our emergent systems design approach of protest, practice, and policy not only started a national conversation, it also changed how we collectively view dereliction. A daily dose of dereliction for one entire year (focusing on a 2km radius of Cork city centre) was combined with a first of its kind, and largest study of, dereliction in Ireland – all based on publicly available information. This resulted in the self-funded This is Derelict Ireland report that debunked ten common myths of dereliction, which quickly got people looking up and questioning what they were seeing. There was a societal realisation that Ireland had been conditioned to accept this unnecessary waste and vandalism for too long. It was finally time to end this ridiculous epidemic.
What emerged next was transformational. Dotted across the country, grassroots, self-organising communities formed. Their purpose is to shine a light, challenge and show there are alternatives to this epidemic. Our first festival of dereliction, held in Cork city, sparked off a flurry of other activities including dereliction-inspired art, music, poetry, and conferences. Meanwhile, our anois agency submission to the Houses of Oireachtas offered a toolbox of practical policy solutions, based on international best practice, made national headline television news. This work inspired a series of policy changes, including a vacant homes tax (VHT), which the government had said they would never introduce, as well as stricter enforcement of the Derelict Sites Register 1990, new ‘Croí Cónaithe’ renovation grants, updates to the 'Fair Deal' scheme, as well as planning exemptions for commercial to residential conversion.
Now this is all very positive, but it does raise many unanswered questions. The harsh reality is that dereliction has cost lives and traumatised multiple generations for decades in Ireland – you could argue since the foundation of the state and well before. Yet, it should never have been let get to this point.
Take for example housing. We are currently experiencing our worst ever housing crisis. Tackling dereliction provides a unique opportunity to provide homes in high-demand locations at lower costs, lower carbon emmisions, and the use of less materials than new-build homes.
There have been estimates of over 160,000 vacant houses from the CSO  and 22,000 derelict houses by Geodirectory, spread right across the country. The highest rates of unused houses, where we should be encouraging everyone from an eight to eighty-year-old to live, are in our towns and city centres. Take for example towns like Wexford, where one in every five homes lie empty. This does not account for the large amount of vacant and derelict commercial properties, again many of which make up the historic streetscape of our towns and cities. If renovated, these would be more sustainable and less expensive than new-build homes, and crucially, they would help transform our urban centres – all the while maintaining our unique built heritage. Yet, we have largely ignored them as a meaningful part of the solution to the housing crisis.
We started this conversation in June 2020. The media took it on, communities responded, then the policy makers. Dereliction is no longer accepted as being normal in a functioning and healthy society. Now we need the built environment professionals (e.g. architects, designers, planners, estate agents, surveyors, developers, builders, etc.) to make this more sustainable approach a desirable reality. Their leadership and expertise can play a crucial role in ending this epidemic of dereliction and ensuring vacancy is kept at acceptable levels (given that vacancy is the gateway to dereliction). In doing so, they need to challenge the prevailing rhetoric that traditional buildings are energy inefficient, too expensive, too small, and that urban living is unattractive by proving that these myths are not true. Simply, the most sustainable building is the one that already exists. Bringing existing properties back to into occupation would be transformative to our urban environments.
Professionals need to innovate around material choice and construction methods, in particular in areas such as adaptability and repurposing to ensure buildings are climate-ready and prepared for ongoing and future material shortages and cost inflation. They need to create a culture change that ensure our heritage is protected for future generations – its value goes far beyond a balance sheet. This will include ending violent demolitions that not only destroy valuable buildings, but also destroy the resources within, which at a minimum (if the building can’t be saved) need to be salvaged and repurposed. As a community, we need to make urban living the most attractive and affordable option, where the public realm is prioritised so that urban spaces can act as communal living spaces, as is common across Europe.
The challenge has been set.
The opportunities are immense.
Just imagine if our villages, towns, and cities are revitalised so that everyone from an eight to eighty-year-old can rest, play, and work.
September 18, 2023
From its once accepted status to its current media spotlight, the issue of urban decay has shifted our perspective of the built environment. This article delves into a project that began with a single tweet, challenging societal norms around dereliction in Ireland while suggesting a blueprint for sustainable urban spaces and the reuse of vacant properties.
There is a phenomenon called Shifting Baseline Syndrome, first documented by marine biologist Daniel Pauly, who observed that each generation of fisheries scientists accepted the environmental status at the beginning of their careers as the baseline from which to measure change . Over time, a depleted ecology is considered the norm. Shifting Baseline Syndrome distorts our understanding of the land and by consequence, how we treat it. There is a creeping loss, as once-familiar landscapes disappear with each generation: forgotten – not missed – never existed. Also absent is cognisance of what came before the familiar; that which precedes human memory or settlement. In land development today, we place our baselines firmly in the present, the ever-shifting ‘existing’, with destructive effects on our urban ecology.
Rudimentary nature is far from what we crave, but evolutionary psychology suggests that our distant past – some 50,000 generations of pre-civilisation – still impacts our psyches. We once lived in the natural world, as wildlife, and the legacy of that connection endures within us . But our contemporary urban landscapes are worlds apart from our historic wilderness. This imbalance is exemplified in the term ‘built environment’, which feels somehow at odds with itself. It implies a decoupling of nature from urban space. ‘Built’ is to the fore, the higher objective, though of course the natural ‘environment’ – wilderness – preceded it. While this is ostensibly a semantic argument, the subconscious effect of the phrase is to define nature as an entity separate to the ‘built’. It detaches the human environment from the natural environment. However, humans are not separate from nature, in fact the future of the human population is inextricably linked to ecological resilience . Unfortunately, rather than promoting resilience, our current practices and systems are instead causing large-scale environmental damage .
The natural baseline in our cities, towns, and suburbs typically presents as parks, gardens, and managed green spaces. These landscapes tend to be carefully maintained and vastly different to any native habitat. Ecologically, they are ‘blandscapes’ – comprised of pruned, mowed, and homogenised vegetation, sustained by a standardised approach to design and maintenance . The consequence is habitat simplification and a uniform landscape which accommodates only generalist species, depleting urban biodiversity.
Encouragingly, there has been a notable shift in recent years towards alternative management strategies for our urban green spaces, to promote greater biodiversity. Bees are often the catalysts for this approach, as protagonists of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan – an ambitious and effective project which has transformed much of the urban landscape . Countless verges, roundabouts, and lawns are now cheerful displays of dandelion and clover in springtime: havens for hungry pollinators, with other species benefitting from the knock-on effect. But can we go further? Beyond shaping nature to suit our needs, further than fitting it into gaps and leftover space?
What the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan shows is that we do have the power to reimagine our systems. Nature in our urban areas is currently suppressed because we don’t accommodate or embrace it: we 'manage' it. But given space, nature can flourish, and that is a wonderful and hopeful reality. Nature’s ability to recover can be seen in the city of Chernobyl. Following a devastating nuclear disaster, in less than forty years, the exclusion zone has become outstandingly rich and diverse, and is now the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe . We can sometimes feel despair in the face of the biodiversity crisis, yet nature’s powerful capacity to re-establish can be seen all around us, peeping though cracks in walls and footpaths.
To envisage a new potential future for our cities, we need to consider a fresh canvas to work from. Picture a typical OSI map: a bland affair with a few lines for buildings or walls, maybe some hatches, perhaps a site boundary delineated in red. We currently see these buildings, walls, and roads as our baseline. We see empty sites. We don’t grasp the ecological richness that is latent in the existing condition. Now, consider that every square inch of the site map, if treated differently, is a potential nature reserve. This underlying value goes unrecognised because we are restricted by the limits of our memories, rather than inspired to imagine new possibilities.
There is a parallel reality, where instead of a blank map with a red outline, we see a wealth of information, not just about a particular site but about the landscape beyond; about the connections, the habitats, and the life contained within. What if we overlaid the map of Dublin with a rainforest? Our Irish rainforests are beautiful: damp, mossy, and teeming with life . Next, add the layer of the city – make space for ourselves – but do this by strategically peeling away at, rather than suppressing nature. Carefully carve into the precious habitat, taking the minimum we need. Our new – shifted – baseline can become future potential value, reframing the ‘existing’ by imagining our cities as nature reserves and working backwards.
It is not that we don’t live in nature reserves, it is that we don’t let them live. We can start today by choosing nature: not bland lawns, not car parks, not concrete. Look out the window and imagine a rainforest. Then, how to create it: the new baseline.
September 11, 2023
One Good Idea
There is a phenomenon called Shifting Baseline Syndrome, first documented by marine biologist Daniel Pauly, who observed that each generation of fisheries scientists accepted the environmental status at the beginning of their careers as the baseline from which to measure change. Over time, a depleted ecology is considered the norm. The same tendency may be found in our perception of the urban realm. But what if we could recalibrate our understanding and reimagine our cities?
As a platform for new and archival journalism, TYPE was established to add to the national conversation on architecture, planning, urban design and landscape architecture. As part of this, the article series Working Hard / Hardly Working endeavours to discuss and draw attention to design features in our everyday urban environments; calling on contributors to identify two examples of a design move - one which works well, and one that hardly works at all. While typically the series title was applied by holding two spaces in direct comparison, this article instead considers that much of our building stock is working hard, while not really working at all. As is explored in this essay, a space can be manifested using typically successful design principles, with a dedication to the experience of the end-user, but through the barrage of time, modernity, and reality, can still become a less than successful space to be in. Casting an eye across Irish towns and cities, this contradiction is palpable in many a built form; from the Georgian terrace to redundant mid-century office blocks and social housing flats. And what frustrates those of us with affection for the built, is that many of these buildings hold such potential. However, with an obligation to make all built form accessible, insulated and fire-proofed, the task of refurbishment can become insurmountable (i.e. too expensive). The knock-on effect on our urban realm is that this refurbishment doesn’t happen, and the building persists and struggles to work hard for its inhabitants, while ceasing and ceding to work at all. Nowhere is this more apparent than the flats of St Michan’s.
Completed in 1934, the St Michan’s scheme – known also as the Greek Street flats – is embedded within the north-inner city of Dublin. Found a block north of the Liffey, the St Michan’s social housing apartments are four-storeys tall and contain 112 flats divided across three blocks; two west of Greek Street and one east of Greek Street. The scheme is understood to be one of the first of twenty-something social housing blocks designed by H. J. Simms as Dublin Corporation Architect in the mid-twentieth century. According to minutes from a meeting held by Dublin Corporation on 14 August 1931, the approval for flats to be designed and erected on Mary’s Lane was granted. The record highlights that this type of building – four storeys tall and approximately 80m in length, with two circulation cores – was hitherto unknown and “not manufactured in the Free State”. This tiny record – just another note among thousands in the many dusty green leather volumes of the archive shelves – signifies the architectural heritage and importance of the Michan’s blocks. While the flats in the twenty-first century have become an emblem of built apathy and slow dereliction, this does not reflect the intent of the 1930s. These schemes represented an ambition to provide high-quality, liveable city homes to replace the squalor of tenement Dublin. St Michan’s flats (recorded as Mary’s Lane flats at this time) were the first of its kind in the republic – something reflected in its simplistic ornamentation and crude construction. Following widespread slum clearance, the flats represented a new way of living. St Michan’s are just one of the many original ‘Simms blocks’ that are falling into dilapidation – in dire need of considered refurbishment and attention. For the purpose of this article, the flats were analysed under the headings of space, access, and services.
Only through knowing the intersection of our buildings’ historical, geographical, architectural, cultural, urban, and sociological heritage can we assess and value our existing building stock. Looking at plans and sections alone, the obvious conclusion is that the 1930s flat blocks are no longer fit for purpose. However, assessing the building as a series of stacked homes / refuges / dynastic legacies, it is clear that they work very hard indeed. An expectation that our spaces should serve us was a standard set by the architects from the scheme's inception. Through drawing, anecdote and archive, we know that Dublin Corporation, with Simms at the helm, asserted that these stacked homes should be equal to their two-storey terraced neighbours. Skirting boards throughout were insisted upon. Every flat had its own WC with a small window. While the hearth continued to act as the focal point, each flat was equipped with a separate scullery. Measuring under 6sqm, this represented a psychological move of the place of the kitchen within the home from a secondary, ‘serving’, room to an everyday space with light and functionality. While it is clear that these flats represent an endeavour to provide homes of value (sections drawn of the Cook Street flats scheme from the same time depict detail such as fold-up counter tops and coat hooks), where the corporation failed the residents was in understanding the size of families who would reside in the flats. As opposed to the three or four-person units the flats were designed for, families were more likely to have eight or ten members. This is a problem that persists today. The flats are too small for the number of occupants they hold.
The plan above is a survey of a resident’s apartment. Joanna lives here with her two adult daughters. The plan closely represents the suspected original layout – two bedrooms and a scullery off a main living room, with the 1930s coal shoot and WC converted into a bathroom and shower. There is no space for a dining table. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, Joanna’s girls completed a Leaving Cert and third-level degree sharing just the small make-up table in their bedroom. Even the depth of the walls is paltry: next door drilled straight through when hanging a painting. Storage is a limited luxury.
At each level, the flats are accessed by a gated deck off a central stair. Delineating the brick facades, the external decks are a quintessential feature of these blocks. Typically there are four doors per deck. They are a fundamental extension of the floor plan; used to store bikes, buggies, and laundry. The decks act as private outdoor terraces for the residents who have bedecked the walkways with compact outdoor furniture, and, most importantly for the residents, they enable the community to monitor the comings and goings of the scheme. Visting the flats, no sooner have you turned the corner when you are beckoned from one height or another. Their children grow up as children of the flats, loved and looked after by many – not just direct family members. This passive surveillance allows for both the casual monitoring of the children playing below, and secures their private world within the city.
Yet, using these decks is a daily drudgery. The drawing above depicts an occasion where baby was enjoying the view, as he was precariously lifted over a clothes horse. Having a baby in a Michan’s flat involves lugging a buggy up and down the four storeys several times a day, navigating the bikes and laundry. There are no provisions for limited mobility.
From surveying Joanna’s flat, the room that frustrates its family the most is their tiny bathroom. A shower has been added to the original WC by eating space from the master bedroom. However, the head height is too short to fix the shower head to the wall, and so you must hold it aloft when showering.
There is no storage and no space – the girls stick a leg out onto the sink to shave their legs. Worst of all is the noise that travels – if someone in the flat below is having a rough time, you know about it. The single waste pipe runs vertically from the top floor to the bottom. If there is a plumbing issue or problem on one floor, there is a problem on every floor. It is the same for the drainage in the kitchens. The services to Michan’s were not designed to cope with everyday modern life. The washing machines cause water to come back up into the sink – a resident explained that she can’t leave while her washing is on as she spends the spin cycle running to and from the kitchen sink, emptying buckets of water down an external drain. There is only a countertop fridge, with just a freezer shelf. Even an air-fryer can’t succeed in Michan’s; it blew the sockets and almost went on fire.
What links this essay to all other pieces in this Working Hard / Hardly Working series is that there are but a few minor moves that will take this building from hardly working to one which is a successful home for its residents. Flats could be amalgamated or extended to create a suitably sized apartment [space]. The whole building would be dramatically improved should the pipework and electrics be re-done [services]. An elevator would make the scheme navigable, and an extension of the deck would only enhance the precious external space already enjoyed by the residents [access].
The architectural principles of the building are strong – the flats were designed to have minimal internal corridors, are all dual aspect, and with a maximum of four doors per deck access, they hug the street edge to create generous interior courtyards. These buildings work hard for their residents, and in turn, they the residents do the same for it. You cannot leave the flats without feeling the depth of pride towards the homes and communities made. The residents who live here overcome daily physical obstacles in order to maintain their flats. And through this careful care, the home-makers also act as cultural custodians. But they can only do so much; the building cannot continue to work so hard. The Michan’s scheme and others of the same age need to be refurbished: for the residents, for the city, for our environment, and for our architectural heritage.
September 4, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Embedded within the north-inner city of Dublin since 1934, the St. Michan’s social housing scheme – also known as the Greek Street flats – marked the beginning of a new architectural era on the island of Ireland. Today, this scheme and the other flats of the same age are in desperate need of refurbishment: for the residents, for the city, for our environment, and for our built heritage.
The public release of OpenAI’s artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot Chat-GPT has recently brought AI to the forefront of the public imagination. Alongside mass fascination with its capabilities and potential uses, its rollout has been accompanied by ardent discussions around the legibility, trustworthiness, accountability, and even agency of AI programmes. For specialists, these issues are far from new, and the design-inflected question of AI explainability has been a pressing concern for programmers and user-interface experts for some time .
These recent debates have seen a resurfacing of the language of ‘black boxes’ in a broad public forum. In this context, the phrase is often used critically to conceptualise an understanding gap between a system and its users. It refers to an unknowable space that emerges when a system cannot easily ‘show its working’ to either its users or designers. For many, an accusation of a platform either being or incorporating a black box relates to the impossibility of full control or oversight over it. This typically arises from a lack of comprehension of the inner workings of that system. Prompts go into a black box style algorithm, and information comes out, but the connection between the two cannot be fully understood, even by its programmers .
In other words, the computational metaphor of a black box is not associated with colour or form, but with the notion that a system’s output can not necessarily be deciphered by analysing its inputs. It operates as an unknowable function in the passage of information. The sense of it performing like a ‘box’ has little to do with storage, but rather relates to an intractable containment of hidden knowledge that creates ethically-significant problems of causality (cause and effect) and accountability. For similar, largely symbolic, reasons, the terminology of black boxes finds another well-known (mis)use in the field of aviation. Again, the persistent metaphor is associated with the containmentof something, in this case, the rarefied information about events that transpired in the final minutes of an ill-fated aircraft. In both, a black box metaphor appears at a moment of uncertainty between causes and effects.
The design of theatre auditoriums can help to conceptualise some of the consequences of living with black boxes at a human scale and in a spatial sense. In his influential book Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, cultural theorist Jonathan Crary points to the adaptations that Richard Wagner made to the design of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth as a turning point in the dramatist’s ability to dominate audience attention . This purpose-built festival hall, opened in 1876, saw Wagner make now-famous infrastructural interventions that would, he hoped, encourage his audiences to engage with the fictional worlds presented onstage in a more absorbed, even hypnotic way. Removing the sideways facing booths from the seating, visually shielding his orchestra from the audience and dimming the lights in the auditorium are perhaps the best cited examples of the type of adaptations he demanded.
Crary, however, emphasises the significance of a less well-known innovation, an optical effect that would go on to be known as Wagner’s ‘mystic abyss’, in achieving a desired totalising engrossment of his audience in the presented scene . This effect – the ‘mystic abyss’ – refers to the intentional insertion of unknowable distance between the stage space and auditorium achieved by separating the two with a series of receding, perspective-distorting proscenium arches. This intervention disrupted all continuous sight lines between stage space and the auditorium, thus perceptively and epistemologically severing the visual bonds between real space and fiction. In so doing, the mystic abyss demanded that audience members undergo a more fully-realised abandonment within the scene presented. They were encouraged to ‘pick a side’ between fiction and reality in a perceptive sense.
Contemporary black box theatres, arguably and ironically, represent a move away from these hallucinatory priorities. While on the one hand, some elements carry an inheritance from Wagner and early modern scenographers (their blank flexibility, typically low house-lighting and matt-black surfaces that visually privilege the fictional space on stage) on the other hand, their frequent ‘in the round’ layout means that their audiences tend to be more self-aware and often have the impression of sharing the event space with the performers. Again, the metaphorical name black box does not refer to their colour or shape, but rather to a more generalised aesthetic of containment of a space of fiction in a self-consistent interiority (box), supported by a humility of the playing space that bends to meet the various fictions that inhabit it (black). Unlike Wagner’s passive, hypnotised audiences, stripped of autonomy – if we are to follow Crary on this – these groups inhabit the same forum as the performers . In this case, the ‘suspension of disbelief’ tends to be requested rather than insisted upon as the border of the theatrical universe is situated close to the entrance to the auditorium rather than between proscenium arches.
In a theatrical black box – unlike an AI-powered chatbot or a flight responder – the human element is ‘on the inside’, sharing a space and collaborating somewhat in the event that is live theatre. It might be hard to convey the full essence of what happens within a temporary theatrical universe to someone who never saw the show, but each event is always a joint venture.
The question of explainability in AI is not a settled issue in computer science, with some developers believing that too much potential is lost in the process of making an algorithm fully explainable to humans. In the context of these decisions being made away from the public forum, it is important for the rest of us to consider what costs must be paid in terms of accountability and autonomy in exchange for the enchantment and wonder earned across a mystic abyss.
May 22, 2023
‘Black Boxes’ serve a unique role in the contemporary imagination. From theatre design to aviation and AI platforms, the appearance of the language of black boxes tends to signify that a knowledge or understanding gap has either emerged or been engineered. This article uses both physical and digital examples to explore what the various faces of this fluid metaphor can teach designers about expectations of control and accountability in emerging digital contexts.
Recent changes at all stakeholder levels in commercial construction have driven a charge in refurbishing and extending existing building stock rather than building new . Within the development industry, we must see the opportunities in retaining, upgrading, and extending to help create the offices of the future. The office has evolved over the past number of decades – client expectations for ‘floor-to-ceiling height’ has increased to allow brighter interiors and more openness on a typical office floor plate (e.g. the British Council for Offices (BCO) recommends a 2.8m minimum) ; servicing requirements have grown both in floor and ceiling voids (150mm and 550mm respectively); while design for fire safety, universal accessibility, and staff welfare facilities have prompted changes to the layout of a typical office core. Lift sizes have expanded, cycling facilities are paramount, while fire escape and combustibility are key concerns.
The expectations of office facades have also increased. Modern workplace facades must work harder to serve the dual purpose of communicating identity and integrating architecturally, while reducing the building’s carbon and financial cost going forward. Modularity, and off-site Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) have become a crucial part of early design consideration. An inability to meet sustainability targets has resulted in the demolition of some office buildings, and warranted justification for building new and better, albeit at an expensive up-front carbon cost. Through design thinking, architects must share our commercial design knowledge to help clients evaluate real estate opportunities where refurbishment can optimise strategic outcomes.
Take for example a recently completed project in Dublin by my own practice RKD: Baggot Plaza for client Kennedy Wilson. Originally an 8500m² 1970s office across three buildings in a prime Dublin 4 location, intensive study determined that the existing building structure was capable of being stripped back and extended on several sides, then fitted out to the level expected of the fit-out tenant market. Re-using and extending the primary structure gave the development a one-year head start on competing new build developments. The design solution doubled the square meterage to 17,000m² while retaining the existing building shell. A new facade was added, and double-height spaces were introduced to increase daylight internally. The project was completed in eighteen months, a significant programme reduction on a new build, while improving the BER from F to B1, and achieving LEED Gold in the process.
With this in mind, the recently implemented Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028  now requests the justification for demolition of buildings as part of the planning process. This justification refers to both the retention of our built heritage, and the carbon implications of demolishing and rebuilding. This move toward retention mirrors what commercial clients are seeking – a building that is truly sustainable given the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) demands of tenants in the current office market.
Architects should work with clients to establish realistic and achievable sustainability targets at an early design stage and explore the benefits of retaining as much of the carbon-intensive structure in an existing building as possible. This might mean maintaining the structural grid and extending both laterally and vertically, looking at a new facade, or adding a new core that meets many of the modern building regulation requirements. Most often, many of these decisions help improve the performance of a building and keep the dreaded ‘stranded asset’ at bay. The benefits of retention can also yield more than sustainability targets. Good architectural practice should include a commercial design methodology which explores the potential for incorporating existing buildings as part of new development. This has both cultural and heritage benefits, more readily integrating new developments into existing urban contexts.
There is more to the Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028 which impacts on our decision to build afresh. New office buildings over 10,000m² now must provide 5% of office net internal area as ‘Community Use’. This requirement is new to the Dublin office market and has added cost uncertainty to an already expensive construction process. Car parking allowance has also been reduced to zero in certain areas such as Zone 1, an inner-city zone served by more public transport. As this can still be seen as a risk in attracting certain tenants, an alternative approach might be to retain the building and a proportion of the existing car parking while omitting the 5% requirement for additional community space, thus incentivising adaptive reuse.
In summary, we must see the inherent potential of refurbishment, conversion, and extension in creating commercial developments that minimise embodied carbon and maximise the character of existing buildings. While admittedly not all buildings are appropriate for refurbishment to current standards and expectations, good commercial design practice and policy incentives should be focused on providing the knowledge and tools to help prioritise reuse in realising their strategic ambitions.
May 15, 2023
How we work is changing, where we work is changing, and with that, the places we work must change too. The most sustainable place to work is often the building that is already built but there can be obstacles and challenges in achieving this, as explored in this article.
Co-habitations and co-productions: translating housing models
One Good Idea
At a time when housing has become such a pressing social, economic, and political issue, it is important to ask the questions: how do we actually want to live together? And how do the places we live in get produced? Examining international examples of innovative, self-determined housing reveals the fundamental connection between modes of production and habitation.
How can our domestic environments reflect emergent patterns of daily life to create resilient social spatial configurations? Can multi-residential environments offer more than an atomised accumulation of individual units and traverse the polarity of the house vs the apartment; a polarity evident in housing typologies in Ireland and ingrained in the national psyche? Challenging the established model requires alternatives to reductive developer-led/market-driven housing provision which distorts our relationship to the places we inhabit by turning them into high-risk commodities.
The Translating Housing research project briefly described in this article sought to explore these questions by analysing a series of Berlin-based case studies of diverse and innovative approaches to housing typologies, financing, and development models, in particular various forms of co-housing.
These Baugruppen (building groups) and particular forms of Baugenossenschaften (building co-operatives) have involved groups of people coming together to secure sites or empty buildings, design their future homes collectively, and in some case participate in aspects of the building process. These forms of self-organised housing are customised to residents’ needs regarding size, layout, interior fit-out, etc. By eliminating the risk – and associated profit margins – of building investors/developers, the buildings that emerge from these processes are generally of a higher quality and more cost-effective than traditional alternatives.
Baugruppen projects effectively divide the finished building into individual apartments within a larger framework as collectively agreed by all residents. Baugenossenschaften provide affordable housing in the middle ground between ownership and rented accommodation, such that cooperative members are simultaneously both landlords and tenants, and the building is effectively independent of the free market’s speculative circle .
The negotiation inherent to such projects allows the tensions and potentials sparked by individual and shared needs and aspirations to be explored. Amenities that would not be financially feasible for individual households – shared roof terraces, collective kitchens, guest apartments, common gardens, shared workspaces, etc. – are made possible by collective investment. These resources support the social resilience and flexibility of collective housing models, and were particularly valuable during COVID-19 lockdowns .
The diversity of dwelling types typical of these medium- to high-density residential typologies is often coupled with a reciprocal flexibility, allowing rooms or spaces to be transferred, or dwelling units to being swapped as residents up-scale, down-scale, or adjust their live-work configurations. The Ritterstrasse 50 project, by architects Ifau and Jesko Fezer and Heide and von Beckerath, for client GbR Ritterstrasse 50, is a good example of how this designed flexibility works. Simplicity in the building’s volume, structural strategy, and services design allows for highly personalised internal spatial configurations, with no two apartment layouts being the same.
Ritterstrasse 50 also illustrates the significance of shared spaces and facilities. Its generous common areas include a 159m2 two-storey common area in the lobby, a roof terrace with summer kitchen, a laundry room, a shared wrap-around balcony, and a garden.
Our Translating Housing research developed a methodology to illustrate the location and relationship of such spaces to the building’s organisation. These drawings are cross-referenced to specially developed graphic representations of the density, construction and site costs, programmatic mixture, shared and private amenity provision, and the organisational and funding models of each project. This methodology foregrounds the interconnection between design intent and underlying financial and organisational models, as it is only through an understanding of these interrelationships that the case studies can inform our thinking in other contexts.
Berlin’s development authority plays an important role in facilitating these self-generating projects: by strategically using its own land assets, and by accommodating smaller networks, not just large housing providers. These strategies could be instructive for Ireland, as has been outlined by SOA (Self-Organised Architecture)  who suggest that such state facilitation could take the form of sale or allocation by lease of public land for community-led housing initiatives based on such European models .
For example, at Ritterstrasse, a ‘concept-driven’ sales process was used, meaning the site was sold not for the highest offered price, but for the best value for the city in terms of social, architectural, urban, and environmental criteria. Ritterstrasse 50 was selected because it proposed giving back part of the site as green space to the surrounding housing. Its emphasis on collective spaces and participatory planning processes was seen as an example of best practice for urban housing; a practice of people making the city and in so doing taking responsibility for it.
May 8, 2023
One Good Idea
Can an approach of co-production to multi-residential environments offer more than an atomised accumulation of individual units and traverse the polarised perception of house vs apartment, as ingrained in the Irish national psyche?
Our city’s name is in itself a reference to the body of water that it was founded upon - Dubh Linn. These rivers helped to shape the cities that grew around them. For much of history, the development of these cities has been intrinsically linked to their relationship with water. Acting as a main artery, the coursing rivers acted as sources of nutrition, hydration, sanitation, paths for trade, and most intriguing for us, as public spaces.
Looking at a plan of Dublin, we can see how the city grew from the river. James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, as Viceroy of Ireland during the seventeenth century, helped to define the city's relationship with the Liffey by developing the quays, the longest of which still holds his namesake; Ormond Quay. Inspired by his travels through France and the opulent grandeur of Paris, he declared that buildings should now face the river – as they do on the Seine – whereas before they turned their backs on it. However, despite this early urban intervention, it is these quays – these public spaces – that this author believes to be hardly working.
The Liffey is the spine that holds the capital city. Along this artery, the quays have always acted as a natural route from east to west. However, making your way along the quays, whether walking, cycling, or driving, you feel as though you’re always fighting for space; for your right to the road. The car takes priority along the quays, dominating the space, and even acting as another barrier and hazard to pedestrians and cyclists. When walking on the quays, at the river's edge, you feel trapped; you’re given a narrow path and are surrounded both by the natural barrier of the water and the man-made danger of traffic, oftentimes impeded by bus stops, public bins or the – although beautiful – mature trees planted on the footpath; another thing fighting for its own space. The few cafes and eateries that are along the quays – businesses that by nature are outward facing – have little or no room to present themselves, further adding to the transitory nature of the street.
Running west-east, the Liffey can be described as an avenue made of water. Framed on either side by its river-facing buildings, it still maintains its Georgian character. A style that is elegant but also austere in its outward restraint. These many facades are built right up to the property boundary line, making an already narrow footpath seem smaller. They are often void of any relief which can make them seem to mesh together to create an impression of a singular wall, closing you in. There are, however, some points of respite to these issues; the meshed singular wall is broken up at times by certain inlets like at Liffey Street or on Wood Quay by the Civic Offices. The Liffey boardwalk, by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects and opened in 2000, was an ambitious and innovative project designed to address the chaos of the quays, but, unfortunately, it is generally avoided due to anti-social behaviour.
In direct comparison to Dublin, Timișoara is another city that was founded on a river – this time, the Timiș River in Transylvania. A smaller city, comparable in population to Belfast, its relationship to its river through its waterfronts takes a different approach. The city in its modern form developed from a star-shaped fortified settlement which sat on a raised bank of the river amid marshlands. Over time, as the city grew beyond the capabilities of its walls, it began through hydrographical projects to drain the marshlands and create a new waterway in place of the river, the Bega Canal.
When strolling along the waterside it’s easy to forget that the landscape you’re walking through is highly engineered; tree-filled parklands populate the sloping embankments either side of the canal. The water level sits lower than the city level, further creating a sense of separation from the busy city and cars that run along the roads above the embankments. Large wide steps leading down to the river invite you to sit by the water’s edge. There are restaurants and bars with terraces interspersed along the embankments. Considered civic structures with bike paths, benches, and well-designed lighting at night allow it to take on another life in the evening – there is even a nightclub built into the underside of a bridge. Boat tours lazily cruise up and down the water adding to the sense of relaxation. To say that this space is working hard seems almost ironic because the atmosphere is so natural and effortless, as though it’s not working at all.
I don’t mean to suggest that the solution for Dublin’s quays is the Bega waterway – the two are almost the antithesis of each other. Through varying geography and historical development, the two offer very different atmospheres. However, I think that the city’s quays have enormous potential, and there is much that can be done to improve them. Generosity in pedestrianised areas for new developments can attract more businesses, leading to more footfall and in turn help to dissuade any antisocial activity. Further planting of broadleaves would complement the existing mature trees. A good public space is one that can accommodate a variety of activities and functions – the quays in Dublin are still playing catch up.
May 1, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Every great city was founded when an early settlement first situated itself along a river or by a body of water; Paris has its romantic Seine, Vienna the mighty Danube, Rome the historic Tiber. And Dublin? The humble Liffey, of course.
Most Dubliners can recall the sight of unusually-dressed adolescents gathering in Central Bank Plaza on Dame Street. These teenagers often sported a variety of long blue bangs, band shirts, piercings, and sometimes broke out in impromptu musical performances. We know subcultures such as punks, goths, rockers and skaters. Some will be familiar with emos, spicers or scenes. But do you know of the ‘bankies’? These Irish-based adolescents were named after the national institution they gathered outside. They encompassed many subcultures within one community, one’s tastes or identity did not matter for inclusion. It was a community where simply being different was celebrated and safe. You might have been a rocker, a goth, a rap music fan or pop music fan.
Central Bank Plaza’s origins as a hangout space for the goth and punk scenes seem to have started in the 1980s . This may have been partly due its proximity to numerous alternative shops and venues in the pre-gentrified Temple Bar, which was a hub of sorts for alternative music cultures. Large open spaces have typically been a rarity in Dublin city centre, as a space it was quite adaptable, being capable of holding protests, rallies or simply offering a respite in the city with benches and a south-facing aspect. The deep cantilever of the former Central Bank also provided a degree of shelter during rainfall. The location has been favoured in the past for many high-profile protests such as ‘Occupy Dame Street’. For a five-month period in 2012, pallets, tents and makeshift structures adorned the plaza in a protest against economic injustice and inequality.
Over time, the groups occupying Central Bank Plaza claimed the space, some even formed their identity around its location. In sharp aesthetic contrast to the anti-establishment style of punks, goths, and rockers, the Central Bank building, designed in 1980 by Sam Stephenson, was brutalist in style and authoritative in character. This begs the question, is the Central Bank Plaza an accidental success story for ad-hoc usage of an urban space? It was undoubtedly never designed for with these particular end-users in mind. I endeavoured to find out why it was popular through a series of interviews with former bankies.
One regular attendee, Jack Barrett, believed its popularity was an indication of the lack of good public spaces in the city suburbs:
’I guess it started for me, and probably for a good few people, because of where we grew up. I'm from Drimnagh, just outside the city centre. It's a very working-class area and even now, there are not a whole lot of amenities or things to do for kids from that 12-16 age range – if you're not into like football or normal things – so town was the best place for us to go to on weekends to have something to do’ .
Jack added that back in the days when communication with peers was more sporadic, through online services like Bebo/MSN, it was easier to agree on a familiar and established location such as the Central Bank when organising a meet-up, with less chances for confusion or required clarification . The Central Bank had instant name recognition and was an urban landmark for wayfinding. Thoughts of security were critical for young adolescents. In a central, busy area, the location had visibility and passive surveillance. As Bebhinn Cullen, a frequent attendee, noted:
‘It was just a landmark that was close to everywhere and safe because we were out in the open and there was really nowhere else for us to go in town! Stephens Green was an option, but it had a closing time and was a bit dangerous too ... Everyone's bus stop was close. And we were never told to move on for loitering’ .
Cullen added that being able to see business workers constantly passing by, including in the Central Bank itself, was a reminder of the passive security, expecting you would likely not be harmed in such a visible location . The plaza was very well-served by public transport.
Once occupied, the space could be animated and unpredictable. Bebhinn reminisces on how you could go to meet a friend and a few hours later you may be involved in recording a music video for a rap song . Many of the attendees of the plaza would have been considered different by regular society, given their alternative choice of clothing and hairstyles. However, this ‘otherness’ extended past musical or stylistic subcultures into minority communities such as the LGBTQI+ community.
Lynn McGrane, a self-proclaimed bankie who met her husband during their teen years at Central Bank Plaza, discussed how a vast portion of the group were members of the LGBTQI+ community. In fact, it would have been common to see large groups holding rainbow flags as cloaks on the plaza on pride days. McGrane notes:
‘The thing that above all else we all had in common is that we just weren't considered normal. Because of how we've come on in the last few years, people often forget how far behind Ireland was in terms of social progression’ .
Only thirty years ago, in the 1990s, same-sex sexual activity was illegal . Those with shorter memories may be shocked that there was such a recent time when being a part of the LGBTQI+ community in Ireland was dangerous in public. That said, even today we still hear too often of malicious attacks on individuals for merely not disguising their sexuality in Dublin city .
The bankies’ home in Central Bank started to come to an end when it was announced that the plaza was being sold to private developers in 2017 . Initial speculation of the privatisation of the space caused unease within the community, for whom the place had personal and collective significance. The loss of public space to gentrification is not unusual, however in this case the development heralded the potential destruction of the bankies’ ‘natural habitat’. Developers, elected officials, and detached members of the public may have seen gentrification of this urban space as a way to remove the 'nuisance' of loitering teenagers. Drug and alcohol use was a regular hobby of some attendees . This may have provided an argument for redevelopment as a means to apparently limit anti-social behaviour. Similar unease was created during the late 1990s, with defensive railings erected outside the steps of Central Bank, preventing access due to claims of anti-social behaviour .
Where are the bankies now? Some sources claim that they have relocated to an area dubbed ‘emo green’ within Stephens Green. Ultimately, Central Bank Plaza unwittingly provided a space in our community for alternative outsiders and LGBTQI+ people for over three decades. Urban planners and designers can learn from this; safe spaces for vulnerable adolescents in our cities should be celebrated and preserved. Nothing could be considered more punk and anti-establishment than the bankies of Central Bank Plaza bravely celebrating their differences loud and proud, in the public view of those that would call them unsightly. As Lynn McGrane astutely described it:
‘As f**ked up as we all were (are?), in one way or another, being around others who were willing to talk about it when everyone else wanted you to just be quiet and conform was just amazing’ .
April 24, 2023
Whether it's through re-design, security concerns or commercialisation, development often limits the unplanned possibilities of our urban spaces. This article celebrates a particular group, mostly adolescents, who regularly frequented the former Central Bank Plaza on Dame Street. Who were these so-called ‘bankies’ and what made this space suitable for them?
The rocky pathway to halving our transport emissions by 2030
The 2023 Climate Action Plan  sets out massively ambitious targets for reducing transport emissions by over 50% before the end of the decade. The plan cites a modelling approach that demonstrates these emission reductions are possible. This modelling exercise was given a target emissions reduction and the outputs of the model demonstrate which modes of transport we need to use more of, and less of, to reach this target. However, these models can in some instances fail to consider the most important part about transport planning — the citizen and the length of time it takes for behavioural change to happen.
If one wonders why are we in this situation in the first place, and why is it that we have to cut our emissions in transport so dramatically in such a short period of time. The answer to this question is because we simply have to — the climate emergency is such that waiting around for other solutions to come along or ‘magic technologies’ that will do the heavy lifting for us is no longer a viable solution. The reason we have to do so much now is because we have done so little for so long in transport investment. In 2019, it was shown that 74% of all of the trips we take in our country are done so by private car , and outside of Dublin the usage of public transport is sparse at best . The decades of investment in major road schemes have also locked our citizens into a car centric culture, making the car the most attractive option to many and resulting in any change to this status quo being very difficult to achieve. Ireland is also a relatively sparsely populated country, compared to our European neighbours , and this makes the provision of public transport and active modes much more challenging.
In 2022, the OECD published a comprehensive analysis of the transportation sector in Ireland with a detailed review of the current strategies being pursued to reduce emissions . The messages from the report were very clear — to have the type of systemic change that's required in our country involves a substantial reorganisation of the public realm in Ireland. The report also indicated that our current strategies of promoting the use and uptake of electric cars was regressive, and could potentially result in the car population in our country increasing. Research that was published by myself and my colleagues in 2022 demonstrated that the majority of electric cars in Ireland tend to be in the most affluent parts of our country. These are the areas where people drive the least .
Minister Eamon Ryan has said on several occasions that the transportation emissions targets will be the most difficult to achieve. He is correct, and this is mainly because how and why we travel are primarily linked to where we work and to where we live. For the majority of us, these locations rarely change. Equally, the time to plan, evaluate, and deliver large-scale, and even small-scale, public transport and active travel takes far too long in this country. Changes to the built environment for more sustainable transport modes tend to be a lightning rod for heated debate, and small changes to local areas end up on the front pages of national newspapers. The type of changes that are required to cut emissions before the end of the decade by the magnitude required could cause severe division — unless they are handled in a way that brings everyone along the journey.
While I do think that we can achieve this 50% reduction in transport emissions, I do not think it can be achieved in the timelines outlined by the Climate Action Plan 2023. This is mainly because the delivery of large-scale transportation infrastructure takes a significant amount of time, and is very expensive. Many of the large-scale public transport infrastructure projects like Metrolinkor the light rail lines planned in Dublin and Cork require a large amount of planning and capital expenditure in a short period of time. Delivering the amount of infrastructure required in Dublin alone, in such a short space of time, would seem to me to be similar to a city planning to host a summer Olympic Games. Cities across the world that have achieved the sustainable transport goals that we plan for in Dublin, and our other cities, have been undertaking this change over decades. It takes a lot of political bravery to embark on these changes. It can take decades to plan and deliver large-scale public transport infrastructure, but equally, it can take that period of time for behavioural change to happen. We are often told about the cycling cultures in the Netherlands and in Denmark, but these cultures did not happen overnight and took decades to deliver.
To loop back to my initial opening statement, I believe that just because the models say something is possible, does not necessarily mean that it is feasible, or even achievable. Decades of car-centric planning and dispersed settlement patterns are at odds with the ambitions outlined for change in our mobility system. The 2022 OECD report  on transport in Ireland stressed that local level and community engagement will be key to achieving our goals. Achieving our climate goals will need both dialogue and consensus at a local level, matched with a national ambition of scale and complexity equivalent to the construction of Ardnacrusha in the 1920s to be successful.
April 17, 2023
The 2023 Climate Action Plan sets out massively ambitious targets for reducing transport emissions before the end of the decade. But are these goals realistic? Decades of car-centric planning and dispersed settlement patterns mean that it will take a significant amount of time to deliver the large-scale infrastructure and behavioural changes necessary.
Hanging out with peers in the urban public realm is an important part of many teenagers’ everyday lives. But there is growing awareness that teenage girls can feel unsafe and are frequently subject to sexual harassment in public space . Evidence shows that many outdoor spaces designed for teenagers do not meet the needs of girls . Designers and researchers are seeking to address this by co-designing public space with teenage girls .
Make Space for Girls is a UK-based organisation campaigning for public spaces to be designed with teenage girls in mind. Currently, they say, spaces designed for teenagers – including skateparks, multi-use games areas (MUGAs) and even public parks – are dominated by boys . Asked why they don’t hang out in parks, girls say there is nothing there for them . Make Space for Girls has facilitated a number of co-design initiatives with teenage girls in order to better understand why they feel excluded. Through these initiatives, girls have developed interesting ideas including face-to-face seating designed for chatting, swings teenagers can hang out on, more toilets, and ‘walking loops’ or pathways which girls can wander along together and feel safe.
These kinds of initiatives are not unique to the UK. Her City is a joint UN Habitat/Global Utmaning initiative which ‘supports urban development from a girl’s perspective’. To facilitate urban planners and designers, Her City has created a toolbox  which sets out a detailed process for working with teenage girls. This toolbox includes nine stages, from recruiting participants to designing ideas and ultimately, implementing change. In Weimar, Germany, for example, implementation of the Her City programme has raised awareness of gender-sensitive planning. Girls’ proposals for Weimar include the addition of signage across the city with information on female pioneers .
There have also been moves towards co-designing public space with girls in Ireland. Sarah Flynn is the founder of A Level Playing Field, a not-for-profit interested in ‘what makes a girl-friendly city’. She has worked with teenage girls aged 12-16 to reimagine Charleville Mall in Dublin 1.
The project unfolded across a series of workshops. Initially the group explored ideas around why public space should be designed better for girls. According to Flynn, one difficulty is that the challenges girls contend with are normalised: ‘growing up it’s just your reality, you don’t think, “I feel unsafe”’, she says, ‘it’s just a norm’. During the early phase of the project the girls thought about their everyday experiences in public space, identifying, sorting, and mapping spaces into categories such as: ‘where I feel happy’, ‘where I avoid’, and ‘where I see lots of other girls’. From there, they discussed why they avoided or liked certain areas. Several themes emerged, including safety, feelings of exclusion, and the need for more playful spaces. Flynn says, ‘people don’t realise teenagers want a playful space to hang out and so they end up having no space of their own. The girls want to meet friends outdoors but say they have nowhere to go’.
Having identified specific problems, the girls developed sketch ideas for the improvement of public space. Working with Paola Fuentes de Leon, a planner based in Belfast, the group began visualising their proposals. ‘There were lots of sketches,’ says Flynn, ‘lots of written ideas and rough work. Then Paola took everything and created renders of the proposals using CAD and photoshop’.
The girls’ proposals to improve Charleville Mall include increased lighting, seating for hanging out and chatting on, and playful interventions such as trampolines embedded in the paving. Renders of the girls’ ideas suggest an inviting, vibrant, and safe-looking space.
It’s almost forty years since the seminal publication Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment argued that design processes should include women and under-represented groups . Make Space for Girls and A Level Playing Field have shown the potential for co-design with teenage girls to create more inclusive public spaces. Susannah Walker and Imogen Clark, founders of Make Space for Girls, are unequivocal about the need for change: ‘Boys have dominated the landscape for too long and it’s time we made spaces that work for girls’ .
April 10, 2023
One Good Idea
Girls report feeling less comfortable and less safe than boys in shared spaces, even those developed with teenagers in mind. Including teenage girls in the design process can lead to more inclusive public spaces.
A city is a hard thing to capture. Dublin’s city blocks are defined by layers of orders ingrained upon the city over hundreds of years through cyclical processes of construction and destruction, forming a superimposition of past and present technologies, aesthetics, communities, and uses. The innate complexity of this matrix of social/material/economic/cultural/communal lives means the city’s nature, as a thing, always escapes our grasp, morphing into something else as soon as we feel we understand it. This process of change can feel as gradual and natural as a garden changing over seasons. But the idea that cities develop through a kind of natural chaos is misleading. It ignores the forces behind the chaos, allowing certain stakeholders and ideologies (manifested through building) to take over, implementing their version of the city.
This is why it’s important to consider not only what we build, but the processes by which it gets built; the way we structure the city and the ideals behind this structure. This article reflects on urban growth in Dublin through two blocks shaped by different development processes, considering the impacts of different paces and scales of development on the neighbourhoods these blocks form.
1. Charlemont Street: block-scale redevelopment
Building inevitably leads to an imposition of order; it restructures, attempts to harmonise, adds new frameworks and rhythms. Bounded by Charlemont Street, Harcourt Road, and Richmond Street is a block that characterises Dublin’s development over the last twenty years. This block has been almost completely demolished and rebuilt within the space of a few years, replacing mixed-scale building types with a highly rational, monolithic masterplan. This type of development stems from the surge in investment post-2008 Financial Crisis, which saw large investors shift from acquiring high-end buildings to buying whole areas of city to rebuild by their own design, by extension turning neighbourhoods into commodities.
This block was first built on in the late eighteenth century, and by the mid-nineteenth century was covered with a Georgian grain, cut through with irregular laneways. This grain was gradually filled in with smaller tenement houses, with the main streets characterised by small offices and retail units. The mid-twentieth century saw the block thinned out and overlaid with a modernist housing development built by Dublin Corporation, beginning with Michael Scott’s Ffrench-Mullan House flats in 1944, and an additional four blocks in 1969, the Tom Kelly Flats.
The majority of those two centuries of development has been erased within the last ten years, beginning in 2014 with the demolition of the flats after their land was sold as part of a Public-Private Partnership scheme for their regeneration, between DCC and McGarrell Reilly Group, resulting in the construction of Charlemont Square. The land was sold by the government in order to modernise the flats, but only about 30% of the new complex’s 260 apartments are social housing, reduced from the initial agreement to provide over 50% social housing units. Thirty-seven of the flats’ original tenants remain . The majority of the rest of the scheme is made up of private accommodation (with rents beginning at over €3000/month) and large offices with tenants including Amazon, in addition to retail spaces and community sports facilities.
This development also saw the closure of the Bernard Shaw, a pub which acted as a cultural hub. Further sale of publicly-owned land occurred in 2019 when the block’s northwest corner was sold to Charledev DAC, after an initial vote which rejected the proposal to sell. Thirteen small retailers which lined the northern end of the block closed in 2019 after planning permission for the north end of the block was granted to Slievecourt DAC (who are linked to the same investment company as Charledev, Clancourt). All of these buildings were demolished in early 2023, after sitting empty for four years. As all of this development happened at once, the whole block has been essentially inaccessible and unoccupied since 2014, meaning any patterns of use which existed within it have been wiped out.
In this way, a neighbourhood which emerged over time by the hand of historic developers, city planners and local people, is replaced with a masterplan guided by development companies. Richard Sennet describes this process as "global capital imposing order” on the city . This order has a logic of its own, one that isn’t founded in the reality of the city, but in a rationale of quantification and maximisation of value. Dublin’s architecture has been determined by capital since the speculative developments of Georgian builders, before even Haussman’s redevelopment of Paris, which marked the point when urban development became deeply tied to the economic market, with land values becoming linked to the safety, cleanliness, and beauty of the neighbourhood.
Despite this long history of private development structuring urban space, there is a difference between ordering for beauty and harmony, and formulaic order for mass production. The gigantic scale of present-day developments results in neighbourhoods which tend towards homogeneity. The hyper-fast pace demanded by the market leaves little time for community involvement in design, and rigid masterplanning leaves no space for the unexpected alterations and appropriations which characterise dynamic urban spaces. Predictable and balanced forms are favoured in these mega-developments as when a city block becomes capital, it must be easily quantifiable and controlled. Charlemont Square is made up of five large buildings, which form eerily flat, pristine vistas within the block and along the main streets, the lack of any irregularities or defining features creating space which feels more liminal than public. The sole survivors are two protected structures, solitary and exposed in the rubble, now a strange and clumsy counterpoint to their glassy neighbours. These aesthetic changes are symptoms of a much deeper shift, as the block passes from many owners to few, and patterns of diverse forms and scales give way to large uniform structures. In this way, the block becomes more rigid and inflexible to change, as both the architecture and the use are highly ordered and predetermined.
This is not to critique the design of the neighbourhood, which is one of many similar developments in Dublin’s city centre (see Townsend Street, Little Green Street, Blackpitts, Newmarket Street etc.), but to reflect on how the systems within which it is developed result in a place which does not embody the communities that use it or the city that it forms part of. Charlemont Square does offer a newly porous public terrain, with passageways and connections across the block. However, it remains to be seen if these spaces can support the dynamic and diverse uses an intense and well-used public realm demands. The voids left in capital-driven development often don’t speak of potential, but of wasted space, as this is a void that you cannot occupy. It is a public realm which the public cannot really interact with. An intensely used urban space stems from the combination of many different types of activities and people, resulting in an increased breadth of possibilities for use. Saskia Sassen describes the effect of mega-developments on neighbourhoods as ‘de-urbanisation’, as this range of potentials is squashed by the vast footprint, eroding much of what makes a city ‘urban’, even though density increases exponentially. This underscores the fact that “density is not enough to have a city”; it’s not just about building things, but about how we build them.No matter how good the design or expensive the technologies used, you cannot replicate the ‘urban’ condition if there is only one hand creating it.
2. Parnell Street: incremental growth
On the east leg of Parnell Street an order fixed years ago can still be read; a grain and a facade in place since the nineteenth century. The long, narrow rectangular plots, lined on the street edge by a steady ordered terrace, provide a strict rhythm which facilitates disordered growth within. An order here is a set of spatial rules for an area of city, which allow the disorder of individuals to co-exist, and elements to develop at different rates within the assemblage. The void space at the back has been filled in over time, resulting in granular forms, an accumulated mass of accreted pieces which rest and lean on each other. The technology behind these forms is basic, the materials cheap, accessible, and easily adaptable, lending the structures a transient quality. They are built to be changed or removed, evolving at the pace and scale of the individual.
Within this framework, the layers of influence from many individuals, over many years of living and working, can be seen. Order is subverted by the agency of the inhabitants. Through this series of adaptions, a kind of backdoor vernacular emerges, an un-masterplanned territory of strange forms and unreconciled materials, junk, and paint and surveillance cameras and flowers and washing lines, within the confines of a burgage plot. There is space for undetermined form here; cumulative and permanently incomplete, a constantly beginning conversation between past and present.
As the structures are built over time, communities and patterns of use can adjust as the physical environment changes. This kind of slow, cumulative process offers not quite an alternative to prevalent development processes, but an ethos, which opens the door to imagine a different way of developing. I don’t hold this up as a perfect piece of city, but to examine this soft, stitched version of a city, the likes of which can be observed all over Dublin. It represents a highly adaptive and flexible evolution of urban fabric, embodying both the character and past of the place, while still facilitating it to change. It offers a language which can negotiate between elements from different eras and technologies, giving an idea of how existing structures could be retained and reconciled with new ones, stitching together disparate scales and aesthetics. There is vast potential for re-use of existing structures through the addition of new layers and attachments which can create new connections and activate existing buildings in unexpected ways.
There is a poignant instability to this block which somehow captures Dublin’s new currency of overhaul; its forms seem to accept that things fall apart, and can be stitched together again.
Not just architecture, but also the processes through which architecture is conceived and constructed, are a spatialisation of the political and social powers which guide the city’s formation. While redevelopment and masterplanning are not inherently negative, the way they are carried out may be; as they are always in support of and collaboration with certain forces and powers, whose values may not be aligned with the greater social and spatial good of the city. The aesthetic homogenisation visible in many contemporary large-scale developments in Dublin is a sign that the strongest agent in building the city is now the market. The city could be a place of play, a place with space for disorder which accepts the potential and necessity of the unknown and the unexpected. The city must be able to develop at large scales, but the way we develop should reflect a re-aligning of values, which seek not purely economic profit but also social profit and ecological sensitivity, through renewal, layering, and diversity of form, to build a city which we can recognise as our own.
April 3, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Changes to the built environment can sometimes appear inexplicable yet inevitable. But the idea that cities transform through a kind of natural chaos is misleading. It ignores the forces behind the chaos, allowing certain stakeholders and ideologies to take over, implementing their version of urban development. Understanding the processes of change is key to building a city which we can recognise as our own.
Planning systems tend to be better at preventing what they don’t want than enabling what they do want. The Planning and Development Bill is process-driven: it is to be hoped that its effects on the practice of architecture – on how we move between design stages – will be positive, but we shouldn’t look to it for design intent. Indeed, the component of the Bill that might most effect how we design is notable for its lack of detail. Urban Development Zones (UDZ) have the potential to change how and what we design. They define a mechanism by which the planned use of lands is specifically designated by local authorities with early public engagement to restrict what landowners can do with land within these zones, unless they accord with the designated intention. UDZs potentially move power back to public authorities to say what is developed; they could take Ireland toward much-envied Dutch or German models of development. Housing for All – the source of the UDZ concept and one of three docments that arguably most influence what we design  – limits its concerns to only one sector of the built environment: housing. For a broader demonstration of planning intent, we need to look to the National Planning Framework: Ireland 2040 (NPF) and the Climate Action Plan.
The Climate Action Plan – across its 2019, 2021 and 2023 iterations – is clear in its intent. An urgent response to the climate crisis is required. Across various sectors it describes change needed and pathways to achieving this change. Spanning from the level of the building in its development of performance standards and its promotion of low-carbon construction, to the level of the settlement level in its creation of pathfinder decarbonising zones, the Climate Action Plan’s implications for design are huge – a root and branch reassessment of the energy we use, not just to heat, cool, and light our buildings, but in the production and transport of construction materials, construction processes, maintenance, repair, and disposal of buildings and infrastructure. Notwithstanding this, spatial planning, design, and architecture are only a small part of the Climate Action Plan’s concerns.
Planning in Ireland is based on the principle of subsidiarity – decisions should be made at the level closest to their effect. To understand the effects and intentions of planning toward design, we need to start at the top of the spatial planning hierarchy with the National Planning Framework ‘Ireland 2040’ and follow its vision down to the local level. The NPF describes intentions at the national level for how and where we design: a compact growth model of higher densities mostly within existing urban footprints; the growth of Dublin to be equalled by the combined growth of other cities; the combined growth of all Irish cities to be equalled by development directed towards key towns across the country. The Ministerial Guidelines that followed the NPF described in more detail what this compact growth model should look like in terms of densities related to transport connectivity, and what this might mean for forms of development. Having filtered down through the Regional Assemblies to work out the numbers, these national intentions find expression at the local level where their effects will be experienced as described by County or City Development Plan.
The final document referenced here, Places for People: The National Policy on Architecture, makes important commitments to fostering a culture of architecture Ireland. It recognises how crucial design’s role will be in achieving the aims of the National Planning Framework and the Climate Action Plan in an equitable way across Irish society. Places for People reaffirms why architecture is important; Ireland 2040 tells us where and how it will be located.
This returns us to Sorkin’s maxim. Architecture sometimes is participatory to varying levels, but it is not required to be. Design has no inherent analogue to planning’s subsidiarity. The statutory processes of planning are the mechanism by which concerns regarding the common good are brought to bear on the potentially individualised practice of architecture. Proposals are approved or rejected based on their compliance with local development plans which, for at least twenty years, have been placing increased emphasis on describing their intended built environment – not just development standards, but urban structure, quality design, healthy place making, and sustainable neighbourhoods. The effects of architecture, in other words, as described by Places for People.
If together this demonstrates that encoded within the suite of documents the NPF oversees are a set of intentions toward architecture and design, can anything be said of its effects? No, not yet. The NPF has yet to reach its first review; the first generation of development plans that follow it have only recently been agreed. Instead, it may be more beneficial at this stage to push farther into the question of intentions. Since architectural quality largely remains absent from development management functions of the Irish planning system, how can a degree of design control be provided, responsive to the needs of the common good, as exemplified by the principle of subsidiarity?
The failures of past models of urbanism need hardly be rehearsed here. Suffice to say that should architects, urban designers, and planners ever feel the urge to act as boosters for good intentions (over their failure’s very real social effects), they ought to keep a copy of poet Caleb Femi’s collection Poor to hand. A reflection on a childhood spent on the notorious and now demolished North Peckham Estate – described by Jonathan Glancy as the Athens Charter built ‘too quickly, too cheaply, too brutally and without the necessary skills’  – Femi’s ‘A Designer Talks of Home/A Resident Talks of Home’  should make even the most ardent evangelic formalist pause.
Can we perceive within the foregoing an intention to limit architecture’s ability to experiment at scale? Probably yes, and not unreasonably: credit effects, not intentions. But experiments at scale gave us Barcelona’s Eixample, wherein a new model for urban expansion has provided near limitless variation at the level of the building plot, the urban block, and now the superblock.
What is the effect, if in our intentions toward architecture we are ‘too suspicious of formal experiment and overly sanguine about the dispensability of architecture as an artistic practice?’ . We avoid Femi’s North Peckham estate, sure, but we also miss out on Cerda’s Eixample.
March 27, 2023
This article considers the late architect and critic Michael Sorkin’s advice for writing about design and buildings – ‘credit effects, not intentions’ – in relation to a recent suite of planning policies that influence architecture in Ireland. In safe-guarding against the failure of design experiments of the past, however well intentioned, do we suppress the potential for successful innovation in the future?
According to Robert Parks, cities are "man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire". This definition may also go some way to illuminating a city's continued draw. In 2006, 50% of the world’s population lived in a city, however 68% of the population are projected to live in cities by 2050. In no small way, we all succumb to their bright lights. We hope to remake them, and in return, we hope that they will remake us.
If we are to remake, and be remade, we must ask ourselves what makes a city creative? Is it opulent bars and clubs posing as "literary salons" of the 20s, while charging a small fortune for some liquor and ice; is it through classification – labelling areas of a city as ‘creative’ for no reason other than its central location and abundance of overpriced shops and restaurants; or, is it something deeper, something harder won and, most dishearteningly, easily lost.
In Henri Lefevbre’s Right to the City, the author argues for the role of play and creativity in the face of work; positioning the place of play as belonging squarely in a city’s streets and public spaces where disorder, spectacle, and interaction abide . I would propose that we should begin to harness our streets and public spaces for the latent power that they hold, and would suggest that the way to do this is through play. By reclaiming play as a right for everyone, adults and children alike, we may begin to reclaim our cities.
My inspiration for this article began in 2019 on a trip to Solingen in Germany. On this trip, I found myself walking through its Brückenpark. As well as appreciating this park for its natural beauty, I was drawn in by one particular and unique feature – a trail of ten riddles, designed and conceived for the park in 2006 by the artist Ulrike Böhme . These riddles lie inscribed onto steel plates which are dotted and hidden around the park's expanse. They can be solved by stepping onto the metal plate and awaiting answer – told to you by a mysterious and disembodied voice. The act of stepping not only elicits a knowing nod and satisfied smile from the visitor, but also newfound knowledge of the location itself. Each panel contains not just a riddle, but also a story of connection to the area. They stand as an ode to time gone by, inviting thought, presence and, more than a little, intellectual challenge to current inhabitants.
This park, and the time I spent there with my friends and the playful challenges that it offered, have stayed with me for the four years that followed. Why this longstanding memory? The answer, I would contend, is play. Play that brings togetherness, slows, re-connects, and makes. Play that connects people to themselves, each other, and what is around them.
We can recognise numerous examples of play and its potential in a city’s fabric. It may exist in humorous incongruity, like a public living room found by a blustery pier , or it could be its wilful subversion of the mundane, whereby even the blandest objects become a game. In Marseilles, rubbish bins invite passers-by to "slam dunk" their drinks cans as they walk past . Drawing attention to local examples of engagement with the creative benefits of play, it would be impossible not to mention the Irish not-for-profit organisation, A Playful City, whose focus lies in creating ore playful, healthy, and inclusive public spaces. Their work has included musical benches, or Beat Seats, in Hanover Quay in 2019, colourful zig-zag seating areas in Spencer dock, and ‘playful streets’ in Dublin’s inner city. The resounding feature of their methods is the level of community consultation. For play space, if inserted into an area and a community without consultation on the needs and desires of that community, is not play at all – it is a form of coercion, to be creative in a singular, expected way.
Dublin City Council’s Everywhere, any day, you can play! is a document full of hope. It outlines Dublin’s intention to develop a citywide play infrastructure in order to ensure that streets, places, and things are interwoven into children and young people’s everyday lives. My challenge for the strategy is this – why is this just for children? The strategy defines play as "any behaviour, activity or process, initiated, controlled or structured by children themselves, that takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise". If the intention is to develop a citywide infrastructure of play, I believe it should have the intention of ensuring that play, and its numerous creative and sociological benefits, is accessible to everyone.
Technology has been harnessed to this end by London-based experience designersPan Studios, who effectively co-opted its mediated engagement properties for more spontaneous ends. Their interactive 2013 initiative, Hello Lamp Post, invited a city’s walkers to engage in "conversation" with a city’s everyday objects and furniture, including lamp posts, post boxes, and parking metres. By texting a number with the objects’ unique codes, a user was "awoken" prompting questions and observations for the speaker to reply to – with future activations built into each reply. Hello Lamp Post debuted in Bristol and has since been seen in Austin, Texas, and Tokyo .
The answer, however, does not lie solely in technology. It lies in a willingness to think outside the box and to embrace the city as a space of potential for all. In the words of Jen Harvie, "everything means more than one thing – a nondescript doorway, invisible for some, is for others the gate to a magical garden, a place of work, worship or otherwise". For stronger communities, more creative cities, and happier citizens – let us play.
March 20, 2023
Ireland, as a nation, is often lauded for its culture, rich history, and creativity. Our cities, as hubs of innovation and sociability, should represent the sum of these qualities. Yet where is space made for ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’ to be made visible? An infrastructure of play – accessible to all – could transform how we think, act, and support urban life.
Every Irish town has a church, one at least, well-positioned locally; a place traditionally of communion and continually of memory, now part of a Western European trend of underuse and heading towards abandonment .
A unique model of research-by-design for repurposing vacant churches has emerged in Flanders that is instructive for Ireland, given our mirrored societal shift from the dominance of Catholicism.
Dialogue is emerging around the cultural value and significance of Irish churches, as their potential for reuse, and for better understanding ourselves as a society, is explored. In their exhibition at Housing Unlocked, David Lawless and Sophie Kelliher proposed adapting thirty-three Dublin churches for housing, churches that had been put forward by the Archdiocese for rezoning and rejected by Dublin City Council . Since then, thirty-two further churches have been listed by the council for Residential Zoned Land Tax, though the Archdiocese has appealed this decision .
Making Dust, by artist and researcher Fiona Hallinan, in collaboration with Ellen Rowley – currently at VISUAL Carlow – documents the arguably needless 2021 demolition of the Church of the Annunciation, a modernist landmark in Finglas, and the impact of that loss on a community. Giving attention to what was an important ‘space for communal experience and the rituals that mark the progress of life, whether cathartic or complicated in nature’,  the work raises questions about the protection of the places and behaviours that our communities value.
Church vacancy doesn’t have to lead to the destruction of sites of collective experience, and with an eye too on the global climate emergency, demolition should be considered a last resort. Since the introduction of church policy plans in Flanders in 2011, whereby municipalities and church boards were invited to outline a long-term vision for the future use of every parish church, over one third of all parish churches, about six-hundred in total, have been listed for complete or partial repurposing .
The Projectbureau Herbestemming Kerken(Project Office for Adaptive Reuse of Churches), or PHK, was established in 2016 to provide secular guidance for furthering church policy plans, by way of feasibility studies and assisting with funding applications. The feasibility studies, requested by local authorities for specific churches and carried out by multidisciplinary design teams, have numbered over sixty a year, and are collated online .
Adapting underused or vacant churches in Ireland would be in line with government policy: since 2022, the Town Centre First approach emphasises the role of sustainable reuse and repurposing of existing building stock and assets in revitalising Irish towns. While the policy document recognises the detrimental effects of vacant and derelict properties on the ‘vitality and attractiveness’ of towns, the only mention of a church building is praise for McCullough Mulvin Architects’ adaptive reuse of St Mary’s in Kilkenny. This exemplary project transforms the thirteenth-century church into a museum and has been central to the ‘delivery of social, cultural benefit to a community’ .
Though church reuse in Ireland faces the obvious obstacle of land ownership, and issues around secular occupation of sacred space, in Flanders this is overcome partly thanks to a Napoleonic structure – still in existence – where fabric committees (five laypeople appointed by the bishop) are responsible for the secular organisation of religious practice, including the maintenance of church buildings. As potential deficits in the budget of fabric committees are paid by local municipalities or the province, the responsibility for redundant churches is shared .
Through the work of the PHK, redundancy makes way for the potential regeneration of towns and villages, and feasibility studies and open competitions allow for contributions from potential designers, no matter the size or age of their practice . In an Irish context, the opportunity to contribute high-quality research-by-design would be available to young and/or small architecture practices – whose innovation and energy are often confined to domestic projects and their reconfigurations – as well as to more established firms with extensive experience and high turnover.
While we have some fine precedent examples of adaptive reuse of churches in Ireland (Rush Library, another McCullough Mulvin project, is worth visiting), exploring the PHK’s research reveals surprising ideas, like the reimagining of the church of Don Bosco, St Niklas, by Open Kerk Studio as a sports hall, through the introduction of a raised floor that integrates the heating systems while protecting the original tiles . While some design teams have focused on developing a methodology that can be applied to any church, and others have tested extreme conditions of site-specific intervention, interesting commonalities have emerged across a multitude of design proposals, such as a desire among designers and communities to retain some space for refuge, contemplation, and reflection, as was historically found in church buildings .
One critique of the PHK is that it has yet to bring a design project to site, but it has created a body of research that illustrates the potential for underused churches in Irish towns to become significant sites of revitalisation and community.
March 13, 2023
One Good Idea
Every Irish town has a church, one at least, well-positioned locally; a place traditionally of communion and memory, now part of a wider trend of underuse, heading towards abandonment. A unique model for repurposing vacant churches has emerged in Flanders, offering a path to reuse rather than redundancy.
"Streets and their sidewalks, the main public spaces of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets."
— Jane Jacobs 
If you watch any Discover Ireland ad, you’ll probably see the image of some woolle- jumper-wearing musician singing on the street, their empty guitar case in front of them half full of change. The lively street full of people and music is the hallmark of how an Irish city is perceived. For some, when musicians and other performing artists take to the streets they can be an annoyance, but for most, they act as welcome entertainment. Streets like Grafton Street in Dublin and Shop Street in Galway have accepted the culture of busking and this art has become a real asset to the street and the city; art that can take place on any street and on any corner. To be an ideal busking location the street needs: a good amount of footfall; room for people to stand and listen; and for the musician and the crowd not to be interfering with the pedestrians going about their day. This article discusses two streets, one where the architecture of the city space works for buskers and the other against them.
The streets discussed are O'Connell Street in Limerick city and Blackfriars Street in Waterford city. For both of the locations, I will compare busking during the Christmas period, and so the streets were busy with people. The weather was cold but not wet and, when I passed by the musicians, a decent number of people stopped to listen. With relatively similar situations, this article discusses how the architecture of the street influenced the relative success of the busk.
On O’Connell Street, Limerick city, a duo were playing their hearts out to the shoppers who had gathered around for some passing entertainment. Even though this was the widest section of footpath along the street, a bottleneck of pedestrians soon developed. The performers were huddled back as close to the windows of the display behind them as to minimise their impact on this traffic jam. At this point on the street, there was a group of people waiting for the traffic lights to change in their favour, shoppers making their way into the department store, a queue of commuters waiting for the bus, and the audience gathered around the musicians. An ill-placed rubbish bin narrowed the route further. This footpath was trying to do too much even before the buskers arrived. The pair were undoubtedly talented, and I’m sure their time on the street was well worth their while, but the architecture of this street was not working in their favour.
In Waterford city, Blackfriars Street connects John Roberts Square to City Square Shopping Centre. On this narrow street outside the now empty shop front of P. Larkin’s (a butcher that stopped selling meat in 1983), a band of four musicians were playing. This four-piece took up much more space on the street than the aforementioned duo while causing less of an impact on the route of the Christmas shoppers. Being a pedestrianised street, the people passing by had plenty of space to stop and listen without feeling like they were in the way of others. People could pause and take a minute to listen to one or two songs before emptying the contents of their coin wallets and carrying on with their day. This simple generosity of space afforded to pedestrians meant the street became much more than just a route between two popular retail spots. Instead, it allowed a few hopeful young musicians to improve the atmosphere of this corner of the city. Even the closed shop behind the buskers played its part in this successful performance, its shop front framing the musicians in the same way as a stage.
I am not suggesting O’Connell Street hardly works or that Blackfriars Street is working particularly hard solely on their ability to accommodate busking, but rather our streets have many secondary uses and the different ways people use a street and feel comfortable using a street is what makes them places of value. The streets of our cities are at their best when a musician is able to use the doorway as their stage and the passing public feel at ease enough to stop and enjoy the performance.
March 6, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
A lively street full of people and music is often portrayed as a hallmark of the Irish city. Yet our urban realm doesn't always support performance. Looking at two streets – one in Waterford and another in Limerick – we see how public space can work for buskers and sometimes against them.
Many perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt accumulated since the beginning of the industrial revolution. To the contrary, more than half of the carbon produced by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades . To put this into context, since the premiere of Seinfeld there has been as much damage done to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain life, as the rest of the centuries and millennia of human existence combined. The most perverse aspect of this fact is that during this period we have – unlike previous generations – been acutely aware of the impact of fossil fuels on the planet.
The world’s people will face untold suffering due to the climate crisis unless there are major transformations to global society. Yet, despite the continued unequivocal warnings, a kind of apocalyptic paralysis descends on even the most conscientious of us – as is the case with any sustained exposure to the subject of climate change. ‘Human kind, cannot bear very much reality’, as T.S. Eliot muses in The Four Quartets.
In modern history, there has been an inextricable link between economic growth and increased carbon emissions, of which a key component has been the construction industry . The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear that the world has little over a decade to radically reduce its carbon emissions in order to avoid catastrophe . Yet construction remains skewed towards energy-intensive, new-build development.
The Irish Green Building Council’s (IGBC) Building a Zero Carbon Ireland looks at the impact of Ireland’s built environment across its whole life cycle. It shows that the construction and built environment sectors account for 37% of Ireland’s carbon emissions – equalling that of the much-maligned agricultural sector. The IGBC have indicated that without significant changes to the carbon intensity of new construction and utilisation of existing building stock, not only will targets be missed but emissions may actually grow.
Whereas inroads are being made in the reduction of operational carbon (the energy used to heat, cool, and light our buildings), there appears to be little progress in the reduction of embodied carbon in the built environment in Ireland, which international studies indicate can result in damning consequences . While government plans like Housing for All targets an upscaling in construction, the Climate Action Plan aims to halve the country’s emissions by 2030. It is impossible to square the circle without significant changes to how buildings will be designed, procured, and built. The mitigation of one crisis is likely to worsen another.
Currently the construction industry is based on a wasteful economic model which often involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material, and rebuilding anew. Adaptive retrofit can account for substantial embodied energy savings by repurposing existing buildings – compared with the embodied energy costs of demolition and new build. The reuse of existing structures can appear to present creative limitations, however, such constraints can provide the basis for more imaginative responses. Innovative solutions can find value in the buildings that have been left behind, for example inSala Beckett by Flores & Prats Architects, pictured below.
Encouraging the imaginative reuse of buildings has importance beyond sustainability, such as retaining social, historical or cultural characteristics of the built environment and providing an alternative to help to alleviate the wave of corporate homogeneity sweeping over the urban realm in Ireland, which is particularly notable in Dublin. In the UK, proposals to demolish and rebuild the M&S flagship store on Oxford Street has sparked a debate on carbon footprints and building retrofits, ultimately resulting in a public enquiry. The conversation on embodied carbon needs to come to the fore in Ireland.
For example, in the Angel Building, by Alford Hall Monaghan Morris, the concrete frame of an existing 1980’s office building is re-used, extended, and re-wrapped with a highly energy-efficient, glazed skin. The resulting Stirling-Prize-nominated building bears little resemblance to the original tired 80s office block, however, much of the embodied carbon of the primary structure is retained. In recent months, the reinforced concrete frame of the former DIT Kevin Street building was demolished and disposed of with little concern evident for its environmental impact. Could such the approach applied to the Angel Building have been implemented on the DIT Kevin Street site?
Where retention is impossible or unsustainable, the focus must immediately turn to low-carbon solutions. Paris-based office Barrault Pressacco are using sustainable materials as a primary element in the design of several low-carbon social housing projects. Ambitions to build with a lower carbon footprint have driven the practice towards construction with solid limestone as an alternative to concrete, and to building using biomaterials, including wood and hempcrete.
While there are some commendable low-carbon efforts internationally, the widespread favouring of carbon-intensive construction methods as the default is predictable; most systems mandate the use of concrete and steel. Typically, the pursuit of a low-carbon solution will require a monumental effort to appease and/or convince the client, building control, planning authority, fire officer, quantity surveyor, etc. The path of least resistance will be the tried-and-tested traditional methods of construction.
In order to promote the reuse of existing buildings and low-carbon construction, we need to address and remove the barriers that are currently in place. The Architects’ JournalRetrofirst campaign identifies three such barriers: taxation, policy, and procurement. Followig their suggestions, we could first cut the VAT rate on refurbishment to incentivise the reuse of existing buildings. Secondly, we could further promote the reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed construction material by introducing new clauses into planning guidance and building regulations. Thirdly, we could stimulate the circular economy and support a whole-life carbon approach in construction through publicly-financed projects .
The built environment sector has a vital role to play in responding to the climate emergency. Because construction accounts for such a large percentage of Ireland’s emissions, it should be a cause for optimism; it means we have the power to significantly reduce the country’s carbon footprint by changing our approach to how we design, regulate, and construct the built environment. The solutions already exist, we now need to implement them.
February 27, 2023
The severity of the climate emergency cannot be understated. Embodied carbon and the reuse of existing buildings remain under-represented in policy, procurement, and the design of the built environment sector. This presents a dilemma: how can we harness, rather than squander, embodied carbon?
Will AI enable architects to be more human at work?
Michael K. Hayes
During his 2015 TED talk “What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?”, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom claimed that machine intelligence will be the last invention that humanity will ever need to make . Artificial Intelligence (AI) has vastly revolutionised industries such as finance, healthcare, marketing, and information technology . But how has it affected the architecture and construction industry? Will it play a role in aiding architects to spend more time designing or will it eliminate the designer as middleman?
Upon the release of text-to-image software such as DALL-E in 2021 and Midjourney in 2022, the potential for AI to impact the creative industry has become a reality. This has brought both fear and curiosity to the forefront for architects. So far, text-to-image software has caused significant controversy within the field of art due to a potential loss of client base for artists. With a text prompt, any user can generate artwork within seconds, though many have debated whether the work could ever be considered “art”. Additionally, the use of an artist’s name within a text prompt to generate images in their style has caused subsequent issues of copyright infringement . On the other hand, it has been argued that the general use of text-to-image software to augment existing practices has enabled artists to speed up the process of producing concept work and enabled designers to communicate with their clients in understanding their ambitions . The creation of images in this way for architectural purposes could be beneficial for the architect during the early stages of design. However, use of text-to-image software would not be considered useful by many past these stages due to the inability to translate these AI-generated images into detailed construction drawings. As with concept sketches in a notebook, the architect must still use their knowledge to produce the final project outcome .
However, it is still possible that clients may turn to AI for reasons of cost and efficiency in the commissioning of new buildings. To use an example that might concern architects: it is already common practice in Ireland for the Department of Education to procure school buildings using a generic repeat design to quickly produce buildings . This can be partly attributed to the 2008 recession and baby boom, which prompted the need for schools both quickly and with a focus on cost. When we consider the use of AI and its ability to utilise deep learning to produce work at such a fast pace with limited cost concerns, it could potentially be an efficient way for government bodies to procure buildings without the requirement of an architect as an intermediator. Similar to how text-to-image software learns from existing art and photography to generate recomposed images, it is highly achievable for AI to generate a floor plan utilising precedent layout drawings of existing buildings. We must consider how this would impact the architect's role in the built environment if the art industry is any indication. How might we deal with copyright infringement should building designs be generated by AI using references to the work of existing architectural practices?
Contrary to the belief that AI will mitigate the role of the architect, many have argued that AI should not be the enemy, but rather the liberator, enabling the architect to be more human at work. Adel Zakout, of furniture-sourcing platform Clippings, has claimed that in the coming decade designers will benefit from AI by utilising it to perform admin tasks within the office, thus allowing more time to create . In addition to this, the deep learning of AI could be extremely beneficial to the architect in reviewing designs under the scope of building regulations or other desired parameters. This potential could limit human error within the design process. We are already seeing real-time use of AI in this way. ‘Architectures’, an AI-powered building design web tool is already working on a process whereby the software has been trained to fully adapt to specific building typologies and design rule specifications . It generates building typologies within pre-set parameters, customising a bill of quantities and financial planning and the integration of BIM. Created by Smartscapes Studio, they claim that this software intends to cooperate with the user, utilising AI to enable the user to speed up the development process of a project significantly .
We have also seen the use of AI within parametric architecture, aiding in the development of more complex forms, light analysis, and environmental efficiency. Practices such as Zaha Hadid Architects have already begun utilising AI in their projects to determine both form and optimise building performance .
The use of AI within the architecture and construction industry could be seen as a double-edged sword. With the potential for it to reduce the duration of admin tasks within daily practice, it is no wonder that some architects have begun to utilise this new technology in practice. However, whether it will be advisable for architects to rely on AI to regulate or design their project is debatable as it could lead to potential claims of negligence or a loss of knowledge within the profession. Be that as it may, the integration of advanced technologies into daily practice is inevitable. Its potential to generate complex forms, optimise lighting design, and environmental efficiency means that AI platforms could be regarded as game changers for the built environment. We should consider their potential proactively rather than fearing their use. Architects should not see them as replacements but rather aids that could enable them to be more human in the workplace.
February 20, 2023
Artificial Intelligence has revolutionised sectors such as finance, healthcare, marketing, and information technology. Yet a question remains as to how it will affect the architecture and construction industry. Will AI aid architects to spend more time designing or will it eliminate the designer as middleman?
Throughout the twentieth century, architects of the modernist persuasion tried to convince the world that simple, formalist architecture was more worthy, correct, and/or beautiful than its decorated alternative. Ornament is ‘a crime’, wrote the architect Adolf Loos in a 1913 essay , citing the prevalence of tattoos amongst convicted criminals as part of his evidence. However, I don’t believe that the general populace has been convinced either by modernist buildings or the arguments for them. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in 2010 commissioned a UK study called People and places: Public attitudes to beauty , which involved extensive public engagement. The study found that, "one of the most striking areas of consensus was in the value people placed on old versus new buildings. Across all age groups, older buildings were invariably favoured as being more beautiful".
When did architects start to simplify buildings by removing decoration from facades and interior spaces, and why did they do this if it seems so unpopular?
Architects are opportunists and realists. In early twentieth century Europe, the labour movement, the growth of workers’ unions, and the continued march of industrialisation meant that hand-crafted work became increasingly unaffordable. In Germany, for example, the 1919 Weimar Constitution  enshrined in law the right to form unions, and Article 159 promised "suitable housing for every citizen". In support of this social movement, architects became interested in making architecture that was functional, cheap, and suited to mass production, delivering quality to the everyman. This movement aligned beautifully with the sober economic reality of the late 1920s. In 1923, G.F. Hartlaub created the term Neue Sachlichkeit  or ‘New Objectivity’ to describe design concerned with structure, materiality and function. The 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung, a showcase for prototypes of modern living, was exclusively formed of an undecorated formalist architecture designed by prominent architects of the day including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud, Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret.
So, in simple terms, dignified conditions for construction workers made ornament expensive, and it was politically expedient to supply good, affordable housing to the now-enfranchised voting masses. Simple, undecorated architecture was born: everyone could access it, but it spoke of necessity and not delight. However, the deep longing for decoration, for richness of texture, for craft and ornament did not disappear. In a US survey  over 2000 people were asked to consider a set of images of buildings. Each set had two images: one historic building and a second, modern building of similar size and form. When asked which they preferred, 72% said they preferred the historic structure.
With new fabrication techniques, complex ornament is becoming economically viable once again. Faced with the restoration of a 1940s building at 574 Fifth Avenue, EDG, a New York-based architecture and engineering firm, developed digital techniques to scan existing dilapidated decorative elements, with 3D printed moulds used to form replacement elements. While this technique helps to make conservation and restoration projects affordable, it also opens creative doors to the future decorative architecture that I dream of. As early as 2012, Níall McLaughlin Architects’ facade design for Athletes’ Housing at the London Olympics used digital scans of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum to create storey-height decorated facade panels. At the time, this was specialised and expensive; now, ten years later, it begins to be affordable for the mass market. New AI technologies such as DALL·E can generate elaborate decorative images from language prompts, as seen in the images which accompany this piece.
I believe that architects should reappraise this now century-old suspicion of ornament and use emerging technologies of digital fabrication to provide people with the highly decorated buildings that they really enjoy and love.
February 13, 2023
One Good Idea
Throughout the twentieth century, modernist architects tried to convince the world that simple, formalist architecture was more beautiful than its decorated alternative. Using emerging technologies in digital fabrication, architects should reappraise this now century-old suspicion of ornament to provide people with the highly decorated buildings that they prefer.
During a gig, the architecture serves its purpose when it disappears quietly into the background, or enhances the performance by asserting its presence – contributing to the atmosphere. When the venue is noticed because it detracts from the show, the architecture doesn't work. Between the mid-size venues Whelan’s in Dublin and Limelight in Belfast, we can compare a live-performance space which works hard, and one which hardly works at all.
Both Whelan's and Limelight are of similar size and location within their cities. Whelan’s on Wexford Street places itself in the nightlife hub of Dublin's southside. Limelight is in a similarly lively location on Ormeau Avenue in Belfast. Both spaces were arranged as a music venue within the shell of an older red-brick building. Whelan’s occupies a terraced three-storey building from the eighteenth century, which has hosted various public houses on the ground floor since 1772. Whelan's opened in 1989 and the first-floor venue Upstairs @ Whelan’s was added during renovations in 2007. Limelight first opened on the ground floor of Alexander House in 1984 as a live music venue. Alexander House is a five-storey late nineteenth-century warehouse.
Upstairs @ Whelan’s has an L-shaped configuration, partitioned to create two rooms at ninety degrees. The first room opens with a bar to the right and double doors at the end to guide you to the performance space. Through the doors, this interior room extends to the right with the stage occupying the far end. The door which divides the L-shaped venue separates the bar from the stage, and remains open during performances to create free-flowing movement between the two rooms. It succeeds as a space to host live music without distraction, facilitating a direct view of the stage from any point in the room.
In contrast, Limelight is T-shaped in plan. Fitting the layout of the venue into this form complicates and compromises the viewing experience. Entry to the venue is at the base of the T-form, with the bar along the length of the relatively narrow corridor and the stage in the perpendicular space beyond. The stage occupies the right arm of the T, but, unlike Whelan’s, the stage does not address the length of the rectangular space. Instead, it faces back towards the bar and entrance to the venue. The audience are left to cram into the small corner in front of the stage, while others are relegated to the left branch of the T – craning around a row of columns to view the performance. The row of circular columns support the crux of the T, obstructing the view of the stage for a large proportion of the crowd. This also creates a problem for the performing artist; do they face the crowd directly in front of the stage, leaving the majority to have a side view of the show? Or do they orientate to face as much of the audience as possible, occupying the stage diagonally? Either way, the columns are disruptive for a large proportion of the crowd.
Limelight only functions as a venue when it is half full, with a lot of choice in where to stand. For a more-packed show, the swell of people around the bar creates a choke point for movement. Perhaps not having clear lines of sight could be permissible for performances which engage less directly with the crowd. However, when Limelight first opened it was proud to host the likes of The Strokes and Manic Street Preachers, which were not of the subdued-performance kind.The beauty of a small venue is the intimate nature of a gig, which, in this case, is interrupted by a column taking precedence over the performer.
The main draw of live music is the performance. The architecture is there as a host to complement the experience. It is unfortunate that the architecture of Limelight detracts from the live music experience for a large proportion of the audience. A pillar obstructing your view puts the building front and centre, not the show. Better design decisions in creating the venue would lead to a better live music experience in Limelight, closer to what is achieved in Upstairs @ Whelan’s.
February 6, 2023
Working Hard/Hardly Working
It takes several elements functioning well together to create a good live performance: the artist, the sound quality, the atmosphere in the room, and the venue itself. This article compares two popular venues; one in Dublin and one in Belfast, to emphasize the importance of considered space for a live performance.
“Water is everywhere before it is somewhere. It is rain before it is rivers, it soaks, saturates, and evaporates before it flows.”
— A. Mathur and D. Da Cunha, Design in the Terrain of Water (2014) 
The Ardnacrusha Dam was one of newly independent Ireland’s first projects of national importance. It had infrastructural and symbolic significance for a newly sovereign country undergoing major socio-ecological change. Built between 1925 and 1929, the scheme was conceived by Thomas McLaughlin, an Irish engineer at Siemens-Schuckert in Berlin. Costing a fifth of the country’s GDP, upon completion it was capable of meeting the entire energy needs of the burgeoning nation, transforming the electrical supply and capacity of the new state . By harnessing the power of the River Shannon to produce electricity, water was seen as a source, at the forefront of Irish infrastructural design. The dam’s cyclical nature was intertwined with the region’s watershed. As modern Ireland blossomed, Ardnacrusha represented the ‘social revolution’ moving across Ireland .
In the years following this major development on the River Shannon, designing with water has lost its relevance in our consciousness, in Ireland and further afield. A new, toxic, subject-object relationship with water emerged, based on water as a resource, something simply to be used, extracted, manipulated – a subjugated object. Following the green revolution, a nation of small farmers surviving by caring for their personal holdings were replaced with a cohort of larger agricultural producers focused on land colonisation, growth, and profit. Agricultural inputs accumulated alongside increasing production outputs: our natural fertile soils were industrialised. In doing so our rural rivers and lakes became the receptors of the excess of our industrial agricultural economy, our toxic dumps.
A parallel cultural shift during the 20th century was the urbanisation of our rural population, not only to the larger metropolises, but also simply to our many “rural” towns and villages. These urban centres geographically concentrate wastewater, focusing ever larger amounts of pollutants - from urban run-off or poorly dimensioned water treatment facilities - in specific areas. Our urban watercourses and groundwater sources are polluted by those of us living above them; according to Irish water we lose close to 50% of our piped water to infrastructural leakage every day . Rivers and lakes, watercourses and groundwater sources - in short our entire watersheds - have been heavily degraded. Today only 50% of Irish rivers are of satisfactory ecological health. These rivers and lakes are merely points of revelation, the watershed surrounding them the points of human pollution . Water is no longer a source but a resource: Ardnacrusha as a concept remains a nearly 100-year-old renewable resource, providing maximum 2% of Ireland's electricity . The Shannon waters are completely changed.
Again, at a point of great socio-ecological change, determined not by independence but by future human and non-human co–existence, new references with water must be established. Conceiving of water as a source rather than a resource will determine not the electricity we produce, but instead how much life we can sustain. Crucial to this is our understanding of the entire water cycle and how we interact with water as an object rather than a subject. Water retention, permeable living surfaces, closed loop water cycles, wastewater recycling, and general watershed protection are all part of how architects, landscape architects, and urban and territorial designers should be developing our watersheds.
Ardnacrusha dam was a systemic solution to a local question. The consideration of the immediate ecosystem was relevant to the treatment of the whole. In attempting to create energy for an entire nation the height of Lough Derg, further up the River Shannon watershed, was crucial – only through controlling this could the dam function . Today’s issues require even more systemic and ecological answers. Projects should not be limited by administrative boundaries but by geographical, topographical, natural extents, going beyond political borders to consider the boundaries of the watershed.
The Ardnacrusha dam was a key moment in Irish design; we must reignite our sensibilities to water. The dam strives to work with water, but it stops short of considering the entire ecosystem it inhabits. We must become ecologically literate. Our relationship with water as a system must change, where it flows, floods, gathers, filters, dissipates, percolates: how it moves through our watersheds. Giving space to water means giving space to health both human and non-human: our uisce beatha.
January 23, 2023
Designing with water has slowly disappeared from our collective drawing board. Today water is used as a resource, something simply to be manipulated, extracted – a subjugated object. Using examples past and present, this article looks at our society’s modern relationship with water and its inherent physical, social, and ecological power.
As the remit of Bord Na Móna has shifted towards a new era of sustainability and carbon sequestration , it leaves behind a significant legacy of energy generation and industry, perhaps most notably represented by the construction of several peat power plants, many of which have already been eradicated from the Irish landscape. Seven of the nine peat power plants that were once operated by the ESB have been demolished; only Lough Ree and West OffaIy remain, though they have been decommissioned as of December 2020 . What remains is a shrinking repository of industrial buildings and a dwindling memory of Ireland’s harnessing of its bogs.
It could be argued that these monoliths have served their purpose and are now redundant; yet Ireland has previously embraced and celebrated its industrial relics. The Ardnacrusha hydroelectric dam has been celebrated by many and even provokes a certain degree of national pride. The history of Ireland’s peat plants demonstrate they’ve added much more than just power to an ever-thirsty grid and warrant as much attention as their hydroelectric counterparts.
What’s more, in an age where the counting of embodied carbon is an ever more prevalent means of assessing existing structures, the following questions emerge: what determines the current life cycle of a building and how do we, as a society, maximise the longevity of this cycle?
The Irish Free State at the start of the twentieth century saw the rapid development of infrastructure across the island. The First Dáil of 1919 set up a committee that was to explore the feasibility of peat and water harnessing for power generation. Fifteen years later, the government established the turf development board in 1934, the predecessor of Bord na Móna. The turf board took responsibility for the vast boglands of Ireland . This is when the mass exploitation of Ireland’s bogs truly began.
The board implemented a shift from traditional methods of harnessing bogs towards industrial-scale techniques, the repetitive nature of which left distinctive marks on the Irish landscape. The measure of this impact remains, for example, in the repetition of drainage ditches, always spaced exactly 15.4m apart. This was accompanied by the construction of a network of peat power plants and the infrastructure to go with them .
Despite modernising the traditional system of harvesting peat to satisfy the growing appetite of these power plants, the process still required an immense supply of manual labour. Thus began a long relationship with peat plants and employment for Irish citizens. The demand for workers became so great that housing was commissioned by the board in the 1950s for their growing workforce. Workers’ housing developments required architects, which resulted in a number of well-known and regarded schemes, such as those designed by Frank Gibney. The housing that accompanied the peat plants is an extension of a wider built landscape, as without these industrial giants, the communities that developed in these areas would not exist .
The importance of peat plants to Irish society and culture goes far beyond their immense presence in the landscape or the employment they offered. Peat plants helped the ESB to stabilise energy prices during shortages in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The plants’ role in keeping the lights on for the Irish people emphasise their importance to our collective history and heritage .
These power stations’ historical role is certain, but their future, for those that have yet to be demolished, remains unclear. How can these massive structures, built with a very specific role, be repurposed?The ESB has begun to explore possibilities as it will find itself with a number of redundant plants by 2050. In 2020, the ESB released a statement saying that they had reviewed a number of redevelopment options. Suggested examples included the transformation of these structures into energy stores. There is an expectation that this type of battery storage will become more common as we try to keep up with peak demand periods while trying to achieve lower carbon emissions .
For further inspiration, the ESB could look to our European counterparts. We are not the first country to find itself with redundant industrial buildings. In Berlin, on Köpenickerstraße, sits a former heating plant which after years of dereliction found a new lease of life as a night club and has undergone extensive renovation to become a cultural space for exhibitions and events. An hour south of Berlin, you can find the world’s largest indoor beach and rainforest within a former airship-manufacturing hangar. Not only does this approach demonstrate sustainability by maximising the lifespan of these industrial giants but its protects existing built heritage; this hangar is the largest free-standing hall in the world.
While it is understood that maintaining or reusing elements of our built environment is vital to achieve a more sustainable future, it is clear from the above that it is also a way of maintaining a link between a society’s past, present, and future. Buildings hold varying levels of cultural relevance as well as architectural significance. Embracing infrastructural heritage or maximising existing structures for the benefit of the environment is a clear way in which we can protect our natural and built landscape in a way that celebrates both simultaneously.
January 16, 2023
Despite a rich cultural, economic, and architectural legacy, many of Ireland’s former peat power plants have been demolished. In an age where the re-use of existing structures is increasingly necessary to combat climate change, how can the country’s remaining industrial infrastructure be repurposed in a way that protects both our natural and built landscapes?
From obsolete road signs to haphazard bollards to substandard advertisements, Dublin’s street furniture is proliferating the streetscape and it isn't painting a pretty picture. Street clutter in the city has become a topic of discussion in recent years, yet this newfound awareness has yielded little to no change . The current result is a volume of signage that renders itself useless; it is nearly impossible to navigate which sign is relevant at which junction for which mode of transport.
The National Transport Authority (NTA) and the Transport InfrastructureIreland (TII) are responsible for creating guidelines on street furniture and have quite strict yet ambiguous guidance towards street safety. In one section of the Traffic Signs Manual, it states that, where possible, signs should have their individual poles, but in a different section the manual recommends post sharing on streets to minimise obstruction . The NTA and the Dublin City Council (DCC) Transportation Department both have the authority to put up street signs and there is a perceptible lack of communication between the two. This has led to a lack of rationale and incurred duplication. Here it seems the council and the NTA are embracing a ‘top-down’ approach instead of approaching streets on a case-by-case basis. The lack of a clearly defined hierarchy within this system allows the circle of shifting blame between different bodies to perpetuate; it seems only revisiting and updating the relevant legislation might help put a stop to this cycle.
The question remains: why is Dublin faring far worse than its European counterparts? Take Edinburgh as an example – a Georgian city of a comparable size to that of our capital. In 2016, the Department of Transport in Scotland introduced the Traffic Signs Regulations andGeneral Directions (TSRGD) . These put forth a general directive and gave local authorities the right to rationalise and remove any redundant street signs, a simple action that asserted a clear hierarchy of responsibility. This decentralisation programme, initiated by the Scottish government, has helped cut a lot of time, cost, and red tape associated with the transport department. The local councils in Edinburgh, in turn, have set out comprehensive street audits that allows local groups to assess the design quality of the street furniture and layout in their area. Groups can conduct these audits in their vicinity and bring the results to their local area offices. This has been a successful strategy across the city in combatting the proliferation of signage. Edinburgh’s ‘bottom-up’ approach has given its citizens the power to quite literally make the change that they want to see in their city. A lot of the leg work to bring in these reforms was undertaken by a non-profit group called ‘Living Streets Edinburgh’ .
In 2018, the city banned all temporary advertisement boards from the streets to improve pedestrian safety and visual amenity. Edinburgh is paving the way in the UK, as London followed suit soon after and has since also banned advertisement boards  while the audit system is gaining traction in various cities and towns in the UK.
However, it’s unfair to entirely blame legislation alone for the current state of Dublin; laws do exist in Ireland but there is an abject lack of enforcement in our capital. A plethora of policies is rendered useless without a body to enforce these measures. The Dublin Wayfinding Scheme was introduced in 2011 to rationalise and replace redundant signs in conjunction with the Dublin Bikes initiative. Yet outdated signs are occupying the city’s streets more than a decade later, demonstrating how frequently (or infrequently) street layouts are assessed. In the past few years, a number of streets have been pedestrianised yet without outdated car-centric signs being removed. An objective in the previous Dublin City Development Plan (2016-2022) to assess street furniture was virtually abandoned until 2021 when more than five-hundred redundant poles were taken off the streets of the capital, paying heed to the outcries of residents against the deplorable condition of the urban realm. This act only managed to scratch the surface of street clutter and indicated just how radically the urban realm can and must be re-assessed . The initiative to audit the capital’s streets has since been carried over to the current development plan (2022-2028), which commits to auditing streets and promoting street furniture co-sharing with no clear directive or timeline. DCC, the NTA, and other stakeholders need to cooperate. Following in the footsteps of our neighbours, Irish local authorities must establish dedicated in-house urban design departments to assist in the resolution of contemporary urban issues. A significant number of policymakers tasked with designing our capital city lack a background in urban planning or design, and the consequences are palpable when walking down just about any street.
January 9, 2023
One Good Idea
Street clutter in Dublin is a topic of ongoing discussion, with a profileration of unnecessary signage limiting accessibility, visibility, and the value of public space for all. DCC, the NTA, and other stakeholders need to cooperate and support dedicated in-house urban design departments to improve the quality of our capital’s streets.
“The first queer spaces of the modern era were the dark alleys, unlit corners, and hidden rooms that queers found in the city itself. It was a space that could not be seen, had no contours, and never endured beyond the sexual act. Its order was and is that of gestures.”
The two spaces which will be compared in this essay are the cruising routes in Phoenix Park, and the Boilerhouse, a gay sauna located in Dublin city. Both of these spaces are used for engaging in public or semi-public sexual encounters, providing a level of privacy and anonymity, while also exposing the cruiser to a group of people also seeking sexual encounters. It is between this duality of secrecy and community where these spaces are most interesting architecturally, and both spaces deal with these issues in unique ways.
The cruising routes of Phoenix Park are a leftover from historically queer spaces, where cities could provide invisible infrastructure that was simultaneously in plain view and hidden through a number of coded signals. Less widespread now, as queerness in Ireland has become more socially accepted, these routes have developed out of necessity; a need to queer existing city infrastructure to provide space for same-sex sexual encounters. These spaces were undefined architecturally but would often emerge with some shared characteristics. Parks in particular often offered all of the requirements for a thriving cruising culture to develop. Aaron Betsky defines four characteristics of cruising spaces. Firstly, it needs “conditions that in and of themselves dissolve walls and other constraints”; meaning that outdoor cruising typically takes place at night. Second, it needs a labyrinthine quality, deterring the use of the space for functions other than sex, and providing “multiple barriers to intervention or observation”. Third, that cruising takes place where the city breaks down, at its edge as a whole, or at the edges of buildings in the “stoops, porticos, windows and doorways”. Fourth, “cruising grounds have to parallel, but not be the same as, the public spaces of the city”, existing within the same space physically but separated by cultural differences and differing requirements of its occupants.
These routes have developed throughout Dublin city, and while many have faded out of use as the city changes, some remain active. In Phoenix Park, a popular cruising location has developed a community of men who often require anonymity. These cruisers might not be able to engage in same sex sexual activities at home, or might find gay saunas such as the Boilerhouse too prominent within the city centre. One cruiser, Peter, scribed the appeal of the cruising spot at Phoenix Park: “Gay men have this fascination of walking around because they're constantly on the hunt for something better – you know? – and they don't particularly like to stand still. They don't. So the park – that area of the park – is quite ideal because you've got lots of different trails and different routes that you can take.”
Spatially, it conforms to all of Betsky’s characteristics of cruising spaces, though these are not always consistent. Peter describes how during winter many of the spots usually sheltered by leaves become much more visible, and that during rainy days some areas on sloped ground become too slippery to use. In these cases, people might have sex in a car park, or around the edge of an old sports changing room. In this way, the cruising spot is more transient, and changes even within yearly cycles and with the weather.
By contrast, the Boilerhouse remains mostly consistent, and despite being too prominent for some gay men, still engages with privacy and protection. Located on a quiet lane in Temple Bar, the front entrance is unassuming, with a nondescript sign and a foyer after the main door where you can wait before being buzzed in by an attendant in a small kiosk. The unassuming facade conceals the sexually liberated interior, where queer sexuality is allowed to be freed from social norms. Unlike the fully public cruising spaces in the city and in Phoenix Park, the Boilerhouse was designed specifically to be a space for sex a formalised version of traditional cruising, it mirrors the characteristics as described by Betsky. As with other shops and establishments, it is a private space which acts as an extension of the city when open and provides a semi-public environment where its patrons can cruise with more security and enclosure than in outdoor cruising routes. The bathhouse provides spaces to wander, to gather, and more reclusive rooms and cubicles to retreat into. In the Boilerhouse these areas are obviously defined; after the changing rooms and lockers, the ground floor is open with a bar in a large double-height space, visible from the walkways on the second floor. On each floor above, the spaces become more and more compartmentalised, offering varying levels of privacy and enclosure.
The building maintains its semi-public condition throughout, even in the more enclosed areas. Partition walls often don’t meet the floor, and mirrors above stall doors provide a level of engagement with the more open spaces of the building. Glory holes offer connections between rooms or cubicles and further blur the lines between private and semi-public space. This arrangement provides a level of community not found in the Phoenix Park, where communication between cruisers is limited, and often reduced to subtle signals or codes. In the Boilerhouse, communication is not about identifying other cruisers but conveying more nuanced sexual preferences or interest in a particular partner.
While the Boilerhouse and other saunas might be understood as a natural progression from cruising in public spaces, it remains inaccessible to some as a private establishment with opening hours, entry fees, and door policies. These spaces both represent physical manifestations of queer space. They are defined by sex, and while queer architectural theory has developed beyond synonymising queerness with homosexuality, it provides an insight into the development of queer culture and its place in the development of the city. These queer spaces for sex disrupt a traditional way of viewing public space, and the gradations of privacy typically understood, where sexual activities happen in the privacy of home. Public space within the city is nuanced, and not so easily defined when considering its multitude of users, and so an understanding of queer people’s existence within the city is imperative for its development.
January 2, 2023
Working Hard / Hardly Working
The merit of public space is usually assessed in terms of the requirements of the people who use it, and so depending on who is using the space, its merits might be judged under drastically different parameters. This article compares two spaces in relation to their function as cruising sites for queer people, predominantly gay men, within the context of queer architectural history and theory.
The built environment is estimated to account for more than 36% of the overall annual greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland  with transport emissions accounting for a further 17% . In light of the UN’s recent report on our “woeful progress”  on reducing carbon emissions, the Irish Government has stated its commitment to halving our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050, but how does this affect the delivery of housing, particularly in the middle of a housing shortage? The requirement for 33,000 homes per annum  cannot be solely delivered from reworking existing built fabric; new construction will be essential.
While this new construction will have an environmental toll, of the 36% of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the built environment, 23% are related to operational uses such as heating. Great, let’s focus on that. And that’s exactly what the government has done. Through regular updates to the building regulations related to energy use over the last decade, new homes must be designed to operate as Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB).
So we’ve established that new homes need to be built and the government has mandated that they be as energy-efficient as is feasible, but where will they be built? If we need 33,000 new homes a year, the majority will be required near existing population centres, which aligns with the desire for compact, sustainable growth as laid out in the National Planning Framework .
Looking at Dublin city, there are a few large urban sites that are arguably underutilised. I could point to the various barracks, the bus depots or even the port, and raise questions about the value of their existing use versus the benefit of redeveloping them. As Dublin contains almost 30% of the country’s population, building at a rate of 10,000 new homes a year will mean it’s only a matter of time before we have to look further afield .
And herein lies the crux of the issue. We need to build homes, but they can’t all fit within the boundaries of our existing cities. And yet, new infrastructure often lags housing development. So how do 33,000 new households a year navigate the country? Unfortunately, in much the same way that Henry Ford envisaged over a one-hundred years ago - with a car.
Just as environmental concerns have seeped into governmental thinking, so too have they begun to permeate almost all aspects of modern life. It might have started with recycling and then composting. A few friends might have started carrying around a reusable cup and then someone went vegan. You might even be considering an electric car. A noble thought, no doubt, but you are still thinking of buying a car, aren’t you? That is because we do not yet live in a country where car ownership is optional for the vast majority of the population.
While some progress is being made – such as local authorities actively trying to reduce the number of parking spaces in new developments, as seen in their Development Plans – we have yet to see a corresponding realisation of alternative means of transport. The most famous example is the MetroLink, announced in 2001 and now targeted for the 2030s . All the bicycle parking in the world isn’t going to help someone standing in their NZEB home watching the rain splatter against a sign saying “METRO LINK: COMING SOON”.
If you build it, they will come. In Ireland we seem to operate on an inverse of the famous expression. You might build it, they’ll come anyway. So how do we develop sustainably in an imperfect reality? Can we instil clawback clauses so that car parking spaces built for residents today are transitioned into the public space of tomorrow once transport connections are delivered? Can we put a time-limit on private car parking to allow for existing car dependency while fostering future biodiversity? Simple numerical limits on car parking will not solve the climate crisis nor will they create beautiful places to live, but new ideas might do both.
November 28, 2022
Are we delivering housing that is suitable for our current infrastructure, while still endeavouring for a better future? The built environment is estimated to account for more than 36% of the overall annual greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland with transport emissions accounting for a further 17%. In light of the UN’s recent report on our “woeful progress” on reducing carbon emissions, we need to interrogate how and where we are building.
Learning from the design of migrant landscapes in Irish urban settlements
Michael K. Hayes
As part of an effort to create a replica of ‘home’ in recipient cities, migrants tend to create cultural heritage clusters. Generally, these consist of residential quarters, factories, and commercial shopfronts, with their form influenced by factors including class, dietary laws, transport availability, and proximity to work and religious spaces . This concept is not new, with migrants being actively engaged in forming and transforming the built environment across time. Hence, we must consider how we understand and make visible migrant histories and cultures within modern urban landscapes.
During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a significant number of migrants settled across Co. Mayo, resulting in high levels of ethnic diversity . This was affirmed in the 2016 Census, with Ballyhaunis recording the highest population of non-Irish nationals in an Irish town, making up 39.5% of its population . Historically, the Midland Great Western Railway, arriving in Co. Mayo in 1860, enabled this, connecting towns such as Ballyhaunis with a direct route to Dublin and surrounding urban settlements. As a result, these town’s became the county’s major commercial hubs . Comprising a main commercial street, St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, and residential quarters, on the surface Ballyhaunis's appearance is similar to comparable Irish towns. However, beyond the main street, one is confronted by complex cultural and architectural expressions. As a result, the town reveals urban, spatial, and cultural diversity, stimulating research into migration and architecture.
Described by the local community as “The houses behind the wall”, the area behind Clare Road has housed Pakistani migrants since the 1970s . This cultural and religious group have established the most evident spatial impact, forming a distinctive migrant cluster with a strong Islamic character. Architecturally, the development of the migrant cluster engages both sides of Clare Road. On one side, a high and continuous brick wall with vertical corrugated sheets spans more than 318m, delineating the territory of Dawns Meat Factory, the workplace for many Pakistani migrants. This is mirrored on the other by a heavy hedge and vast parking space, which ultimately obscures the small Pakistani neighbourhood behind. In this, migrant workers and their families reside and are able to perform the five daily Islamic prayers, privately, within the enclosed space. Considering the requirement for privacy, one can suggest the location of the factory and the need for proximity as playing a pivotal role in the selection of the site for the residential quarter . The housing units, which comprise four detached units, five semi-detached units, four terraced houses, and eight bungalows, can be accessed via Mosque Street off Clare Road . As is typical across many workers’ dwellings, primitive means of construction were harnessed, ultimately leading to properties with low architectural value. Gas cylinders and enormous ground water tanks attached to the rear, along with deteriorating paint, are evidence of this. In contrast, a large opulent multi-storey mansion takes a central position within the quarter. The architecture denotes a difference grounded in affluence. This structure and the migrant houses were constructed by the Pakistani-British proprietor of the adjacent factory.
At the community level sits the Ballyhaunis mosque, built in 1987. The uniform plan, bulbous dome, and architectural elements recall the Indo-Islamic tradition of Mughal architecture, specifically the architectural style of seventeenth century mosques in Asia . Dark-green and white walls denote the mosque’s outer edge, with the colours a subtle homage to Pakistan’s national flag. Located at a focal point, along the main axis of the estate, the Ballyhaunis mosque draws attention away from the housing’s diametric differences. As such, the mosque captures the identity of the migrant community, and perhaps represents the strongest and most striking architectural element in the traditional Catholic landscape of Ballyhaunis.
This case study highlights a unique and significant example of a landscape in rural Ireland that was crafted by immigrants. Beyond the mosque’s architecture, the surrounding block walls, densely planted entrance, and isolated community services reflect a distinct urban culture and present a form which is culturally consistent with Islamic values. While only one example, the Ballyhaunis mosque complex should be noted as a significant migrant landscape, one that exhibits the role architecture can play in expressing a unique migrant identity.
November 21, 2022
The creation of cultural clusters is a common feature of migrant histories globally, yet the design of migrant settlements in Ireland is a topic often unacknowledged or under discussed. Taking the Ballyhaunis mosque complex as an example, this article seeks to better understand the role architecture can play in expressing a unique migrant identity.
Our built heritage is of profound importance, rooting us to our surroundings and giving us context for who we are and where we come from. But where does it come from? Who built these impressive buildings, from grand Georgian establishments to the humble yet tenacious thatched cottage? They were all born by the hand of a skilled craftsperson.
One doesn’t have to search hard in Ireland to find an old building and to notice the work done by a skilled hand, be it by a craftsperson or the owner of a vernacular building. We know they were skilled people because the buildings are still standing hundreds of years later. As a structural engineer, I know that we typically design buildings today for a fifty-year design life, nowhere near the lifespan achieved by traditional buildings, built by expert craftspeople.
We are living in a climate emergency, and we know that the greenest building is the one that already exists. So in a country with a huge vacancy rate, facing into a housing and climate crisis, we should be championing our craftspeople, who have the skills and know-how to repair and maintain our old buildings.
A key barrier is the shortage of skilled craftspeople to do conservation work, across all trades. It seems that people are simply not interested in pursuing a career ‘in the trades’ in Ireland. We, as a society, have fed into the narrative that to pursue an apprenticeship after leaving school is for those ‘who didn't get the points to go to college’ but hopefully that mindset is beginning to shift. Although there have been moves in recent years to increase the number of apprenticeships, through the likes of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship as part of the Programme for Government , there is a huge backlog in start dates for craft apprenticeships in particular and formal conservation skills training is difficult to come by. There is also a danger that the likes of bricklaying or stonemasonry apprenticeships don’t necessarily provide the right skills for conservation work, depending on the employer’s recent work (which could be all new-build).
While there are conservation skills training courses currently provided by NGOs and private organisations, these are disparate, often one-off, and tend to be aimed at the DIY-er rather than the person looking to upskill for work.
So what could be done? Like most issues, decent funding would be a massive help. Funding to run a state-funded conservation craft skills training centre, headed up by experienced craftspeople, would be a huge boost to the sector. Better still, several skills training hubs across the country, with attractive salaries for those who can share their skills and no/low fees for those who wish to learn. A good source of inspiration might be the Engine Shed, Scotland’s dedicated building conservation hub, which delivers skills development and training for the heritage sector.
An Irish version of this might be located in the midlands, where anyone from across the island could easily travel to. There are plentiful derelict farmsteads and stable yards, for example, where a permanent training centre could feasibly be located. The existing farm buildings could be repaired as part of on-site workshops, with certain parts left half-done and un-repaired altogether, in order to show the repair works at various stages.Permanent demonstration panels/models could be set up on site on a large scale, so that someone could practice the basics of thatching, for example, undoing and redoing it over and over again (which would not be feasible on a real project).
Demonstration panels wouldn’t work as well for other craft skills, but there is no shortage of buildings all over the country in need of repair. Once the central skills training centre could develop a base curriculum, staff, and equipment, there should be no limit to the range of mobile workshops and classes that could take place on live sites around Ireland.
Funding could also be used to incentivise experienced craftspeople to take on apprentices. Compulsory employment of apprentices on large, state-funded conservation projects could be another option, which wouldn’t require any funding. Voluntary organisations like Irish Traditional Skills Initiative should be supported in their aims to develop skills training and connect aspiring apprentices with experienced professionals .
We still need to change the narrative that an apprenticeship after secondary school is somehow lesser than going on to university. A national awareness campaign to encourage young people, or maybe more importantly, their parents, to consider alternatives to university could have merit. Career guidance counsellors could also be targeted to promote hands-on learning more widely to second-level students. The recent steps to include apprenticeships on the CAO is a step in the right direction but we need to do more to make sure that like neglected old buildings, our treasured supply of craftspeople doesn’t crumble away.
November 14, 2022
One Good Idea
We know that the greenest building is the one that already exists. Yet in a country with a huge vacancy rate, facing into a housing and climate crisis, Ireland is experiencing a shortage of skilled craftspeople to do conservation work. A dedicated state-funded craft skills training centre could be one solution to ensuring this knowledge is maintained, alongside our old buildings.
Gehl is also no stranger to criticising the existing either, particularly 20th-century modernist urban design . Within the European context, we in Dublin occupy a specific design culture which can harbour an attitude of scepticism towards the prescription of public space, but as our capital grows and sprawls, and land supply diminishes, the "demand for recreational access can no longer be sustained as an informal activity and demands a managed response": as Robert Camlin explained in TOPOSEuropean Landscape Magazine .
This article aims to identify the current state of public space in Ireland and compare it with Denmark's much-praised urban design culture. In addition, it will explore how we might exercise a more vernacular approach that could provide successful, generous public space with contextual meaning in Dublin. Examples of works from Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLR) and Dublin City Council (DCC), as well as Aarhus Kommune will be used. This of course is a limited survey and does not claim to speak to the wider culture across each respective country.
The inspiration for this piece must be credited to Frank McDonald’s insight outlining local authority spending in Denmark, which accounts for 64% of total public expenditure, compared to a figure of 9% in Ireland . This supported my positive experience interacting with public space and infrastructure in Aarhus and encouraged me to undertake a comparative study into the two similarly sized local authorities of DLR and Aarhus Kommune.
Small and playful interventions
In Aarhus, there exists a strong emphasis on playfulness. Across the city, there are numerous examples of inexpensive, simple public space interventions following basic design principles, which generally nurture a tone of generosity and liveliness in the city and its public space. This echoes the aforementioned words of Gehl on thinking big through small acts.
Among many other interventions, this intent is embodied by a range of wooden structures, which can be found at a few locations across the city, offering some riverside respite in Mølleparken, in the harbour, and surrounding Aarhus Cathedral. Their simple intention of softening the otherwise cold concrete, framing a view, or simply gathering people to one location within a park, particularly on a sunny day, are successful examples of an intervention which works hard to provide a valuable public gesture.
Through my work in urban design in Aarhus, I was briefed on designing a similar structure elsewhere in Denmark; the brief included among its primary intentions "a place to drink a beer". This more uninhibited approach heavily contrasts with the Irish attitude towards oft-described "anti-social behaviour", which has led to the demise of many fine public spaces in Dublin, such as Chancery Park . It is not beneficial to dwell on the particular issue of alcohol consumption as I believe our local authorities require a more general shift towards a more light-handed, generous model. However, while our attitude towards the consumption of alcohol in public has changed slightly since the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains largely prohibited under stringent and dated by-laws across many local authorities in Ireland, limiting how we imagine enjoying our public spaces . As outlined by Tony Reddy in Dublin by Design: "Dublin, and all Irish cities, should be inspired by these best European examples to become an enabler of activity and nurture inclusive dialogue and the power of civil society" – instead of trying to design within the current narrow boundaries of what is viewed as acceptable public space .
Many of these small freedoms are often credited with a greater sense of trust within society across Scandinavia. David McWilliams discusses the effects of this on society and within commerce . While the presence of civic trust is tangible, I suspect greater spending on the upkeep of public space through street cleaning and bottle deposit schemes bear great responsibility as well.
A local context
In recent times, particularly in Dún Laoghaire, it appears there is a tendency to rely on larger public projects to reform our public space. A prime example is the much-anticipated Dún Laoghaire baths project, long overdue and likely to exceed a budget of €13.4 million. Large budgets and long construction times will always be met with some public dissatisfaction, and only time will speak to the success of the project. As the hoarding is removed, an elegant concrete landscape is revealed, and a little time often softens the public reception of this kind of project, as seen in the case of the DLR Lexicon. However, when Senior Architect for DLR Bob Hannan claims "there’s nowhere else where you can sit down in a café so close to the sea", this suggests that greater interrogation into the essence of the project and how it serves the town would be of great benefit. This is related to the fact that efforts to re-establish a bathing place like that of the original 1843 design were unsuccessful, instead offering a rather exposed open-water bathing pier .
I believe this is where we can learn from the Danish approach, marrying it to our own culture and ideally creating a simple, elegant, vernacular design for our public spaces. The new cycleway from Sandycove to Blackrock demonstrates the success of a simple idea using simple means and materials. However, I would argue it is more a public requirement than a public gesture. Furthermore, we need not look back too far to one of our city's most charming urban design interventions, linking public space to architecture and culture. Dotting north Dublin’s coastline are seventeen structures, built by Dublin Corporation throughout the 1930s, which form bathing shelters, kiosks, wind shelters, and miniature lighthouses .
These small unassuming structures are steeped in the wider culture of sea bathing, speaking to the early 20th-century zeitgeist of public sanitation, while also revealing an extremely important intention of democratising sea bathing. Ellen Rowley writes, "Although small and simple in concept, they are robust and their curved lines – both in plan and elevation – give them an air of elegance, reminiscent of the architecture of the grand British lidos" . This, again, I can’t help but relate to Gehl’s statement of thinking big through small interventions.
As outlined by Mary Freehill, among others in Frank McDonald’s A Little History of the Future of Dublin, city and county councils urgently require more power to make decisions affecting planning frameworks, urban design, and the quality of life of all citizens . I also believe that the decentralisation of power would allow our cities and towns to develop their own design identity. A cohesive language can be achieved through small design decisions creating a distinct thread through the city. Of course, mistakes will be made, and taste will change, but sometimes Aarhus’ Viking-shaped traffic lights are enough to remind us to be playful when pondering serious matters surrounding the public realm . Therefore, we must challenge the standardisation stemming from a more centralised system and reflect on how we previously achieved a cohesive sense of urban design, creating an identity greater than that on postcards. Dublin Corporation and notably Herbert Simms have demonstrated that we are capable of creating a cohesive architectural language, beautifully exhibited in Herbert Simms City by Paddy Cahill . We can achieve this once those responsible "maintain a commitment to a vision of our cities where real people live, work and interact" .
November 7, 2022
Working Hard / Hardly Working
“Think big but always remember to make the places where people are to be, small” – Jan Gehl makes a simple and direct guideline regarding the creation of new public space. However, in order to stimulate the successful design of our cities, we must first be able to identify and interrogate the strengths and flaws of existing public space.
Take one block of the Dublin Docklands (known as City Block 11 in the Dublin Docklands SDZ): bound by Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Lime Street, Cardiff Lane, and Hanover Street East. It’s an architectural casserole of historic, Celtic Tiger, and contemporary architecture. Five of the recent additions have been designed by one architecture firm, who I work for — Henry J Lyons (HJL). This hasn’t resulted in a uniform language across all four buildings. Each brief called for a distinct solution, each design was a different experiment. Walking around the block in preparation for this article, I can associate the architectural moves and material choices with individual designers in our practice.
The view from Samuel Beckett Bridge showcases this collage of varied architectural styles. The newly-unveiled shipping office on the corner of Lime street and Sir John Rogerson’s Quay by HJL adds a splash of colour and acts as a marker to the boundary of the SDZ. The protected structure of W.H. Byrne’s British and Irish Steam Packet Co. from 1910 is a contrasting remnant of the docklands’ industrial heritage. The ‘3’ building at 28-29 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, designed in 2005 by Burke Kennedy Doyle, evokes similar Celtic Tiger developments along the Liffey. The Tropical Fruit Warehouse of 1852 has a contemporary form floating above a former industrial edifice. To the bookend of this composition, The Ferryman pub is a thriving descendant of a once working-class institution.
The vista along Misery Hill consists of a jagged series of angles, providing landscaped niches to the streetscape. To the southern edge of the site, a newly formed pedestrian route has been created from Grand Canal Square to Townsend Street. The landscape flows from Hanover Street into the urban block and internal public realm, forming Whitaker Square at the centre. As set out in the SDZ, a new pedestrian connection is formed from Lime Street into the block. This additional permeability effectively means the side-streets act as an extension of the pedestrian realm. This encourages the public to meander through the city streets and explore their surroundings. Vehicular access points to service the buildings are limited to the perimeter of the block, enhancing pedestrian safety.
A comparable block on North Wall Quay is bound by Commons Street, Mayor Street, and Guild Street. It includes Clarion Quay, an architecturally acclaimed development completed in 2002 by Urban Projects. Clarion Quay won a silver medal for housing from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) in 2004. The award statement read “The result is a fine example of the art of place making which integrates subtle security within an appropriate urban design strategy” .
Much of the city block retains its original charm; however it can be argued that the place making intent of Clarion Quay is lacking in other parts of this block. Excise Walk has a pleasant rhythm of building volumes, balconies, and window openings that animates the street. Mayor Square features at the centre of the development as the primary public space. While it is neatly formed on plan, the pedestrian experience is somewhat cluttered in reality. On the ground, a significant emphasis would appear to have been placed on the flow of vehicular traffic. Street furniture and bollards are strategically placed to accommodate and direct the movement of cars.
As I walk around the perimeter of the block, it is clear the focus for public interaction is on the primary streets and spaces only. At times, the architecture directs you to one location or route, only for this to be cordoned off by a defensive gate. The secondary environment of side streets is functional and has the car at its heart. Nondescript streetscapes provide multiple car access-points to private basement parking. They have little to engage public interest and appear as an inner service-route to the buildings. If anything, the abundance of CCTV posts creates a sense of discomfort, prompting one to exit onto the main thoroughfares again. This inhospitable design, the ‘one street deep’ approach, is widespread in development of this era, as Andrew Kincaid noted of the redevelopment of Smithfield in Post-colonial Dublin: "The housing is also, not surprisingly, faux exclusive, with its fortress architecture, apartment buildings overlooking private courtyards, roof gardens for residents only, and high-security electronic gates, all of which feed into the logic of a pioneering entrepreneurial class". 
The future city
The redevelopment of the Dublin Docklands promised a new type of urban living environment, an alternative to urban sprawl that would breathe life back into the heart of Dublin. The DDDA described it as "a world-class city quarter paragon of sustainable inner-city regeneration".  After fifteen years of gestation and the added vision of the SDZ objectives, this is becoming closer to a reality. It may only work, in part, because Dublin has enough well-paid workers able to afford a high-end living experience in the Docklands, but the public components of their neighbourhood have become a gift to the whole city. For example, Grand Canal Square has become a destination in Dublin to rival some of its historic parks, one of the surprisingly few areas where people can relax in well-designed public space free from traffic. It is less traffic-centric in design than Mayor Square. Crucially, with new development in the Docklands SDZ, there is a continuity of high-quality public realm beyond the main streets, to side-streets, alleyways, and publicly accessible courtyards. Hopefully this ethos will inform how we maintain and adapt all our city in the future.
October 24, 2022
Has our way of making a city changed in the last two decades? Comparing two city blocks — one on the south-side of Dublin, in the Docklands Strategic Development Zone (SDZ), the other on the north-side, developed as part of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) masterplan in 1997 — reveals how recent schemes offer more depth for a pedestrian explorer.
If every building tells a story, the lettering on its facade is the opening sentence. It’s the street number that tells you you’ve arrived at the correct place, the badge of authority on a headquarters, the epigraph that announces the LIBRARY, HOSPITAL, or COURTHOUSE. Facade signage provides a semiotic main entrance for users and passers-by, and is one of a building’s most prominent and visible features. And yet it’s frequently the part executed with the least skill and care. Exiled to the limbo of provisional costs, epigraphs and facade signs are usually dashed off by juniors or cranked out in-house at signage fabricators and slapped onto the completed building like a sticker. Often a building’s designers have no say in how it’s signed. And often, it shows.
It wasn’t always this way. The making and use of letters was once a standard part of architectural education, and a number of architects have made significant contributions to typography in their own right. Bertram Goodhue’s Cheltenham was one of the most popular typefaces of the early twentieth century. Peter Behrens treated architecture, industrial design, and graphic design as strands of a single gesamtkunstwerk, and the Behrensschrift he used for AEG is widely considered the first branding font. Frank Lloyd Wright, Arne Jacobsen, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh all developed distinctive letterforms that could operate as harmonious components of their work. And the iconic stacked facade letters of the Dessau Bauhaus were created by Gropius’s fellow architect Herbert Bayer.
This is not a Trad Guy plea for more Sainsbury Wing-style lapidary inscriptions (brilliant as Michael Harvey's lettercarving was) or a typographer’s special pleading for more prominent letters. (If anything, poorly designed facade signs are usually too shouty.) It’s a plea for recognition of type as a small but integral element in the making of good buildings. If architects are no longer trained to use letters, perhaps they should collaborate with people who are: sympathetic practitioners who understand how they can contribute to and support a building’s aims. While a few budgets allow for extensive typographic systems and even bespoke typefaces, for most jobs the fees charged by competent typographers are less than the costs of fabrication. For commercial clients, a building may be the most expensive brand statement they'll ever make; it's worth it to set aside a few quid to see that brand is properly represented. And when the budget only allows for off-the-shelf signage solutions, a trained typographer can help ensure these are chosen well and applied appropriately. What’s wanted is not a bigger role for letters in architecture, but a more considered one.
October 17, 2022
Facade signage is one of a building’s most prominent and visible features. And yet it’s frequently the part executed with the least skill and care. If we want architecture that better communicates with the public realm in which it sits, type needs to be recognised as a small but integral element in the making of good buildings.
“Temporal depth” acknowledges the different levels of temporariness in a space. Our most-loved public spaces tend to have significant temporal depth, layering the distant past, recent past, and present to frame experience.
Take St George’s Market as an example, a popular covered market hall in central Belfast. Contemporarily, it draws crowds with the offer of live music and street food, however, these events do not sit in isolation and are enriched by the backdrop of a long-running produce market, where traders are able to trace family involvement for generations. Moving beyond living memory, the site has been a place for trade and the location of markets since 1604. This place of exchange has moved beyond an amenity and, instead, is integral to understanding local identity, with the surrounding neighbourhoods referring to themselves as the Market area. This is enabled by its longevity, with St George’s Market being the site of several notable civic events throughout history. For example, in 1834, the Northern Trade Union organised a meeting here of over 1500 people to protest the sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs . More recently, the market has hosted significant gatherings including the World Irish Dancing Championships and numerous conferences.
In the discussion of temporal depth, it is important to consider the related matter of civic involvement. Primarily, involvement requires action and reflection, thus civic involvement consists of acting and reflecting upon the ethics of holding a place in common with others, a core tenet of negotiating what it means to be a fellow citizen of a place. Civic spaces facilitate this involvement and can arguably be considered in one of three categories, adapted from those defined by Peter Carl :
1) a civic space facilitates the encountering of other points of view;
2) a civic space supports constructive negotiation and;
3) a civic space makes possible the refinement of that negotiation.
Using the example of St George’s once more, illustrated is how the market creates the physical conditions required for people to come together within a civic space. Differing points of view are encountered via a variety of purposes: some people come to buy weekly groceries and others engage with temporary art exhibitions or browse souvenirs. Over time, rules of engagement have developed that allow for constructive negotiation between points of view, be that the etiquette of buying and selling produce, the preferred layout of the market stalls, and even the architectural restoration of the building. At St George’s, there is a Traders’ Association who work with Belfast City Council to define shared conduct at different levels, whether one is a visitor or host. As a result, there is a refinement of negotiation, ranging from temporary tweaks to more serious investment in the physical fabric – with a €3.5 million refurbishment in the 1990s being an example. In doing so, the environment has developed to facilitate and elevate a range of activities.
From the restored city motto “Pro tanto quid retribuamus” carved in stone, to the occasional upkeep of the carefully painted cast-iron columns, to the frequent upgrading of stalls and consistent cycle of their assembly and take-down, these routine adjustments give meaning and weight to the activities that take place within. Considering this, one can return to temporal depth and recognise that civic space requires certain features to remain indefinitely and others to be flexible and changeable. Importantly, it relies on both temporary and long-lasting architecture to contribute to the refinement of civic culture within the space .
Through using architecture with short, medium, and long lifespans together, we create cultural richness. Unfortunately, this approach to urbanism presents a stark contrast to our relationship with temporary architecture and urbanism in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Here, impermanent architecture is all too often seen as an intermediary step prior to investment in something of higher quality in future. The rise in popularity of “tactical urbanism” is part of the problem: urban interventions that according to Lydon and Garcia are initiated by citizens to highlight “shortcomings in policy or physical design” or by local authorities as a public engagement tool to test aspects of a plan early “so that it’s easier to build great places” . Significantly, the problem is exacerbated by the pressure to justify public spending on civic spaces against a numerical scale of achievement, which makes this type of urbanism very appealing to decision-makers. Tactical urbanism tends to have a particular goal, such as the introduction of a cycle lane or reduction in parking spaces, which is easy to measure and uncomplicated for a non-designer to understand.
To have tactical goals is commendable and sometimes much needed – as a designer, I am involved in several such projects. But the current default expectation of temporary architecture to act as a cheap prototype for long-lasting civic involvement undermines its true role in the making of civic spaces, thereby limiting the necessary investment in its quality and meaning. In my own practice, we try to address this by bringing the history of a place into conversation with the temporary installations that we place in it in order to contribute to a deeper civic involvement, beyond the life of the structure itself. In a city with a rich collective culture and a variety of spaces that support different kinds of civic activity, temporary architecture works with its surroundings, goes up, comes down, and moves around to make critical moments and cyclical events possible. It is not a stepping stone to a better, more permanent city, it is part of that better city.
October 10, 2022
One Good Idea
This article is a short plea from a designer whose work focuses on temporary installations; a call to re-evaluate the role impermanent structures play in the civic life of our cities. The current default expectation of temporary architecture to act as a cheap prototype for long-lasting civic involvement undermines its true role in the making of public spaces.
The government plans to put €60 million of taxpayers' money into Public Greenways for two reasons; firstly, to offer the public a physical amenity and secondly, as an attempt to increase green forms of transport. This €60 million forms part of the larger annual €360 million to be spent on so-called 'active travel'.
Greenways take on many shapes across Ireland and have proved to be successful in cities such as Cork and Waterford, as well as straddling the canals from Dublin to the midlands. They offer their communities spaces for cycling, walking and running. Promoting this 'active travel' helps to reduce emissions and encourages the public to connect with their natural environment.
However, greenways are more than just a route that brings the user from A to B. There are a host of ancillaries that are needed to accompany this public infrastructure for it to function. For the purpose of this article, two greenways nestled on different sides of the Wicklow Mountains are compared. To the east is the Greenway that circumnavigates the Vartry Reservoir and to the west, one which sits on the banks of what's known as the Blessington Lakes or Poulaphouca Reservoir. The Blessington Greenway is partially complete, with the remainder of the project under consideration by An Bord Pleanála. While the Vartry Greenway is not perfect, it demonstrates a successful greenway sitting on an important piece of infrastructure. Vartry and Poulaphouca between them supply nearly three-quarters of the greater Dublin Area's water supply.
The Vartry Greenway was opened in 2018 and has proved a successful public amenity for the adjacent village of Roundwood and for visitors and tourists. The route is used for a variety of outdoor activities. It also provides a safe place for walkers and runners during the winter months as alternative unlit roads in rural Ireland prove dangerous for pedestrians.
The materiality of the Vartry Greenway emphasises sustainability. The paths are non-intrusive in the landscape, made from reclaimed road tarmac. You can find the white and yellow paint from roads at your feet as you meander along the lake's edge. Any bridges or walkways that cross rivers, streams, or unstable ground are simple grated metal structures with rough concrete reinforcements, complementary against the rough and grey Wicklow granite blocks that finish the existing Victorian structures built with the reservoir nearly two-hundred years ago.
The Vartry Greenway demonstrates how existing infrastructure can be reused or made to work harder for the public. The greenway at Vartry crosses over an existing earthen dam, as well as existing bridges that cross the reservoir. It is a clear example of maximising the use of the existing structure.
A new path connects the village directly to the greenway. The village’s public toilets have been refurbished and are now offered to the users who avail of this public space. Public toilets in themselves are a rare find but essential when attached to such a large piece of public infrastructure.
The Vartry Greenway is successful due to the following elements: it does not impede the high visual amenity of the landscape that it sets out to show; it connects back to an urban area and in turn offers the inhabitants and tourists an amenity; and finally, the urban area it connects to is not being placed under strain – there are sufficient public toilets, parking, and road infrastructure to cope with increased visitors to the area.
In contrast, the Blessington Greenway – which has a section running from the town of Blessington to Russborough House Estate already complete – lacks elements that would ensure its success. The rest of the project currently under consideration has been tarnished with issues due to a lack of public consultation, bypassing locals' concerns.
The scale of the Blessington Greenway is far greater than Vartry, so it inadvertently attracts more issues with the higher number of users. The proposed pathway is over three metres in width and is finished in tarmac. The extent of the route and need to keep it relatively flat has led to an immense amount of 'rock armour' being placed around the shores of the lake for erosive protection. It proves extremely obstructive to the picturesque landscape the greenway is attempting to show off and connect to. As well, the size of this pathway requires the felling of thousands of trees, again damaging the landscape both ecologically and visually.
The villages around the Blessington Lakes along the greenway are connected by a series of concrete bridges built in the 1930s. Instead of installing simple walkways as part of the new route, or upgrading these bridges, the department intends to trim the bridges down to a single lane and introduce traffic lights on either end. This will restrict farm machinery from using the bridges and further disperses the farming communities around the reservoir (who have been separated by the creation and flooding of the Reservoir for the benefit of Dublin residents since the 1940s).
Possibly the most concerning issue with the department's plan is the lack of a single public toilet to accompany this massive piece of public infrastructure. The counter-argument put forward is that if they were to place public toilets so close to the edge of Ireland’s largest supply of drinking water, it would provide a serious public health issue. The department instead expects users of the public amenity to avail of toilets within private businesses in the villages around the lake.
For a sense of scale, there is no secondary school in any of these villages, some of them have a pub and nothing else, and others are no more than a hamlet. The expectation that these tiny local businesses will be able to suddenly accommodate the significant expected influx of people that will come with this greenway is mistaken. In any case, if greenway users cannot avail of public sanitation (a human need, not a want) it could lead to people having to relieve themselves just off the greenway. In this way, the department’s concern for public health issues becomes a reality.
When basic factors like sanitation, accessibility, and surface are taken into consideration greenways offer a simple yet vital piece of public infrastructure. Vartry Greenway strikes the balance between infrastructure, amenity, and protecting the very landscape it seeks to appreciate – all factors that require further consideration as we enter the final stages of the Blessington Greenway project.
October 3, 2022
Working Hard / Hardly Working
The demand for successful public spaces and amenities remains on the agenda as we continue to move forward post Covid-19. While the public finds ways to reclaim or improve civic spaces, the government is looking to construct new forms of them. Greenways form part of these planned public spaces, providing an area in which to connect to the natural landscape and maintain a link between our built and natural environments.
The quality of the public realm and the provision of open spaces for congregation have long been recognised as having an important role in contributing to liveability in urban agglomerations. The climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic have shifted our priorities when it comes to the design of our cities. In the planning context, priority is now increasingly given to active modes of transport, such as walking and cycling . These points were eloquently covered in an article earlier this month on Type with observations regarding various spaces in Dublin. This piece looks specifically at the themes of permeability and inclusion.
Numerous studies have shown the negative impacts of car-dominated cities . With the added urgency of a climate crisis, urban planners and associated disciplines are now striving to create more accessible and safer environments for pedestrians and cyclists. Many areas of Dublin city centre are becoming, or going through trials to become, fully or partially pedestrianised. These include Capel Street, Parliament Street, South Anne Street, Dame Court, Drury Street and South William Street. Dublin City Council has had a long-held ambition to pedestrianise College Green. These initiatives will provide additional open spaces in the city, as well as enhance permeability at different scales.
In broad terms, permeability can be understood as “the extent to which an urban area permits the movement of people by walking or cycling” . Permeability relates to pedestrian freedom and street-level experience. It should encourage easy access with multiple options. Once emphasis is given to both pedestrian and cyclist movements, some controversial opinions have been raised by those affected by the proposals. The many issues raised include: the need for additional transport to access establishments; the lack of signage informing people about the extents of traffic diversions; a perceived lack of safety due to conflict with cyclists, to mention only a few.
These arguments raise the ongoing debate of the ‘right to the city’, a concept explored by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his book The Production of Space. In this, he argues that the city is an oeuvre, which means a collective work in which all its citizens participate. As a collective work, cities should be accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds. In practical terms, the ‘right to the city’ approach contradicts the intention to filter users of the public realm. Public space should be, in essence, a space of inclusion. However, the compulsory nature of having to own a car in order to have either access, or priority of access, to certain places creates exclusion.
Through this lens, it is possible to argue that a car-free zone is simply a measure to give citizens the right to appropriate space (occupy, use, work, live, etc.). Lefebvre calls this 'representational space'. He refers to the right to participate in decision-making at various political scales as 'representations of space'. Lefebvre argues that cities are 'socially produced' through their use as public spaces, as a result they become representational, appropriated in use .
Whether these spaces are inclusive to allow social interaction to happen or not, is also closely related to their management . In this case, spatial management refers to the way a space is physically and psychologically controlled and maintained. In other words, it refers to the methods used by owners to establish their rules.
Concerns and disputes around pedestrianisation schemes in Dublin are directly related to a crucial part of any design proposal, which is the quality of being cyclical. Implementing, testing, and managing are critical stages for any design development. These need to be founded on solid analysis that will, as a consequence, support safety, economy and vibrancy.
Drawing on an analysis of the Irish planning system hierarchy, from top to bottom, it is possible to see an overall recognition of the importance of improving the existing public realm and the provision for active modes of transport, such as walking . In theory, all stakeholders should support a better distribution of and greater accessibility to these spaces as part of move towards more permeable and inclusive environments.
Aligned with the climate crisis, the issue is far from being solely about a desire for more pedestrianised areas. In fact, it is about the provision of additional public open spaces in the city, and the need to address possible limitations in management of spaces over time. This way proposals can achieve their full potential and create a more inclusive city for all.
September 26, 2022
For the first time in decades, urban planners are designing for people first, before cars. Dublin’s pedestrianisation isn’t about enabling a certain lifestyle, it’s an empowering act, making an accessible city for all people. This article demonstrates how the permeability of spaces can foster social inclusion.
How can farmers be better supported by our urban centres?
Alma Clavin and Carla M. Kayanan
Alma Clavin and Carla M. Kayanan
Michael K. Hayes
Recent debates around farmers, food production, and climate action have, at their core, a plethora of varying and conflicting imaginaries about rural landscapes, rural livelihoods, and an imagined divide with rural areas pitted against urban areas. In the provocatively titled article, ‘Townies v culchies’, Flynn and Lavin reference the culture wars unfurling around agricultural emissions reduction in Ireland in our preparation for a just transition . Similar debates are happening right across Europe with media in the Netherlands recently drawing attention to this perceived binary. To have a just transition means to put in place the framework to support workers and communities susceptible to risk as we move towards a low carbon economy. Deciding what structures to put in place necessitates rupturing the rural-urban binary to achieve fresh thinking on the connection between rural spaces and urban centres. Problematically, as Flynn and Lavin astutely conclude, ‘the urban rural divide may only deepen in years to come’.
Whether we recognise it or not, people’s ideas about cities and urban centres are shaped by grievances, desires, and fears. Farmers travel to Dublin to protest in front of the government buildings they see as staunch representations of centralised power. Understandings of the urban are often reduced to ideas about high-density inner-cities juxtaposed with ‘remote’ rural towns and villages. And even though the ‘rural idyll’ is not accepted by all rural dwellers (nor all urban dwellers), it remains a strong geographical imagination that impacts where people choose to live, visit, and locate themselves.
Inherently, these bifurcated imaginaries are not a bad thing. Place and our surroundings shape who we are as human beings traversing variegated landscapes. However, what is problematic is the influence the rural-urban binary is having on shaping policies that impact our potential for a just transition. A just transition that incorporates decent jobs and a better quality of life appears to be a ‘no brainer’. Yet accomplishing this requires a paradigmatic shift in our historically entrenched and collective imagination about ‘the rural’ and ‘the urban’. It means accepting that, fundamentally, the rural and urban are inextricably linked and deeply interconnected. To negate and deny this complex relationship opens the possibility for problematic, fragmented policies. Alternatively, accepting this relationship and seeking ways to strengthen it will result in policies that enhance livelihoods and wellbeing for all.
This is already happening in some places. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly’s (NWRA) Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (2018) embraces thinking beyond the traditional rural-urban divide to consider enhanced forms of interconnection. NWRA’s map of their sub-regions acknowledges existing links to Dublin as an urban centre and draws on them as potential ‘catchment’ areas to enable economic opportunities. While we would push for greater balance between the sub-regions and nearer, smaller urban centres (i.e. Donegal Town, Sligo, Letterkenny, etc.), the point is that regional flows exist – from our most rural spaces to urban centres – and these can and should be leveraged to produce more just futures.
At county level, there may be erroneous sentiments that ‘urban’ measures are foisted upon rural areas. For example, urban containment policies can be seen to be ‘anti-rural’, and yet, urban centres are key for farmers and food enterprises to access local markets and sell and produce locally. Pathways for a just transition involve diversification and re-localisation, to view interlinkages and value chains for farmers first in their local area, then in their nearest urban centres, and later larger metropolitan areas. Re-localising and focusing on value-added and shorter value chains requires integrated thinking, rather than silo thinking.
Examples of dependencies on the rural-urban continuum include: enhancing the dynamism and attractiveness of urban living to contain urban centres and maintain their vibrancy; improving broadband connection to expand remote working options and revive small towns and villages; and creating strong farm-to-city table access links through shared food processing units, farm shops, farmers markets, and market gardening to widen the farmer’s economic reach and sustain urban centres. However, enhancing and availing of this continuum requires appropriate policy, vision, finance, and placemaking support at both the local authority and central government level to attract people into towns and villages and open up markets and spaces.
To think about and foster a cohesive regional imaginary and bring the above examples to fruition, we need to acknowledge that urban and rural areas are both products and shapers of economic, political, and social processes that operate at varying scales. Yes, just transition solutions grow from place and, yes, local place-based solutions are important, but we need new imaginaries that also go beyond the ‘local’. Place is important in identifying just transition solutions but all parts of Ireland – rural, villages, small towns, and metropolitan areas – have different existing relationships to each other. New and existing organisations focusing on novel models of food production, forestry, and agriculture need flexible forms of support to cater for growth and creativity .
The scholar Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) has likened space to movement and place to pauses – stops along the way . Our locations, locales, and our sense of place are hugely significant in supporting a just transition, but equally significant are the spatial flows of transport, infrastructures and investments. Rather than perpetuating an urban-rural binary in policy and identity, a just transition will be most effective when we adopt more dynamic and integrated approaches. Only then are we able to effectively answer the question of how farmers can be better supported by our urban centres. In doing this, we can also determine how best to support farmers as food producers and their continued identity as custodians of our landscapes.
September 19, 2022
Recent debates around farming and climate action have, at their core, an imagined divide between rural and urban areas. Rather than perpetuate this urban-rural binary in policy, a just transition will be most effective when we adopt a more integrated regional-scale understanding of city and country. Only then can we determine how best to support farmers as food producers and custodians of our landscapes.
A decade ago this month, Dublin City Council published its first-ever public realm strategy, Your City, Your Space . It drew particular attention to historic paving as “a fundamental part of the identity of the city centre”, pledging that “mapping and maintaining this to agreed standards must form part of the city’s overall approach to the public realm”.
The “floor” of Dublin’s historic core – especially what survives of its granite footpaths, kerbstones and diorite street setts – was to be treated with respect, rather than remaining “vulnerable to damage and incremental loss” or, worse still, casually discarded as these elements were in the past, after concrete and asphalt became the standard materials.
The Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022 also pledged, in policy CHC15, to “preserve, repair and retain in situ, historic elements of significance in the public realm including … any historic kerbing and setts”, identified in two long schedules of streets, and to “promote high standards for design, materials and workmanship in public realm improvements”.
This is repeated in policy BHA18 of the draft Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028, which goes even further in pledging to promote “conservation best practice” in public realm improvements within areas of historic character, “having regard to the national advice series on Paving: The Conservation of Historic Ground Surfaces”, published in 2015.
Yet anyone who takes a casual stroll through Dublin city centre would surely see that the state of its footpaths and carriageways is extremely poor, with missing granite kerbstones and holes dug in cobbled streets crudely filled by asphalt that’s left in situ, not for days or weeks, but rather months and even years before the surface is properly reinstated.
There is no sense that the public realm is cared for or looked after. Along with the endless proliferation of bollards, poles, traffic signs, and utility boxes that litter Dublin’s principal streets, the slapdash treatment of historic stone paving compares very unfavourably with other European cities that cherish their heritage, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
As I noted in A Little History of the Future of Dublin, the council itself continues to be the worst offender, with little or no evidence that its Road Maintenance division has paid any attention to national-level guidance or the high aspirations of Your City, Your Space or, indeed, the declared policies of successive democratically-adopted development plans.
“RM”, as it is known with dread among professionals, operates under its own Construction Standards for Road and Street Works in Dublin City Council (October 2015), which runs to 249 pages. Contrary to best conservation practice, it recommends using poured tar (“50-pen bitumen”) to finish the joints between street setts that were laid too widely apart and now pockmarked by bottle caps.
Differences in standards and priorities is certainly a factor in the city's poor-quality public realm. One such example is the long-running renovation of Temple Bar Square: a bureaucratic “turf war” in Dublin City Council resulted in GKMP Architects and Amsterdam-based REDscape being dismissed from the project in December 2019, when the Roads division wrested control of it from the Parks department . A revised version of the scheme is meant to go ahead this autumn, but don’t bank on it.
There are exceptions to these frustrations. O’Connell Street was re-paved more than fifteen years ago, with wider granite-flagged footpaths and a square of limestone street setts in front of the GPO, defined by clipped and pleached lime trees. Despite carrying heavy traffic, these setts have fared remarkably well because they were properly bedded to withstand years of pummelling.
Another exemplar is little-known May Lane, linking Bow Street and Church Street, where a cambered carriageway of mixed granite and limestone setts was expertly laid by Sisk’s in 2008 following completion of the colourful King’s Building on its southern side. The contrast between this and Temple Lane, in the midst of Dublin’s “cultural quarter”, is very stark. However, in the absence of council-wide standards that consider material wear and tear, historical context, and pedestrian safety, such interventions will remain irregular and scattered across the city.
The best results are produced by local authorities where there are the structures and personnel in place to support good public space design, such as in Waterford. Here, City Architect Rupert Maddock leads a team dedicated to developing and improving the urban public realm, with the result being a cohesive and connected series of pedestrian-focused spaces that have transformed the city centre.
What’s needed in Dublin is a similar approach to urban design, one which breaks down DCC’s “silo mentality” by setting up an inter-disciplinary team of dedicated officials drawn from different departments — City Architects, Parks, Planning, and Roads — to take charge of public realm projects. Only then will there be a chance of implementing a coherent strategy to upgrade the city’s neglected public spaces.
September 12, 2022
One Good Idea
A decade ago this month, Dublin City Council published its first-ever public realm strategy, yet anyone who takes a casual stroll through the city centre would surely see that the state of its footpaths and carriageways is extremely poor. What the city is missing is an inter-disciplinary design team of dedicated experts to reimagine our streets and squares. Only then will we see meaningful change.
Streets are the elemental public resource that every citizen can enjoy. William H. Whyte describes streets in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces  as the “connectors” within the urban structure or, “the rivers of life of the city - the places where people come to participate in urban life.” Cars have been dominating the streetscape of our cities in the past decades, pushing people inside their homes. Local authorities saw the lack of vehicles during lockdowns as an opportunity to initiate plans for people-centric spaces in their cities and towns. Dublin reassessed its relationship with the public realm with increased pedestrianisation and cycle connectivity and improvement to the green spaces within the city. This article discusses how the provision of street furniture has a distinct impact on the reshaping of the urban fabric within the capital of the country.
At first glance, the transformed South William Street looks pleasantly busy. During the pandemic, the street promised a glimpse of the normality that everyone was craving. But behind the hustle-bustle, there is just one lone bench that forms somewhere to rest as part of the street’s public fabric - discounting the Powerscourt steps, where you might be hosed down unceremoniously. The rest of the street furniture is privately owned by restaurateurs. This issue of the hazy ownership of the city’s fabric is analogous to many other streets in the inner city. While the repaving and increased footpath that many streets have seen since March 2020 allows people to socialise outdoors safely, many of these streets project the narrative that the city is only accessible to a specific group of people; those who can afford to, the patrons who can go to these pubs and restaurants. These new urban measures haven’t taken into account groups such as teenagers or the elderly, who may not have the disposable income to frequent the spots they wish to be in to experience the city. They have no place on these streets and face the risk of social exclusion.
How democratic are these spaces? In her book Purity and Danger ,Mary Douglas writes about the history of the city and its ambition to keep the centre of the city clean and pure, discarding the other, less desirable, elements of the city to the peripheries. This ambition heightens the rose-tinted image of the colourful, manicured appearance of the city and is promoting the contemporary condition of the city as a space for consumption. Pedestrian measures within the inner city have been exemplifying the obsession with the central spaces of the city and the ignorance towards the areas that the working class inhabit. Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology at LSE, claims that the key issue with urban spaces in our cities is civility. The key element that needs to be embedded in the urban fabric is enabling different types of people to come together within the complexity of the city. At its core, a city should be welcoming, accessible and diverse.
The streetscape of the coast road in Dún Laoghaire saw transformation with redesigned pedestrian paths and a greenway connecting the Coast Road of South Dublin from Blackrock to Dalkey. Here the transformation of the street aims to improve the relationship of the people with the coast. The simple gesture of creating the pedestrian zone along the coastal end allows for opportunities for the street to spill out, and to create pockets of parks. Frequent street furniture allows citizens to take a moment to pause to simply observe the city and occupy their streets or catch up with their neighbours and friends. These micro public spaces provide habitable space for different people all through the day; joggers and parents in the morning dropping their kids off to school, the elderly during the middle of the day, and the teenagers, young adults and professionals later in the evening- all the while improving the green footprint of the city.
The city is a living organism and not a static entity, sensitive to external stimuli. The role of public space is constantly evolving with the socio-economic ebbs and flows of a place. We need to mobilise the recently reinvigorated global interest in public space to enable different groups of people to occupy and in doing so celebrate the complexity of our cities and towns. The Danish urbanist Jan Gehl in his book Life between Buildings  classified people's activities into three categories: necessary activities (such as going to work or running errands); optional activities (such as going for a walk or standing around); and social activities (such as children playing or people talking). He concluded that social activities are far more likely to occur in places of high quality; in well-designed urban spaces. Dublin needs more spaces that focus on social regeneration, on spaces that do not depend on spending money just to sit and catch up with a friend.
September 5, 2022
Working Hard / Hardly Working
The change in perspective that the “stay home, stay safe” Covid-19 experience provided accelerated the manifestation of the urbanist ideas of the liveable city. While some could enjoy their back gardens, for others, public space presented the only opportunity to relax and socialise outdoors. Many cities and towns of Ireland had to physically transform as a reaction to the pandemic, to provide better access to the public realm allowing people to connect in a new way.
The ‘City Edge’ project is a strategic framework for the regeneration of 700 hectares of land to the south-west of Dublin city centre. The lands span between the Naas Road, Ballymount, Park West and Cherry Orchard, an area which is currently predominantly industrial estates. The framework sets out to transform the familiar yet unremarkable landscape of cars, tarmac and sheds into a thriving green suburb, a new city within the city. The size of the framework area is roughly that of Dublin city as bounded by the canals. Its ambition is to increase the living population by fifteen times, from 5,000 currently estimated to between 75,000 and 85,000 people, rivalling Galway, Ireland’s fourth largest city. It sets out targets to be a zero-carbon city, with localised energy production, carbon-negative buildings and a circular waste ecosystem.
The plan aims to grow this new city through transport-orientated development. Amongst the many initiatives outlined in the development, there are proposals for a new Luas and rail interchange at Kylemore with the potential extension of the Luas line to Lucan and a new Luas stop on the Naas road. The development area is imagined as more than just a satellite to Dublin, it is a self-contained green neighbourhood, with all liveable amenities available with a short walk for residents, a form of compact growth described in Project Ireland 2040.
The project is a joint venture between two local authorities, Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council as it spans over both of their lands. The framework is being developed by a design team lead by Rotterdam- and London-based MacCreanor Lavington (architecture and urban design), Dublin-based Urban Agency (architecture and urban design), Avison Young (land use planning), Grant Associates (landscape), SYSTRA (transport planning), RSK / Nicholas O’Dwyer (engineering/environmental), and IAC (archaeology and heritage).
The ‘City Edge’ plan is significant in that it is one of the largest urban regeneration projects ever undertaken in Ireland. The design process was ignited using the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund established by Ireland 2040. It will be a key test of the promise of Ireland 2040 for these two Irish local authorities to deliver in concert. The site’s proximity to Adamstown, another new town planned using principles of transport-orientated development, is a reminder of how good design needs to be matched with good and speedy implementation. Much of Adamstown’s physical, social and community infrastructure is still in the process of delivery after more than fifteen years.
Similarly, the bureaucratic complications of falling between the jurisdiction of two separate local authorities will mean the scheme will need to be sure of its identity, it might even need its own development authority, such as the Dublin Docklands. Is the city-edge too self-effacing a title? It will need to extract the character and heritage of the existing area and be more than just the edge of something greater.
The project was published for four weeks of non-statutory public consultation, ending on 6 October 2021. By the end of this year, the Strategic Framework Plan is expected to be finalised with a preferred scenario for development put forward. In 2022 a statutory plan will be drawn up based on the strategic framework. Once this plan has gone through the statutory processes and formally adopted, key projects and infrastructure from the plan will be implemented.
November 25, 2021
Future reference is a time capsule where we report on interesting developments and debates happening around the island of Ireland. It is both meant to keep our readers informed on current developments and also enlighten future researchers on what we were thinking about in this place, during this time. For our first dispatch, we’re looking at the significant proposals for the Naas Road/Ballymount area to the south-west of Dublin.
The quintessential Victorian Factory has been a particularly reactive typology. Oscillating between industry and domesticity, these once intimidating laborious behemoths drew masses commuting from rural outskirts to urban centres bringing high-density and mass disease. A place from which to escape.
The industrial decline in the 1980s saw factories across the Island of Ireland ceasing operations with their cavernous rooms being developed into protective apartments. This change-of-use re-situated the factory at the opposing end of the commute; home, a place to return.
However, 2020, the year of working-from-home (WFH), saw the sudden compression of the average commute, a short walk from bed to desk, bringing with it the reintroduction of production to these residential factories of slumber. Fluctuating between the conforming atmosphere of work and the individuality of home has led to the rapid deterritorialisation of domesticity and industry leading to our personal lives percolating through work spheres; bold pets appearing on camera adding frivolous zest and breaking the guard held between colleagues, prosaic office cups replaced by heart-warming ‘Worlds Best Mum’mugs that brew and leak personality which lines the bookshelf backdrops of ubiquitous Zoommeeting mosaics.
This viral driven explosion of individuality in the new domestic ‘workplace’ contrasts with the sterile offices which often suppress personality, replacing it with abstracted emblems of power and profit. With an office vacancy rate of 4.5% (57,600,000sq.ft) in the UK, it is time to interrogate the workplace. WFH has benefits, but there is distance behind the screen.
Domestic industrypermits the office to no longer be an area of sustained engagement, allowing it to become a space primarily for exchange. With excess commercial space and the continued prevalence of hot-desk Teams meetings, urban plots could be freed up for more gregarious, community working-space. Google playgrounds may not be enough - there is potential for systematic change. Leading co-working spaces likeSecond Home inject domestic kitsch into the office, while others like JuggleHub offer childcare co-working facilities, synthesising life and work.
The Victorian factory has hosted every aspect of human life, once a place of disease, now a place of protection. The varying hues of our lives are separated by walls which COVID-19 have proven, are no longer there. Through questioning the absolutes of building typologies, we could begin to weave together the multiple facets of our lives. Just as work has colonised the home, the home may domesticate the workplace.
November 24, 2021
Viral outbreaks have historically redefined workplace culture. The impact of the Black Death (1381) on the Peasant's Revolt being only one example. As we surface from the latest viral visitation, architecture is morphing to remain relevant. The home has been colonised, but what will the ‘new normal’ for the workplace be?
Inside, a gathering of about forty people are being hushed and encouraged to take seats around the circular assembly of chairs laid out by those first in the door. When an air of collective quiet calm has at last settled in the room we look to two figures in the inner central line of the assembly as they begin to chair tonight's main discussion points that directly affect the future of the building and the people who now sit within it. This is one of the first Community Land Trust assembly meetings for this particular inner city community and it is the turn of the local hairdresser and the cobbler to direct the continued discussions pertaining to how the needs of this community might and can align with the opportunities this substantial property offers. Tonight our focus is on the immediate housing needs of those working on the street – whether as employees or local business owners – and what proportion of the building should be allocated to low-rent, high-spec housing. There is a palpable sense of optimism following the success of the previous meeting when the space we are currently in was consensually allocated to daytime childcare needs and an autonomous space for teenagers to meet and create projects in the evenings.
Eight months previously the seeds for this initiative were sown in a local café through an ongoing conversation concerned with how part of the street was beginning to be redeveloped and how the local media had reported that this was being done with the ‘support of the local community’. Members of said community were wondering why they had not heard of this project, never mind the fact that they were assumed to be part of its inception. Conversations began being structured into discussions and processes put in place to support the development of a real community-led initiative. This small group of people grew into a proportionate body representative of the mixed and sometimes conflicting needs and interests cast across the community of this historic city street.
In time a tripartite governance structure was secured in the building of a Community Land Trust that included the actual local community, a smaller collective that would be actively living/ working/ engaging with the space on an ongoing basis, and a group representing the local authority. The first achievement of this trust was in obtaining the red brick building from the HSE that had not been in use for many years previously. Taking this property permanently off the market and into the hand of the CLT secures permanently affordable homes, grassroots-led governing structures and creative use of empty spaces led by the immediate needs articulated by this community through a direct democratic process of common assemblies. We are now working on obtaining further empty properties across Cork city. This is only the beginning.
November 21, 2021
One Good Idea
At the top corner of a steep hilly street in Cork city I join a patchy procession of people entering the old red brick building whose doors have been closed for the past five years. The narrow passage into the generously sized meeting room still betrays that musty, stale smell of neglect that such buildings embody through the absence of life and use.
Letterkenny Market Square, in County Donegal, and Pembroke Square, of the Dundrum Town Centre, Dublin, have both undergone a period of change. While the northern square in Dundrum has flourished and been transformed, Letterkenny Market Square has slipped further and further from the busy public hub it once was. Both spaces are lined by a two-storey enclosure and are adjacent to their town’s main thoroughfare. They are also both only accessible on foot and are part of the central commercial area. However, because of the treatment of the squares’ edges, the resulting urban spaces have strikingly different manifestations.
What was once a vibrant, busy public space, Letterkenny Market Square is now barely used. In the past it housed the bus stop to the north, shops, services and eateries line the east and west, and the square was completed with the grandeur of the sandstone bank at the south. However, between this built edge and the square, there is now a road with slow-moving, but constant traffic.
The road pulls the edge away from the square, isolating the green space, removing the surrounding activity. To access the square, pedestrians must divert from the Main Street, meander through the flow of cars, and pass through one of the gates along the fixed low wall at the periphery. The square is no longer accessible in a causal way, only as a deliberate move. And there is little to motivate local residents to do so. Within the square itself, you can find only sporadic seating and some planting.
While the square is edged with a low wall, the tall planting along each side creates a visual blockade and prevents the square from being overlooked. The cover and shading from the public eye has attracted antisocial behaviour. In a downward spiral, because the edge has pulled away, the square becomes less attractive and usable. Because the square is no longer used, the peripheral businesses move their premises elsewhere. And because the square is not used, nor overlooked, and has a visual block, it became a spot for antisocial behaviour. It is a vicious cycle and what was once known for the bustling market hub, has become a place to avoid.
Letterkenny is a busy town. In addition to its own residents, the urban area serves the many surrounding rural populations. The square is a public space that needs to work harder. Currently, all green spaces in Letterkenny are both decentralised and delineated with walls and borders. The square has the potential to provide a well needed free space in a busy town, and with some simple, clever design, it can.
In contrast, the Dundrum Town Centre Pembroke Square has undergone a recent urban renewal. The square was formerly a relatively desolate space, only used to pass through. The monotonous paving was occasionally occupied by a large marquee for events, however, even this did not serve the urban space well, as it created another firm edge within an already lifeless area.
Now the square is a vibrant hub of activity. It provides lots of ways to use the space - pods to gather in, picnic tables to eat on, younger people lounge and socialise on the shaded steps, children play in the central water jets. And this is without taking into account the numerous bustling food trucks, cafes, and restaurants that line the square with tables and chairs.
The edge has remained active. The built periphery has a variety of uses - everything from shops and eateries, to living spaces and bars. The square is occupied and overlooked at all times, and the space remains somewhere safe and sociable. Visiting the Dundrum square now is a pleasure. It is always lively. By keeping the active edge wrapped directly around the open space, as opposed to being separated by a road, it allows the urban realm to thrive.
By keeping the edge active, indulging a variety of uses, and providing liberating free spaces, these squares, which were intended for people, enable the ‘urban’ to be successful.
November 20, 2021
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Public spaces have never before been so valued. As a result of the global pandemic, activity has moved ‘out’, from private dwellings to the public realm. In Ireland, there had seemed almost a reticence to using shared space before the pandemic. However, as we found ways to re-enter society in a safe and social way, our parks, squares, and streets became our urban saviours.