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From Letterkenny to Dundrum

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell
20/11/2021

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.

Pembroke Square, Dundrum, Dublin

The square has the potential to provide a well needed free space in a busy town, and with some simple, clever design, it can.

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.

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.

Working Hard / Hardly Working is an article series designed to promote the use and organisation of public space. By presenting two examples - one which works well, and one which needs to work harder - it highlights the importance of clever design, and how considered decisions can make our shared spaces better. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact doireann@type.ie.

Market Square, Letterkenny, Donegal

References

A competition held to re-imagine Letterkenny Market Square, titled ' A space for people', has been won by Joseph McCallion. Shortlisted entries and the winning design can be found here.

Contributors

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell has a strong interest in the city as a place for all. An editor of TYPE.ie, and previous contributor/editor to publications including Architecture Ireland, house+design and 2ha, she is the former editor for ‘The University Observer’ in UCD, establishing the ‘Art & Architecture’ section of the newspaper. Doireann holds a MArch from UCD, and received a nomination for Dissertation of the Year for her research. She currently works as an Architectural Graduate for McCullough Mulvin Architects. Doireann views architectural writing and criticism as essential to the improvement of our shared spaces.

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Metropolitan duality: Cork and Naples explored through the Venturi lens

Niamh Hurley
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Aragonese walls and housing block through reflective framed device, Naples

While Cork city is often likened to Venice for its comparable canal system beneath its main streets, its architectural and urban characteristics draw parallels to another Italian city: Naples. Like Cork, Naples is a port city with a rich architectural history stemming from the mediaeval and industrial periods, however, their architectural characters and urbanist developments diverge significantly. 

The city of Naples embodies Venturi’s ideas, through its honky-tonk architecture, with various contrasting epochs stitched together into one elevational run. Structure, facade, stairs, fenestration: all elements become urban characters of a centuries-old play known to the locals as La Città (The City). This eclectic approach to urbanism results from the continual layering up of architecture upon architecture, fragments upon fragment, all with a keen desire to preserve, protect, and most importantly, maintain each architectural style. 

Cork city has an opportunity to draw inspiration from the Neapolitan character by investigating its development through the lens of Venturi's theories presented in his text, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. By juxtaposing similar examples from both cities, a connection between Neapolitan theatrics and Cork city’s architectural and urban framework can be discerned.

St. Augustine’s Church, Cork

City gates

Monumental gateways of former entry points are present in both cities. Portas are embedded into the Neapolitan urban environment, creating porous penetrations into the city’s historic centre. Traversing beneath these oversized portals is a colloquial experience. While most of these city gates have been demolished or disappeared over the centuries, fragments of their existence are scattered throughout the city. Four of the most intact examples are Port'Alba, Porta San Gennaro, Porta Nolana, and Porta Capuana. Nolana and Capuana are former entry points of the Aragonese fortification walls, flanked by two towers on either side. Both are embedded into the surrounding urban fabric, with housing blocks capturing portions of the former fortifications. This variegated facade, which conjoins the massive scale of the Aragonese arch and the human-sized domestic architecture into one elevation, embodies what Venturi refers to as ‘superadjacency’.

Bishop Lucey Park gateway, Cork

Looking at Cork city, similar giants appear, however, they take on an alien appearance compared to their surroundings. This is the case for the gateway that serves as the entrance to Bishop Lucey Park, known to Corkonians as the People’s Park. The double-arched entrance is reconstructed from the 1850’s Cork Cornmarket, a former marketplace, not located on the park’s derelict site, but instead at Coal Quay less than 500m away. Flanked by low stone walls and metal railings, recent development plans for the park include the removal of these adjacent structures while allowing the gateway to remain. The threshold becomes monumental rather than transitional. This form of symbolic architecture, represented as fragments of the whole, can be understood as “economical because it implies richness and meaning beyond itself” without the need for the whole [1]. However, care for its continuing existence in the chosen context is key. The gateway to the park rescripts its history into a fraudulent one, a contradiction, but not necessarily the form which Venturi discusses. Approaching by means of inversion, removing the deceptive, and creating a void to signify this entry adheres to the Venturi's idea of fragmentation while remaining faithful to Cork's history.

Urban ecclesiastics

Venturi's theories are not lost on Cork city. It is in the ecclesiastical spaces where these theories are effectively realised. This effectiveness may stem from the proximity of neighbouring buildings, resulting in a densely complex and interconnected urban fabric reminiscent of Neapolitan city development. One example is St Augustine’s Church on Washington Street. The second of its kind on the site, this church designed by architect Dominic O’Connor and completed in 1943, embeds itself into the streetscape, matching street lines and eave heights [2]. Contradictions appear in its material usage and elongated stained glass windows. The scale of the chiselled stone facade compared to the adjacent brickwork follows a height ratio of 3:1 and 5:1 and a width ratio of 2:1. Glazed openings extend to the fourth-storey height with no external breaks. The entry point on Washington Street is marked by a Hiberno-Romanesque style archway, double the height of its central door and those surrounding it. 

Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, Naples.

Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo in Naples follows a similar over-scaling of architectural features with a more theatrical approach. Typical fenestration proportions are kept, while the scale is magnified to an almost caricature-like quality. Duality is present in its glazed elements; becoming what Venturi describes as “as both structural and ornamental, frequently redundant, and sometimes vestigial” [3]. 

By allowing these structures to play both against and with their architectural context, each element becomes a character in the city’s shared theatrical stage. This extreme multiplicity “reads like a unity through a tendency of the parts to change scale, and to be perceived as an overall pattern or texture”, creating an architecturally theatrical city that seeks to celebrate and conserve its elaborate and paradoxical history [4].

8/4/2024
Working Hard / Hardly Working

Robert Venturi's postmodernist theories, outlined in his 1966 book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture", have significantly influenced urban development. This article examines how two cities, Cork and Naples, have responded differently to these concepts through an analysis of similar heritage spaces, illustrating how one place’s adoption of these ideas may influence the development trajectory of the other.

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The autumnal earth: the Irish National War Memorial Gardens

Tom Cookson
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Tom Cookson
James Haynes

"We have found safety with all things undying,

The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,

The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying,

And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth".

Extract from ‘Safety’ by Rupert Brooke, 1914.

Located on the southern edge of Phoenix Park in Dublin is the Irish National War Memorial Gardens (1930-39). On arrival one is drawn to a modest structure framed by trees. Inscribed here is a fragment of a poem by Rupert Brooke, the great English war poet. He wrote these words at the tender age of twenty-seven, and was shortly to depart for war, where he perished soon after.

Sentinels guarding a multi-layered threshold, a play of mass and volume at the Irish Memorial Gardens.

The Irish Memorial Gardens were designed by the English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) at the height of his creative powers, in the twilight of his career. His masterpieces in New Delhi and Thiepval were complete, and he was designing Liverpool Cathedral, feted to rival that of St Peter’s in Rome. Under the auspices of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) – and its visionary director Fabian Ware – Lutyens had been directly involved in the design of 137 cemeteries and memorials following World War I, and was the spiritual and architectural lodestone for hundreds more. Yet his career began with domestic work in the Arts & Crafts style, commissions and acclaim garnered through the unique patronage of Country Life magazine. As his reputation grew, he was increasingly tasked with civic projects. His mature style, commensurately, is in the Classical tradition; yet bridging the domestic and civic is in many ways the story of his life, and that of the Irish Memorial Gardens.

While civic perhaps falls short of the breadth of Lutyens reach, he was also seeking the universal. He had a belief that perfect shapes and relationships have an eternal relevance, and are reflections of divinity [1]. This is evidenced in the layout he devised at the Irish Memorial Gardens. By composing a series of circular spaces, connected by linear routes, he established a network of cosmic geometries. These are situated within the constructed landscape of Phoenix Park – albeit separated by the River Liffey – with a planned connecting bridge never realised. These cosmic territories hold a family of monuments. In many ways the Irish Memorial Gardens is an exercise in ontology, on the nature of things and their relationships, over many scales.

Following Lutyens proposals, the centrepiece to all IWGC cemeteries and memorials is the War Stone. A neutral but enduring symbol, not overtly related to any particular religion, in line with Lutyens’ humanist values. This final proposal is reflective of his first striking instinct for a memorial, communicated in a letter to his wife, after visiting the Western Front: "a solid ball of bronze!" [2]. Yet as with all commissions of this scale and significance, more conservative voices held sway. These were led by Herbert Baker, another prominent architect, who called for the traditional iconography of the cross. The compromise reached is evident at the Irish Memorial Gardens, with the War Stone twinned to the south with a monumental stone cross.

Lutyens had been working for many years with the classical language of architecture, manipulating its grammar in the Renaissance mannerist tradition. His fascination with the work of Palladio and Wren is clear in the elements that frame the War Stone. A wall encloses this to the south, east and west, with axial entrances to the flanking circular gardens marked by pavilions which borrow the ancient Roman model of the tetrapylon. Openings in the four corners of this central space provide access to radial routes into the wider landscape, framed by gateposts, sentinels guarding their thresholds. These are figurative in character, over-scaled, in the manner Michelangelo Buonarotti depicted the human body. Constructed from sharply dressed and jointed white stone, they contrast wilfully in tone and texture with the more informally coursed walls which they interrupt. They are playful, personal, balancing mass and volume as a painter or sculptor would, roundly rejecting the assumption that the classical tradition is an imitative pattern book. To the north, a view of Phoenix Park connects this outdoor room to its broader context – a recurring motif in Lutyen’s work for the IWGC. Despite its scale, this space truly does feel like a civic room, embedded in its landscape and roofed by the heavens, delivering on Lutyens intent: "The big stone to the East, the flanking pyramid oaks and the sky forming the vault to them all" [3].

The notion of an outdoor room, or ‘garden-room’, is a strand which connects all of Lutyen’s domestic projects, under the influence of his lifelong collaborator Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Jekyll’s career began as a painter, before shifting to garden design, inspired by William Robinson’s revolutionary book The Wild Garden [4]. The domestic qualities of the spaces that Lutyen’s and Jekyll spent decades refining together are evident in the Irish Memorial Gardens, individual moments afforded amongst the universal set-piece, a contradiction delicately negotiated, elevating each experience. It is this layering from the scale of the cosmos, receding to landscape, city, building, room, aedicule that uniquely allows us to situate the presence of our individual bodies in the context of a broader continuum. To feel the presence of the earth below, and the firmament above. Another duality that is masterfully explored by sculpting the ground. The majority of landscapes are illusionary, surreptitiously urbanised, with few as skilfully executed as this one. Our experience is also illuminated through the topographic adjustments that have been imposed on this place. The more intimate circular gardens – to the east and west of the central outdoor room – uniquely feel both below the ground and elevated above it, simultaneously buried and projecting skyward.

Irish Memorial Gardens as artefact, fragmenting a constructed landscape.

Rudyard Kipling described Lutyen’s memorials and cemeteries as "silent cities". The 49,400 Irish soldiers that lost their lives during World War I inhabit these gardens, their presence is felt, the empty rooms hold an emotional density. The Irish Memorial Gardens recalls paths not walked, public spaces not shared, domestic rooms not inhabited. The tragedy of this place is that it was made to memorialise WW1, just as WW2 was about to commence. Yet it also carries hope. In the grand tradition of public space, it reminds us that the individual only makes sense as part of the collective. It also fractures our participation in the everyday – for a moment at least – connecting human life with the landscape which we inhabit, a valuable lesson in the context of a climate emergency.

11/3/2024
Working Hard / Hardly Working

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens affords individual moments amongst a universal set-piece. Referencing the scale of the cosmos, and receding to landscape, city, building, room, it uniquely allows us to situate the presence of our individual bodies in the context of a broader continuum. A vital experience in a time of climate emergency.

Read

Engaging with water: Arthur's Quay, Limerick

Denise Murray
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Denise Murray
James Haynes

What is it that makes a good public space? We know one when we see it but often find it hard to define why one place works and another one doesn’t. Arthur's Quay Park in Limerick is a sort of accidental public space; it was never planned and yet it exists, anchoring the north east corner of the Georgian grid of Limerick city, balanced by the People’s Park to the south west. The park was an incomplete Georgian Square, planned to be surrounded by houses but never finished due to the Great Famine (1845-52).

Arthur's Quay Park

Hardly working

Arthur's Quay Park sits on a piece of reclaimed land, originally a harbour, and was filled in by Limerick Corporation in the 1970s to create a car park, before subsequently, in the late 1980s, being transformed from a car park to a civic space; completed with a tourist office as a focal point (the tourist office won the RIAI Gold medal in 1989-91). The park is greatly valued by the people of Limerick, however, there is also a deep sense of frustration as the space never seems to quite live up to its potential. Various interventions have taken place over the years, such as the removal of planted railings to address safety concerns and improve visibility, but it still feels as though it is an underperforming public space. And in recent years, with the boarding up of the tourist office, it lacks a sense of purpose. The park has one great asset in its favour though – the spectacular views up the river towards King John’s Castle and the mountains beyond. Notwithstanding this, it still feels disconnected from the city core and remains remote from most people’s mental map of Limerick city.

Working hard

Hamburg is also a city defined by its relationship with water. The advent of container shipping has meant that the main commercial port has moved further down river, leaving the historic port area available for transformation into a new city known as HafenCity. This area has been transformed over the last thirty years and one of the first decisions taken was to raise the new ground level of buildings to protect them from flooding. The landscape is arranged on three planes, ensuring that there is always a level that provides safe access during times of flooding, while for the rest of the time the landscape tiers down to the original harbour line, ensuring that the citizens of Hamburg are able to stay connected to the river that is at the heart of their city.

HafenCity, Magellan Terrace

The quayside spaces in HafenCity are part of a continuous promenade with a variety of inviting public spaces, abundant greenery, and strong connections to the water. Some spaces change with the tides, while others are at a higher level providing a prospect over the river. There are also new water features integrated into the landscape providing a very immediate opportunity to engage directly with water.  

It is not just the innovative landscape design that makes HafenCity such a success, it is the buildings that surround it, providing places for people to live, work, and play in the city. There is a very intimate relationship between the new buildings in HafenCity and the quayside. The space is overlooked by six- to eight-storey apartment and office buildings, the ground floors of which are generally active, containing retail and commercial uses. The traffic has been carefully planned to minimise the impact of the car, allowing connections between buildings and animated public spaces.

Lessons to be learned

While the scale of HafenCity is vast in comparison to Arthur's Quay, there are some key lessons that can be learned. Namely, that it is possible to plan for flooding without cutting a city off from its river, and that a quayside is a space of transition that should be thought of as part of a riverfront promenade rather than an isolated space.

For Arthur's Quay to reach its potential as a space that supports the life of the city, it needs to be more connected and integrated into the wider urban landscape. This will mean transforming the surrounding car-dominated highway into a civilised pedestrian friendly street that can serve as a route for traffic that is accessing the city centre, instead of supporting through traffic that does nothing to contribute to the life and activity of the city. In addition, the surrounding buildings should be redeveloped or reimagined so that they engage with the park through vibrant ground floor uses – offering shops, restaurants, and cafes. Convivial spaces with terraces overlooking the river can serve a new population living, working, and playing on the floors above.

What are we waiting for, the quay is the key.

Arthur's Quay
5/2/2024
Working Hard / Hardly Working

What makes a vibrant, successful public space? In this article, architect Denise Murray considers what changes might be necessary for Arthurs’ Quay Park, Limerick, and the surrounding area to evolve into a place that better serves its citizens. HafenCity provides some examples of alternative ways to provide public spaces while addressing the issues of climate change and flooding.

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