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.
Author's sketch plan of the two blocks in question
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 desire-line 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.
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.
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 has the car at its heart. Nondescript streetscapes provide multiple car access-points to private basement parking.
Future Reference is a time capsule. It features opinion-pieces that cover the current developments, debates, and trends in the built environment. Each article assesses its subject through a particular lens to offer a different perspective. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Future Reference is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
Kevin Nolan is a Dublin-based architect. He has worked on the design and delivery of numerous buildings in Ireland and the UK, including residential, commercial and hospitality projects. He is interested in urban infill, place-making, and public engagement with the built environment.
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