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.
Orders and disorders. Photography by Emily Jones, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Working Hard / Hardly Working is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
2. P. Sendra and R. Sennet, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City, London, Verso, 2022.
Emily Jones is a graduate architect based in Dublin. She studied in University College Dublin and ÉNSA Paris Belleville. Emily's thesis research considered how informal and DIY architecture processes can be applied to city development. She has worked for practices in Dublin and Paris, including Atelier Tsuyoshi Tane Architects. She is currently working in exhibition design, collaborating with Architecture at the Edge and the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale curatorial team.
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