Thursday 7 May 2009

Limerick changing for the better, building for the future

Despite its repeated bad press, there are signs that Limerick is going in the right direction in terms of design, development and public space, writes FRANK MCDONALD Environment Editor

TO HEAR and read grim news about murder and mayhem in Limerick these days, you might think that the city was lost. After the recent slaying of innocent businessman Roy Collins, the Sunday Tribune asked, in bold capital letters over a two-page spread: “Can anything save Limerick now?” Yes, actually.

There are lots of things hopefully pointing the city in a new direction – such as the bold redevelopment of Thomond Park, within shouting distance of Moyross, as a spanking new stadium by architects Murray O’Laoire and structural engineers Michael Punch Partners.

It is the ultimate cauldron for Munster Rugby, with two identical stands facing each other across the pitch, their roofs supported by a pair of enormously long steel trusses. The fact that the shape of these stands, each seating 7,500, is reminiscent of a rugby ball cannot be entirely coincidental.

The new Thomond Park is the most impressive sports stadium in Ireland after Croke Park. It gives rugby in Limerick a real landmark and the city a justifiable cause for pride – and hope for the future. To be there amidst an ocean of red jerseys for a Munster match is an unforgettable experience.

Another change for the better has involved the removal of railings and dense shrubbery around the perimeter of Arthur’s Quay park, opening it up to surrounding streets. Now it is being used by mothers with buggies, whereas previously people were afraid to go into the park because it was unsafe.

Last month, Limerick City Council reopened Shelbourne Park, off the Ennis Road, after an investment of €1 million in drainage, pitches and a well-equipped playground that’s proved very popular with children. An earlier (2001) hard-surface playground in Pery Square park is also intensively used.

On O’Callaghan Strand, the council has created a riverside promenade protected by maritime-style railings along the Shannon’s north bank. But the design by Nicholas de Jong, who seems to have done most of Limerick’s new public spaces, is marred by tubular railings to the rear that seem quite superfluous.

The city council has also become active, rather late in the day, in fighting plans for more out-of-town retail magnets in Limerick County Council’s administrative area – most recently, in appealing to An Bord Pleanála against a 10,000sq m (107,639sq ft) extension to the Crescent shopping centre in Dooradoyle.

Out in Castletroy, six tower cranes stand idle on the site of Liam Carroll’s planned Parkway Valley shopping centre – a vast complex of 23,250sq m (250,261sq ft). Work on this €120 million project halted late last year after Carroll failed to secure anchor tenants; this could also be positive news for the beleaguered city.

At nearby Plassey, the University of Limerick (UL to everyone) has installed Ireland’s longest pedestrian bridge, with a span of 350 metres, sweeping arc-like across the Shannon to link its existing campus with the new one under construction on the Clare side. It has already won one major award.

Designed by London-based architects Wilkinson Eyre in collaboration with Arup Consulting Engineers, the six-span cable-trussed bridge was intended to create an “organic relationship” between the landscape, the bridge and its users. Although perhaps a little overdressed, it has certainly achieved its purpose.

UL now has a total of 14,000 students, many of whom live in one of its three attractive “villages”. The new health sciences complex, being developed on the Clare side, will include a medical school as well as the Irish World Academy of Music and a new performance hall for the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Next year, UL’s first batch of architecture students will graduate, to find their way in an uncertain world. Under Merritt Bucholz, who heads the school, they have had a hands-on experience quite different from students in more conventional schools of architecture – and this should arm them for anything.

Chicago-born Bucholz doesn’t see his school as some sort of ivory tower removed from the real world. He has been determined to engage with the city at a number of levels, most recently by taking over old St Munchin’s Church on King’s Island, which Limerick Civic Trust had renovated in the 1980s.

A Regency Gothic pile dating from 1827, it had been used as a base by the Island Theatre Company until the Arts Council withdrew funding last June. “I talked to Denis Leonard in the Civic Trust, told him what we had in mind and he said ‘fantastic – let’s do it’.” So the old church was renovated a second time.

It wasn’t just a question of cleaning; partitions were removed and the original volume of the church restored by the students and their tutors. Then there was a competition to design a series of exhibition installations – more than mere panels – and this, too, turned into a valuable collaborative exercise.

“The loose brief was to design a ‘civic platform’ for UL to engage with the city,” says fourth year tutor Morgan Flynn. “It was a seven-week process – four weeks designing and the rest building. We started out with six designs by six students, all holding onto their own like a precious baby until one was selected.”

The city council funded the material costs and students then prefabricated the entire installation, including lean-to lighting and cleverly-designed pull-out stools, at the school of architecture’s own workshop in Plassey. The various elements were then transported to and assembled in St Munchin’s.

“Economy of means was really important, so they did everything themselves, including making all the lights and wiring them,” Flynn says. “There was also a conservation issue – we couldn’t interfere with the fabric of the building, so the lights are all free-standing, leaning against the walls.”

The UL School of Architecture occupies space carved out of one of the older buildings, dating from the time when it was merely a national institute of higher education. Stripped of its suspended ceilings and filled with cluttered shelves, it is more like a factory that makes things than a passive classroom.

“Universities have a lot to offer – intelligence, knowledge, thinking, design,” Bucholz says. “If a school of architecture is to be anything, it has to have consequences – and be aware of its place in the wider society. So instead of just teaching, we need to get engaged with all of the issues facing the local authority.”

St Munchin’s, which is on the main pedestrian route from St Mary’s Park to the city centre, has been used for a wide range of events since last December, including a symposium on Limerick’s regeneration, exhibitions of the students’ work and lectures organised by Sofa, the UL students of architecture group.

Kieran Lehane, the city council’s director of housing and corporate services, remains upbeat about Limerick, noting that €28 million had been allocated this year for the regeneration of Moyross and Southill. The council is also preparing a new development plan that will focus firmly on planning a brighter future for the city.

Irish Times

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