Friday 25 January 2008

Good design makes you happy, says new city architect

The new Dublin City Architect, Ali Grehan, wants to make the city more people friendly, writes Emma Cullinan

IN JUST eight years Ali Grehan has gone from joining Ballymun Regeneration as an architect to becoming Dublin City Architect, a job she took up this week. I put it to her that her rise has been swift. "Meteoric?" she asks.

"I had valuable experience in both the public and private sector and I think that was recognised but I also think what swung it was my love of Dublin and because I live in the city centre I see how things work and what can be done that is within reach."

Her appointment came as a surprise to some in the architecture world, as there were those who had spent longer in the public sector and who seemed positioned to take the job. The experience Grehan talks about includes a stint in London with Greenhill Jenner Architects, working on projects for Lambeth Borough, and Brixton in particular.

Most recently she has been chief architect at Ballymun Regeneration and I speak to her on her penultimate day in her office overlooking Ballymun's main street and across the city to the Dublin Mountains.

There are huge colour-coded maps on the wall showing how Ballymun has changed - and will continue to transform.

In 1964 there were just a few farms here, and then the blocks went up, extending from the centre like octopus tentacles in what could have been a visionary form but were in fact dictated by land tenure: the social housing skirted privately owned fields.

Despite its tower blocks, Ballymun is a low density area but that is changing. Grehan points to a chart showing how it will look in a few years time, following lots of infilling of dead spaces, with parks designed into the plan.

So Grehan has seen how - on a smaller scale than Dublin as a whole - a town can be transformed and the effect that has on people.

"One girl who moved out of a flat in one of the blocks to a house was thrilled that she didn't have to walk down the communal stairs in her beautiful debs' dress. Instead she could walk straight out of her own front door onto the street."

Yet Grehan has also been reminded that some people prefer apartments. In one scheme designed by Ballymun Regeneration there was a combination of houses and apartments and people could choose which they wanted.

"People preferred the apartments because those homes felt more spacious, being on one level with large balconies. They were grouped around a shared courtyard giving people the best of every world. It achieved a balance between their need for a private area but they could also feel connected to other apartments as part of a micro community of nine families within a larger scheme."

And it is people Grehan wants to concentrate on in her new role. Right from moving to her new office where, she says, establishing relationships with staff will be one of the most important things initially, while also creating a city that has places for people.

She says that cities which work best are those with distinct neighbourhoods that are connected. "Connected cities are about more that good public transport, although that is vital, it is about having a successful public realm that people enjoy walking through and where they feel at ease.

"Neighbourhoods are at the centre of urban life: the connection that people have with their place is so important," says Grehan. "Part of that is about making an area a destination. For instance, people can go out for a meal in the evening in Ranelagh but not in Phibsborough, despite the latter being a nice place to live."

People like to do things in their own area, says Grehan who realises that architects can't change people's quality of life on their own but they do have a role to play: "Architects can't create society, they merely reflect it."

After returning from London Grehan worked in private practice, with Richard Hurley, as well as a stint on her own, "on a small scale", before joining the architectural team at the Luas which, she says, helped her learn about working on a large scale and the joys of connecting up the city. The Luas showed how successful good design could be, she says. "In every area of life we understand that if something is well designed, we will love it, we will use it and enjoy it, and if it is badly designed we won't want to do any of those things."

Yet despite its success at connecting up parts of Dublin, the Luas has a glaring gap. That is a clear case, says Grehan, of how traffic dominates planning: it was thought that College Green couldn't be crossed by the tram because it was needed for cars, buses and trucks.

She has just been reading Niall McCullough's book Dublin An Urban History and loved the old pictures of College Green. While there was traffic on it then - in the form of horse-drawn carriages and trams - she says that striking thing was the lack of signage.

"In the city, people space is going to car space," she says, expressing a need to reclaim pockets of the city for people without wheels.

Her new job means that she will now be able to walk to work from the house she shares with her second husband - an architect who is doing a masters in urban design - and teenaged children. The ability to get around on public transport, feet and bicycles is what city living is about she says - quoting a recent draft paper that said the average carbon footprint of a city dweller was 8.5 tonnes a year and that of a country resident was 11.3 tonnes.

Her love for good cities is in her blood: her Spanish mother grew up in Madrid, with her five brothers and sisters, in a city centre apartment beside Mataro Park.

"I remember visiting it and being entranced by this generous apartment with lots of timber. It was a lovely place and shows how it can work."

The park was just as important as the apartment. "I'm interested in good places. I don't see the city as a collection of buildings but as a series of places. The spaces between the buildings are important too."

And when it comes to buildings, what is her take on employing architects from abroad? "We have excellent architects practising in Ireland. We are hugely competent and know that we can do it as well as, or better, than anyone else. But it is good to have an exchange of ideas and as architects we have benefited from working abroad and bringing design ideas back. Hopefully Irish architects will continue to get major international projects and I assume architects from abroad are anxious to work in Ireland.

"It is really a case of finding the right architect for a particular commission."

Her predecessor, Jim Barrett, who was given a lifetime achievement award in the most recent Opus Architecture and Construction Awards, was, she says: "A ferociously good ambassador for architecture. The work he did, along with the then city manager and planner, has put Dublin on the map.

"I want to take the wonderful work that has been done, consolidate it and concentrate on the public realm. The pace of change has been extraordinary and we need to continue that in a measured way. We see successful examples of cities everywhere, where people are on the streets playing and talking to each other. I would like to get the ordinary things right and have places for living, working, meeting and talking.

"Don't we want Dublin to be a city for us? And it can be if it is well designed."

The Irish Times

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