Saturday 12 January 2008

New RIAI president plans to get people talking

Sean O'Laoire aims to stir public debate about architecture and planning as the RIAI's new president, writes Frank McDonald , Environment Editor

FORTY years ago, Sean O'Laoire was one of the leaders - along with the likes of Ruairi Quinn and Duncan Stewart - of the first student revolt in Ireland when architecture students occupied their school at UCD in Earlsfort Terrace, and ultimately got rid of its head, the late Desmond FitzGerald.

As O'Laoire recalls, there were real fears that the school would lose its recognition by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) - something that was very valuable at a time when so many had to go abroad to work. But it was the wider issues of architecture and society that interested him.

As the new president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), O'Laoire has said that one of iis priorities would be to "galvanise" all of the architecture schools on the island - the two in Dublin (UCD and DIT), one in Belfast and the newer schools in Cork, Limerick and Waterford.

He wants them to become "vehicles for public debate" involving practitioners, academics and students and interested members of the public to look at "new concepts, projects, new ways of thinking" in a way that would engage with communities and be "meaningful for consumers of architecture, which we all are".

O'Laoire firmly believes that the context in which architects work is as significant as making architecture itself.

"There's an opportunity for the profession to become much more engaged in that debate and to be critical of systems that fail to deliver people's expectations, such as the county-based administrative system."

He cites "abysmal standards in many of the counties - everything from leadership to the service they provide to the public. There are some very good managers and some who are extraordinarily irresponsible. And councillors who use local area plans as a vehicle for rezoning rather than a tool for improvement.

"What I think has been exposed in the last 10 years, at a very crude level, is the construction industry's extraordinary capacity to produce goods and the system's dismal capacity to receive them. We're now left with the challenge of how to remediate it and start to look not at what might have been but at the future of Ireland.

"If we're serious about being a knowledge-based society, and we need to define it, where does architecture fit into that broad scheme of things? We need to find a language that transcends architects talking among each other and everyone paying lip-service to concepts of sustainability and spatial planning," he says.

O'Laoire admits to being nauseated by some of the manifestations of contemporary Ireland - housing estates and box-retail built-in fields at the edges of towns and villages, the colonisation of the countryside by one-off houses, and so on.

"It's the antithesis of what I believe it could be, but the potential of the place is what keeps me going."

Even in the worst of times, architects who took up part-time posts as tutors in the UCD School of Architecture - notably Yvonne Farrell, Shelley McNamara, Sheila O'Donnell, John Toumey and Paul Keogh - were informing the policy agenda. "Our generation set an agenda for change, but hadn't the resources to carry it through."

O'Laoire went to Italy after qualifying as an architect in 1972, and he remembers that Ruairi Quinn went to Athens and Duncan Stewart to Amsterdam.

"Numerous fellow students had to leave to work abroad, with successive waves of migration to London, but also to Paris and Berlin. And that's within most people's memory."

Now, along with Hugh Murray and younger co-directors, he runs Ireland's largest architectural practice, with offices in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Moscow, Aachen and Bratislava.

Walking through Murray O'Laoire's Dublin office in Fumbally Court, he takes delight in pointing to staff members from all over Europe and far beyond. Twenty years ago, the RIAI had not much more than 1,000 members, but now it has 2,400 - 30 per cent of whom are foreign nationals. Whether this will be maintained as the construction industry contracts is a moot point. But O'Laoire pays tribute to the institute's professionalism and its "Sir Humphrey", director John Graby.

"The other interesting coincidence is with the policies of two Green ministers and Noel Dempsey's agenda in transport", he says. "I'm not saying architects can change the world, but we should be able to inform how those policies are grounded, and like to think we will be having an open and positive engagement with them."

The Dublin he knew as a child was a different place. "We grew up on fringes of city, near the junction of Glasnevin (then Ballymun) Avenue and Ballygall Road. We watched the first housing schemes coming towards us - a rural society fusing with a slow-burning urbanisation that produced the likes of Bono and Dermot Bolger". His father, Dónal O'Laoire, was our Irish teacher at St Vincent's CBS in Glasnevin while his uncle Frank taught us geography.

He himself went to Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square and used to walk home via the Royal Canal Basin, Phibsborough Library, the Bon Secours Hospital and the dreaded Marlborough House detention centre.

While at Coláiste Mhuire, he was in the St Vincent de Paul Society and remembers visiting people in tenements, some of which collapsed after years of neglect.

"I was never able to see architecture as purely aesthetic and self-indulgent - it always had to have smells, and texture to it, that relates to how people live."

Dublin, he says, "still has a huge amount going for it. The city is held together by the river, and everything should acknowledge that. But it's increasingly difficult to find the right language in this liberal capitalist era, when developers see maximisation as the issue. So architects are trying to put logic on a chaotic situation."

Murray O'Laoire Architects has built a model of the city from Heuston Station to Docklands, and he finds it a "great visualising tool" for judging the impact of new projects.

He would also love to see Phibsborough emerging as a major centre, with the development of Grangegorman, Mountjoy Prison and Dalymount Park.

But he keeps coming back to the broader issues of planning and the Irish psyche.

"We have to decide whether we are a poorly administered metro Birmingham or a nation with ambitions.

"Even the absurdity of not connecting the dots, such as how schools are provided, is incompatible with being serious about a knowledge-based society".

The Irish Times

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