Sunday 27 July 2008

The Clarence Hotel revamp will cost city dear

Saint Bono and The Edge have been granted permission to knock the Clarence hotel and the adjacent 18th-century buildings on the quays in Dublin into the middle of the 21st century -- for no better reason, it seems to the outside observer, than the fact that the Clarence hotel, which they own, is losing money. And the pair may be canonised philanthropists saving the world and giving away trillions at the drop of a hat ... (What? They're not? They even moved their tax operations abroad so they could cock a snook at the rest of us idiot Irish taxpayers? Oops.)

The Edge told the planning appeal that the only way the Clarence could make money was for them to be allowed to raze it to the ground, along with the nearly 300 years of history the adjacent buildings represent. And they won. Nobody even suggested that they should employ people to run the hotel in a way that it could make money rather than lose it. Or even accept that they'd made a bad investment, and put up with the loss. After all, even they shouldn't be able to trample over lesser people in order to make money. Or should they?

As it happens, I don't think the Clarence facade or interior would be much of a loss to Dublin. Art Deco architecture and decor are quite stunning when they're good: lofty, simple, elegant and welcoming; cool and sophisticated but never austere. And the Clarence was never any of those: before its U2 facelift it was bleak and dreary. Post facelift, it was cold and characterless, its public rooms disproportionately high with no sense of comfort or intimacy. In other words, it was, and is, bad design of its type.

The other buildings they have been given permission to demolish, however, are quite another pile of bricks. Like most of the Georgian architecture of Dublin that has survived the vandalism of money-grabbing development, they are fit for purpose, elegant, and a testament to their environment. They may well need some money spent on them, but it would be very well spent: properly and sensitively restored, they'd survive triumphantly for another 300 years, part of the fabric of Dublin in its heyday as the "second city of the Empire", as used to be proudly said.

And while knocking the Clarence might be no great loss, replacing it with something even more alien to the 18th-century quayside street- scape would be appalling. Indeed, it will be appalling, because Bono and The Edge have permission for a development that is totally alien, however good it may be objectively. The uniformity of the quays will be gone, which is one of the hallmarks of 18th-Century thinking.

Right opposite the proposed Clarence, on Ormond Quay on the north side of the river, there is a gem of Georgian restoration which proves it can be done if there is will and sensitivity. It is a private house, known simply as Number 10, but can be hired for parties. In other words, it is run as a business. The owner has restored it meticulously and lovingly, and you walk into "a gentleman's residence of the 1780s". The furnishings and art are unsurpassed in Dublin, and although there is electricity, nothing breaks the atmosphere.

When the current owner bought it, the house was in serious disrepair, far worse repair than the buildings Bono and The Edge are to be allowed to demolish. Now Number 10 is one of the gems of Dublin.

Why am I writing this? Just to show that it can be done: you don't have to tear down buildings to make progress, or indeed to make money, as The Edge's comments to the Planning Appeals hearing would seem to suggest.

On a much smaller scale, my neighbours and I were involved in a planning objection recently. We live in a nest of small-scale Victorian terraces, and there was a planning application for "a six- storey mixed use development" on a corner that would literally cast us into shadow. We won. (Sometimes the little people do win.)

Maybe there's a glimmer of hope.


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