Wednesday 27 August 2008

Conversations about architecture

One thing is certain, people in Ireland care deeply and passionately about their built environment. The demise in local character of our cities, towns and villages; concerns over energy security and the need to change the way we live and build; the desire to access more information on architecture; and a sense of exclusion from decision making - these were just some of the issues vigorously debated in a series of nationwide public consultations that took place in May and June. Conversations about Architecture were commissioned by the Department of the Environment and organised by the Irish Architecture Foundation to coincide with the current development of a new Policy on Architecture.

The Policy is being developed by the Department, overseen by a Steering Committee appointed by Minister Gormley and chaired by Professor Loughlin Kealy. Uniquely, the public consultation process took place prior to the release of a Draft Policy, which means that public opinion can significantly influence the content.
Over 200 consultations took place in eight locations throughout the country including Galway, Waterford,Cork, Limerick, Carrick-on-Shannon,Athlone, Swords (Fingal) and Dublin.The meetings were facilited by company Interactions.
I joined the Conversations in three of these venues: Limerick city, currently the focus of a major regeneration programme of its ailing social housing estates; Carrick-on Shannon, where holiday homes and one-off housing in the country side were hot topics; and Dublin which has seen dramatic changes in its urban infrastructure over the past decade and battles with issues such as building height and densification. Audiences were diverse and included members of the general public, local authority staff, members of regeneration committees, architects, students of architecture, as well as interest groups such as An Talsce and the Limerick Georgian Society.
The Dublin Conversation was opened by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, TD who stayed for some time to listen on an exceptionally busy day in Irish politics - the day of the Lisbon Treaty Vote. The Minister stressed the importance of the two tier public consultation process, which includes public engagement both prior and after the drafting of the policy, saying that "it will provide the maximum level of public input into the key themes and issues which are emerging as the policy is being developed - this is not a fait compile". When asked by Architecture Ireland, which top issues he expects to emerge from the conversations, Minister Gormley said: "Energy awareness is the defining issue of our age and has to be worked into all of our buildings "He also emphasised that the "anything goes in rural architecture in Ireland needs urgent attention, as we compare very badly indeed with our European neighbours'.' Architecture and Sustainability
As predicted by Minister John Gormley, concerns over energy security were high on the agenda in Conversations about Architecture. "Ireland has been on an energy binge and as a result our carbon foot print is currently twice that of Sweden," said an attendee of the Dublin meeting, who specialises in eco architecture. The use of carbon taxes and tax incentives to promote the use of alternative energy sources was heavily discussed as was the need to educate clients to demand more sustainable buildings. "A building in Ireland does not have to be air-conditioned, yet many clients demand it," argued one contributor. The Conversations agreed that rising fuel prices are dramatically changing the patterns of our lives and pose a significant challenge to people wishing to live in one-off houses in the countryside.
However, the debate on whether one-off houses in the country were sustainable was a divided one in all three locations, Limerick, Carrick-on-Shannon and Dublin, with much criticism hailed at our urban environments, which fail to attract people into the cities. A young woman in Limerick lamented the fact that she was being prevented by current planning from building a house on her parents' farm. City living was simply not an option for her, as she argued: "We don't do cities well in Ireland, which is why there is a flight from the city to the land in Limerick"
The'rural idyll' was challenged by another contributor who said that rural dwellers were often cut off from essential services, which posed a particular problem for elderly people. Several attendees of the Dublin meeting agreed that cities were important places in modern life and that the European trend was for living in cities. "We have to make our cities better places" was the consensus in both Dublin and Limerick. However, the consultations also identified that we "can learn from our new immigrants how to use our cities and urban spaces "Several contributors in Limerick noted that it was encouraging to see how the Shannon quays, parks and urban squares were heavily used by young immigrant families, bringing much-needed life into the otherwise depopulated city centre. "Our cities are being energised by these new residents," was how one attendee described it.
In Carrick-on-Shannon a lively conversation focused on "poorly designed housing estates "that had "sprung up" in many locations in County Leitrim and a debate ensued whether it was more sustainable to retrofit these houses or simply replace them with new eco-homes. A popular holiday destination, Carrick-on-Shannon also faces a particular problem with the sprawl of holiday homes, many of which lay dormant for most of the year. "All around me are pockets of emptiness," was how one contributor hauntingly described his local environment.
Local Character
Concern over a growing lack of local identity and character in the built environment was one of the most heavily debated issues of these consultations. "We are using the same recipes for all our towns and villages" said one woman in Carrick-on-Shannon and criticised the fact that most housing estates ignored issues such as orientation, setting, local style and materials. "We would like to see something in the new Architecture Policy about the need for architecture to respect a locality "agreed people in Carrick-on-Shannon. A contributor to the Dublin meeting complained about the growing densification of certain areas in the city. He said he was "saddened" when a two-storey street was suddenly turned into a five-storey apartment building. "We may not have architectural knowledge but we all understand the loss of what makes a place special; the everyday is disappearing fast;said this attendee.
Contributors to the Conversations also had strong feelings about individual buildings in their locality. For example, the restored courthouse The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon - now a heavily programmed arts centre - was cited as a good example of how historic buildings can be adapted to new use, while the "anywhere character" of the local retail park and surrounding housing estates was condemned. The Dublin meeting also discussed how older buildings can be successfully re-used, even if they are not as energy efficient as new buildings, as they are essential to the character of an area, with Temple Bar being cited as a positive example. "We need to preserve buildings but also be creative with their new use" said one participant.
Overall, the Conversations expressed a strong desire for more education in architecture people were willing to engage but felt they lacked the knowledge and tools to do so. "For most people the word architecture does not enter their vocabulary" was one statement in Carrick-on-Shannon, while another attendee describes architecture as an "opaque profession" All three meetings agreed that architectural education must start primary school level and a teacher based in a national school in one of Limerick's regeneration areas illustrated how she recently taught young children by inviting them to draw up plans for their immediate environment. The teacher criticised that the primary school children, who had developed "a lot of good ideas" were not consulted in the regeneration process. Contributors also condemned the lack of inspirational school buildings, with many schools being accommodated in porter cabins. "Do we need architecture in our schools, or do we need good school architecture?" was one poignant comment.
The conversations agreed that architectural education could not be left to the school curriculum alone but that it was necessary to educate the wider population. Initiatives such as the DoE's Heritage Week, the RIAI's Simon Open Day and the Irish Architecture Foundation's Open House weekend were all cited as good examples An architecture student at UL, who attended the Limerick meeting, said:"architecture was not taught in my school and I have a total different concept of it now. I realise that it is not just about designing a big iconic building."
Architecture and Planning
Many of the architects attending the meetings in Limerick, Carrickon-Shannon and Dublin criticised that the lack of architectural knowledge within local authorities was a big issue. Planners are not trained in architecture and are often ill-equipped to understand drawings, yet they make important decisions on the environment" said one architect, while another called for "architects, planners and engineers to work together to achieve better quality in our infrastructure "Several attendees blamed the fact that many local authorities in Ireland have not yet employed a city or county architect,although this had been an 'Action' in the last policy, Action on Architecture (2002-2005).The meetings were in agreement that local authority departments should work more closely together so that decisions that effect the built environment were taken by a multi-disciplinary team. "The structures in local authorities have to change to allow more collaboration," concluded the Dublin meeting.
For Nathalie Weadick, Director of the Irish Architecture Foundation, which organised Conversations about Architecture, the consultations were "an essential and vital opportunity to listen to the public, who are the users and developers of the built environment" Marc Ritchie Architecture Policy Coordinator with the DoEHLG, agrees that the Conversations have demonstrated that there is a considerable hunger for engagement with architecture/The feedback that we are getting is that people really appreciated that we were talking to them, particularly at a stage when the consultations can influence the writing of the new policy" says Ritchie. He also emphasises the importance of an architectural policy. "The Irish Architecture Foundation was established as a direct result of the last architectural policy, as Action on Architecture (2002-2005) had recommended the setting up of a virtual architecture centre" explains Ritchie.
Although the nationwide meetings have concluded, there is still an invaluable opportunity for architects and members of the public to contribute to the new Policy on Architecture by making submissions through the website
"Architecture is everyday life, it affects us all and we all need to be able to share in it" was a comment that could be heard over and over again in these consultations. It will be a particular challenge for the new Policy on Architecture to find creative ways to ensure a wider participation in matters relating to architecture and our built in environment. '

Sandra Andrea O'Connell
Architecture Ireland

No comments: