Friday, 4 December 2009

Time for visionary planning

Some talent has managed to shine through in a decade dominated by unimaginative sprawl, writes FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor

IRELAND HAS built more over the past decade than at any time in its history (at least until the property bubble finally burst) – tens of thousands of new homes, hundreds of new office blocks, hotels and retail magnets, dozens of new libraries and arts centres and even a handful of new theatres and stadiums.

But how much of it all qualifies as “architecture”? Not much is the answer. The truth is that there is almost no research on what constitutes “quality” in the built environment; that’s been lacking since An Foras Forbartha, the National Institute for Physical Planning and Construction Research, was abolished in 1987.

So what we’ve produced, as architect Alan Mee scathingly observed – paraphrasing British architectural historian Nicklaus Pevsner – “ could all be just a pile of bicycle sheds”. Even so-called “object architecture” devalues itself if it ignores the context in executing a star turn, and the spaces that surround it don’t work in urban design terms.

By far the worst, most unforgivable legacy of the boom is suburban sprawl – all those corrals of identikit houses tacked on to the outskirts of Dublin and its satellite towns throughout Leinster as well as every other city, most appallingly Galway – “pure mule housing estates in the floodplains around Irish towns,” as architect Gerry Cahill put it.

And then there’s all the dross that goes with it – the petrol stations with their convenience stores, the big-box retail warehouses and the out-of-town shopping centres with acres of colour-coded carparking laid out on impermeable tarmac, and our madly over-the-top construction of motorways that served to promote sprawl.

It is undeniable that every boom, including even the boom that produced Georgian Dublin, generates speculative buildings of indifferent quality; great architecture is a rarity in any era. Yet even in the midst of this frenetic decade, talented architects still managed to demonstrate their design skills and show some real creativity.

Inevitably, any selection of what might be regarded as the best is subjective; as ever, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Nevertheless, the personal choices above should find some resonance with the wider public, particularly as they include the great amphitheatre of Croke Park – setting for so much drama, in games of many codes.

All but one of the best are in Dublin, which I realise leaves me open to being accused of having a metropolitan bias. But it is perhaps inevitable, given the capital’s dominance, which is also reflected in the annual awards of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and the younger set in the Architectural Association of Ireland.

Buildings that might easily have made a longer list include the daring National Folk Life Museum near Castlebar, Co Mayo, by the Office of Public Works (OPW) Architects; Offaly County Council’s environmentally-conscious Aras an Chontae, by ABK; and Shay Cleary’s surprisingly effective remodelling and extension of Cork County Hall.

Far-sighted local authorities took advantage of the boom to provide themselves with new headquarters, of which Fingal County Hall – designed by Bucholz McEvoy (with BDP) – is the most spectacular.

Arts centres have also seen growth, notably O’Donnell and Tuomey’s Glucksman Gallery in Cork and Terry Pawson’s new creation in Carlow.

Some of the greatest gains have been made with new public spaces, such as McGarry Ní Éanaigh’s Liffey Boardwalk, the remaking of O’Connell Street in Dublin and Eyre Square in Galway by Mitchell + Associates as well as Patrick Street in Cork by Barcelona architect Beth Gali and New Yorker Martha Schwartz’s Grand Canal Square.

As for most of the grandiose, overblown schemes that didn’t materialise, we’re probably better off without them. They were all driven by hubris during the phosphorescent phase of the property boom when everyone – architects, engineers, planners, bankers and developers – had really lost the run of themselves.

The real question is whether we will learn from the mistakes that were made, particularly in spatial planning. And with the Glucksman Gallery falling victim to the recent floods, the design professions will surely have to focus more firmly on the potential impacts of climate change on the built environment over the decades to come.

The good, the bad and the unbuilt



Grafton Architects

A tour de force, what marks it out from its neighbours is not merely a great presence in the streetscape, but the sheer subtlety of its architecture.


Urban Projects

Pips deBlacam and Meagher’s Wooden Building in Temple Bar and OMP’s Hanover Quay apartments are one of the few residential schemes with a serious urban design intent.


Bucholz McEvoy/BDP

Behind its spectacular curved glass facade, this naturally-ventilated office building was a pioneer of environmental design in Ireland, inspiring others to follow its example.


Gilroy McMahon

Although lacking the clean lines of Stade de France in Paris, it deservedly won the RIAI Gold Medal as “a landmark in the architectural, historical and cultural landscape of Dublin”.


OPW Architects/ Keith Williams

Retaining the sense of intimacy of the old Theatre Royal, the much larger walnut-clad auditorium gives opera buffs the impression of being inside a cello.



MBM Arquitectes

This is probably the most detested addition to the centre of Dublin in recent years, a truly eccentric building flanked by a hard landscaped plaza.


in-house design team

Apart from the civilising influence of O’Mahony Pike Architects, Liam Carroll’s company has left Dublin with a large collection of “tenements” for the 21st century.

Architects unknown

A laughable piece of pastiche on the Dublin Road end of the main street, such illiterate mimicry of vernacular architecture is all too prevalent in Irish towns.


Project Architects

The largest single project completed during Cork’s year as European City of Culture in 2005, this glorified retailing box is typical of the consumerist genre.

Numerous or no architects involved

Bertie Ahern’s physical legacy to Ireland, it was allowed to let rip all over the country to feed the greed of landowners and developers.



Behnisch Architekten

This vanity project by the former taoiseach for an 80,000-seat national stadium and sports campus at Abbotstown would have caused even more M50 traffic chaos.


Foster + Partners

Demolishing all but the facades of this and adjoining protected structures to create a landmark topped by a flying saucer-style roof bit the dust due to the recession.


Paul Keogh Architects

One of the few real losses to Dublin, this elegant 32-storey residential tower planned for a State-owned site was another conspicuous casualty of the property collapse.


Henning Larsen Architects

This controversial 37-storey “diamond-cut” tower (pictured below) planned by Seán Dunne was never going to fly; it was finally shot down by An Bord Pleanála last January.


Foster + Partners

Nobody could say how high this sloping tower would be – 120 metres or 180 metres? But developers Ballymore Properties and Paddy McKillen had to shelve it, perhaps forever.

Irish Times

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