Sunday, 2 January 2011

Redrawing Dublin | the story of a city

Got a copy of this for Christmas. Here's Frank McDonald's review. Haven't finished reading it mysef yet.

It’s Dublin, but not as it’s usually portrayed. A senior city planner and an architect have taken a fresh, provocative look at the city and redefined it in a new book, writes FRANK MCDONALD

WHAT KIND OF city do we want? That’s the fundamental question at the core of Redrawing Dublin , a lively and engaging new book by one of the city council’s senior planners, Paul Kearns, and his partner, Israeli architect Motti Ruimy. It was driven by their “passion for cities” – Dublin, in particular.

The book challenges policy-makers and citizens to confront its contradictions – “to see and tell it as it is, not as it is often believed to be”. Its authors, as Kearns says, have a “huge passion for facts, number-crunching, honesty and reality”. But it’s all presented in a way that aims to get people thinking about the city.

“We’re both coming from opposite sides of the same coin – me as a planner and Motti as an architect – and it wouldn’t have emerged without that creative clash,” Kearns says. Ruimy describes it as “almost like a game, an intellectual exercise, a visual exercise, putting forward the knowledge you have and imagining how it could be.”

The book is provocative, but in a good way. For example, there’s a ward map of the city showing where atheists live – or at least those who responded “no religion” when they filled out the 2006 census form. One out of six residents of the north inner city are “post-God” while more than nine out of 10 in Ballyfermot are “true believers”.

Another fascinating map covers “Sex and the City ” – not a guide to massage parlours, but a ward-by-ward plotting of the number of males and females in each area. Though women and girls outnumber males by 51 to 49 per cent in Dublin generally, men and boys are “on top” in the city centre by a surprising 52 to 48 per cent.

The book is full of such factoids. For example, remarking on the relative absence of green spaces (leaving aside Phoenix Park), its authors calculate that if all of the front and back gardens of suburban Dublin were put together to form a “garden republic”, the overall area would amount to 247 times the area of St Stephen’s Green.

Redrawing Dublin is billed as the story of a city, a celebration of Dublin and the people who live in it. The book is also about “city-making”, design-driven by drawing out ideas and possibilities. Packed with full-colour illustrations, it is both a visual essay and what Kearns and Ruimy describe as a collaborative act of “action urbanism”.

It captures a quirky snapshot of Dublin today and imagines alternative possible futures, such as a more compact city form. But as Kearns says, “beware of what you wish for”. If Dublin, with 4,000 people per square kilometre was to have the same density as, say, Barcelona (16,000 per sq km), we would need “extraordinarily high buildings”.

The authors ask what type of city Dublin really is. For example, where does it begin and end? After the boom, one might say Longford or Gorey. Sure, it has a Georgian core, but the reality is suburban sprawl. They also deal with the difference between the city centre and the inner city and why it is desirable to live in one but not the other.

One of their strong themes is the inherent tension between urban and suburban Dublin. And there’s no prize for guessing which side they’re on. As champions of city living, they delight in exploring Dublin’s urban psyche and identity as well as prodding and probing suburban assumptions and urban prejudices, of which there are many.

It irritates Paul Kearns how few of Dublin’s key decision-makers actually live within the canal ring. “Where people live affects their perceptions of the city and explains many of the problems we have with very small apartments, heavy traffic in the city centre and anti-social behaviour.”

During their research for the book, Kearns and Ruimy interviewed a number of decision-makers, including some from Dublin City Council, asking what would it take to persuade them to live in the inner city? “The responses we got were mildly fascinating. One said simply ‘nothing’ while others shuffled in their seats,” Kearns recalls.

He attributes the “extraordinary energy” of Dublin city architect Ali Grehan to the fact that she lives in Mountjoy Street, in the heart of the north inner city. “She brings that experience to work every day,” he says. Ruimy agrees, and would dearly like to see the conditions created to enable people of all ages to live in the inner city.

Their apartment is on Benburb Street, beside the National Museum at Collins Barracks, from where Ruimy used to set off on 12km runs around Phoenix Park. The only other green spaces in the area are behind the Incorporated Law Society in Blackhall Place, and Bully’s Acre, which is usually padlocked.

Ruimy used to work for Scott Tallon Walker, until he was laid off last March as architectural work dwindled. Now he works for Amos Brandeis in Tel Aviv, where Kearns spends some of his time. Their first public collaboration, in 2002, was a week-long gay art exhibition in the men’s toilets in O’Connell Street before they were concreted over.

Lavishly produced by Gandon Editions, with sponsorship from the Arts Council, the Department of the Environment, Dublin City Council and the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and some 20 other institutions, companies or individuals, Redrawing Dublin can be picked up at bookshops (€33).

Irish Times

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