Slamming the door on decent design
The vast majority of modern Irish buildings are crap in comparison to what came before them
Musician Paddy Cullivan: mourning what was destroyed to build the likes of Hawkins House (above), the ESB offices, car parks and modern housing
At a Leviathan event in Dublin last week, the topic was “What’s so special about Dublin anyway?”. Before the panel, comprising city architect Ali Grehan, Dublin Theatre Festival head Willie White, broadcaster Dylan Haskins, comedian Abie Philbin Bowm- an and host Gunther Grun (the German alter ego of comedian Barry Murphy), could answer the question, musician Paddy Cullivan kicked the legs out from under everyone.
Cullivan is better known as the frontman of the Camembert Quartet, but possesses a fine knowledge of Dublin’s architectural history, typified by a fury at how terrible many of our modern buildings are, mourning what was destroyed to build the likes of Hawkins House, the ESB offices, car parks and modern housing.
Cullivan is bang on. The vast majority of modern Irish buildings are crap in comparison to what came before them. Without sounding like the overzealous priest in Father Ted hollering “Cowboys, Ted, cowboys!”, it does feel as though little new is built to last. Craftsmanship was replaced with craftiness, beauty with speed, design with economy, and an appreciation for the appropriateness of a building in its context was replaced with a lack of consideration emblematic of greed.
Architects get annoyed when non-architects like me talk in such uneducated generalisations, and will point out some of the beautiful buildings that sprung up in the mid to late 20th century. I love Michael Scott’s contribution to the capital, Sam Stephenson’s less so. Perhaps that’s a matter of taste, or just a point of view that the Georgian Mile and a Viking settlement probably shouldn’t have been destroy- ed. You see, the problem with building things is that you’re stuck with them. Or are you?
If a fancy alien versed in all things beautiful landed here, they would probably assume that modern Ireland – since most of our nice buildings are old – exhibits a tremendous absence of taste only rivalled by a lack of sophistication. Our grá for one-off housing is matched only by the nonchalance with which we permit hideous apartment blocks to spring up across Ireland, street by street, town by town, green- field site by greenfield site, like hulking monuments to our own ignorance of aesthetics.
These things didn’t appear magically. They were zoned and signed off on and encouraged. The destruction of beautiful fields is bad enough. The levelling of gorgeous old city-centre cottages, warehouses and cinemas is unforgivable. Many Irish builders and developers have spent a decent chunk of the past 60 years knocking down nice things and building ugly things. If only we could get rid of the crap stuff with such zeal.
When opportunities for iconic and beautiful design come up, they are often botched. And why aren’t our buses green? Why do we allow shops to modify the fronts of beautiful buildings with shoddy signage? Why can’t we do something imaginative with the skeleton of Anglo Irish Bank’s ex-HQ, which festers like a scab on Dublin’s quays? God knows what they’ll come up with for the celebration of 1916 given the absolute disregard shown to buildings on Moore Street.
In the city centre, nowhere is this attitude more evident than at Clancy Quay in Islandbridge, the site of the 19th-century Clancy Barracks. A while ago, I hopped over a few half-heartedly installed railings for a wander around, and wondered what might have been if preservation, not demolition, was favoured.
Over the years I’ve had the displeasure of living in both a Liam Carroll “designed” flat and one of those bright ’n’ shiny, steel ’n’ glass apartments we were told were the hot new thing.
The Carroll apartment, built during the 1990s – although grimy and devoid of charm – was actually better than the glass and steel gaff, which had a corridor with a network of slamming fire doors that even Shackleton might look at and think, “ah here, I’m off”. Door handles came off in your hand, the mirror above the sink in the bathroom required tippy-toes, and finding sockets was akin to a Crystal Maze challenge. This is typical. Hardly any homes – sorry, “units” – were built to last.
As we know, many developments have already failed basic liveability requirements.
The current rhetoric of kick- starting the housing market (which really means reinflating the property bubble), and talk of more jobs in construction, building more homes and foreign investors buying up sites, makes me squirm. What are we actually thinking of building? And for whom? It is certainly not for people who want to live in apartments long-term. It is certainly not for families. And it is certainly not for anyone who likes nice buildings.
Watch what gets built over the next five years. Listen to the fire doors slam on decent design.