Life for the boom's dead spaces


The Irish landscape is scarred with the remnants of failed or unfinished building schemes from the Celtic Tiger years. GEMMA TIPTONasks some leading architects to use their imaginations and suggest ways to put them to some use

EVEN DURING THE boom, it was difficult to see some of the things we were building and imagine them as a success. Enormous luxury golf and spa hotels in the middle of nowhere, shoe-box apartment blocks in small towns, ghost estates where no houses were ever sold, and massive out-of-town retail and industrial parks – all these have blighted the landscape, and now stand in various stages of construction or dereliction, mocking us with the question: what should we do with them?

Some ways out of such waste have already been proposed: turning the hotels into nursing homes is one example. Or we could look to SoHo in New York, where inner-city factories and warehouses became, first, artists’ studios and then ultra-desirable loft apartments. But when Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, of Grafton Architects, told me about a project they were doing with students in Switzerland, imagining the creation of a school out of an abandoned village (each house becoming a classroom, with civic buildings as canteen and offices, and the streets as a playground), I realised that architects are the holders of solutions too.

Architects are trained in creative thinking about how we live. It is true some members of the profession had a hand in fashioning the chaos we’ve created, but just as many spend time and effort thinking about how we can plan better, build better, live better.

Here, four architects respond to the question of what should be done with our “problem” buildings. The only stipulation was nothing could be knocked down.

Seán O’Laoireis a partner in Murray O’Laoire Architects, and is currently president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI);

Here he imagines a different future for a fictional edge-of-city retail complex, Ballygonaurra Retail Park (from the Irish Baileganáire, “town without shame”):

“Ballygonaurra Retail Park had been booming for 10 years. It could have been anywhere in Ireland, but is situated on a western ‘edge’ suburb on the extremities of the Dublin metropolitan area. It boasted brands such as Leatherheaven, Sofanistatic, Rub-a-Dub Bathrooms, Non-PC and Ceramichic. No more. All went into liquidation in 2009. What now? Retail parks are a primitive form of architectural life, subdivided sheds with a large Tarmac apron and a service entrance. They pepper the edges of most Irish towns and cities.

“Ballygonaurra will now become a centre for knowledge enterprise, in a novel configuration involving the National University of Ireland, an institute of technology and Enterprise Ireland, in partnership with universities in India and China. The developers are partners in the Tearmann Tuiscint (Refuge of Understanding), who are pledged to offer the premises at affordable rates to research and development enterprises, which will embrace biotechnology, alternative energy, medical devices and IT, in return for a percentage of future royalties.

“Non-nationals and nationals will have an option to live in a currently unsold apartment building, owned by the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and adjoining the park, at controlled rents.

“Tenants will also have the option of building a number of micro-apartments (or pods) within the envelope. The consortium will be free to reconfigure the space, and adapt the section and elevations to specific requirements.

“As part of its biodiversity initiative, the local authority has decreed that the park be extensively landscaped, and that a publicly accessible lecture/ exhibition/restaurant facility be provided. It is also mandated that the complex be 60 per cent self-sufficient in energy within five years.”

Niall McCulloughis a partner in McCullough Mulvin Architects. His book, Dublin: An Urban History, was published by Lilliput in 2007;

Here he suggests twin fates for an imaginary “ghost estate” somewhere in Ireland:

“Ghost estates in Ireland are such totems of our recent economic traumas that there is a tendency to visit punishment on them. They encapsulate the waste of the last decade – of time, materials and good land – for things that nobody wanted. Beyond their unwantedness, they are poorly planned and bleak environments, places of low expectation, constricted space sustained by the dysfunctional planning systems that are the ‘elephant in the room’ in Irish construction.

“But it’s too easy to demolish them as a waste of resources, because removing them with the idea of moving back to a dream of nature would be a waste as well.

“One is tempted to go backwards or forwards, two alternative fates, either of which would make them into a special ‘zone’ of activity, beyond the grip of the over-regulation that holds Ireland in its spell. Both would put them beyond official Ireland’s abnegation of responsibility to create space for the original, and actually make things better, rather than just talking about it.

“The ‘backwards’ option would simply fence an estate off, leaving it to children and voracious nature – in Ireland a powerful force. The country is full of substantial ruins that have effectively vanished behind walls of leaves. Roofs would gradually fall in, walls would become moist and green. Thus they would become the location of childhood fantasy, the one carried through your life as a Shangri-la memory. It would give the next generation space and time to reinvent a ghost estate as usable space.

“The ‘forwards’ option would declare the zone exempt from normal regulation, and give it to a band of young local entrepreneurs/house-hunters, who would experiment with ways we should, and might, live and work in Ireland, using it as a quarry and a ‘natural’ landscape to inhabit. Houses would be cannibalised, joined together and used in new ways: as creches; as long living rooms at first-floor level, between two houses over a chocolate factory; as an office in two stories of light construction over an existing edifice, reached by an external stairway over two apartments and a hairdressing salon; with gardens used for vegetables, and so on.

“These are the vivid mix of life, with event and colour in interesting rooms, that we all secretly crave in our dull suburbs.”

Anne Clearyand Denis Connollyboth studied architecture in Dublin, and are now based in Paris, working as artists. They are the recipients of this years AIB Art Prize, and their most recent publication, Moving Dublin, is published by Gandon;

Here, they write An Irishman’s Diary for this day 100 years on, about a visit to an abandoned apartment block in a country town:

From An Irishman’s Diary, June 30th, 2109: “Honey has become so much a part of our island’s culture that we rarely pay attention to where and how it is produced. The Honey Belt was created after the discovery of the anti-microbial properties of the golden nectar by researchers at City Hospital Belfast back in 2009.

“Visiting the Honey Belt is a difficult project. Helicopter traffic is forbidden and the traditional bitumen highways have not, of course, been maintained since 2084. We found that the best way to travel there was by the inland waterways that serve the industry itself. I arrived by the Barrow River at Ferrymountgarrett on the border of counties Wexford and Kilkenny. The hulking edifice of the honey factory cuts a sharp line on the otherwise low-lying horizon, with its cellular infill units veiled by a dense mantle of ivy. The air is filled with a deep humming noise, behind which the gurgling of the river can still be heard.

“The factory occupies a half-finished construction, originally intended to become a luxury apartment complex, which was abandoned at the start of the First Great Contraction. The area had previously been a part of the commuter belt. The Bio Laws of 2018 allowed the annexation of abandoned cell-form constructions.

“Its geographical setting, in the valley of the Three Sisters rivers, offered generous quantities of pollen and nectar from native flora, sycamore trees and clover – and mild weather.

“The abandoned concrete units proved ideal for hive construction and ivy plantation (flowering in the autumn, ensuring perennial production).

“A local historian relates that income from the factory was a source of dispute between the adjoining counties in 2043. The roving nature of the bee made judgment difficult, and the dispute was settled by referring to ancient Brehon Law, which includes more than 20 pages on bee judgments!”

Dominic Stevensis an architect who lives and works in Co Leitrim. The buildings he has designed with his clients have won many awards and have been published in architecture journals and newspapers around the world.

Here, he suggests that it is architects themselves who need to be re-purposed:

“I believe that re-purposing architects is perhaps a more fruitful way of looking at this problem.

“The defunct buildings that we are discussing are the result of work by teams of people: the Government, the banks, developers and architects. Their purpose was the production of profit and an increase in the holy GNP – it was fuelled by greed.

“Architects must now re-purpose their role and realise that it is the people – all the ordinary people who live in these buildings, work in them, get born, cured and finally die in them – that should be our partners in design. Architects in the future must work directly with communities, with building users.

“As many of these buildings are, in effect, owned by the banks, which at this point are owned by the Government (who represent the people of Ireland), the only way forward is to turn the ownership of these buildings back to the local communities, and assign architects to work as part of these communities to look for creative solutions.

“It is useless, in fact more of the same problem, to assign architects as some type of expert, as creative geniuses, to suggest new ways of using these buildings.

“This time the architect must work in conjunction with communities, in a role more akin to midwifery than obstetrics.

“This is not a pie-in-the-sky abstract idea; it is how the Berlin local government successfully responded to the squatting movement in the early 1990s and indeed how the Venezuelan government currently deals with favelas, or squatter settlements.

“The initiators of such a process are local communities. They initiate it by taking control of any unused buildings for the use of their community.”