MS TEMPLE BAR

 

DEVELOPMENT is a positive word, even a hopeful one or at least it should be, with its implied promise of improvement.

Property development, however, tends to sound less innocent - its aims are often viewed as threatening.

Archaeology, architecture and the environment are all too often vulnerable to thoughtless and insensitive development planning. In Ireland, especially Dublin, where so much of a unique cultural legacy was lost, property development is still an emotive issue and any new development plans are bound to be greeted with caution.

Developers have often been guilty of brutalising the fragile map of history, through a cavalier disregard more rooted in ignorance than malice. The public memory has not yet forgotten, nor entirely forgiven, the tragedy of Wood Quay.

Even now, more than 20 years later, should a foreign visitor dare praise the compact beauty of Ireland's capital - a city which has been steadily regenerating itself thanks to a renewal begun during the year of culture - there are Dubliners who will refer to the unique Viking settlement which lies beneath the once despised Civic Offices. A natural enmity exists between the conflicting forces of cultural legacies and progress; the old yielding to the new is always guaranteed to ignite emotional debates in which there is seldom a winner.

Five years into an ambitious £100 million project of transforming the Temple Bar area of Dublin's inner city, Temple Bar Properties appears to be achieving the near impossible, having borrowed £63 million from banks to add to the £37 million coming from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the national Exchequer through the Minister for the Environment. International response has been excellent. In December, the project was celebrated at an urban renewal conference in Brussels and next month, Temple Bar will represent the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development (OECD) as an example of successful urban renewal at a major architectural exhibition in Milan.

Bordered by Fishamble, Dame and Westmoreland Streets and Wellington Quay, the work continues amid more good will than is commonly experienced in Ireland. According to Laura Magahy, managing director of Temple Bar: Temple Bar has attracted a huge amount of attention, probably because it is such an interesting part of Dublin, but also because it has captured the public's imagination. I really feel that there is great national support for this, while it's wonderful having been endorsed internationally, I feel it's much more important that the people here at home are so pleased with it. It really has brought the Irish to Temple Bar."

She also believes that part of the success of the project is that it has respected the area and its past. Also we have done everything out in the open. The public knows what we have done with the public money, the uses we have put it to. Anything we have done has been filmed. Every now development was filmed before and after. I think people like being able to compare how things looked, I know I do. A visual record of any change is vital." Of course, she is aware of the sensitivities roused by Wood Quay and also that the entire chapter remains in the background of any new fears. We were obviously conscious of Wood Quay, but it did not determine our approach. We knew we were going to do things differently."

TEMPLE Bar Properties is the first Irish developer not only to produce its own excavation reports, but to issue them promptly and to a high standard. The two monographs covering excavations at Isolde's Tower and the excavations at Essex Street West are both written by Linzi Simpson under the supervision of the Temple Bar Properties' consultant archaeologist, Margaret Gowen, and are the first in a series of volumes exploring the archaeology of the area under Gowen's general supervision. Magahy says it should be compulsory for all developers to publish an account of any significant archaeological relevance.

Isolde's Tower occupied the north east angle of Dublin's 13th century defences, a position which indicates that it was built to withstand attack from the sea. The remains survived to a height of 1.5 metres and may have resembled Reginald's Tower at Waterford. Simpson's report details the structural changes from its construction to its demolition in 1681 and the building of houses on the site.

"We are building around the tower remains, which will be left permanently on view to the public," explains Magahy. The most controversial aspect of the Temple Bar project has centred on the decision to house a Viking centre in St Michael's and St John's Church. Objections to this were raised by An Taisce.

"The building had been sold on by the Catholic Church; it had been deconsecrated years ago. We wanted to try to bring the building alive again in a way that was relevant to the area a Viking centre just beside Wood Quay where the Vikings first came to Dublin. The building is almost finished and it looks really great."

Temple Bar is busy. There is a real sense of work in progress, yet there is a relaxed atmosphere. One is not struck by the presence of watchful eyes on the alert ready to protest against the possible undermining of history. But there is also a feeling of entering the preserve of the ever resilient trendy. Already the area, which has long included Crown Alley, has become associated with the young. It is an established summer youth haunt.

With its new streets, squares, modern facades and emphasis on wide open spaces in an area traditionally composed of narrow streets, is Temple Bar too cool for the average, non leather clad citizen over 18? It could be easy to dismiss Temple Bar as intimidatingly chic.

Magahy laughs at the suggestion and offers herself as an example of a normal, not particularly chic citizen. Originally appointed as cultural and financial director in 1991, she became managing director two years ago. Prior to joining Temple Bar Properties, she was chief executive of the Irish Film Centre.

"We are here," she says pointing to the model of the area and its tiny copy of the information office we are standing in. "The entire area is 28 acres, we have about a third of it." Many of the miniature buildings are identified by small flags. It is like playing war games. There is a feeling of a military campaign being waged precise, deliberate and extremely organised except the only enemy is the weather and the wind which sends a crisp bag spiralling skywards.

Residential, commercial, retail and multi cultural, it's a cohesive community. Everything is accounted for. Again, there is a major emphasis placed on the visual: "You need to be able to see what it's going to be like. I know it's very hard to visualise what a new building or a refurbishment is eventually going to look like when it's still going on.

Newly appointed to the board of CIE, Magahy is also a member of the Arts Council as well as being a member of the Government appointed Devolution Commission which is overseeing the renewal of local government. On paper, therefore, she is quite formidable. In person she is deceptively relaxed, friendly and talkative, though she has acquired a reputation for not liking criticism.

"There has been criticism: I think that's inevitable with anything as big and as exciting as this. At first I took it (the criticism) personally, but I have come to accept it as part of the job now and it doesn't upset me." There are still those who regard her as overly sensitive and she knows she can do nothing about such views. Equally, she is conscious of the fantastic rum ours regarding her salary, which it has been suggested she set herself. "There have been, stories in the press that I have a vast salary, significantly larger than that of other people running comparable State agencies. My salary was set by the Minister for the Environment at £55,000, and while this is a generous sum, it is simply on par with others in my position." Magahy, her husband and daughter do not have a lavish lifestyle and live in a modest house off the South Circular Road.

SHE admits to being more interested in spending money on paintings than on expensive clothes and furnishings. For those who enjoy pointing out that she is a banker's daughter, she is also a musician's daughter and still plays violin and piano. "I have wide interest in the arts, and feel privileged to sit on the Arts Council, alongside so many dynamic colleagues."

Delighted with the project she is heading, she stresses, however: "I'm not running this, there is a team of over 100 people. It's great fun. It's working with a melting pot of different people, ideas and activities. It's been an incredibly exciting few years, gathering ideas from people from all walks of life: artists, commercial developers, marketing people, architects, archaeologists, conservationists."

There is no sign of a mobile phone - "I don't have one" - no executive snappiness, no big suit. Disarmingly pretty, she has a strong, sympathetic face with an interesting tiredness about her eyes. Magahy looks more European than Irish but her manner is unmistakably Dublin; her accent is more a mixture of Dublin, Galway and Cork. Although she must be extremely competent, she conceals her shrewdness behind a natural ease. She enjoys showing a visitor around Temple Bar and is clearly particularly excited by the opening of Meeting House Square, a new public square.

It will open at the end of June this year to coincide with Ireland's presidency of the European Union." Phase one of the project will be completed in June while phase two is expected to be finished in 1998.

Pointing to the side of a building which also doubles as a vast outdoor projection screen, she explains: "There will be outdoor screenings here, music and other outdoor entertainments. Over there" - gesturing behind us that's the back of the Ark - the children's cultural centre. I know some people thought we were crazy to give the best building to the children, but I think it's very important to get children involved as early as possible." Plans for a long overdue, new Project Arts building, on the existing site, are currently being worked on with the centre's administrators.

"People deserve environments to be developed thoughtfully, with equal consideration given to the buildings and the purposes to which they are put, the environment itself." She would like to see this concept of area based planning extended to other parts of Dublin and the rest of Ireland.

Aware that she has been suggested as a possible contender for the job of Dublin City Manager which will fall vacant on the retirement of Frank Feely in May, she says: "The present city manager has given 17 years of his life to what must be an incredibly difficult, challenging and sometimes thankless job. I don't know who will get that job, there are some very good people around."

Although public policy planning now appears to be her life's career, she did not begin with youthful dreams of becoming an architect. Born in Dublin in April 1961, she is the eldest of three children. The family moved to Galway when she was 12. Within two years her father's job with the Bank of Ireland had uprooted the Magahys again, this time to Cork. On completing a BA in German and Music, Laura went to Berlin where she taught for a year, before moving to Bordeaux for a further year's teaching. "I didn't really have any idea of what I wanted to do. I had always been interested in music, my mother is a music teacher."

On returning from Europe, she applied for a job with Graffiti Theatre Company in Cork and worked as an administrator for four years. "I knew I was good at organisation. I'm very logical, probably pragmatic as well. Yes, I am pragmatic. But not introspective." By then she knew she was a natural organiser and extremely practical.

Practical enough to know she should return to college. In 1987 she began an MBA at Trinity College. "I remember it as being very intensive. It was tough, hard work. It was work." It was also useful. "I saw a job advertised by the Film Centre and I got it." It was now 1988 and while the Film Centre was establishing itself, so too was Dublin in its Millennium Year.

Magahy became part of the Temple Bar community. When the Dublin Resource Centre called a meeting in April 1989 to discuss CIE's proposal to build a bus station on Temple Bar property it had begun buying in 1981, Magahy attended the meeting and was shocked. "I was horrified at the thought of this area losing its character. I worried about the wonderful old buildings, some of which had the potential to be restored, all being knocked down." There was also the purely selfish reason: "The film centre would be looking out on to the entrance of the bus centre," she says. It was decided at the meeting to form a committee to lobby against the plan.

"I didn't know anyone at the meeting so I stood up and asked could I nominate myself Everyone laughed and then someone said: `I'll nominate her'." That committee spent two and a half years lobbying anybody who would listen. "We were lucky we had a sympathetic and positive response from the then Taoiseach, Mr Haughey."

ACCORDING to Magahy, Temple Bar was also blessed with a team of sympathetic and imaginative civil servants open to the risks of a venture which would involve so many traditionally contrasting elements such as the arts and cultural world merging with financial interests. "Since that time there have been many people who have co operated in creating the remarkable degree of mutual support we have."

Looking around Temple Bar, it is true that it could be anywhere. One could be standing in a part of Paris or Frankfurt or New York. There is no attempt at creating a pastiche sense of Ireland or of the Dublin that once was. Despite its relevance in archaeological terms and its proximity to Wood Quay, all traces of the Temple Bar of Viking and Norman times have long since disappeared, except for the narrow street plan. Effectively, it bears the remains of its Georgian self. It must be accepted that one can not create a Viking Dublin in the 1990s; neither can a Norman or a Georgian Dublin, be recreated.

"You can't expect to create the Dublin of an earlier time; that time has gone. To attempt such a thing is an insult to those who originally created that Dublin. It is also an insult to the architects of today. In fact it is dishonest. While it is really important to respect the past, it is equally important to give breathing space to the present."