Proper listing only way to save heritage

 

YOU would think our built environment was in safe hands: John Bruton has indicated his door is open on the issue of protection for older buildings; the Coalition's Programme for Government promises legislation to "improve the protection for listed buildings" including introducing incentives for proper upkeep and maintenance"; and Fianna Fail recently issued progressive proposals for Georgian Dublin.

Yet the very imaginative private member's Bill on our built heritage introduced on Tuesday by the PDs failed to get Government support and was voted down.

There is a perception that increased voter sensitivity to environmental issues has been translated into higher standards of protection for our architectural heritage, but this is not so. A lot of hope has been invested in an Interdepartmental Government committee, appointed to consider what legislation would be appropriate. After a long delay this has just reported. It is important that the Government appreciates the urgency of the need for legislation, publishes the report and acts on its recommendations. Saving Ireland's built heritage should be an anchor of cultural policy.

In the face of official inertia, demolition of important buildings continues. Dublin City for example, the corporation's development department is facilitating demolition behind facade of the birthplace of Edward Carson at number 4 Harcourt Street despite it being on List 2 of its own development plan and indeed a national monument. In the next few weeks we will see the demolition by Arnotts of the Lighthouse cinema and three other buildings on Abbey Street.

The Adelphi Cinema will be replaced by yet another multistorey car park. As this part of Abbey Street comes under increasing pressure, Guardian Royal Exchange/PMPA is seeking to demolish three attractive buildings near the junction with Capel Street.

Despite being favoured with £100 million (including £37 million for "cultural centres"), Temple Bar Properties (TBP) has jettisoned conservation as a policy. An Taisce has documented nearly 30 demolitions/guttings involving TBP alone. This week will see the demolition of the attractive former schoolhouse on the corner of Eustace and Essex Streets.

The "tall gaunt" house at IS Usher's Island where James Joyce set his poignant short story, The Dead, was vandalised out of recognition in April and remains without its top floor, despite the fact that a developer was obliged to restore it as a condition for building a vast new apartment block on the adjoining site.

The plasterwork and joinery from 96 and 97 Capel Street, two of the best List 2 houses in the city, which are owned by Dublin Corporation, were stripped out and dumped in a skip by persons acting on behalf of parties to whom the corporation proposes to sell the buildings. Numbers 96 and 97 adjoin the national monument and List 2 building at No 95 that was demolished in 1993.

Culhane's public house on Green Street was demolished "over the weekend". One of the best houses in the city was recently burned out at number 15 Merchants Quay. An Taisce has just appealed to An Bord Pleanala over a corporation decision to allow demolition of three of the best Georgian houses on James's Street.

THE two fine listed Georgian buildings which adjoin O'Connell Bridge House on Burgh Quay are to be demolished under a plan by the Sean Quinn Group to develop another bloated off the peg boomtown "theme" pub in this case themed a la Pirates of Penzance.

The Sisters of Mercy have applied to demolish part of their Baggot Street convent. This building is one of only 206 entries on Dublin City's List 1.

Thankfully, Dublin Corporation diligently denied permission for the latter two applications. But they are now with An Bord Pleanala.

The Hilton Hotel scheme for College Street proposes interference with, or demolition of, no less than four List 1 buildings, two list 2 buildings and three buildings in a conservation area. It includes the complete demolitions of three Wide Streets Commissioners buildings on Westmoreland Street and of numbers 3-4 College Street. The new structure would demean the buildings which the scheme condescends to retain by putting what has been described as a "vast bungalow" on the top and leaving other buildings on College Street looking as if they stuck on with glue.

The problem is that even where buildings are listed they may be allowed to deteriorate or, in the case of List 2 buildings, demolished.

And even blatant breaches of planning permissions go unpunished. It is extraordinary to note that the corporation has a backlog of 1,200 enforcement complaints.

Manifestations of this problem include the rash of uPVC factory style top hung windows that infects the Georgian city (and cheaply denies it its essential vertical emphasis) and the pervasiveness of plant and ducting on the roofs of new buildings.

The biggest problem facing conservationists in Dublin city at the moment is the silent gutting and sub division of fine Georgian buildings, possible only because a mere 101 interiors in the city are listed. Guttings often go unmonitored and undocumented.

Pressure of space seems to keep many of these stories out of the media and there is a general belief that conservation was yesterday's battle. There is a cosy conviction that things will be OK if people are just allowed to get on with their developments. The above litany of destruction and inertia perhaps indicates otherwise.

The only way to slow the demolitions and guttings is a properly enforced, inventorised and funded statutory listing system. It is that simple.

As the boom transforms the face of Dublin it is as well to note that as a grown up State we deserve and can afford better standards of environmental protection than we think.