Recession gives designers the space to be creative


The recession is generating a ferment of design activity and ideas, writes FRANK MCDONALD, Environment Editor

DUBLIN CITY architect Ali Grehan is delighted by the ideas, initiative, voluntary effort and sheer energy that’s emerging as a result of the recession. It proves, if proof were needed, that we have more time to think now that the frenetic days of the boom are well and truly over – just as we did in the bleak 1980s.

Over the weekend, in response to the city council’s Innovation Dublin initiative, there was certainly a lot of ferment – in Arbour Hill, where local kids were involved in designing their own playspace and in Smithfield, where the “Now What?” ginger group from UCD School of Architecture was designing new housing for Dominick Street.

In St Stephen’s Green, everyone collaborating in the Designing Dublin pilot project were doing prototyping workshops in the mornings, “Show and Tell” stories in the afternoons and inviting members of the public (who dropped in to take part in a poster competition) to illustrate how they would like to see the city develop in the future.

Up in North Great George’s Street, architect Denis Byrne has opened a new gallery space called Darc on the ground floor of his award-winning Cigar Box infill building, to serve as a hub for exhibitions, talks and debates on contemporary architecture that aims to re-position our battered construction sector on the path of sustainable development.

With sponsorship from Bord Gáis, the gallery’s first exhibition is titled Becoming and traces the evolution of international competition-winning projects – from Wexford County Hall to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Library, the West Cork Arts Centre and Bord Gáis’s own Services Centre in Finglas.

Denis Byrne himself was in Smithfield on Saturday, where he was one of the adjudicators for a day-long competition to design new living spaces on a city council site at Lower Dominick Street, in response to an informal brief by Ali Grehan.

“The general thought was about how people could live there, rather than a geometric exercise,” she said.

Seventeen teams of young architects and students took part in the competition, drawing up plans and making models in a vacant retail unit on the corner of Haymarket.

According to Alice Clancy, of Now What?, passers-by were really intrigued by all the activity: “What’s going on in there? Why is everyone working so hard?” they asked.

Outside, a flashing digital sign posed the provocative question, “What is the spirit of gracious living anyway?”. It prompted more questions about the role of architects in Irish society and led to discussions about the need for collaboration with engineers, planners and artists, with older and younger generations working together, Clancy said.

“We thought originally Now What? was going to be a summer thing. But everyone involved was so dedicated that it became something else.

“It also showed that there’s a need for a workshop like this in the city – more rough than Darc, a place that would allow people to experiment with art, photography, architecture and design.”

The Dominick Street competition, for prizes of books rather than actual commissions, was jointly won by architects Michael Pike and Grace Keeley, who produced an exquisite model in balsawood, and three fourth year students from DIT School of Architecture in Bolton Street: Jamie Conway, Cormac Nolan and Elizabeth Gaynor.

More remarkable perhaps was that the runners-up were three Italians (Gessica Cozi, Federico Scoponi and Luca Trufarelli), only one of whom is an architect – and they had heard about the competition on the grapevine.

Their project dealt with the grain of the city, instead of concentrating, as others did, on the design of an individual plot.

There was more of a party atmosphere on Sitric Road, off Arbour Hill, where 15 local kids had been involved in designing a temporary play space for the weekend, helped by Jo Anne Butler and Tara Kennedy, who are both third year students at the UCD School of Architecture; their vehicle for these types of projects is Culturestruction. The children, aged six to 11, spent a week visiting parks and playgrounds and wanted something completely different.

Hills were mentioned, and tunnels, as well as a more traditional sandpit. Some also wanted a hiding place until a six-year-old girl pointed out that “you can’t do that because everyone would know where it is”.

Brendan McCabe, of the city council’s maintenance department, was given the task of translating the children’s ideas into reality.

“How do you make hills out of wood?” he asked, scratching his head. But they did, and the kids helped to assemble it all last Saturday – much to the annoyance of a small number of neighbours who didn’t approve.

One of the movers and shakers behind the project was Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, who also pioneered the creation of a community garden on a railed left-over space on Viking Place. Ideally, she would like to see a pocket park on the Sitric Road site, although this is bound to be opposed by local killjoys who seem to live in fear of change.

The atmosphere on Sunday was wonderful, with children playing all over the new spaces they helped to make.

Some mothers knitted and chatted alongside, others availed of a streetside shiatsu massage or helped themselves to bowls of soup, and there was even a dog show. It was all “absolutely fantastic”, said Lord Mayor Emer Costello.

Meanwhile, Designing Dublin is now in the middle of its three-month project, with a team of seven professionals seconded by the city council and Fingal County Council working with nine people who responded to an article in The Irish Times earlier this year – drawn from architecture, graphic design, engineering and even theatre.

They’re focusing on the Clongriffin area of the city’s north fringe to find what the project’s creative director, Vannesa Ahuactzin, calls “the hidden potential of place”.

God knows what they will come up with, but Jean Byrne of Design 21C believes such collaboration and “holistic approach to problem-solving” is something Dublin badly needs.

A multi-disciplinary approach is also at the heart of a “24-hour Universal Design Challenge”, which is being run by the National Disability Authority as part of Design Week early next month.

It’s a call to design professionals to work with people with disabilities in developing new design concepts and even products to make their lives easier.

It will be led by Julia Cassim, who has organised a number of similar events around the world, and will centre on the needs and perceptions of five people with disabilities – some visually impaired, others in wheelchairs, some merely elderly – who will act as “design partners” for architects, engineers and other design professionals over a two-day period.

More information on the challenge is at or

The Now What? exhibition is in Unit 14, Block C, Smithfield, Dublin 7 until Monday, further information at