HARP area exemplifies growing incoherence and banality of Dublin's redevelopment

 

After more than 10 years of urban renewal, the general standard of building design should be appreciably better, particularly for inner city residential schemes. Yet apart from a move away from shoebox-style apartments and some progress in the provision of amenities, this is sadly not the case.

Take the HARP area, for example. Month after month, it seems, this important chunk of Dublin's inner city - some 10 times the size of Temple Bar - is being littered with run-of-the-mill architecture. And this has now become so widespread that, in some instances, it constitutes entire streetscapes.

The criticisms expressed here last week about the west end of Temple Bar are relatively minor, even niggling, compared to what needs to be said about what is going on just across the river. Because at least in Temple Bar, whatever its faults, a serious effort was made to create a mixed use area of architectural quality.

But in the HARP area, if quality was high on the agenda, it is not apparent. Its handful of outstanding new buildings include O'Muire Smyth's complex on Beresford Street, Brian O'Halloran's Law Library on Church Street and Grafton Architects' sharp-suited block at the corner of North King Street. Anyone who watches the RTE television news will be familiar with the footage of vans carrying high-security prisoners being driven under armed escort to the Special Criminal Court in Green Street. Look closer at the backdrop next time and you will see one of the worst buildings to have been erected in Dublin for years.

This block of apartments, with shops at ground-floor level, might as well be a barracks, or even a prison. Rising to a height of five storeys, its upper floors are clad in stretcher-bond brick, with 48 of the meanest, most ill-proportioned windows it is possible to imagine; all that's missing are the steel bars.

Rather surprisingly, it was originally designed by John Sugars and Partners, architects for the restoration of Slane Castle and of two Georgian buildings at the top of Capel Street, among other significant projects. On North King Street, however, whatever they had in mind was not realised in the completion.

The old buildings that stood on the site had been reduced to ruin by a decades-old road-widening scheme, which severely compromised the original concept. This was compounded by the use of a pre-cast concrete frame and the contractor's decision to dispense with all the detail in its unrelieved brick facade.

The block, by Brandfort Developments in association with Karl Construction, is an example of what can happen when an architect is employed and then the contractors do it their own way.

Just around the corner in Capel Street, Cathal O'Neill, former Professor of Architecture at UCD, got planning permission five years ago to replace O'Neill's sports shop - the family business - with a contemporary building that at least followed the jagged line of the original early 18th century terrace.

But not long after this approval was in the bag, the site was snapped up by Zoe Developments and Professor O'Neill's scheme for a student hostel associated with the DIT in Bolton Street was scrapped in favour of a 149-bedroom budget hotel. The crucial elevation to Capel Street was also altered by Zoe's in-house technicians.

As built, it is a repellent exercise in Georgian pastiche, featuring a multitude of single-pane sash windows, a pre-cast concrete string course, Knightsbridge brick (stretcher-bonded, of course) and conservation-style dormer windows - as ghastly a compromise as the worst of Lower Mount Street has to offer.

The rear elevation to Green Street, by contrast, has a bow-fronted glazed curtain wall, but this has been executed so cheaply that it spoils the setting of the historic courthouse.

And yet the scheme was approved by Dublin Corporation and An Bord Pleanala, subject to minor modifications, after An Taisce appealed.

It is tragic that a group of buildings shown on Rocque's map of Dublin in 1756 should have been replaced by something so banal.

And it isn't even a hotel anymore; recently, permission was granted to turn most of the space into offices, with the hotel element reduced to 20 bedrooms - just enough to qualify for a bar licence.

The only consolation is that number 95 Capel Street, whose dismal fate was a cause celebre, has been restored, if not particularly well. As for the new building alongside and the barracks-style block on North King Street, Ian Lumley, heritage officer of An Taisce, describes them as "the Tweedledum and Tweedledee" of mediocrity.

In medieval times, as one architect remarked recently, people built in a traditional manner with a limited vocabulary. And while construction techniques have become much more sophisticated, it could be argued that the sheer banality of much of what is built nowadays shows that many developers still have a limited vocabulary.

Jim Keogan, project manager for the HARP Integrated Area Plan, makes the quite valid point that design quality still counts in the public sector, as exemplified by Dublin Corporation's innovative housing scheme on Wolfe Tone Street, designed by its own architects, and McGarry Ni Eanaigh's remaking of Smithfield.

Architectural standards in the area should also be raised to a new plane by a community centre on North King Street, designed by Derek Tynan Architects and currently in the course of completion.

But the coherence and sustainability of Smithfield Village, by A&D Wejchert, are open to question because the area is still in transition.

Unlike Temple Bar Properties, which could - and did - set high standards in developing its own portfolio, the corporation's planners are constantly reacting to proposals put forward by the private sector and all they can do is lay down conditions to mitigate design failings; some architects would say they meddle too much.

The corporation is now trying to become more pro-active in the development arena by drawing up framework plans for specific areas of the city that are likely to become a focus of renewal activity over the next 10 years.

These would include the Markets area (within HARP) and the potential high-rise zone around Heuston Station.

As in the case of Pelletstown, off the Navan Road, these plans will probably be drawn up by consultants, such as Kelvin Campbell's Urban Inititiatives, and - subject to adoption by the City Council - they would attempt to put some shape on what should happen, rather than merely respond to profit-driven private sector proposals.

Clearly, Ireland has a long way to go before it reaches the standard of architectural quality which is the norm in the Netherlands, for example. For too long, Dublin has been treated as little more than a quarry for the construction industry. It is long past time for that industry to pay back the city with architecture of real quality.