A `sensational' tower part of a `sensible' plan


Mr Michael Lowe, director of Arup Associates in London, is clearly a sensible chap with wide experience of major urban development projects. Indeed, he used the word "sensible" over and over again in his evidence to An Bord Pleanala's Spencer Dock public inquiry.

Mr Lowe was engaged by Dublin Corporation last March to advise on the massive scheme proposed for the 51-acre site, and it was on the basis of his recommendations that the corporation capped the overall development at 4.6 million sq ft.

Had the developers not sought planning permission for six million sq ft, arguing that this was needed to fund the National Conference Centre, he would probably not have gone as far as he did in seeking a compromise on the site's "carrying capacity".

As he told the inquiry, London's Broadgate complex - a dense scheme of offices, generally eight to 10 storeys high, centred on Liverpool Street station - would have offered a better model for Spencer Dock than the mass of much higher buildings proposed for the site.

And as for its high-rise residential blocks, Mr Lowe sang the praises of Maida Vale in north-west London, where he himself lives, with front doors on to the street and, behind its five-to-six-storey terraces, access to a "secret world" of extensive communal gardens.

"It's quite easy to bang people into flats," he said. But if families were to be attracted to living in the Docklands area, a high level of amenity was essential, "not just a minimal flat with a tiny balcony". Urban housing needed to offer "sensible living conditions".

The scale of development was also fundamental, he said. And though his plan for Spencer Dock envisaged a landmark building in the middle of the site, which would be visible from Fitzwilliam Street, it was "an opportunity to do something absolutely sensational".

Mr Lowe agreed that this tower, rising to a height of 80 metres, could be in conflict with the findings of the corporation's current high buildings study, due to be completed in June. But he said this was not a time to be timid in planning a new city quarter.

He put the Spencer Dock scheme in context by noting that its six million sq ft exceeded the first phase of Canary Wharf, in London's Docklands, and his own firm's development of four million sq ft centred on the disused Battersea power station.

Mr Lowe also emphasised the need to signal the presence of the proposed underground rail station at Spencer Dock by making an event of it, with a glazed canopy above ground level and levels of retail and leisure facilities leading down to its platforms.

It was all about his "sense of what is appropriate for Dublin in the end"; echoing a view expressed earlier by the city architect, Mr Jim Barrett, who referred to the general absence of a "coherent architectural language" in the Spencer Dock scheme. Mr Barrett parted company with the corporation's planners by endorsing Mr Lowe's contention that the site could accommodate at least one, if not two or three, high-rise blocks. The planners thought the conference centre, at 54 metres, should be the tallest.

The city architect insisted that this would restrict the ability of architects to "compose a skyline". And even though the tall blocks he favoured would be visible from the "Georgian mile", he felt this would not be a problem if they were elegant and slender.

Mr Barrett, who had a surprisingly short innings on the stand, was asked how the evident conflict of views on Spencer Dock between him and the city planning officer, Mr Pat McDonnell, could be reconciled. "There are often such conflicts," he chuckled.