Some friends in the property business are privately stating that the supply of newly built office space in Dublin has reached the point of market saturation. Even allowing for large firms’ preference for up-to-the-minute standards in climate-friendly office accommodation, the change in work practices, including work from home, four-day weeks, open-plan layouts and hot-desking, means that large employers are downsizing the needs and plans for new office buildings.
If there is a situation of oversupply, there will be consequences in terms of market rents per square metre and the bankability of new office projects. While post-quantitative easing liquid cash may have sought out office-rental investments in recent years, there is every reason to doubt that such development funds will be as forthcoming in future as in recent times.
In principle, this may be no bad thing. The concentration of construction industry activity in offices, hotels and high-rise tax-driven apartment developments may give way to the move to sustainable housing developments that Ireland needs so badly and so urgently. If home building can compete on more even terms with other construction activity, there is some hope that increasing our output will not result in spiralling construction costs.
Re-purposing existing office accommodation or transforming pipeline office developments for housing may be easier to describe than to achieve. Most office buildings are quite unsuitable for conversion into apartments of a decent standard.
There is another question. Are our urban office developments – whether planned or completed – really worthy of admiration on the basis of architectural merit? People sometimes speak admiringly of the new streetscapes in Dublin’s docklands, but I find that the new Liffey-side vistas east of the Custom House are a mixed jumble of engineering boxes with little aesthetic appeal individually and even less coherence collectively.
One of the sadder consequences of the Blitz in English cities was a period of 20 years of ugly egg-box construction in prime core locations. The awful (and thankfully quickly demolished) office building built on the site of the Theatre Royal in Dublin’s Hawkins Street was a prime example of this non-native invasive species of English design being introduced to Ireland.
We have a unique opportunity to abandon the current messy and disordered approach to renewal of our cities and to build city centres and suburbs with visual style and grace
But that still raises the question as to whether we have achieved any vernacular styles of our own in urban renewal of any type of construction. Is there anything distinctive of Dublin in the buildings erected in the city over the past half century? Are our architects designing buildings that would not be built anywhere else in these islands or in northern Europe? How many of our recently built urban buildings or streetscapes really deserve praise or admiration from ourselves or from strangers?
When did you last really feel as you looked at a recent building that you were glad it was built or that it formed part of an appealing streetscape?
If entire areas of our cities are to be rebuilt as higher-density medium-height urban and suburban precincts, will they have the coherence or style of Dublin’s Georgian cores of the Gardiner and Pembroke estates? Or even of the redbrick suburbs of the capital, of Glasnevin or Rathgar?
Or will we still permit urban renewal to follow the present permissive regime which allows individual development on handkerchief sites of buildings without any visual relationship (other than height) with neighbouring developments?
I am probably in a minority that fundamentally questions the current architectural orthodoxy that function determines form and appearance. I think that appearance can be as important as form or function in urban planning or development.
We could allow the present dysfunction to continue on the basis that we are dealing with an emergency and beggars cannot afford to be choosers
Living in an ugly egg-box may satisfy housing needs (especially in a housing emergency), but it has long-term social consequences. Just compare Dublin’s social housing projects at Marino in the 1920s, designed by Horace O’Rourke, with the National Building Agency’s social housing in Cherry Orchard in the 1960s and 1970s. One commands profound respect; the other profound regret.
Nobody, in short, is planning the appearance of our cities. Nobody is planning the appearance of new streetscapes or neighbourhoods.
Is that surprising, given that Dublin’s planners designed and commissioned their own headquarters to the low and discordant standards of their Wood Quay offices? If Ballymun Regeneration Ltd – in which they had direct involvement in design and control – was their best stab at urban renewal, then heaven help us. There appears to be no hope of redemption.
As construction activity hopefully pivots from urban office-building to urban homebuilding renewal, we have a unique opportunity to abandon the current messy and disordered approach to renewal of our cities and to build city centres and suburbs with visual style and grace.
Or we could allow the present dysfunction to continue on the basis that we are dealing with an emergency and beggars cannot afford to be choosers.
That choice is ours to make, provided, that is, that we have the planners, the architects and the elected members of local government who seize the opportunity.