Architects' contribution must be recognised

 

The Government needs to take the crisis in architecture seriously if more liquidations are to be avoided

SEÁN Ó Laoire has been a friend of mine for many years. His father Dónal was my Irish teacher at St Vincent’s CBS in Glasnevin, and his uncle Frank taught us geography there. I also know Hugh Murray well. So it was a terrible shock for me personally when the architectural practice they founded in 1979 went into liquidation last Friday.

Murray Ó Laoire Architects (MÓLA) started not in Dublin, but in poor benighted Limerick. Hugh and Seán became the city’s bright boys, and livened it up with projects such as the restoration of the Potato Market, a new pedestrian bridge over the Abbey river, and the gutsy visitor centre at King John’s Castle that everyone loved to hate.

Working with Jim Barrett, who had made himself de facto city architect, MÓLA put Limerick back on the map with an eye-catching contemporary tourist information office and civic park on a vacant site at Arthur’s Quay – part of a vision, now largely realised, of providing a continuous pedestrian route on the city side of the river Shannon.

Later projects in and around the city included Limerick Regional Hospital, Thomond Village student housing at UL, the Clarion Hotel “skyscraper”, the new terminal at Shannon airport, the sensitively renovated courthouse, the Tailteann sports hall at Mary Immaculate College and, of course, Thomond Park – cauldron of Munster Rugby.

Cork also benefited from MÓLA’s renovation of its opera house, which at least partly made up for Michael Scott’s blanking the river Lee, and the CIT School of Music, one of the few examples of a public-private partnership project that really worked. And Galway got fine new buildings at GMIT as well as the Bon Secours private hospital.

Back in 1994, MÓLA blazed a trail for environmental sustainability with the Green Building in Temple Bar – even though it didn’t all quite work out as planned. By then, it had opened an office in Moscow, during the rip-roaring era of Boris Yeltsin. This was to be the first of several overseas offices – more were opened in Aachen, Abu Dhabi, Barbados and Bratislava.

The practice represented Ireland at the Hanover Expo in 2000 with a pavilion described as “classy and sophisticated” by Wallpapermagazine. Its largest single project abroad was the Eurovea complex on the banks of the Danube in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, designed for Ballymore Properties; the first phase is to open at the end of April.

One of its most controversial projects at home was the development of previously untouched Carton Demesne in Co Kildare as a golf resort, with a luxury hotel linked to the country seat of the dukes of Leinster and numerous villas around the 18th century parkland. It typified the sort of compromises architects made during the boom.

But whether it was a commercial project such as Athlone Town Centre, schemes for third-level institutions such as TCD’s student housing in Dartry, or the UCD Students’ Union in Belfield, MÓLA’s work was always characterised by humanity, idealism and even a touch of irreverence. It also won numerous awards, including an RIAI (Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland) gold medal.

Nobody who was there will ever forget Seán Ó Laoire’s lecture on the theme Building on the Edge of Europe– heroically delivered in French – at L’Imaginaire Irlandais, the cultural festival in Paris in 1996; he couldn’t have imagined that, just 10 years later, the price per square metre of housing in Dublin would be dearer than in the French capital.

Ó Laoire was nauseated by the excesses of the boom – the formless housing and big-box retailing shovelled into fields at the edges of towns and villages, the countryside colonised by vulgar mansions, and so on. “It’s the antithesis of what I believe it could be, but the potential of the place is what keeps me going,” he said in 2007.

Not long before that, much to his own astonishment, MÓLA had employed up to 250 staff drawn from so many countries that its Fumbally Court atelier in the Liberties was a real melting pot. Contraction became inevitable when the credit crunch struck in 2008 and the recession hit. When the end came, there were 127 on the payroll.

“All of these people contributed to the betterment of Irish society in many ways, designing schools, hospitals and residential buildings at a level that competed with the highest standards abroad,” one leading architect commented. “It’s a real tragedy that they’ve found themselves in the situation they are in today – on the dole.”

The Government needs to take this seriously, if more liquidations are to be avoided in architectural practices where principals often go without pay to keep their business going. For a start, it must ensure that public bodies pay bills promptly, instead of leaving those who provide services hanging on for months before they receive payment.

Ciarán Cuffe, an architect himself, must know how bleak things are. As Minister of State for planning, he will be expected to advance projects that have some chance of sustaining architects and other construction industry professionals in employment. Why should only accountants, lawyers and estate agents be engaged by Nama?

The Society of the Irish Motor Industry, which is, after all, merely an association of dealers in imported cars, managed to get the Government to save its bacon with the latest scrappage scheme.

At least architects make a real contribution to society, and the RIAI needs to spell that out more forcefully.