Built fabric of towns much more than product of economics

Housing shortage and city culture must be approached with care not expediency

There is an anger growing about our built environment. About housing, about our public spaces, about the country we have built for ourselves and how we might improve it.

We have been here before. Public anger and activism has transformed our cities and what they mean to us. During the 1960s and 1970s a series of developments in Dublin galvanised people to protest in their masses. These started with concerns about the destruction of historic cores, with the occupations of Hume Street, Mount Street and more. Initial arguments to keep historic fabric based on its cultural value alone evolved to encompass the then radical idea that cities were places for people to live. That the built memory they represented was a vital part of this life.

One campaign, Save City Quay, ran for over a decade. Its focus on housing and preserving communities in situ resulted in Dublin Corporation (as it was then was) changing policy and building a series of dense terraced houses in a city centre site. It was more efficient for the corporation to house the people somewhere peripheral, but the community asked to stay, arguing that housing be built not only for reasons of efficiency, but of social continuity.

Later protests are better known, particularly those which gathered in the late 1970s against the construction of the Dublin City Council civic offices at Wood Quay. While most battles were lost, the debate entered into a wider consciousness. Over time the statutes and regulations preserving historic fabric were rewritten. Attitudes as to what constituted progress changed, and with it how those in power saw the city and its potential. What started as idealism became “common sense”.


Destruction and replacement

There were lessons learned during this time which we could do with remembering. The Temple Bar project started with the angry rejection of an approach of wholesale demolition. In its place it proposed a series of small-scale developments providing places to live and to work. It was highly innovative – instead of vast destruction and replacement, it showed that small-scale and carefully considered new buildings can be more radically transformative. These smaller sites demanded more care. Quality was ensured by using a design contest to find architects, and nimble approaches were taken to planning and implementation. The approach received widespread international acclaim and interest, and was highly influential abroad.

While the subsequent invasion of the area by stag parties might be decried, the project worked on many levels – and the biggest failure of this model in Ireland might be that, having invented it, we never again implemented it. Major urban renewal in the decades since took more conventional approaches. Now, as we mark the 30 years since the commission, it might be useful to re-engage with these ideas.

In debates about how many homes we need, and the policies and regulations around these, there is a huge gap. Arguments bat back and forth between economists and politicians – about who pays and how – and these aspects are important. But we need to talk more about what to build, where and why – and just as crucially, for how long.

Our population recently passed five million for the first time since the mid-19th century. Projections by the Central Statistics Office forecast that this will grow by at least another million in the coming three decades, and potentially by far more, especially if climate change projections leave us as a desired destination for so many.

Election cycle

We are already facing a housing crisis, but this crisis is not a fleeting event – it is the background condition of the country for the foreseeable future. The policies we enact to address this condition need to have this long-term understanding in mind – operating far beyond the election cycle. If we do this right, the construction of places to live can be an engine of renewal – physically, socially and culturally. What and how we build now will shape the country for the next century.

So what will this look like? If we are to deliver the numbers of homes our country requires, only some will be deliverable on peripheral green-field or even brown-field sites. We will also need to engage with more awkward conditions, with core and infill sites. How our State procures work currently does not address this reality.

These sites may be small or require sensitivity due to proximity to existing homes or built heritage. They will require different skills to larger sites – similar to the ideas deployed in Temple Bar.

There is much in our economy that is already set up to deliver this. The base of our construction industry is composed of smaller contractors and design enterprises. Innovation is being shown by some, such as the Grangegorman Development Authority, or Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and are worth studying. The design of these homes will need to be varied, catering for all. Simple regulation and space standards will not resolve this – the only way to do this is to switch from an attitude of expediency to one of care.

Nimble delivery

In thinking about the housing debates, pay attention to what’s not mentioned: the resourcing of local authorities with the skills and resources to seek and procure design quality; the development of nimble approaches to delivery and planning – devolved local or national housing bodies to deal with the conditions in each area. These are ideas already developed and tested here 30 years ago. Another legacy of Temple Bar means we have many talented designers educated and working here. They will be needed.

We need models of housing that work, and that can deliver sustainably. Not just in their construction, but in how they build communities that endure, and enable life in its fullest sense. Yes, there is a justified anger about housing, and yes it is an urgent problem. But if our reaction to the urgency and scale of the challenge is to rely on an overly simple solution, we will miss the opportunity, and make things worse.

None of this need be slow, but it will require commitment to track it through, tweaking and adjusting so that the full potential of this moment might be realised. In countries like Austria, Switzerland and Belgium, we see how such quality-oriented approaches might be delivered. But more than this, it is here in Ireland, in decades of activism about the built environment, that we see the underlying reason this matters. The built fabric of our towns is so much more than the product of economics.

We are talking about places to live, places where the ordinary needs of life should be considered with dignity and care. In placing this care at the heart of the matter, the way forward becomes clear. Caring doesn’t cost more, but it does require consideration, consideration it is not afforded at the moment. We have found ways to do this before, and now might be a good time to back again the discoveries we made all those decades ago.

Andrew Clancy is an architect with Clancy Moore and professor of architecture at Kingston School of Art