‘Knocking’ jewels of old Dublin a step shy of vandalism

Rush to notions of modernity by developers and politicians exposes people short of vision

Herbert Simms is credited with designing 17,000 dwellings in Dublin and helping transform the city in the 1930s. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

A while ago I was in a cafe in Smithfield, one of those small places that sprung up in a nook you previously didn’t pay any attention to. The smiling owner revealed they would be gone soon. The entire block was being knocked so that the prime Dublin development of the day could occur: probably offices, probably a hotel.

Probably the same dreary glass and steel to which we’ve become so accustomed. For some reason, it hit me harder than so much of the demolition-development that’s happening in the city. Here was a cafe that made such a lovely addition to the square, a footprint that for so long languished as empty units and wind tunnels. Here was a place that fit itself into the existing landscape. It was nice, which means it’s threatened. Knock ’em down.

 The same feeling surfaced with The Screen cinema being totalled. Dubliners love giving out about buildings, but there is a wave of demolition occurring across the city as development – primarily for offices and hotels – takes priority. Occasionally, you’ll hear about the lust for knocking down Liberty Hall which thankfully the economic crash delayed. Or a taxi driver tells you how much he’d love to knock Busáras, even though it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, despite people who don’t know a jot about architecture or design insisting on its ugliness. 

 What’s happening around the city is a homogenisation of landscape. The buildings, nooks and crannies, being levelled for glass and steel. I mourn the warehouses down the docks, flattened without a second’s consideration. I mourn Cork Street, levelled so that a mishmash of anonymous apartment blocks could be built, dropped into the landscape in such a ramshackle way as if to ensure none of it ever felt warm again. 

 The Dublin Flea Market, the Green Door Market, and all of the lovely places that sprung up in Newmarket Square in Dublin 8 in recent years have been given their notice. Another neglected part of the city to which creative folk added so much, is being levelled. For years, Newmarket Square languished. I lived there during the boom, in a terribly designed apartment but a beautiful part of the city. Now the buildings will be demolished, making way for that glass and steel. An Taisce has called the demolition “unacceptable”. But hey, money talks.

The Mercer Street flats in Dublin, designed by by the renowned architect Herbert Simms. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
The Mercer Street flats in Dublin, designed by by the renowned architect Herbert Simms. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

The Tivoli Theatre is next for the chop. More hotel accommodation and office space is to be had. It’s part of a trilogy of travesties for night life in the city, with POD finally earmarked for – you’ve guessed it – office and retail space, and Hangar, another club, ready to turn into an aparthotel. If you blink in Dublin, an aparthotel or high-end student accommodation appears in front of you. 

 Meanwhile, Dublin City Council is considering delisting from the Record of Protected Structures flat blocks in Dublin designed by the renowned architect Herbert Simms.

It seems astonishing that our council would even consider that for a second, but that’s what head of housing Brendan Kenny has floated. “In my view we should demolish most of them, maybe all of them,” said Kenny, referring to several complexes including Chancery House – one of the most architecturally stunning flat complexes in the city – and Mercer House. Any attempt to delist buildings for demolition in the city would be a profound act of thuggery.

Sure we shouldn’t be surprised that such attitudes emanate for Dublin City Council, which has a planning office that makes decisions that has my eyes out on a stick regularly. How many tawdry, head-shakingly rubbish apartment complexes have sprung up in the past 20 years? Look at the material things are made of, with their cheap balconies bleeding on to cladding, zero storage, their temporary nature. That’s what the city loves apparently. And knock anything in their way. 

Much recent development has added nothing to the town

What do we value in our city? What do we love? I’ve lived in Dublin all of my life and I love its grit. I love the buildings that nuzzle up to each other, the concrete and brick, roughness and resilience. Much recent development has added nothing to the town, a town rapidly pushing out its inhabitants and prioritising tourists. If you want to knock Herbert Simms’s buildings because they seem like too much hassle to refurbish, then you might as well knock the Georgian Squares – sure it would be as easy to build anew as to maintain those. Knock the buildings on the quays, sure they’re a nightmare to refurbish. Knock the cottages in the Liberties and Stoneybatter – wouldn’t multistorey work much better? Level Thomas Street and Dorset Street, they missed the boom so now let’s have them. Get rid of it all, because who cares when there’s money to be made?

 The city is being chipped away at. It wouldn’t be so tragic if the stuff that was being approved for building had any merit. The character of a city matters. It matters that Dublin is distinct, but for how long? Nobody lusts after anonymous contemporary office buildings. Nobody makes postcards about those. The continuing demolition of Dublin needs to be resisted. Otherwise, like so many other parts of town that were shoved aside in the name of crap development, we’ll wake up and miss what was once there. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Let’s start preserving the character of our city against the forces that seek to homogenise it.

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