Let’s build a Dublin that we would like to see on screen

Development plan ignores how cameras see the city and distribute its image worldwide

Ever since New York established the Mayor’s Office of Motion Pictures and Television in 1966, cities worldwide have sought to develop and shape their film and media image as a source of artistic inspiration, revenue and employment. Dublin needs to do more in this area as it enters a period of renewed growth and change, as well as thinking about housing units, office space and transport.

Dublin City Council’s city development plan 2016-2022, which is being finalised, seems progressive on sustain-Dublin-ability, livability, technological innovation and arts, such as literature and theatre. But where the plan discusses “the city’s image and branding”, its emphasis on investment and tourism ignores how cameras see the city and distribute its image around the globe.

Urban planners and architects derive much of their thinking on the visual appearance and user-friendliness of cities from influential American urban planner Kevin Lynch, and especially his 1960 book The Image of the City. The Dublin plan frequently refers to the capital's "image" and to its "legibility", another key term from Lynch, by which he means the ease and pleasure with which citizens and visitors may navigate a well-planned city.

Lynch wrote at the height of the postwar transformation of the US by skyscrapers and urban sprawl, although he wasn't in love with either extreme: his ideal city was Florence and his US favourite was Boston, before the Prudential Tower (1964) and a wave of later tall buildings. Lynch would surely have endorsed Frank McDonald's recent call for the middle way of "European-style densities" without going high-rise.


Image resource

Lynch has influenced researchers and practitioners in film and media because of his implication that the city’s image is a valuable resource and the city a kind of text that we “read” (he was also a keen photographer and made short films).

From this point of view, the Dublin plan's intention to encourage "taller buildings, including landmark buildings" seems at odds with its declared respect for Dublin's low-rise historic core and suburbs. The latter have been an important, if relatively under-used, resource for film, from Alan Parker's The Commitments to John Carney's Once, to name just two celebrated Dublin films, and for TV incarnations such as Love/Hate.

Dublin has yet to produce a great cineaste for whom the city is a constant raw material, unlike, say, Rome (Pier Paolo Pasolini), Paris (Agnès Varda), London (Mike Leigh), New York (Noah Baumbach) or Los Angeles (Paul Thomas Anderson). That said, Lenny Abrahamson has made some of the most astute images of 21st-century Dublin and its buildings in Adam & Paul and What Richard Did.

What matters is to recognise that Dublin needs to build carefully, not only because people have to live and work in the city, but also because the image of the resulting city will circulate worldwide for years to come.

On this score, Dublin is behind the curve in not having its own film and media commission. The New York City mayor's office claims responsibility for a $9 billion (€8.05 billion) annual turnover and 130,000 jobs in film and media production. Film London claims a £1 billion (€1.2 billion) annual turnover. Paris Film manages more than 900 location shoots a year. Smaller cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Toronto and New Orleans are exploiting and shaping their media image in similar ways. This happens not only through location shooting, but in postproduction, financial incentives, training and apprenticeships, film festivals, film archives and walking tours.

Dublin has some of these, of course, but not in a joined-up way. Its use as a film and TV location is surely way below what it might be, notwithstanding high-quality costume dramas such as Ripper Street or one-off touristic spectacles such as the Bollywood spy drama Ek tha Tiger, with its all-star Indian cast and dozens of extras singing and dancing around Trinity.

The problem may be administrative. Dublin is governed by four local authorities rather than one, and the Irish Film Board, based in Galway, seems to devote considerably more resources to promoting Ireland’s rural and rustic locations.

This is suggested in the range of films the board supports, its website and brochures, and the recent controversy over filming Star Wars on Skellig Michael. The board does much excellent and important work, but its 12-year-old Film Dublin Partnership (which helps film-makers contact the Garda and other State agencies to arrange filming permits) seems too small and unorganised, a missed opportunity only warranting nine words in the board's 44-page Strategic Plan 2014-2020.

A city of Dublin’s size, prestige, and growth potential needs a larger and bigger structure to encourage and distribute its media image, even if that means disruption of established working methods.

Tremendous exposure

Film and TV representations do not always chime with the clean, harmonious and productive city image that planners and investors prefer to project, but they can provide tremendous exposure for the city as a distinctive and sophisticated place not afraid to ask itself tough questions.

As The Big Short, High-Rise and other recent films attest, few media are better at enhancing public debate on the massive disparities in wealth and the built environment enjoyed by the rich and endured by the poor, or on the close historical relationship between high-rise architecture and capitalist cycles of boom and bust.

Grander collaboration between Dublin’s councils, the Irish Film Board – and even a new organisation – could finally give Dublin the rich and complex media image it deserves.

Mark Shiel is reader (associate professor) in film studies and urbanism at King's College London and the author of Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles (2012)