Reach for the Sky

 

Dublin's recent record in the field of public sculpture is not inspiring. Think of the effigy of Molly Malone at the foot of Grafton Street ("the tart with the cart") or the statue of the shoppers at the mouth of Liffey Street ("the hags with the bags"). Both have an unpretentious charm, are popular with tourists taking snap-shots and are handy meeting points. But they are unlikely to stir the imagination or set the spirit soaring. Then there is the main sculptural bequest of the 1988 "Dublin Millennium", the Anna Livia statue in O'Connell Street, better and more aptly known as the "floozie in the jacuzzi", which has a certain downbeat appeal but never succeeded in capturing public affection.

Nonetheless, the competition to find a replacement for Nelson Pillar excited considerable interest on account of that monument's iconic place in Dublin's streetscape for a century and a half, and the feeling that O'Connell Street was somehow incomplete ever since the pillar's destruction in 1966. The competition, organised jointly by Dublin Corporation and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, attracted more than 200 entries from Europe and the Americas and marked an ambitious new departure in the commissioning of public sculpture. But few of those speculating about its outcome could have anticipated the breathtaking simplicity and daring of the winning design by the London-based architect, Ian Ritchie: a slender column of stainless steel 120 metres high - three times the height of the old pillar - topped by a panel of gleaming, illuminated glass. Bereft of historical references, it seems to stand for the hope and confidence of an unashamedly modern city on the verge of a new millennium.

Joan O'Connor, chairperson of the panel which unanimously chose the winner, spoke of it on radio yesterday in infectiously enthusiastic terms as a "technological wonder", a design of "genius" and a "beacon to mark the centre of our city". Whether or not she is proved correct in her belief that this shining steel spire "has the capacity to become a well-loved landmark" will depend greatly on the success of the Corporation in regenerating the street in which it will stand.

For the monument is the lynchpin of the O'Connell Street Integrated Area Plan announced last spring. This envisages a series of improvements such as the widening of the footpaths to accommodate pavement cafes, high-quality street furniture, a new civic space in front of the GPO, and the renewal of a number of key sites, including the former Carlton Cinema. Together, these offer the prospect of rescuing O'Connell Street from the dilapidation and vulgarity inflicted on it by uncontrolled development in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a sorry irony that affluent, modern Ireland has shown less pride in this inherently elegant thoroughfare than the impoverished, newly independent State which proudly rebuilt it after the ravages of the 1916 Rising and the Civil War. The new area plan is a clear statement of fresh intent and its provisions must be carried through with vigour and care. Yesterday we were presented with the exciting and challenging outcome of the competition to find a monument fit for Ireland's main street. The challenge now is to make Main Street, Ireland fit for its shiny new monument.