Building on our heritage
We need to protect our past if we are to be assured of an aesthetically pleasing future
Graham Hickey, conservation director with Dublin Civic Trust: ‘Dublin has so many beautiful brick and hand-built buildings crying out to be restored in plain sight – if we set about putting manners back on the original streetscapes then the quality of the environment would be greatly enhanced.’
The construction cranes are back, hovering like predators over historic Dublin. Every potential site offers an opportunity to reap maximum profits with minimum-sized units under current planning guidelines. The sky’s the limit for the resurrected developers as the soft contours of our hand-built city are punctured by glazed reflective edifices dominating the horizon.
In the current climate, there is a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the city’s character by heeding the advice of our heritage officers and cultural experts.
Graham Hickey is conservation director with Dublin Civic Trust and he would like to see our authorities investing in Dublin’s original streetscapes.
“Dublin has so many beautiful brick and hand-built buildings crying out to be restored in plain sight – if we set about putting manners back on the original streetscapes then the quality of the environment would be greatly enhanced. The older buildings can only survive if fresh sympathetic investment is encouraged around them,” he says.
Many decaying houses are located around Mountjoy Square and Gardiner Place. “By a process of restoration and building residential mews schemes to the rear, we can regenerate these houses. Most of these properties are in private ownership. However, if the individuals were given grants to invest in these structures supported by Government funding initiatives, then we would have an enhanced vision for the future,” says Hickey.
Government grants would greatly assist the hefty bills associated with repairing old stock – from repointing brickwork, fixing slated roofs, restoring sash windows and timber door frames. At the recent Heritage Ireland 2030 conference in Dublin Castle, John McMahon, commissioner for the OPW, recommended an apprenticeship scheme for promoting trades in traditional artisan crafts such as stone masonry, joinery, plastering and repointing along with a funding programme for training carpenters, stone masons and plasterers.
Hickey also believes we should model ourselves on comparable cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam rather than referencing Dublin to high-rise, high-tech cities built on hollow heritage grounds.
“These European cities have the support of the municipal authorities who invest in the facades and interiors of their existing built heritage. The result is a curated urban landscape with distinctive brick buildings revitalised with city dwellers living over the shop.”
Towns outside Dublin are in danger of losing their native housing stock due to the concentration of business in the capital.
“There is a tale of two cities as places like Dundalk, Wexford are under-utilised and gradually being hollowed out. The vacant building rate is astonishing because of poor decisions being made,” says Hickey.
Virginia Teehan is the new chief executive of The Heritage Council. As a former director of Limerick’s Hunt Museum and director of cultural projects at UCC, she is passionate about reviving our national identity throughout the smaller townlands too.
“The Heritage Council has been concentrating on envisioning what the future life would be for other main streets in smaller towns across the country, particularly where there is a question about their basic social and economic vitality. We published a booklet called ‘Ballybrilliant’ in 2018 to celebrate some of the modest achievements of heritage-led urban regeneration,” she explains.
Teehan also concurs with Hickey’s funding idea for assisting Victorian and Georgian buildings to regenerate as part of the living city policy.
“The public interest of these structures needs to be matched with exchequer support for the public benefit of maintaining them. A greater range of grant supports to incentivise the re-use of historic structures would be beneficial and we have called for this in our recent submission to Minister Josepha Madigan. Other recent work we have been advancing involves greater information and training on the energy efficiency of historic structures,” she says.
“We need a longer-term vision to maintain the grain of the capital and a financial scheme for providing loans for smaller-scale developments of €5 million and under for historic housing stock that is irreplaceable,” says Hickey.
Teehan also warns against making hasty planning decisions. “The more time and care we put into planning for the modification or re-making of our built environment, the better. We shape our buildings and then they in turn shape us. Is this not the most important reason for planning and good design, and taking care our inheritances?” she asks.
Dublin’s housing crisis could be used as a scapegoat for fast-tracking the latest build-to-rent accommodation without expert planning control. These predominantly glazed blocks suit investment vulture funds seeking to maximise rental income with minimal co-living arrangements.
“We have so many unused, vacant houses, and spaces over shops on our streets that were once houses or apartments, that could be used again,” suggests Teehan.
As a wave of planning applications flood in to Dublin City Council for high-rise, low-spec units, Ireland could find itself in the grip of a new wave of absentee landlords. Even ordinary family homes that go up for sale are snapped up by property funds for development before cash-strapped citizens have a chance to bid on them.
At the Heritage Ireland 2030 conference in May, Dr Michael Ryan of the Royal Irish Academy, a distinguished archaeologist, emphasised the importance of history and geography in protecting heritage in our education system.
“We would have a seriously deficient education system without the basic knowledge of the social, historical and animate world that we live in. Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he warns.
Grainne Shaffrey of ICOMOS (International Committee of Monuments and Sites) stresses the role of our conservation officers in the shadow of climate change: “We must look at ways of re-using our vacant buildings to reduce the carbon print by reconsidering what we choose to lose. The conservation brief has to be broadened to connect the historical with the contemporary.”
It may seem ironic that Hammerson UK, the global property company, proposes to transform Dublin’s main boulevard of O’Connell Street with a vision “to create a 1916 historical trail to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising events”.
Teehan suggests an open consultation process for its revamp. “O’Connell Street has extraordinary symbolic resonances for all Irish people – it’s our historic heart-beat. Aesthetically, it is a beautiful boulevard and I imagine that most Irish people have walked down it at least once in their life. We need to ensure that the street retains its qualities as a great urban space which makes a visual statement articulating who we think we are. Imagination, creativity and most importantly consultation are vital in achieving these objectives.”
Along with built heritage, there are multiple strands of Irish heritage that knit together our parks, our crafts and our trees. Plans to chop down 160 mature trees and lop off gardens along Pembroke Road for NTA Bus Connects have been passionately opposed by locals in south Dublin. Many of these roads have been immortalised in song and poetry – to lose them would delete them from our collective consciousness.
“These roads and streets are part of the historic urban landscape of Dublin, containing messages, associations and atmosphere that define the character of the capital. The builders of these roads and streets provided an ample balance between the public realm and the private zones for gardens. The trees act as screens to upper-floor windows, a lively and beautiful backdrop to lives public and private, and filters for the air quality,” says Teehan.
“Conservation services in local authorities all over the country need vastly greater staff resources and enforcement powers. We have a situation where some counties have never even employed a conservation officer since the introduction of protected structure legislation, so major towns and urban centres have no conservation oversight or expertise,” says Hickey.
“In Dublin city, a tiny expert team has to manage 9,000 protected structures and many thousands of additional buildings in 23 architectural conservation areas, ranging from internationally significant Georgian mansions to Victorian terraced housing. We need a sea-change in how we resource conservation services to ensure our built heritage is correctly managed and preserved,” he adds.
“The value of Ireland’s identity is increasingly important as the world becomes increasingly homogenised,” says Teehan. “We need clear accessible funding strategies to restore our vernacular buildings.”
For Ireland’s heritage officers, conservation departments and curators of urban design, building on our heritage presents a collective responsibility in the public realm that requires united expert attention. Ireland’s national identity depends on protecting the past if we wish to realise an aesthetically promising future.