High-rise buildings and quality developments the way forward, says Mandal
RAISED in Calcutta by an Indian father and Irish mother, Robin Mandal had an early introduction to a variety of architecture and cultures.
Latterly schooled in Ireland, the president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) availed of many opportunities to visit cities across Europe and Asia as his father worked in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. His experience of world cities and a passion for buildings will stand him in good stead as he leads a profession devastated by recession.
But Robin Mandal says "the tide is turning for Irish architects and the opportunity now is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past".
It was a pleasure to chat with the charismatic President at the RIAI headquarters on Merrion Square. The RIAI has approximately 2,700 architects practicing in Ireland and the profession has had to adapt fast to survive.
It was interesting to learn that about 28pc of Irish-based architects' work is now overseas, with commissions arising in Europe, the Middle-East, China and Africa in that order. There has also been a structural change in the profession as there are now less than 10 firms with over 20 employees and the vast majority of practices are two or three people.
Mandal stresses that Ireland's next phase of development "must be driven by an agreed vision of what we want our country to look like rather than the cyclical nature of the market". He refers to projections about our increasing population.
"We need enough buildings for an extra one million people in 25 years, and that's not just houses – it is offices, factories, schools and hospitals," he said.
The RIAI president stresses the need for "quality" in the next phase of development. "We have an opportunity now to develop a vision of free-thinking, mixed use, sustainable development that offers long-term value to society. The opportunity is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This time we must get the right buildings, in the right places at the right cost."
Mandal believes that three factors must be in place in order to produce a high quality environment; a robust development system, finance, and a deep understanding of the needs of the end-user. It is this latter point, an understanding of the home dweller, the office worker or the patient, which he feels has been forgotten in the past.
He points to Dublin's docklands as an example of good urban planning and design. "It's seamless development with very good public spaces and integration of social and affordable housing. It shows what we can do with the right planning, architecture and vision."
That said, he agrees with my suggestion that the docklands skyline is too low. "Instinctively my personal view is that the buildings are too low. Many of the three storey buildings should be eight storeys high. A normal height in a city should be the treeline, which is higher than people think at about six storeys."
Mandal welcomes the newly announced Special Development Zone for the docklands, designed to speed up the development process. His only reservation is that the public space provisions that now apply under the Dublin City Development Plan are lower than those successfully utilised under the original Dublin Docklands Development Authority plan.
He walked into the eye of a storm with the advent from March 1 of the new Building Control Regulations. The RIAI supports better building and has "consistently asked for adequate inspection and enforcement measures". The Department of the Environment says that 800 "Commencement Notices" have already been served under the new system, which relies on "assigned certifiers" to inspect works, rather than the local authority. Mandal feels that the biggest weakness is a lack of an insurance system for "latent defects". He adds: "If the only solution for a consumer is to go through the courts, then the system is flawed."
Whilst fee levels are "barely sustainable", business is improving for architects and most firms expect to employ more people in 2014. Mandal believes that the vision of architects will be crucial to developing this next phase of "where we want to live".