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Saturday 15 June 2019

Home truths: Ireland’s rural town problems go to Venice

The market square at Mountmellick pictured in the 1890s when its commercial function was the lifeblood of the town
The market square at Mountmellick pictured in the 1890s when its commercial function was the lifeblood of the town
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

The senior gent slouched across from me at the launch event was quite obviously asleep. Chundering sounds were permeating from his nasal pipes to challenge the patrician drone of the keynote podium speaker, off above somewhere.

Held in a vast, stuffy, formal hall, the event was somewhat reminiscent of the weekly Mass by the "boring priest" which we attended (religiously!) each Sunday when I was a kid. And in a particularly cavernous echo chamber of church.

That building, I later learned, had been constructed following an enthusiastic architectural competition that elicited over 100 different entries. Then the Batman-like Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, had swooped in, brushed them all aside and hissed: "No deal suckers. You're getting this one!" In his press- ganged church we children did our Mass peering up at the 100 foot ledges to work out ceiling proximate ninja routes from one side of the building to the other. There was always a snorer.

The launch I mentioned was held recently to hail the Irish curatorship at the Venice Biennale which kicks off this weekend. The Biennale focuses on architecture every second year (there are 64 countries participating) and it runs for six months. Biennale is architecture's World Cup, its Wimbledon or its All Ireland. So it's quite a big deal.

But the presentation was likely my single most boring experience since being guilt-tripped into taking a free Status Quo gig ticket in the 80s.

There were lengthy and worthy ramblings by some eurocrat who struggled to make his points while much of it was chock full of impermeable industry jargon (architects in a group speak in Klingon). It illustrated just how inward looking and detached organised modern Irish architecture has become. How it has, for a great part, removed itself from the understanding of the general public by failing to speak its language. This despite our obvious love for it (Dermot Bannon anyone?).

But one big glimmer of inspiration was the presentation from one of the Irish national pavilion team, whose project is focused on the problems and the future prospects of Ireland's rural market towns. Ireland's entry to Biennale, 'Free Market' is the application of bright young architectural brains to the long-running problem of deteriorating Irish country towns - rather than parish pump politicians or moaning publicans. It's great that young architects are taking a meaningful treatise of nuts and bolts grassroots problems, derived from genuine grassroots views; to a high brow show like Biennale - best known in the past for presenting Ireland to the world as an obtusely arranged pile of peat briquettes.

Organised architecture in Ireland has long exhibited a navel-gazing dysfunction in communicating exactly what real benefits it can bring to ordinary people.

At the moment Ireland is bursting with bright architectural brains - take the example of Biennale's overall curators, the Grafton Architects principals Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Together they have designed some of the most refreshingly exciting public buildings around the world.

'Free Market' is something refreshingly real to the rest of us. Like Mr Bannon's domestic kitchen extensions, it deals with a subject concerning a good many of us at backyard level.

The six architects (with the exception of one from Amsterdam), all hail from Irish rural locations and all of them have worked to some degree in the past examining the issues now faced by dying and dysfunctional towns. These have been built up in a route-one agri society and are now facing myriad core changes, from emigration, to drink driving, to being hollowed by out of town retail growth, to mass obsolescence of both main street retail and residential buildings.

The group studied 10 Irish market towns, with either a market square or a central public market building. They are: Castleblayney, Ballyshannon, Ballinrobe, Athenry, Templemore, Macroom, Kilrush, Kilmallock, Bunclody, and Mountmellick. Miriam Delaney, who is one of the team says: "We spent time over six months in all of the towns, talking to everyone we could about what it's like to live and work there, to find out what works and what doesn't. In some cases we went into every single business and shop to ask our questions. Some towns have extraordinary traffic problems, some don't. Some have turned their market squares into vast car parks. In some, the schools have moved out of town and there are out of town stores which have hurt main street businesses. In many we see the 'doughnut effect' whereby the living population has also moved out of town and fewer are living in the main street homes or above the shops.

We learn how the destruction of urban district councils has taken away local voices on the ground, how the involvement of many state agencies, from heritage to local authority, are tripping each other up and how "annual spend" driven budget systems provide lots of flowery roundabouts but prevent bigger longer term rejuvenation projects taking place.

Among the solutions suggested are using the extensive backlot garden and yard spaces behind the main streets to resolve parking, the need to stop the moving of schools and to re-engineer big empty formal public buildings like town halls and markets into lively self-employed business hubs. We learn how Lidl, Aldi and Tesco can be in town rather than out of it. We see why we should extend the living over the shop incentives to towns, to cater for new demand for smaller homes in the rental crisis and get people living in town centres again.

'Free Market' runs until November in Venice and then comes home to tour the towns it studies. But the shows will be held in accessible public spaces, at festivals and fairs and, its team promises, "without the wine and feta cheese".

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