Tuesday 23 April 2019

Liam Collins: 'Why can't the skyline match a vibrant city?'

Dublin's city planners seem content to sit back and give the thumbs ups to an uninspiring skyline, writes Liam Collins

How the docklands could have looked if the three towers had gone ahead
How the docklands could have looked if the three towers had gone ahead
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

It could have been so different. Without interfering with the integrity of Dublin as a Georgian city, the docklands could have been framed with Norman Foster's piercing U2 Tower on Britain Quay on the southside, Zaha Hadid's Tedcastle Tower on the north side, with Rafael Vinoly's Spencer Dock proposal soaring into the skyline over the Liffey.

Instead, we got what some modern architects are calling "stump city", a collection of uninspiring four-, five- and six-storey buildings, lining the quays like limp pieces of leftover Lego.

The rundown areas of Dublin docklands were the ideal place to let local and internationally renowned architects put their stamp on Ireland in the 21st Century, but instead the waterfront has gone, in one giant leap, from decay to banal.

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Ironically, a series of Special Development Zones (SDZ), intended to introduce a brave new world of height and density, have been used to limit rather than increase the size of developments.

"There is a crazy situation that height is allowed everywhere in Ireland, except where it is really needed," says developer Johnny Ronan, who is involved in several major developments along the river. "There is a strange situation in dockland, the minister thought this was where change could take place, but the buildings going up there are too small and it will soon be too late," he adds.

Dublin's city planners seem content to sit back and give the OK to an uninspiring skyline when they could have turned the docklands into a shining example of what could be done in a space where vision, art and big money collide.

Developers trying to build landmark examples of modern architecture are being rebuffed with: "You are a typical developer; you are only in it for the money!" But probably the biggest beneficiary, if high-density development was allowed in the docks, would be the landowner, CIE, the State transport company. On one site alone, they could benefit to the tune of between €20m to €30m - money that could be ploughed back into better public transport around the city.

The Henry J Lyons-designed Salesforce building on the north quays, adjacent to Spencer Dock, is one of the flashpoints between developers and planners on the issue of height, density and innovative architecture. Ronan, and his partners Colony Capital, want to put in an extra 100,000sq ft into the building to accommodate its entire Dublin staff under one roof. But they are still struggling to convince the planners, even as the building begins to rise out of the ground near the Central Bank.

"We are perplexed as to why the local authority and the Government are not forcing this to happen," says a battle-weary architect with the attempt to increase the size of this building from nine to 11 floors, even though the new height would hardly be noticed in the overall design, except by the most expert eye.

In London the Salesforce building is 50 storeys, in San Francisco it is 60 storeys.

Of course, Dublin shouldn't ape other cities, but there is a radical imperative for new thinking.

In Limerick and in Cork, and even Leopardstown in south country Dublin, the idea that a building has to be a stubby square block is disappearing, especially where creativity can be used to counter urban sprawl.

"A lot of famous architects have tried and failed to make a breakthrough in Dublin, the planners are so restrictive that they won't allow height, they just don't want it, even in the docklands where it was possible to be really creative," says a leading architect who doesn't want to be named because he has to continue working with the city planners.

Kevin Roche, the Irish-born architect with a world-class reputation who died recently, explained that height and density was the only solution to Dublin's need for more accommodation and less commuting.

It has become the basic tool of every major city in the world grappling with lack of accommodation and clogged motorways.

"The Dublin planners were positively rude and ignorant to him [Roche] - he said to me 'you won't have to sack me, I'm resigning, you won't get anywhere with these people'," says Johnny Ronan of the Ronan Group. "I eventually persuaded him to come back and do the Conference Centre."

Similar-type increases in a residential development behind the Salesforce site on the north quays would give a 34pc increase in residential units in an area crying out for stylish new inner-city accommodation for upwardly mobile tech workers.

"Minister Eoghan Murphy is embracing height and density, he's very positive but the bottom line is that the Dublin City Council doesn't like height, it is as clear as day. Look at their own decision on Tara Street - they decided it was the place for height, we provided them with 60 designs and still they wouldn't approve it," says Ronan, who has now got his Tara Street tower through An Bord Pleanala.

While the city planners are preparing for consultation regarding a "height review" in certain parts of the city, it is estimated that this will take at least two years - by which time the last of the dockland sites may have been already built on, conforming to the current height restrictions.

The other fear is that tall buildings will 'Manhattanise' the city - but most of Dublin's best architectural gems, including the four Georgian squares north and south of the city, are now very well protected from development after the freebooting years of the Seventies and Eighties when nothing was sacrosanct.

With a growing population and a sprawl that has engulfed parts of Kildare, Wicklow, Louth and Meath planners in Dublin really need to abandon their love of banality and the Irish obsession with sprawling housing estates.

The new order of going upwards with style and panache is the only way forward if we are to solve the growing accommodation crisis.

Cities across the world would love to have had the stylish designs that were drawn up for Dublin's docklands but never got off the drawing board.

From Sydney Opera House to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the Pyramid in front of the Louvre, controversy and great design made a statement about a city's appetite for art and inspiration. Dublin is a vibrant place, but you wouldn't think it by the city's skyline.

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