Saturday 24 August 2019

Roisin Murphy: 'Paris weeps, and we might too for our city's heritage skyline'

Planning permission has been granted for a 22-storey tower block in Dublin's historic city centre, angering architect Roisin Murphy

Who cares?: Roisin Murphy, pictured in historic Henrietta Street, Dublin, does. Photo: Mark Condren
Who cares?: Roisin Murphy, pictured in historic Henrietta Street, Dublin, does. Photo: Mark Condren

Roisin Murphy

Paris is the beacon. It does city living like no other. Modern but with an ironclad historic centre and great facilities. Art, food, brilliant public transport as well as its legendary cafe culture now protected under Unesco status

For any urbanism arguments about city design, all roads lead back to Paris.

Notre Dame was one of its finest hours. It was a building that held the promise of a nation in its stonework. Its ''rose'' windows called out beyond the centuries to talk about the magical notions we had about coloured light that would bring God in through the windows to us, through tiny lobed sections of individual panes of coloured glass.

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God was light, and light was God, or so the story went. And it sat up on an island in the Seine, with a frieze of greenery at its edges, indisputably recognisable as Notre Dame. It contributed to, and was intrinsically part of, a skyline owned and beloved by the world .

A heritage skyline isn't something we necessarily think of preserving when we think of a city. But historic skylines and historic cities generally move us all, in a particular way, because they are punctured in the main by religious buildings, civic buildings, theatres or, if you're lucky, an opera house. Buildings that are, as such, owned by the people and used by the public freely. They are democratic - regardless of your class or religious leaning, they are buildings owned by all, representing something other of existence, something ephemeral.

They are usually in the form of steeples, domes, bridges and occasional monuments or clock towers. They are organised around the notion of a city that the skyline serves no real function, not even a single activity, just the representation of the city and its matrix in these pieces.

Accidentally formed and sometimes helped along by planning and great civic works over a millennium, these skylines provided a breakthrough in painting when people stopped representing the wealthy, or an idealised family - a painting of a landscape or a city skyline was a democratic painting. Nobody owns the sky, it's all of ours, which is any alteration if potent, and perhaps poisonous.

The skyline is not so democratic in a modern city. For example, in New York there are Trump Towers, Chrysler Buildings, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Plazas. Sky-high living is a different kind of living, capitalism defined and built in its idealised practical form. The streets are dark, overcast and without the same tempo as a medieval city.

New York is also organised around a river that is miles wide and avenues that are arguably equally enormous and appropriate for mile-high living but also equally out of step with our tiny-mouthed Liffey.

Movement throughout New York is on a different scale to our Dublin town. Beware of the souvenir euphoria you bring home from a helicopter ride in New York, visitors to our town are exalted by our history and literature and the intimacy. We are a book you can walk.

It's possible in Dublin to become the writer, become the artist, bring the dream into reality; it's a small intimate town. The scale of a city dictated by blocks of buildings of 20 floors and more is not speaking of Joyces and Becketts or indeed the famous The Liffey Swim by Jack B Yeats.

We must curate and keep them safe.

On the floor of the city, busy walking work happens. Buildings break down into their uses and functions, daily activities mapping your walks. Which is why Joyce's Ulysses and our heritage as a Unesco literary city is inextricably linked to our architecture

Two of Joyce's books - Dubliners and Ulysses - are books that map the city. You walk it from the Martello Tower up towards Eccles Street and beyond, the skies of our historic city and skylines forever capturing the writer's Dublin - and it has remained so far intact... for the most part, in spite of a few interruptions such as the civic offices and just a number of state-erupted insertions from the bloom of a new republic's optimism in the 1950s. Thousands of tourists arrive into our city each day to experience it.

Our skyline is symbolic of our Unesco literary status as a city. It symbolises the work of the great literary legacy of our nation.

Our skyline and historic city centre is subject to an extraordinary proposal to change it. An application to insert a tower at Tara Street for use as a hotel.

It is well within and will dominate the historic centre. Not in the appropriately and beautifully planned Dublin Docklands, a specially designated area for appropriate scaled high rise.

It is a threat to the tourism economy by its position around so many 18th century buildings. If you walk Dublin, as it is a walking literary city, you will see it appear almost everywhere within the heart of it. Subtle it isn't.

So for a Unesco city, it's a strange overturning of a refusal previously given by An Bord Pleanala in response to the application for permission to build this 22-floor tower - an overturning of both the planners' and the inspectors' decisions.

It's working off a new piece of legislation. A waiver that was introduced to remove height in the planning guidelines - but they weren't designed to allow or facilitate or interrupt the historic nature of Dublin's skylines or any other city (Cork and Limerick are under siege, no pun intended, Limerick), it was as a response to a housing crisis.

This appeal granted is an aberration of its purpose The waiver wasn't introduced to allow somebody to build in the historic core and to provide offices or hotels. It was designed to advance the provision of housing and to prevent sprawl.

Not this.

A city is a living thing. It must also grow but it must also preserve.

If Paris and Notre Dame teaches us anything, let it be the prospect of losing our heritage. And the civic offices taught us that it was never recoverable - as we lost our Viking heritage to the bunkers, their infamous robust architecture that had to be shielded from the river by a more inoffensive structure.

It was the last of the offences in Dublin until the waiver by Eoghan Murphy and 40 years of protest marches and sit-ins brought to nothing by it.

Who cares and why should we?

So back to Paris

Look how Paris weeps. We should be doing the same.

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