Tuesday 19 June 2018

High rise -- but not necessarily high art

Small is beautiful except, it seems, in Ireland, says Anthony Cronin

A few years ago, the philosopher EF Schumacher propounded the idea that small was beautiful. He had a point and in a world where a new brutalism was becoming everywhere apparent -- in the scale of commercial enterprise, in architecture, in the size of our cities -- he soon had a following.

But not so much in Ireland. In Ireland we were fed up of small. We were, we were endlessly told, a small nation and we came from small farms on a small island where small shops served our needs in the small towns and cities which were our typical urban centres.

Nor did small is beautiful seem to make much sense as an aesthetic doctrine. Why should it? But you may think that it made and makes at least as much sense as its opposite, a fact which it is necessary to emphasise just now because in Ireland at this very moment we seem to be moving fast towards a general view that Big is Beautiful without reservation or further qualification.

In fact, judging from a lot of what is admired merely for being big, aesthetics has very, very little to do with it.

I live beside an infant school where young mothers (the "yummy mummies" of David McWilliams' mythology) deliver their small children in the morning and then collect them in the afternoon. Almost one and all, they use SUVs and people carriers for this. Mostly the ratio is one small child per one large vehicle. But the attraction of these monstrous conveyances is not their practicality. Nor is it, I need hardly say their beauty -- in fact they are amongst the ugliest motor cars ever made. What makes the young women's eyes shine when they sit in behind the wheel of one of these dangerous monsters is simply their size, their power and their cost.

There was more than a touch of the yummy mummy about many of the responses when the plans for a new building on the Jurys-Berkeley Court site were unveiled recently.

The proposed building will be 37 stories high, or more than three times the height of Liberty Hall and 12 metres higher than the Spire in O'Connell Street. In other words, it will be a giant, even among the many other huge new skyscrapers which are planned. Mr Michael Colgan's eyes evidently shone at the thought.

"I think we have to start producing really, really magnificent architecture, and this is it," he told a reporter for this newspaper. Mr Colgan is an arbiter elegantiarum -- artistic director of the Gate Theatre, former member of the Arts Council -- but this seems to be a reference to size rather than beauty.

However, art will be suitably looked after. Mr Colgan is to be in charge of what is described as a "cultural centre", provision for which is included in the plans. What will go on there?

"What I have planned is that you are going to come in here during the day and you are going to hear music. You are going to see dance studios through glass partitions. You are going to have public art."

Actually, it sounds a little more like Soho in the old days than Ballsbridge in the future.

Mr Paul McGuinness is also, in a sense, an arbiter of the True, the Good and the Beautiful -- manager of U2, former member of the Arts Council, etc. But in relation to ultra-large buildings he seems more concerned with hard-edged stuff like inevitability, progress and size than with aesthetics.

"The city has to go up ... we have to allow high-rise in the city," he said.

But he did not say why.

The architect, Ulrik Raysse, availed of the opportunity to deliver a patronising little lecture.

"Ireland and especially Dublin, is very strong on literature, poetry, music and theatre. But where is the excellence in architecture? What we're trying to do is to raise the bar here, by daring to create a place that's unique."

In fact there is a lot of really good new architecture now in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, but it does not seem to count in Mr Raysse's eyes because it is not Big.

This is becoming the general attitude. To be against high-rise is to be old-fashioned, backward, out of date and it is to refuse to allow Dublin to become part of the contemporary world.

"Every other city", we are told, has high-rise. Why shouldn't Dublin?

But every other city has not. Paris, still the most marvellous city in the world, has no high-rise, except the hated Montparnasse Tower -- admitted by all sides now to have been a mistake. You can see towers on the outskirts of Paris like an army of giants that had been advancing and that had been stopped before they were allowed to invade and destroy the centre. We too have our army of giants, most of them still spectral, but with our frail, rickety, fallible and demoralised planning process as our only line of defence.

Of course we are assured on all sides that the character of Dublin, "a Georgian City", will be preserved. Our "historic" buildings, streets and squares will remain intact. Those who know Boston will know what that means. Eventually, as in Boston, our historic buildings streets and squares will become Micky Mouse stuff, outflanked, outranked, out soared and made to seem curiosities by the giants which encroach on them.

No. One such, the one known as 'Bono's Tower' has just been granted planning permission. At least it is not in central Dublin. Make no mistake about it. If more than a very few such monsters, confined to specific areas like docklands, are allowed, the entire character of Dublin will change, change forever and change for the worse.

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