The Construction of Dublin
(Kinsale, Ireland: Gandon 2000)
Frank McDonald, long-time environmental correspondent and architecture critic for the Irish Times, begins his book with the claim that Dublin currently finds itself “at a very critical turning point in its history,” mainly because Ireland’s booming economy has generated a “maelstrom of activity.” He sets about documenting a historical development leading from the 1980s when Dublin was “down in the dumps” to the present, when the city “has a palpable ‘buzz’ about it, and this liveliness makes a huge impression on first-time visitors.” Not surprisingly, given this perspective, McDonald sees the relationship between urban planning and quality of life in mainly positive terms, at least potentially. Although Dublin’s earlier predicament was largely a product of planning corruption, political pay-offs, and lost opportunities, McDonald thinks the time might be ripe for conditions to be improved by a genuine focus on the needs of the city. More considerate planning of public transport, high-rise living, urban sprawl, and heritage protection therefore offers some hope for the future.
A constant theme in the Construction of Dublin, voiced by the author as well as numerous planners and local politicians, is the contrast between European and American models of city development. As Dublin’s Deputy City Engineer in charge of roads explains: “We’ve made a conscious decision that we want the European model of a livable urban environment, rather than the American model of car dependency.” McDonald likewise is quite happy that an influx of population into the core of Dublin “has avoided the terrible ‘doughnut effect’ so characteristic of most urban areas in the U.S.” The controversial activities of large-scale development entrepreneurs Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett of Treasury Holdings are likened to “the same buccaneering spirit as you’d see in New York with Donald Trump.” On the question of “going up,” McDonald favors a moderate high-rise policy. Yet the pressure to reach for the sky in Dublin would never be felt as accurately as in the global cities of London, Tokyo, and New York. “In our little metropolis…it would never be required to scale the dizzying heights of Manhattan.” He continues: “While it is generally agreed that there might be scope for some tall buildings to add interest to Dublin’s skyline, the six-or-seven-story European street remains a perfectly valid model for urban development, even in the 21st century.” At the competition to find an appropriate symbol of Dublin for the new millennium, one entrant evoked both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. The winner, the Monument of Light, a soaring stainless steel needle with a height of 400 ft, is too smooth to allow either association.
McDonald is in his element when it comes to demonstrating the validity of continental European approaches to urban problems. Grenoble and Strasbourg with their modern, up-to-date tramway systems, Zurich’s extensive public transport network, and the cycling paradise of Amsterdam all serve as inspiring models for Dublin. Salzburg dramatically reduced traffic in the city’s historic core by permitting cars only for limited periods upon payment of a hefty charge. In Stockholm, brutalist-style “parking houses” are to be demolished to make way for apartment buildings, and the municipal fleet’s vehicles are fueled by bio-gas. Dublin, where the introduction of bus corridors provoked a sense of outrage, seems to be far behind. Barcelona, another fast growing city, with its new public spaces and remarkable buildings, seems to impress McDonald and several leading planners—quite strongly. Dublin’s general orientation, in the author’s view, is clearly toward continental Europe and away from North American models.
The growth area, Docklands, provides a good insight into the challenges confronting Dublin in an age of rapid globalization. McDonald gives a very detailed account of the plans and schemes for the 1,300 acres under the control of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. That Ireland’s booming economy is a major reason for the demand for high-rise office buildings is taken for granted. What is not explicitly said—maybe because it is obvious to the locals—is that extraordinarily low tax rates on financing profits have turned Dublin and especially the Docklands into a Mecca for foreign investors. Where it smelled of poverty until the end of the ’80s, it now reeks of money. Corporations such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Mitsubishi, Barclays, Ericsson, and BMW have moved in, creating high-paying jobs and a spiraling demand for upmarket housing.
A subject thus underlying the whole book, but somewhat under-analyzed by the author, is the gentrification taking place with warp-speed intensity in Dublin right now. Downtown’s Temple Bar section, an epitome of culture made commercially successful, has caused an unprecedented influx of a new urban gentry into the heart of Dublin. McDonald is a resident of Temple Bar. Originally, a bus station and transportation center was planned for this rather derelict area in the mid-1970s. Yet the unknown future fate of the quarter by the Liffey produced low rents and room for transitory use by bohemians and many “alternative” facilities, including art galleries, clothing shops, restaurants, and rehearsal studios for rock musicians. After the plan for the bus station was abandoned, developers took up the trend and completely reinvented the premises. These days a perusal of the area’s boutiques and services clearly shows the demographic they are aiming at: upmarket professionals with disposable incomes. McDonald addresses some of the problems, such the Urbana shopping mall’s inability to generate enough profit for its occupants to pay the rents, and the unplanned spread of mega-pubs turning the area into a giant party-ground. We also learn about personal interweaving: Harry Crosbie, partner of Treasury Holdings’s Dockland developments, together with members of U2, owns the stylish Clarence Hotel, hosting a renowned gourmet restaurant. Generally, there can be no doubt that the developers and heritage entrepreneurs have been benefiting the most for attracting the new urban gentry and the tourist trade to Temple Bar’s landscape of consumption.
When he specifically addresses socioeconomic inequalities, McDonald seems to be somewhat briefer than with the glittering projects. There is, for example, no coherent passage on the Fatima Mansions local authority complex, not far from Temple Bar in Dublin’s south inner city. Here, a landscape of devastation developed out of what was meant as a slum clearance program. After quite a successful start, decline began in the 1970s. The closure of local industries with subsequent unemployment was accompanied by a government policy rewarding home ownership, so that those still in employment moved out and let the place to more vulnerable tenants. Social disorder, vandalism, and drugs moved the estate beyond governance. McDonald tells less about these conditions than about plans to demolish Fatima Mansions and clear the site for suburban-style semi-detached houses. He also informs us that at the same time Ireland is the last European country building local authority housing, approximately 35,000 units over the next seven years. Here is one of the few occasions where McDonald recognizes the helplessness many locals feel regarding the planning process: “You go out there and walk around and look at kids who are three years old and realize that they’ll probably be fifteen before you get to the end of that process.”
In a similar problem area in the suburbs, the seven 15-story towers of the system-built Ballymun scheme, a remedying master plan for low-density housing, is already under way. The suburban style redevelopment did a lot to adopt the wishes of the locals. McDonald, though, laments this flight into suburban rather than urban character. To him, “urban density is what makes cities interesting.” The Irish, he notes, are nevertheless hesitant to embrace that insight because of a predilection for houses with front and back gardens. As a result, McDonald argues, “the sine qua non of new suburban housing estates is a mix of houses, duplex-over-garden-level units, and apartment buildings.”
The motivation to provide homes that reflect private needs should not go “at the expense of broader social, economic, and environmental imperatives,” however. This is a recurring theme for McDonald: the market does not fully know best, but urban planners need to be more active in integrating social and ecological imperatives into public discourse.
The main strength of McDonald’s book is that it develops a Dubliner’s perspective on his city, connecting it with broader visions and passions for urban living across a wide range of issues. It assumes some knowledge of the Irish context, but adds many instructive examples from outside it, thus making it valuable for audiences beyond Dubliners or specialists in urban studies. European models of urban development and urban policy initiatives are quite capably mapped out here. Although the work may not break new theoretical ground, it does succeed in provoking rather questions about the specific conditions in which these models might be applied in an age of de-industrialization.
Alexander Sedlmaier, a research fellow at the Technical University of Berlin, is writing a book about the history of consumption in European cities after World War II. Contact him at: [email protected].
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