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A future for Dublin

This is not a ‘Guide to Dublin’; nor is it about conservation in the currently accepted meaning of the word. It is about urbanism

Originally published in AR November 1974, this piece was republished online in June 2019, alongside a keynote essay written by Shane O’Toole for our issue on the islands of Ireland. You can read O’Toole’s essay here and see more from our Irish issue here

We believe that we have reached a turning point in our notion of ‘the modern city’: that the ideas which have been govern­ing the evolution and planning of cities since the beginning of the Industrial Age: tall buildings clustered in the middle, fast roads leading up to them, the segregation of uses by ‘zoning’, the dispersal of the community into one-class sub­urbs – all these no longer apply; they are the concomitants, if not the cause, of heavy fuel use and of the pollution which goes with it; they destroy the urban community – and the telecommunications revolution makes them unnecessary. Consequently – so we wish to argue – it is necessary, not merely to slow down on these deeply ingrained urban habits but, by changing our vision, to begin to reverse them.

‘Dublin is thus insensibly being drawn away from its historic bed’

We have chosen Dublin as the medium for putting forward this general proposition because she retains more of the earlier city pattern than any other metropolis. Despite a recent orgy of destruction she has been much less pulled about than other cities of comparable size and importance. This is true of the fabric of the city, but it is also true of the community: the process of segregating interests and classes has not got so far; there still remains in Dublin a traditional urban sense to which we can appeal; she is still – just – a ‘living city’. She has also reached a critical point in her history. At long last she is about to come into funds comparable to those available to the other metropolitan cities of Europe. The question is: will she use this chance to restore her urban fabric and her urban community? And, by doing this, become the first truly modern city, fashioned on all that is best in Western experience? Or will she take the all-to-easy course and, following Birmingham and Liverpool, reshape herself on the image which reflects the tycoon, over-centralised govern­ment – and the motor car? We hope for the first; but we fear that without a conscious moral effort she may drop into the second.

Our last motive for choosing Dublin is the simple one of esteem: for all her blight and her recent architectural misfits she is still a very beautiful city, at once the most personal and the most surprising metropolis in Europe. This is due not only to the prevalence of high quality eighteenth and nine­teenth century remains but – as we attempt to show in this issue – to the Dubliner’s own, continuing, visual gift. There are three main sections in our coverage. In the first we consider, in Dublin terms, the key problems which afflict all great cities at this moment: the transportation system, the office boom, the shopping revolution, homes and so on. We are here attempting to confront the great generic problems of our time. At this level, of course, Dublin is no different from anywhere else: what we are calling for here are changes, not merely in the planning and administration of Dublin, but in planning generally.

Preface

Dublin owes her character partly to economic chance, partly to endemic gift. The economic chance was, emphatically, not of her own making. It consists in the fact that she did not receive the share of industrial development in the nineteenth century which would normally have been the lot of a city of her size and conse­quence. Because of this more – very much more – eighteenth-century building survives in Dub­lin than anywhere else. Because of this, too, Dubliners have had less money to spend on looking after their buildings during the last century than other metropolitan citizens. Thus, though they retain more eighteenth-century buildings (because – until the day before yester­day – there was no economic motive to replace them), a higher proportion of these splendid survivors are in a woefully tumble-down state; and because the gaps and dereliction which long-standing past poverty has caused are all in the centre and the innermost ring, they lie full in the visitor’s line of vision, and give an im­pression of more widespread seediness than is the case.

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The second component to Dublin’s character is her gift. This is partly a physical, geographic and climatic gift: she has a site of exceptional beauty and a soft marine atmosphere which shows everything to supreme advantage; but it is also a design gift; there is extant in the city a popular visual skill which is, perhaps, unsurpassed. A living gift, it is most evident in the way the Dublin householder paints his house and trims his garden. In architecture this gift strikes today’s viewers most powerfully in buildings of the period which followed the eighteenth century: for in Dublin, delicacy and the sense of the apt lived on much longer than elsewhere and these vital components of a popular architecture were enlivened with great richness of imagina­tion. This it is which makes Dublin such a surprising city to walk through: you never know what you will find round the next corner. Without question this is one of the classical hunting grounds of European culture. Conven­tions and tastes which, across the Irish Sea, seem merely dull and lumpish, in Dublin have sparkle.

Fortunately the area of the city over which this aptness and surprise and delicacy apply is much greater than that of the relatively small, but central pockets of blight. The ‘problem’ of Dublin is primarily the prob­lem of the central area: ‘can she become a truly modern capital city without destroying her­self?’

If you take the conventional interpretation of the ‘modern city’, the answer to this question must be ‘No’; for the conventional interpreta­tion of a modern city centre is one in which the motor car is free to penetrate at high speed to any part of the centre; in which the central area buildings are very large indeed (to justify all this accessibility); and in which the main components of the city – the commercial core, the industry, the housing, are all in large dollops and separated from one another.

Dublin has already been manipulated to some extent in these three directions: she has her over-big office buildings, she has her patches of industrial blight, she has her big municipal housing estates right out in the blue; but these manipulations have been to her disadvantage. The argument we want to put in this issue is that this conventional image of the modern city is in fact wrong. It is wrong because it destroys the urban community, dividing it up into one­-class ghettos; because it creates an intolerable environment – both to experience (fumes and danger) and to look at (impersonal spirit-crushing buildings); and because, by putting the various components so far from one another (homes, workplaces), it creates a traffic problem which no system of transport can solve satis­factorily.

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Because these things are so, we consider that this conventional image is outdated and that it is wrong to continue pulling any city about in order to try and realise it. But particularly would it be wrong for Dublin; for the conven­tional modern city, with its towering silhouette, its expressways, its underpasses and over­passes, represents the antithesis of the ideals on which the Irish State is founded; the ideals of distributed wealth, freedom and individual dignity. The Irish population is becoming rapidly urbanised. Despite the very sensible attempts of Irish governments to draw off as many urban newcomers as possible to other cities, it is neither possible, nor desirable, to try and stop Dublin from growing. About half of the transportable goods made in Ireland are made in Dublin and some 40 per cent of the new town dwellers are drawn to Dublin. The great issue is whether Ireland is going to follow the disastrous urban precedents set elsewhere; or whether, by skilful planning and a careful choice of tech­nology, she is going to make a new sort of modern city: one which while having all the desirable facilities, will be different from all the others in remaining a pleasant place in which to live.

 

Prospect

Classical Dublin lies mostly within the squashed oval formed by the Royal and Grand Canals. Through the long axis of this oval, which lies east/west, runs the River Liffey which dis­charges, at the eastern end, into Dublin Bay. The medieval city of Dublin lay wholly on the south bank of the Liffey at a point very near the geometrical centre of this oval, immediately west of Dublin Castle. Post-medieval Dublin developed first eastwards, along the axis of Dame Street, towards Trinity College. In those days the sea came further in and Trinity College and what is now Merrion Square both stood very near the foreshore. What is now the port of Dublin stands almost wholly on made-up ground, the terrestrial fruit of two centuries of rubbish dumping. It is perhaps worth noting in paren­theses that this process of filling in the bay still goes on and that plans now being entertained by the port authority suggest that it will continue until there is room for a whole new industrial city built on the sea-bed, as large again in area as the city within the canals.

Charles I’s Duke of Ormonde first conceived the happy idea of forming quays along the river banks; but building on the north bank did not really get under way until the beginning of the eighteenth century. It began on the west side of what are now the Four Courts and likewise moved eastwards, towards the sea, becoming grander and more expansive as it did so. The parts of Dublin which most foreigners know were built principally in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, a period which corresponds to the life of the Irish Parliament. During this brief and splendid period Dublin was indeed a capital city; but at the setting up of the Union in 1801 all consequence was drained off to Westminster and a decline set in. ‘Visitor’s Dublin’ centres upon two estates: the Anglesea Estate on the south and the Gardiner Estate on the north. But in the intervening years these two have enjoyed very unequal fortunes: the south (Merrion Square, St Stephen’s Green) has prospered and the north (Mountjoy Square, Parnell Square – usually referred to as ‘the North Georgian City’) hasn’t. The south is thus in constant danger of being pulled down by developers; the north is in equally constant danger of falling down of its own accord.

‘Will Dublin take the all-too-easy course and reshape herself on the image which reflects the tycoon govern­ment?’

For the visitor, the topography of Dublin is mildly confusing. This is because he passes through it in a sequence of Knight’s Moves. Some of these are induced by traffic manage­ment – as, for instance, the series of right-angled turns he has to take between Dorset Street and O’Connell Street when entering the city by road from the airport; and this kind of movement (two forward and one to the side) is again forced upon him when he gets to the south side of the city, by the relationship between his three main landmarks: College Green, St Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square. Overwhelmingly hand­some in themselves, these constantly cheat him by being where he does not expect.

Without question, it is the quays which give topographical coherence to Dublin. They are the frontispiece to the city and the nation: grand, yet human in scale, varied yet orderly, they present a picture of a satisfactory city com­munity: it is as though two ranks of people were lined up, mildly varying in their gifts, appearance and fortune, but happily agreed on basic values. The quays are in a bad way, with ugly gaps here and there and many buildings which seem verging on final dissolution; but they remain an immensely evocative and successful piece of townscape and the success of any move to restore Dublin may fairly be measured by whether or not it brings to the quays a return to prosperity and coherence.

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The view along the quays to the east – the seaward side – is abruptly cut off by the railway bridge. This bridge hides one of Dublin’s best buildings from general view – the Custom House – but it also serves as a veil for the port works. In fact the railway as a whole serves as a barrier between the city and the port. Pass that barrier and you enter that extraordinary, desolate No-man’s-land which port authorities throughout the world feel entitled to make. But within this No-man’s-land are two Dublin environments of great interest: North Wall on the north side of the Liffey and Ringsend/Irish Town on the south.

The north bank of the Liffey is a flat plain, about a quarter of a mile deep and about a mile long: it is only near the west end that the hills close in on the river and the bank rises steeply behind the houses on the quay. On this narrow central plain most of the local business of Dublin takes place. At the eastern end, centring on O’Connell Street, are the popular shops; and as a conse­quence the Georgian fabric has been much built over, pulled down and worn out. It is indeed hard to realise that O’Connell Street itself was originally a very classy pedestrian mall. On the higher ground at the back the urban environ­ment gets better. At the extreme east end, in the area round Connolly Station, everything is in shattering decay; but the area between Mount­joy Square and Parnell Square (now a square in name only, having been filled in by the growth of the Rotunda Hospital) is still closely set with tall, splendid relics of the 1790s, sadly run down but still retrievable by massive rehabilitation. Moving westwards along the slope, the next wedge, between Dorset Street and Phibs­borough Road, has the open space round the Kings Inns at the lower end, the Mater Hospital and Mountjoy Prison at the top. This wedge used to be entered, from the top end, by a spur from the Royal Canal, terminating in the City Basin (now filled in) and is characterised by small terraces of the period 1830-60, of very great charm and well looked after.

Next follows a big hiatus in the city weave occupied by St Brendan’s and St Lawrence’s Hospitals standing in an open space which is nearly half a mile in both directions. On the eastern side of this, bordering on Phibsborough Road but standing high above it, is one of the most vigorous and appealing of all Dublin’s railway stations, Broadstone Station, now (but let us hope not for ever) turned over to goods traffic.

The last, westernmost, sector of the northern hillside differs radically from anything we have so far described. Between Prussia Street / Manor Street and the westernmost stretch of the quays is a sector of Dublin which is like nothing so much as a country town, or perhaps like High­gate or Hampstead before they became fashion­able 150 years ago. Composed of small buildings of differing periods it is in good repair, has few gaps, few unsuitable modern buildings and, all in all, presents no ‘problem’. Beyond this sector lies the huge enclave of Phoenix Park, with its cows, the Wellington Obelisk, an excellent ornamental park (called, sweetly, ‘People’s Garden’) and, somewhere in the trees, the President’s official home.

The south side presents a very different picture. As on the north, the railway marks the boundary between citizens’ Dublin, where most is tolerably seemly, and industrialists’ Dublin, where dirt, pollution and dereliction reign supreme. Once this exclusion has been made, we can say that the eastern half of the south bank, up to a north/south line drawn a hundred yards or so east of the two Protestant cathedrals, Christ­church and St Patrick’s, is smart Dublin. Extending about as far again beyond the Grand Canal on the south, it is like a much expanded Kensington – but because of the higher quality of the architecture of all periods, much prettier. This is generally in good shape, but is frequently and disastrously interrupted by large, blank modern office blocks. No worse in design than their counterparts anywhere else in the world, they look much worse because the comparison with the rest is so glaring.

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The banks of the Liffey begin to rise westwards of College Green and are quite steep. There is no fluvial plain as on the north and as this is the oldest part of the city, the street pattern is more random. Dublin Castle marked the eastern edge of the medieval city, the western end lay on the line of Bridge Street, just westward of the Four Courts, while the southern end extended only about a quarter of a mile inland, to a point about midway between Christchurch and St Patrick’s. This area is generally called ‘The Liberties’. Thick with history, its soil packed tight with layer after layer of archaeological remains, it has little to show either of buildings or of coherent townscape. More gaps than building, it has been called, with some justice, ‘the largest car park in Europe’. It was killed as a coherent whole by the dual effect of intense poverty and industrial development in the last century. Even so, a lot of people still live there, (many of them in ferocious blocks of council maisonettes), and the area continues to attract strong local patriotism. The ‘Liberties Associa­tion’ is emphatically a body not to be trifled with.

The ridge at the top of the river bank runs along the line Dame Street / Thomas Street / James’s Street and of the old road leading out towards Kilmainham. The westernmost sector of the bank, from Watling Street to Heuston Station, is wholly taken up by the Guinness St James’s Gate Brewery. This great enterprise also extends to the south side of the ridge, round the Grand Canal Harbour, so that it effectively blacks out the whole of the west end of the south bank. Though, doubtless, its habits are no worse than those of any other industrial undertaking of equal size and antiquity, it casts an appalling shadow of dirt and squalor over the whole quarter. What makes matters worse, is that it extends right down to the quayside and lines this ‘frontispiece of the nation’ with a quarter­mile of blank wall, enclosing storage sheds. If we take our eyes off this deplorable civic lapse, we see that Dublin ends to the west with the suitable bang, with the Heuston Station.

This, then, is central Dublin; what we have called ‘Dublin-within-the-Canals’. It represents only a small part of the whole. Nor does the oval of the canals contain completely either what we might call, in art-historical terms, ‘the visitable parts of the city’, or the ‘operative core’. It does not contain all the visitable parts because the architectural interest of Dublin buildings extends long after the eighteenth century: there are large tracts of excellent building outside the canals, particularly in the south-east (Rathmines, Rathgar) and along the coast all the way from Howth in the north to Dun Laoghaire in the south.

It does not contain all of the ‘operative core’ because, like the yolk of a lightly poached egg on a tilted surface, this is beginning to slide away towards the south-east as the new middle class gathers weight and draws the power of the city to itself. Dublin is thus insensibly being drawn away from its historic bed: it is a city on the edge of permanent displacement as money is poured into its south-east, to the detriment of its other three quarters. In this, Dublin is no different from any other great western city; or, rather, she differs only in that, since this terrible civic malady has not finally taken root in her, it is still correctable.

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Problems

To the outsider there are five main ‘problems’ in Dublin. There is the problem of blight. Over an area which extends about a quarter of a mile back from the Liffey quays, both north and south, Dublin is visibly falling to pieces. Other western cities have been through this sort of trouble, but no one, at this moment, can show anything comparable to Dublin’s ‘rotting at the heart’. Dublin as a whole is not by any means a decaying, tumble-down city: but to the casual visitor she gives this impression because her decay is just where everybody can see it. Next, there is the problem of the transport pattern. This is a contributory cause of blight, both in the general sense that, on the whole, the a current transport system is weighted in favour of the motorised south-east and against the central areas; but also in the specific sense that a significant part of the blight is caused by road widening and by the threat of it. This problem can be put very simply: ’Should Dublin be re-shaped to suit the motor car? Or should our approach to transport be re-shaped to suit Dublin? It must be one or the other.

The third problem is that raised by the office boom and by the activity of the developer; or rather, to put the problem the correct way round: how to supply Dublin with the new facilities and the new buildings she needs without destroying her coherence as a city?

In the fourth place is the problem of homes. Where should they be? And of what sort? Should they be in large, one-class municipal estates sited out in the sticks (as most authori­ties the world over still seem to think)? Or should they be in mixed communities, the closer-in the better? And what about the dwelling type? Should they be in communal form, like the tower blocks out on the Ballymun Estate (near Dublin airport), or like the ubiqui­tous central Dublin maisonette blocks? Or should they be in separate dwellings, each with a door on to the street?

‘No one, at this moment, can show anything comparable to Dublin’s rotting at the heart’

Lastly, but as important as any, is the question of non-white-collar work, of industry. Must this always be such a dirty and overpowering presence in the environment? Must it always coalesce into such outsize units? Therefore does it need always to be banished to the outskirts, or to Dublin’s ‘New Towns’ to the west (Tal­laght, Blanchardstown, Lucan/Clondalkin)? Can we envisage, in the not-too-distant future, a change in industrial habits which will make it possible for plant to be brought back to where the people are? Or must we envisage a contin­uing exiling of people to where the industry is? Is a return to a mixed environment such a mirage after all? A mixed environment, like that of the Georgian city, but updated, reformed and environmentally clean?

Though we have posed these problems in Dublin terms, they are universal: every city is wrestling with them in some form. They are of course political issues, but they cut across the conventional categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in which we are accustomed to think. So many of the distortions that Dublin is suffering from can be seen in political regimes which are altogether different: a city in Eastern Europe has much the same look as one in the West, and shows the same ruthless segregations of use, the same break-down of urban coherence and the same arrays of impersonal and over-big buildings. Questions of social justice are always important, but what seems to signify more than anything in city planning at this juncture is our attitude towards technology. Up to now we have given ourselves up to it regardless of consequences; and among these consequences, on the debit side, have been the slow dissolution of the city community and of the city fabric. The chief argument in this issue is that we should take stock of this and, changing our tack, should use our skills and knowledge to restore the values that have been accidentally destroyed.