Thanks for linking that document. Some much needed commentary on what happened during the building roll out that was the Celtic Tiger. I know I will enjoy sitting down later, to read what Paul Keogh has to say. Paul has spent a good deal of time studying this kind of issue. But let us leave architecture and urban slightly to one side. What is a really puzzling question, that everyone is asking about places such as County Laois, County Leitrim, County what ever you like, is what is the best way to approach economic strategies for these places? Shouldn't that be a part of the discussion? What kind of urban settlement form and what kind of economic potential these places may have in the future, are conversations that could happen in parallel.
The trouble as I see it, not nearly enough sponsorship has been given to people such as Paul Keogh to pull a team of designers together, to try and integrate their own views on potential settlement patterns with the broader economic policies. What sponsorship is available is very hard to drag out of the system, and only comes in dribs and drags. You expend as much resources trying to extract it, as you will ultimately make at the end of the day. http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2009/05/notes-on-smart-economy.html
If one looks at a program on the TV such as Grand Designs, I noticed one home owner, who used to work in the music business in the city of London, took on board a life style change. They renovated an old cottage somewhere in the countryside, and finished by making a statement, one cannot do very good work, unless one is happy with where they live. It definitely seems to me that many of the Irish towns around Ireland could be made into fabulous places to live. However, we need our urban designers to become more involved in the nuts and bolts of how local councils and local government are operated. It is not enough for architects to sit down in their private practices and try to 'sketch' or describe the future as they see it.
Architects require more visibility in the entire process from end to end. That will not be easy, a lot of folks will not appreciate the involvement of architects in the initial stages. The vast majority of people in Ireland, never have a cause to consult with an architect. In the same way they might have to consult with solicitors, priests, doctors and car sales persons. The towns and smaller cities around Ireland could be good places to live. But there are very few planners on board the process who could assist in the way that architects could, if organised in the right manner. Typically, by the time an architect is brought on board, most of the crucial decisions have already been made. The business model of architecture doesn't enable a long involvement. In the same way it does allow county engineers for example, a longer phase of engagement with critical infrastructural works.
Paul Keoghs practice, Sean O'Laoire's practice and a number of others have led the way in Ireland. But what we do require is a much broader base for architecture. I would like to see a time in Ireland when architects don't 'move about' and globe trot so much. That seems to be the basic solution, to globe trot. The young planning profession seems to do the same unless I am mistaken. When that is the case, it can appear as though planning professionals or architectural professions are zooming into a place from nowhere to tell the dumb locals what to do.
Architects will have to work on their personalities a bit better. Some of them try this 'imposing' and intimidating approach, which isn't helpful. They borrow it from the great and successful competition winning architects whom they adore. This approach is not successful if you are dealing with a group of local town representatives. The local town representative, even when not involved in a financial capacity, is still engaging in something risky. If that town representative doesn't deliver something meaningful, he or she may be the subject of disapproval in their own town. The architect can ride along to the next town, so the risk he/she runs isn't nearly as bad.
There is something not quite working yet, in the model of the Irish urban-design focussed practices. Their solutions on paper appear to be okay, but acceptance at a local level does not follow. What architects are better at doing more than anything else, is making their solutions appear acceptable on paper. Some of the most successful young architects suffer badly from an need to see their world, in a more perfect way than most. Their brush strokes on the page are a reflection of this desire to see perfection in their environment. Their skill in this regard, at presentation overshadows the architect's shortcoming in other respects. Their ability to go out and confront potential partners, make the right connections or have the right conversations with movers and shakers at a local level. In short, to deal with other non-architects at a personal level.
I think that developers (even the bad ones) are much better at this. They seem to be a part of the place, the locality in which they build. That is one of the main reasons they continue to be successful, despite having to roll out the same bad designs again and again. It is amazing what a locality will put up with in terms of bad design, if the developer in question is someone they know and can identify with. Who can identify with a skinny youngster, wearing a polo neck who has seen 'Blade Runner' too many times? For all the talk about globalisation and how small the world has become. I think that a lot of idea generation and a lot of the financial clout behind projects starts with a select few at local levels.
Architects believe that someone is simply going to come along and to offer them the commission to develop ambitious projects. I don't know if that is the best model for today's world. Architects hope to have the least risk, involvement and trouble dealing with projects at local level. But expect to receive the most authority and design freedom in return. That is unlikely to happen. Some new kind of relationship will need to be found. No amount of articles in the Irish Times by Frank McDonald or books claiming to be concerned for the landscape is going to change things. Architects should give up hoping for that.
Martin Biewenga's lecture at the CHQ this year was interesting. Martin's approach was to do less flambouyant stand alone buildings and much more landscape architecture. The genius of Biewenga's approach was to be able to do projects all over the globe. But at the same time, have such a positive working relationship with the local communities at each location. The development of urban room and corridors, with buildings that address the spaces created are things that all towns and cities need. Biewenga was merely showing them potential they already had, and suggesting projects which might help them to maximize on it better. There is a strategy that everyone at a local level can get in behind.
Every substantial Irish town I know, has a cattle mart that used to be the focus of the town. Or some similar feature, which sits there now and wonders what to do about itself. I think this is the component that Martin Biewenga knows how to tap into. But typically in the Irish context, someone gets his hands on 'The Old Mart Site' and executes a un-imaginative design of two storey semi-detached dwelling forms. The same as you would see one mile out the road, at the edge of town. I think that Frank McDonald has given a way too much attention to Liam Carroll's not-so-bad Georgian pastiche at Portobello, and not enough to old mart or old GAA field sites. I think that people at local level are looking for a slightly grander vision than that. Something to drive for.
It can start with an image, something on paper. If it hits the right chords, you never know, it might start off something. Even in the current climate. I am sure there are still opportunities out there. What Martin Biewenga presented in his lecture was an option for architects to become involved at local town or urban level, without adopting the approach of Bilbao, where you sweep in and try to put the city on the map, with some feature project. What Martin seemed to describe was something a lot more integrated. http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2009/03/west-8-talk-discuss-their-work-in.html
It occurs to me, that many Irish towns have churches etc, which try to be very dominant over the town and it doesn't always present the best urban solution. Sometimes the buildings that try to dominate Irish towns are industrial, commercial or government administrative buildings. A lot of them appear to be fenced in, and dis-connected from their own towns. As if fighting a battle against them. Some of the dominant buildings in Irish towns have no night life beyond 5 or 6 pm. This in turn fosters the culture we see in towns. A culture of anti-social behaviour and streets that are unsafe for inhabitants at nightime. Yet, it may be those same sites in Irish towns which seem the most unsuccessful are the ones with the most potential in the future.
Why would anyone want to be in the town, the way towns are having to cope at present? Of course, the worse the anti-social issue becomes, the less the town is viewed locally as a 'investment opportunity' and more as a problem area. Engineers working at local level on town councils or what not, love framing things as 'problems'. It fits into their neat little view of the world, where mathematics and off-the-shelf nut and bolt solutions can be found. I know quite a few very respectable people, who have an attitude, they almost wish for towns to fail. To prove some deeply held belief they have.
Architects have found it difficulty if not impossible to address that. When the Architect arrives into a town then try to tell everyone how wonderful towns can be. That is what the urban-design centric offices in Ireland always try to do. But they mis-interpret their audience. People want to hear about the problems, and what someone will do about the problems. I don't claim to understand the local town public opinion fully myself. But I know it is there, and the question is why can't Irish people view towns as great opportunities? Why have we been conditioned to act only when we identify problems?
Brian O' Hanlon