Dublin City Council Architects Division held its workshop on a redesign for Cork Hill on Friday 15th March. The workshop was reasonably attended - approx 50 people although a good 50% of those were City Council staff (no planners though). Perhaps the date for the workshop was an issue - the Friday before bank holiday weekend.
The morning was both interesting and unsatisfying. Proceedings started off with architect Brian Swan who designed the present carbuncle on the street, giving an overview of the rationale behind the push to reinvent the three key entrances into Dublin Castle - Palace Street (done), Cork Hill/ Castle Street (being buggered?), and Ship Street (for future buggering?). The Dubline, the rediscovery of the Castle, a bit of Fáilte Ireland money to do something, the needs of disabled (repeated throughout the morning), the needs of weddings and entertainment uses at Dublin City Hall, the fact that the Barnardos Square entrance isnt a very satisfactory approach to City Hall (no irony here), pedestrian safety at the junction, etc were all mentioned or alluded to.
There was no real explanation of the rationale for the existing €20k concrete structure other than that DCC wanted the 'visual backdrop' to reinforce the new traffic behaviour on this junction and OPW or rather the Castle Management (more dysfunction) wanted the flags to complement all the expensive and tacky branding that has been vomited over every surface of the Castle for the EU presidency.
Brian Swan gave an uninspiring and bland presentation and was careful not to let skip the vaguest whiff of imagination or understanding of the place on his part. Nice guy when I met him...but I am worried about what he might have in store for this street.
Next up Nicki Matthews, the Council's Conservation Officer. Lots of lovely old images showing the Castle in its various guises and many showing the relative unchanged nature of Cork Hill over the centuries. Nicki made an ambiguous pitch for sensitive change to the street by referring to the various criteria used to assess a protected structure (and of course no one mentioned that this section of streetscape was previously listed in City Development Plans)...cultural, scientific, social etc. What Nicki didnt really elaborate on was issue the materials and their increasing rarity in the city, which I think is quite relevant. These sections of setted streets, well-laid swathes of Leinster granite paving, fanned corners, steps, etc have been lost to a shameful and alarming degree in the city and no one has really explained why and how and where all this valuable material went. The rush to adapt every section of streetscape to universal access, or make every space vandal-proof, or the overarching need for everywhere to have a 'use' is creating a much blander and less interesting city in my view...certainly I don't expect to see a Spanish Steps in Dublin during my lifetime.
Cork Hill is only a small section of street, and incidental space for many. Yet it has managed to avoid redesign and serious neglect for most of the 20th century, which is no mean feat in this city of philistines.
Anyhow after the formalities we broke into groups to discuss what we liked about the space, what it meant to Dubliners, what value redesigning the space would be to Dubliners, etc etc. There was some good discussion at my table. Next up were asked to address the needs of various 'personas' who might use the street. Each table was given 2 - ours were Ann the event coordinator using City Hall on a daily basis and all the challenges that that brought and Dave the DHL man who loved using Castle Street as a rat run and convenient parking spot. This section was perhaps the most unsatisfying and distracting element because actually what everyone might have liked to do was just get their thinking caps on and put their thoughts to papers.
What emerged for me from the day was:
That this place will be redesigned and I am not sure it will be to its benefit. It will probably follow what happened on Palace Street and I don't really have faith in City Architects to execute anything exceptional or inspiring at this location.
Perhaps Castle Street may finally be considered as part of a redesign and that issues such as excessive through-traffic (rat running), on street parking, coach parking, pavement quality, poor land use on the street, the sadly underused secondary entrance to Dublin Castle and the Castle Steps, the vacant and litter-strewn OPW owned site at the corner of Castle Steps and Castle Street, the derelict substation (also OPW owned), the lack of access into St Werburgh's graveyard etc, might now be on people's radar. But this seems a big ask and the red line will always win above an holistic approach to an important historic character area.
That there really in the City Council isn't any real interest in valuable older materials in the city - whether setts, paving, streetlamps etc. The more I read council design documents such as the Public Realm Strategy or ACAs the more 'contemporary' jumps out at me. Its not that I don't value good contemporary design...I do. Its just that in Dublin this seems to mean removing older materials and replacing with cheap granite or concrete or temporary materials and catalogue bought street furniture (and lots of it) rather than working with older materials and updating spaces using these high quality features. The comments of one table which included 'dare to be different' , 'defy convention', 'avoid pastiche' (in street surfaces?), 'boo to trees' etc was rather ironic. Its precisely because most follow this shallow thinking that we have such bland functional traffic dominated streets all over the city and very few curious and intimate little spaces such as Cork Hill.
The OPW in Dublin Castle are as bad and as muddled in their thinking and lack of understanding of the place. Witness the way money has been spent in the past year.
The laymen at the workshop...those of us not in DCC... brought up novel ideas such as shared space, greater pedestrian priority on Castle Street that might encourage greater use on the street; that when Barnardos Sq and the remaining plaza is redesigned here (i.e. the concrete toadstools removed) AND if the entrance here was made more attractive and inviting that perhaps those of us less-able might not feel at all uncomfortable using this entrance and its lift instead of pushing ourselves up Cork Hill to a great new ugly ramp tacked onto the side of our City Hall. As someone said, disable people have an appreciation of aesthetic and good design too you know!
So anyhow it was a worthwhile event. What is interesting to me is the degree to which social media is influencing what going on in the city. The fact that some people got angry on Twitter etc about this was worthwhile because the project has had to be rethought. Old habit don't die hard though....in his closing remarks Brian Swan made a big to-do about how the Architects would now need to engage with all those city councillors who had expressed concerns about the waste of money and vandalism of public space that took place here. No mention of the humble citizens to drove the debate on this issue. They don't require an explanation.
Of course, not one city councillor was at the workshop.
A Part VIII is expected later in the year.