Ah I knew Praxiteles would stroll in eventually!
The issue of how we design residential buildings in urban contexts is a critically important one. Indeed, it could be argued that simply the manner in which a townhouse or apartment addresses the street plays a fundamental role in people’s perception of a place, and their decision-making process about where they want to live – not just in terms of this street over that street, but in the wider arena of urban versus suburban. In that sense, this issue must be grappled with in Dublin. It’s not as if this is a problem unique to this city – it’s an issue faced all over the world, and has been dealt with successfully.
The problem with the above Danninger scheme is not so much the architecture, which I think we all agree is largely inoffensive, if entirely devoid of interest, but how the complex interacts with the public realm. There are other amenity issues too, including the balconies being smaller than the minimum size standards set in the Development Plan, fit for little other than squeezing on a couple for a quick smoke and a grope, while many of the apartments are also single aspect. Sadly, it would appear that as a result of a recently refused application for updating the scheme to modern apartment guidelines, Danninger went ahead with the 2003 planning permission instead - if there is any consolation to be had from this sorry mess.
There would be little or no privacy problems with this development if was designed in the right way. For a start, this is an exclusively residential street. If access was closed off to vehicular traffic at one end, with provision for the car parks of the apartment schemes on both sides of the street provided at the other, half of the street could have been entirely pedestrianised. All rat run traffic is immediately eliminated, while a determinedly residential air immediately precludes loitering as generally associated with mixed use streets. Then the process of actually designing a building can get underway, now that an appropriate context has been established. As such, this site and street required a masterplan by the planning authority, to which it was up to the developer – whoever it may be – to generate a scheme that met the demands of that plan. This is what is commonly done across the Continent, where the planning authority sets the standard for what is required, and it is up to the developer to realise this – by all accounts in any manner they wish, as long as it is part of a shared vision with the authority.
As for residential street frontage, there are countless examples in other cities of how townhouses and duplexes can successfully address a street. In terms of architectural language, please bear with me on the first example of eye-watering po-mo, but the planning principles at work are quite successful. A semi-private buffer zone has been created through the simple use of a shallow loggia that keeps passing pedestrian traffic away from the immediate environs of the front doors and windows, but doesn’t require a barrier of any description to achieve this. It’s more about perception than actuality. Note how the gradation of paving also works to this end.
An elegant transparent boundary does wonders for delineating public and private space in a manner than is barely noticeable. It is also virtually zero maintenance.
In any event, this forms part of the curtilage of a development that would be taken in hand by the management company if desired.
The same applies to be below, albeit in a more suburban context. But again, a simple buffer of foliage – in the St. Augustine Street case it could have taken the form of widely spaced vertical trees interspersed with chains or railings – generates that critical but subtle delineation between public and private space.
Another model popular on the Continent, especially in older buildings, is the raising of the entrance over a half-storey basement. In this way, domestic goings-on are removed entirely from the public realm, while still giving that all-important passive surveillance and animation required of a street.
Steps of course provide further visual interest, not to mention a sense of status and pride in one’s home.
A contemporary example can be seen here – again somewhat suburban, but there’s no reason why the principle cannot work in a quiet, secondary area like St. Augustine Street.
Also, in terms of design, clustering a window adjacent to a front door, and at a human level, makes all the difference in relieving the sense of anonymity often associated with direct street frontage, as seen across the road in the old Danninger development. Immediately a sense of legibility is injected into the streetscape and that hostile atmosphere generated by high, disconnected windows removed.
Here is an aerial view of the apartments as completed, with sterile rear courtyards that are unlikely to receive much sun for most of the day.
When one sees models such as the above, some of course more appropriate than others, it is exasperating to think what could have been with the redevelopment of St. Augustine Street. A picturesque curved, sloped, historic street, with its northward vista terminated with the marvelous spire of SS. Augustine and John at one end, approaching the Liffey at the other, and in exclusively residential use - it is any decent architect’s and planner’s dream. What has transpired here is a scandal. It is a crime against the city of Dublin and anyone who wishes to live decently in the city they belong to.