Time for visionary planning
Ireland has built more over the past decade than at any time in its history (at least until the property bubble finally burst) – tens of thousands of new homes, hundreds of new office blocks, hotels and retail magnets, dozens of new libraries and arts centres and even a handful of new theatres and stadiums. But how much of it all qualifies as “architecture”? Not much is the answer. The truth is that there is almost no research on what constitutes “quality” in the built environment; that’s been lacking since An Foras Forbartha, the National Institute for Physical Planning and Construction Research, was abolished in 1987.
So what we’ve produced, as architect Alan Mee scathingly observed – paraphrasing British architectural historian Nicklaus Pevsner – ” could all be just a pile of bicycle sheds”. Even so-called “object architecture” devalues itself if it ignores the context in executing a star turn, and the spaces that surround it don’t work in urban design terms.
By far the worst, most unforgivable legacy of the boom is suburban sprawl – all those corrals of identikit houses tacked on to the outskirts of Dublin and its satellite towns throughout Leinster as well as every other city, most appallingly Galway – “pure mule housing estates in the floodplains around Irish towns,” as architect Gerry Cahill put it.
And then there’s all the dross that goes with it – the petrol stations with their convenience stores, the big-box retail warehouses and the out-of-town shopping centres with acres of colour-coded carparking laid out on impermeable tarmac, and our madly over-the-top construction of motorways that served to promote sprawl.