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Very good article by Shane O’Toole


Let’s start talking about architecture

Shane O’Toole argues that architecture is not just to do with money but is of huge social and cultural interest

Speaking recently on Channel 4’s excellent Buildings of the Century series, Julie Burchill remarked that “Architecture is all about making people happy”. If she is right, and I believe that what she says is true, you might expect us Irish to be a particularly joyous lot at present, in the midst of our unprecedented building boom.

But the sad truth that not every building is a work of good architecture must be acknowledged. Too often building is treated as an exclusively economic process, whereas it is primarily a social and cultural phenomenon, responding to people’s needs and aspirations.

Architecture, more importantly than being a profession, is a primary social need concerning everyone. And we are all affected by it, whether we like it or not.

So, what is architecture?

It is a continuing event, its real record written into the slowly changing landscape in which our daily life takes place. Perhaps one of the most beautiful definitions of architecture is the one quoted by former EU Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, Marcelino Oreja, which says that architecture is about an `idea’ that goes further than the optimum assembly of construction components.

This definition, originally formulated by Irish architect, Eoin O Cofaigh, continues: Architecture is about environmental quality, about human scale, about the appropriate use of building materials and structure. It is about social appropriateness: spaces that support people working or living together or being alone, and which foster and give meaning to people’s tasks and activities.

It is about ecological and functional appropriateness: long-life, sustainable materials, low energy consumption, flexibility of use. It is about economic appropriateness: value for money in a cost-conscious age. It is about aesthetic appropriateness: proportion of form and line, solid and void, silhouette.

It is about a cultural expression: respect for a city or landscape context, a vision of the future or an expression of respect for the past.

It goes without saying that any architectural outcome is determined not only by the design capabilities of the architects, but also equally by the cultural zeal of those on whose initiative things are produced.

The most interesting architecture is produced when the initiator is conscious of the fact that he or she also has a social responsibility and returns to the role of a patron in its original sense: someone that realises that building is more than just a financial and technical operation, that architecture is an essential component of social culture.

This is why we need to start up a social dialogue in Ireland about architecture. And we need to do it now.

Ireland’s current extraordinary economic growth is fuelling an unprecedented amount of building development. The form and character of our towns and cities are being changed at an alarming rate while the rural hinterland and villages around our cities are being rapidly erased under a blanket of suburban sprawl.

Landmarks and landscapes are fast disappearing, creating a kind of collective amnesia.

There is much to do, and quickly, if we are not to bequeath “a legacy of bleak anonymity” to our children. According to the government’s task group on policy for the promotion of public awareness of architecture, low levels of expectation of new buildings and of awareness of architecture exacerbate the current predicament. This is further worsened by a lethal gap between the language of the professionals and that of the public, making debate and communication almost impossible. Whatever may be the public’s critical attitudes to new development, they are not expressed or heard in an effective manner.

That is hardly surprising when most newspaper commentary on Irish architecture is to be found in the media wilderness of the property pages. Things are done differently in other countries. There, debate on contemporary architecture, on recently completed buildings, is part of the everyday, critical content of reputable newspapers and magazines. In the newsagents of almost any European railway station you can buy half a dozen different architectural magazines published in Germany, Italy or Spain. In Britain, correspondents, such as Rowan Moore of the Evening Standard, Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian and Hugh Pearman of The Sunday Times drive a lively debate on the current state of the art.

It remains true in Ireland that contemporary architecture lacks a popular following, in the sense that much of the population is reluctant to identify with the architectural language set before it, seeking refuge in a caricature of the past. But the same could have been said of the Irish music scene 20 years ago. And look at the sophistication of many of our hotels and restaurants today. Look at the clothes we wear. When will one of our Irish newspapers take the public and social discussion of architecture and urban design to the next level? The demand is there. Archeire (, the website devoted to Irish architecture reports up to 150,000 pages accessed per month. That is pretty good traffic for what is to date a `niche’ subject.

It is widely acknowledged that a high plateau of general architectural quality has been scaled in recent years in Ireland. The peaks of the mountain will come within view only when the social discussion of architecture is extended beyond the specialists.

Shane O’Toole is an architect. He has written on Irish architecture in a wide range of Irish and international publica

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