Re: Re: DDDA / Docklands Miscellany

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Filling the Urban Void,
Exhibition Opening,
Ballymun Civic Centre,
April ’08.
Ali Grehan, Chief Architect DCC speaks.
(The transcript is a pretty good reproduction, as her voice is very distinct and clear)

I don’t think Ali really gets how important the concept of developing new towns was to Irish planners of the 1960s. More on that topic later. The relevant paragraphs of this transcript are the last ones, where Ali nods towards the West 8 scheme for North Wall Quay. Directly contradicting the conclusion formed in the RTE Primetime report, which hinted at something secretive about the project. That is a version of events I would like to correct. It appears as though John McLoughlin and ‘his architects’ were all very much in the loop.

I have to comment, I do get the air of superiority while listening to Ali Grehan’s talk. It is a great talk and hits all of the right issues. But that is the problem. It is an unabashed attempt to promote how DCC can hit all the issues on the head. There is a lack of appreciation for the other people and companies involved in the process – despite all of her lip service to ‘collaboration’. Ali is a company woman, as I am, I suppose in many ways, a company man.

Brian O’ Hanlon

Quotation: Every city has its its cracks. There are gaps in the urban form. Where overall continuity is disrupted. The residual space is left undeveloped, underused or deteriorated. The physical ties that purposefully or accidentally separate social worlds. The spaces which development has passed by. Or new development has created fragmentation and interruption.

The above quote is from a paper called ‘Cracks in the City’, 1996 by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. A paper which addresses constraints and potential of urban design. It echoes the theme of the Lisbon conference and what I am going to talk about now. Anastasia goes on in the paper to giver one example of a crack. Where public housing developments are fenced islands of poverty. Abandonement and deterioration have filled vacant spaces with thrash and human waste. That might sound a bit extreme, but it very much describes the Ballymun when we came along in 1997. Ballymun was very abruptly inserted into the landscape of north Dublin. It was conceived, commissioned and constructed in five years. From the government reviewing a report on system built housing in the early 60s, to building it in 1969, only five years had elapsed. It was quite stark. On it’s completion it was heralded as a new town. Although were some reservation expressed, where an anonymous writer said:

“Surely the integration (I use the word hopefully) of 12-15 thousand people is something that should be tackled from a planning point of view and not left to depend on a few mouldy old concrete sections”.

When we look at that and we thought about how we were going to present extremely complex project at the Lisbon conference, we decided to just try and tell the story in very simple graphics. Using figure ground diagrams and tenure diagrams. Through those diagrams, maybe just hint at the evolution of change, that had occurred since Ballymun was first conceived in the early 60s.

When we ask ourselves as a master planner, what do we do now? What went wrong? How do we put it right? Really, to my mind, it was simply a question of size. Or scale, or grain. Whichever word, grain would be the word commonly used. In the first instance, the first example of scale: of course the physical form of buildings and spaces. Lack of discussion between buildings and the spaces. In my mind, well designed buildings or spaces initiate or facilitate conversation. Between buildings, spaces and people who inhabit the spaces. There hasn’t been much of a conversation going on in Ballymun – if anything, if might call it a shouting match, if even that. Really, the question is, how do you find an appropriate scale?
I had to contact the curator at Tate Modern to get these images. He spoke at the Lisbon conference that a lot of us attended. He showed us the project which was for the first exhibition mounted in the turbine hall in the Tate. The Tate had been open for 2 years. Everyone was fabulously impressed with this amazing building. But in the main space they said where was the art? The curators didn’t know how they would introduce art into the turbine hall. So they decided they would have to meet this challenge. The curator decided to set up an exhibition of 25 sculptures, all scaled at a human scale. I think what he did is an excellent example of how you deal with scale and the transition of scale between something massive like the turbine hall – which has been described as a secular cathedral – and how you bring it down to a human scale. While also dealing with the practical issues. Like how do you protect the art? He didn’t want to put them on plinths. So he had to introduce layers and thresholds to actually achieve that.

This is one of our diagrams, which is a figure ground diagram. Really, it doesn’t make any sense. Because to understand the layout of Ballymun in 1997, what you need is a road network diagram. The location of the buildings do not really mean anything. Basically what we had to do is look at how you converted that diagram, completely invert it, into a more legible diagram – that would have properly enclosed space. We are well over half way through that process. John’s (McLoughlin) comment about landscaping the docklands is relevant here as well. I think since we have started we’ve planted over 2 or 3 thousand trees. I am not sure how many. But even that shows a huge improvement.

Another aspect of form which was to improve the scale, was the whole issue of permeability. Ballymun in 1997, the same as it was in 1977, was a roundabout at a deadend. Then either through accident or design, there is a completely impenetrable buffer zone separating the estate from the adjoining, existing 2 storey housing. We did diagrams showing how we would need to, and how we could plan to make Ballymun more permeable and connected to the adjoining areas. By 1997, the M50 had arrived and there was a junction. So inadvertedly, the M50 was one of the first ‘bringers’ of regeneration to Ballymun. Because then you had to drive through it to get someone from the airport. It is possibly why, people noticed how awful it was and then decided maybe we need to do something about this place.

Our ultimate goal is to connect it completely with the adjoining estates. The dotted line signifies cul-de-sacs. The solid lines are through-routes. This dotted line is completely innocuous, it is just a scribble. But it represents one of the most controversial issues facing the regeneration team. It signifies hours, weeks and months of heated negotiation, emergency meetings.

The second question of size which we looked at is tenure. When Ballymun was originally constructed it was 100% social housing. Which would be fine except it was so large. You are talking about 5,000 social housing units, which was fairly significant. The social housing tenants have all been able to buy out their houses. But they weren’t in a position to buy their flats. That is still the case. Over time, about half of the houses were bought out. But none of the flats could be bought out. By 1997, the tenure mix was 80% social and 20% private. Which is the complete opposite to what would be the national norm. so really the challenge is to completely invert that tenure mix. To 20% social and 80% private. It has actually been very difficult to achieve. Now you have a situation where most of the houses are social, and most of the apartments that have been springing up along main street are private. But over time it should evolve. But ultimately, the aim really is to enable people to take ownership of the space that is immediately outside their front door.

The third section I want to talk about is strategy. The question of size is the title of one of the essays in E.M. Schumacher’s book ‘Small is Beautiful’. In that chapter he talks about things like, how big should the city be, how big should the country be? In a further part he talks about large organisations. He accepts that it is completely inevitable. That there will be extremely large organisations. But he urges that the fundamental task is that to achieve smallness in large organisations. I think BRL, is an excellent example of that in practice. Because BRL was set up by Dublin City Council to implement the master plan. In hindsight, it would be impossible to see how it could have been done any other way. Because it needed that dedicated focus on the ground.

Another strategy worth noting is that whole strategy of the enabler of the new. It has been said that neighbourhood regeneration is one of the key components of urban renewal. It has also been said that the key to good government is grassroots involvement. In other words, good politics makes good places. It is also about clear ideas collaboratively realised. We are here in the civic offices, which is the civic heart of this new town of Ballymun.

Another installation which is on at the moment in the Tate Modern is Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth Oct 2007 – April 2008. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.

I am sorry to end on a serious note, but I think that represents a key challenge facing our city and the country. How do we integrate both culturally and physically. Niall (McCullough) talked about this threat, this perceived threat of tall buildings. Of course, we can discuss that. I don’t think myself that tall buildings are going to be threatening. I simply think what matters is how the buildings meet the ground, and how they talk to each other. But fundamentally, it is about integration.

I was at a very interesting conference last week. Nothing to do with architecture. It was an education conference. Doctor Dermot Martin spoke. What he was talking about mainly was how do we integrate? How do we make sure that there is cultural integration at secondary school level? He spoke about the problem of ghetto-isation. Not just of the poor, but also of the rich. This reaching for illusionary safe havens. I also heard Doc. Martin talk on the Late Late Show before Christmas. He spoke about the problem of new developments in the city centre. A lot of places, they are gated, they turned their back on the street. He wondered what kind of problems were going to arise from that. Where the people who lived, the new people, they had no connection with the street. They had no connection with neighbours. They possibly had no connection to each other. I think that is something we really have to think about. It is also a challenge for architects to find ways through design to ensure that that doesn’t happen. I think, doesn’t have to happen.

(Cartoon on final slide) Another issue which is facing us, is the increasing privatisation of public space. That must be looked at. Because obviously people want spaces to be well managed, so the immediate temptation is to hand it over to private companies to manage. In fact, to not take ownership to them at all. I was really encouraged to hear what John McLoughlin, John McLoughlin’s presentation last week. Where his architects were talking about the West 8 scheme. One of the things that they spoke, I suppose, very eloquently about was how this space to the river should be public. I was very encouraged by that. That, that was something which was so obvious to this group of architects. Ending on that note.

(Loud Applause from the audience at Ballymun Civic Centre)

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