Re: Re: DDDA / Docklands Miscellany

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Hippies, New Towns and the Irish.

11th December 2008.

I wanted to end my contribution to this discussion now, with some positive suggestion. I wanted to ask relevant questions, as to how private and public enterprises can foster workable relationships going forward. Sadly, from my experience that isn’t the case right now. But if we are to prosper as a country, we need to investigate those avenues thoroughly and become world leaders in cooperation and collaborative techniques. Become a place other countries aspire to, rather than make jokes about. Much of what I would like to say, has already been covered by an author much more skilled than I. That is Don Topscott, in his many books. But in particular, his book Wikinomics, and specifically his chapter about the Global Plant Floor. I feel there is a durable and promising model there, for our local authorities to find out their strengths. While also learning to tap into the talents of the private enterprise around them. In a way that is meaningful, and doesn’t invoke empty PR statements and lip service, so often witnessed. That doesn’t involve any more screw ups like North Wall Quay. Which is a like the Irish version of the Hubble Space Telescope. To me, NWQ is the low point, from which we can only improve.

When I listen to Ali Grehan, I am reminded of a classic black and white film, The Flight of the Phoenix. In the movie, James Stewart stars as an aging pilot who has to crash land with passengers in a desert. As the pilot, he fills in his log book each day while they are stranded. They are trying to re-build a plane in the desert, under the direction of a German Aviation engineer. James Stewart says in his log book, that the modern world will belong to those who use scale rules and computers. Later on, he discovers the aviation engineer has only ever built ‘model’ airplanes. Obviously he challenges the man about the design. But the German model aviator responds that model airplanes were in flight 50 years before the Wright brothers even got off the ground. I think if one accused Ali Grehan of studying too many ‘models of cities’, she would not be too perturbed.

Fast forward to the 1960s. We see the rise of a phenomenon in the United States, of folks who move back to the land. The hippy communes have been described in a book by Fred Turner, as model versions of society. In order to understand something, you build a model of it. Turner’s book, From Counter Culture to Cyber Culture, tracks the adventures of a couple of individuals. Those of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Howard Rheingold, who were all involved in the Whole Earth Catalogue publications. (If you search You Tube, you will find an excellent interview between the four guys) The Whole Earth Catalogue was like a Bible for the hippy movement, describing things such as wine making and goat husbandry. Kevin Kelly, who later became a founder of Wired Magazine described the WE movement as the beginnings of a tools view of the world. Where today, we create the tools using computer code. Using a computer, we can indeed build very sophisticated models to enable us to understand better how the world operates. Howard Rheingold was the first person to use the term ‘virtual community’. The idea of building virtual communities, in order to try and understand our physical communities better. Howard is a good friend of mine, and his most recent book, Smart Mobs looks at the modern, worldwide phenomenon of mobile communications.

Ali Grehan’s use of art installations as a source for understanding how to approach urban planning the right way, is an inspiration to all. She manages to break down urban design, to its basic essentials. That is seldom done effectively in today’s over rich knowledge environment. Grehan’s use of mental models fits very much into the 1960s culture and way of doing things. But there is some context I would like to fill in. While the hippies were doing their thing across the water, the concept of New Towns was being born in Britain. The New Town idea contrasts sharply with that of a hippy commune. Both being ways to organise development resources efficiently. The commune was widely dispersed, rather like the Internet based economy of today. While the New Town provided a model for how central planning organisations could add value in the grander scheme of things. I would like to compare the work of an urban planner, to that of an engineer. Tom Cosgrove recently spoke about his job as chief Engineer at Thomond Park in Limerick. He said, people think that engineers are in the business of using lots of structural material. When in fact their job is to study ways to take it away. To remove material where they can, in order to make the structure as efficient as possible. In a way, that is the job of an urban planner, only on a different level.

Speaking to a retired Dun Laoghaire planner last year, I learned about Irelands plans in the 1960s to build New Towns, as the British were doing. The British built the world. They know how to engineer things efficiently, and they certainly know how to plan efficiently also. The Irish government of the 1960s commisioned a study into our legal constitution to examine the feasibility of building new towns. The legal advice found there was nothing in the Irish constitution to prevents us from doing it. The bones of the New Town concept were as follows. The farmer’s land was compulsory purchased, and the farmer received one and a half times the agricultural value of the property in money. That enabled the farmer to buy a better farm and stay in the occupation of farming. The government would then service the land they had obtained, in order to raise its value. There is not much profit for the developer in building road, telecommunications, sewer and other civil works. Not to mention public transport infrastucture like railways and underground lines. Having gone through this phase, parcels of land were sold onto the developer at a premium. The profit made by the government would pay for schools, libraries, civic institutional buildings and so on.

When you compare the sophistication of that model, to what happened at Ballymun, it is very easy to see how little the Irish did embrace the New Town concept. Fundamentally, at some level, the Irish politians hoped to make fast windfall profits, from re-zoning of agricultural lands. Overnight millionaires and back-hander dealing became the order of the day. The same problem persists today. British architects who work in Ireland are astonished by some of the sites they are asked to work on. By their shere scale in comparison to other countries. We don’t have the New Town concept established in Ireland. Developers don’t receive parcels from the state. Instead they buy it lock, stock and two smoking barrells. (The barrells can be used to shoot the pheasants and other game, that live on the land for years before it can be developed) Vast private land holding companies have grown around this sole business model. When the rest of the world is producing value through companies such as Intel, Sony or Nokia, the Irish are producing companies like Dunloe Ewart.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Dublin Docklands Authority stroll into the picture. Greener than the grass, and talk about planting even more greenery and more grass. This comes from the Irish state’s own lack of fundamental involvement in the process from the ground up. Most of what authorities do is try to appear as if they do add some value. This is unique to the Irish situation, and our own short history as a small island nation. It results in a very one sided public/private partnership, with a vast amount of the crucial knowledge wealth existing on the developers side of the table. While the state authorities on the other hand, merely try to appear as if they are talking sense. Some very good messages about partnership in modern day times, are expressed in Don Topscott’s book, Wikinomics. This quote is from his chapter about ‘The Global Plant Floor’.

A key message in this book is that the old monolithic multinational that creates value in a closed hierarchical fashion is dead. Winning companies today have open and porous boundaries and compete by reaching outside their walls to harness external knowledge, resources, and capabilities. Even the stodgy, capital-intensive manufacturing industries are no exception to this rule. Indeed, there is no part of the economy where this opening and blurring of corporate boundaries has more revolutionary potential.

In his book, Topscott explains why BMW hardly make cars at all today. I wish Dublin City Council had the confidence to do that. I wish Dublin City Council planners under Dick Gleeson would take a leaf from BMW’s book. Namely, when it is the case, that others in the supply chain, know more about manufacturing than you, give it to them. That is where Liam Carroll’s organisation should have entered the stage, in my humble view. No organisation has more combined man years of experience and knowledge in building, than Liam’s. (And his extended supply chain of expertise and resources) Boeing Airlines brief to its partners for a recent model of Jumbo Jet, was only 20 pages long. Compared with 50,000 pages in the past. I feel that Dublin City are falling into the same trap that Boeing fell into. They were becoming too prescriptive, and had removed their partners room to manoeuvre. Manoeuvre is essential in order to wring idle costs out of the system. It is essential nowadays that Ireland becomes competitive.

In an office building, the expected life cycle is 20 years. If costs cannot be ammortised within those years, then either land values and construction costs must go down, or office rent rates must go up. Liam Carroll is someone who could have delivered the former. Other developers want to deliver the latter. Which doesn’t bode well for Ireland in the global context. In her book about international corporations, No Logo, Naomi Klein talks of companies as ‘swallows’. Without any ties to a particular geographic region. They can simply catch a gust of wind and fly elsewhere at will. The following quote is from Dick Gleeson. This is what he has to say about ‘Elegant Tall Buildings’ at a lecture in early summer 2008. I believe it is a clear example of where Gleeson is getting into an area he doesn’t understand well enough, to be prescriptive.

I have found elegant tall buildings generally incorporate about 400 meters squared. Which gives them about four apartments per floor. In comparison with say buildings in Canary Wharf where the shape is around 40,000 sq. feet per floor. Those scale of buildings with very large floor plates, are sometimes very unhappy in how they puncture the skyline. Alot of the big banking HQ’s will really be 15,000 sq. feet per floor. Less than half the size of those in Canary Wharf. Floor plates are sometimes very compact.

Dublin centre is to remain low rise, but if anything did puncture the skyline, it would need to be a strategic contribution to the city in terms of the economic or cultural or in terms of public amenity. It wouldn’t damage the architectural legacy in terms of views, in terms of environmental qualities or in terms of creating preceedent. The role of the heart of the inner city as The centre of that city region and what it needs to be sucessful, you do need the city core to triumph! Looking back to the profile of the city in the middle ages, you did see churches puncturing the skyline. I think there still is a case to be made for acknowledging a central role or importance and announcing something special. And it would have to be something special, in terms of creating an exception.

The expanded vision of Dublin City Council, for Dublin City is available here:

I would like to counter Dick Gleeson’s assumptions in the above quote. 13 meters width of floor plate is a minimum dimension, to enable the ‘modern knowledge entreprise’ to function in the way they need to. Anything smaller than that is too small. Taking that dimension and using a square type of floor plate. A square floor plate of 13m x 13m which wouldn’t be ideal. As the circulation and service core would chew too much out of the space. The smallest floor plate you can achieve using a 13m dimension, is around 1800 sq. ft. Which is still higher than the figure Dick Gleeson quotes. The canary wharf size of floor plates are correct for the modern scenario. DCC have been seriously misguided in there information regarding the needs of the modern enterprise! They are passing projects which are unsuitable for the creation of a modern knowledge economy in Ireland. Right there you have an example of what is poisonous about the Irish planning system. Instead of focusing on what should be its core strength, planning authorities are going back to the Russian model, of deciding how many pairs of shoes to produce each day! In other words, Gleeson deludes himself into thinking he can beat the marketplace at calculation. A very fatal error indeed. (Note: Dick Gleeson was on the panel at the Tall Building conference a couple of years ago. Where a Quantity Surveyor from Britain expounded his ‘fat is happy’ theory on high rise developments. Gleeson should have listened better on that occasion. There seems to be a certain stardom attached to being a chief local authority planner or architect, doesn’t there? All the conferences you have to speak at etc.)

Take the Local Area Plan concept as another example. Introduced in the late 1990s in Ireland, in order to improve efficiency with which land was developed. It fits into the entire story described above. By the late 1990s, most of the land in Ireland was in the hands of greedy private developers. The planning community were rightly concerned about misuse of development investment resources. They stepped in as promptly as they could, with the Local Area Plan as a tool. (This coincided with a large roll-out program of lavish local authority headquarter buildings throughout Ireland, many of which were more stylish and over budget than they needed to be) When I look at the details of many local authority plans produced in the Dublin area, the lack of expertise in the planning community is striking. The devil is in the details. Basic mistakes, like courtyards that are too small for residential, and office floor plates are too small for employment.

It is alright to talk about the skyline. Maybe it is a resource we can afford to spend on our little green island. It is about the only thing we can afford to spend now. But what Gleeson is really saying, is that he is prepared to insert a bottleneck in the process of Ireland becoming a knowledge based economy. Gleeson and his planners are getting involved in areas beyond their ability to comprehend. This is where a successful and deep collaboration with a world class consultant is crucial. Building a modern office block is just as critical a project to Ireland’s economy, as that of extending Dublin Airport Terminal. As such, it should be approached with the same degree of science. Yet, the only consultant I heard John McLoughlin mention in his talk, was those who know how to plant trees! Compare that to a recent Dublin Airport Authority presentation I attended, where DAA had the sense to know what they didn’t know.

Between human beings there is a type of intercourse which proceeds not from knowledge, or even from lack of knowledge, but from failure to know what isn’t known. This was true of much of the discourse on the market. At luncheon in downtown Scranton, the knowledgeable physician spoke of the impending split-up in the stock of Western Utility Investors and the effect on prices. Neither the doctor nor his listeners knew why there should be a split-up, why it should increase values, or even why Western Utility Investors should have any value. But neither the doctor nor his audience knew that he did not know. Wisdom, itself, is often an abstraction associated not with fact or reality but with the man who asserts it and the manner of its assertion.

That was something Kenneth Galbraith had to say, in his book ‘The Great Crash 1929’. It could almost describe the DCC! The Dublin Airport Authority invited Turner and Townsend into a deeply collaborative relationship. Turner and Townsend are described as having a background in program management and aviation. DCC and DDDA are handicapped by an over dependency on concepts to do with beautification. But have a severe shortage of good guidance on how economies are being built. For the Grangegorman Third Level campus masterplan, Charles Moore was brought into the process. At Cherrywood Science and Technology Park, Liam Carroll introduced Gehl Architects. Gehl are a world leading consultant in urban planning, who proceeded to pinpoint many deficiencies in DLR Coco’s proposed framework masterplan. A document which DLR would have shoe horned through their channels, to have it become legally binding for the next 10-20 years!

There is certainly a motivation on the part of local authorities to do these framework documents as soon as possible. Because it puts them into a position of greater control than they sometimes deserve. That is, for the meager levels of skill and knowledge, they are to bring to such undertakings. Often the authorities have used their new headquarter buildings, to go on a hiring binge. Taking in planners of dubious merit and committment from across the globe to cobble together something on paper as quick as possible.

Dublin Docklands Authority brought in an expert to deal with planting trees. But it didn’t consult the right people about the modern information economy. While developers have managed to attract companies such as Google to Irish shores, I feel the DDDA are working against them. The trouble often stems from the architectural training itself. While it is very comprehensive and worthwhile, architects all suffer from an extreme blindspot. Economics should become an integral subject on the architectural school curriculum. Architecture students should be allowed the opportunity to absorb the research and ideas of Richard Sennett, Paul Duffy, Scott McNealy, George Gilder, Howard Rheingold, Nicholas Negroponte and Nicholas G. Carr. (To name but a few) Then we would be producing architects who had some clue what an office block is. Why they are the crucial heartbeat at the centre of an economy. Needed to enable employment and innovation. Not just things on which you play with fancy facade treatments or talk with Dick about skylines. An excellent reference on Canary Wharf can be found at A video of David Wetzel’s lecture delivered at Bolton Street a few months back. According to Wetzel, what enabled Canary Wharf to happen, to become a workplace able to support 60,000 people, was transport. Prior to transport arriving in the area, it could not support 3,000 people. The issue of transport is another one of the things the British understood all those years ago, when building an empire across the globe.

“Concerns about the cost of progress for traditional community and neighbourliness are examined in a very readable manner by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone,”

The above quote is from Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach. In fairness, I had to give the last word to Bertie. I only hope that McLoughlin, Grehan and Gleeson might use the Christmas break, to reflect on some of the issues I have raised.

Brian O’ Hanlon

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