Ireland 2019 : A Review

Every year, I wait for the list to come out. The run down, the low down, the highs and lows of architecture in Ireland in the year gone and the things anticipated for the next. It didn’t happen. Again.
Mainstream media, rather on form and as usual, omitted architecture from several lists of achievements in arts and culture and politics. Like it does not even exist. It is not that these lists actually mean anything per se. But, somehow the lack of them in architecture is baffling and frustrating.
It seems especially so in 2019, when so much discourse in Ireland relates to issues that are, in some way, in the domain of what architects do and what architecture is and the role it might have in #hashtag “Rebuilding Ireland”.  Why not include it? At least, why not wonder where architecture is in all of these discussions?
In any case, in Spring, it is often useful to reflect on what has just happened and to note some things to look forward to. This reflection and projection is such a fundamental part of how architects take action in the world. It is part of the taken-for-granted practice of drawing, designing and imagining new rooms, in new buildings, for a new world and its new citizens. Thus, it seems especially appropriate to reflect in architecture, but casting a wide mirror, to gather as much reflection of ourselves somehow as architecture demands.

So, I decided to write a list. To start, I asked some colleagues to share their views. This is in no way exhaustive. But what follows is in part a combination of several points of view , but with some very personal responses, recollections and ambitions omitted. The aim is to be “drone like” and fly over the range and scope of activity, energy and excitement in our social, material and spatial world in Ireland today.

2019:1 – Hoarding The City

There has been much discussion, debate, keening, lamenting and crying about the Gremlin-like reproduction of hotels and mega-blocks of student housing in 2019. In parallel, the city lost many of its spaces for the production and consumption of culture – theatre, art, music and conversation.
While some of it was, arguably,  exaggerated – the relocation of the Bernard Shaw being an example of some real crying before the milk was even spilt – something is certainly happening.  The city is changing and fast. At times, as you walk the streets, it does feel that, as one long-time writer and observer of Dublin put it to me in October, “it, (development), has never, ever been worse. Dublin is finished”. 
2019 felt like a year in which our urban anxiety grew to new levels. Anxiety was palpable, a spectre walking the streets, lurking on that corner, following us to our doorsteps, both the kind we cross to home and those we stop to sleep in. 
The city was being hoarded quite literally as ever more outlandish hoardings went up site after site, keeping the cranes in. Some thought the city was also being hoarded greedily, by those who appeared to have little to do with the lived reality of the city or the lived experience of its citizens. Some said the city was being hoarded for people we don’t know, for people we’ll never meet, for people we will never even recognise if we met them on the street. 
In 2019, conversations seemed to turn again and again to one question – who is Dublin for anymore? 

Space for Culture.

In October as part of Open House, the Irish Architecture Foundation brought back their Big Debate and asked us to consider what kind of city did we want?
A distinct highlight was This Is Pop Baby’s Jennifer Jennings’ passionate and eloquent, long-lived-experience of creating, staging and producing theatre in Dublin city. Jennings showed the lost spaces of Dublin and talked directly about the challenges of making work actually work in a city she loves. It was her voice, but she spoke for many.
While not unique to Dublin of course, or Ireland for that matter, the elimination of cultural spaces does seem particularly acute in the capital. As an issue it has been extensively covered in mainstream media with some claiming that Dublin was fast turning into a “cultural ghost town”. Jennings placed the responsibility firmly back on the City Council, who, are it seems currently mapping the reality of spatial cultural provision and infrastructure of the city with a view to planning for future provision.

Space for Architecture.

While space for culture is in some ways a clear, measurable, physical issue, in architecture, a rather more abstract and hard to pin down issue of space arose.
This was that notion that our cities in particular, are being designed and built at a significant scale by just a few developers and a few architects. Indeed, it is true that entire chunks of Dublin are being designed by the same architect and what appears to be at high-speed. 
It is not that the designs are bad per se, but the notion that the physical fabric of the city might no longer be diverse or specific or plural in its spatial and material character is raising a few eyebrows among architects, and not only because they themselves wish they were designing the buildings. 
This was one of several issues that cropped up that seemed to put pressure on the “space” available to architecture – and specifically architects – to contribute to their city.
The buildings which seemed to occupy this conceptual “space” for architecture, are also typically offices or hotels or student accommodation and not actual housing, which means, for many, these buildings have no civic or social purpose beyond providing for the market, a factor many find latent (or apparent) in their architectural design, detail and expression. The sense of the generic nature of some buildings is certainly cutting against some aspects of Irish architecture culture, part of which is built on specificity, locality and and enjoyment of the detail.
In December, several architects and others rather accidentally galvanised some of these concern around the proposed project to demolish Georgian buildings at the corner of Kildare and Nassau Street, with several letters of observation sent in as part of the statutory planning process. 
It is a conversation about the city that will surely continue in 2020 and one with which the architecturally community will have to more fully engage.

Space for Living.

2019 saw the arrival of co-living in Ireland (and especially in Dun Laoghaire),  as a topic of debate, discussion, ultimately polarising views of people for or against this allegedly “new” and “in-demand” way of living. 
Encouraged by a change in legislation in 2018, co-living, oft-cited as an antidote to contemporary loneliness of the urban worker, or a cynical, inhumane collection of cash-for-no-place-to-stash boxes, the either / or debate reached some kind of apotheosis from May to June, with comments by the Minister for Housing describing co-living as “exciting” and likening it to staying at a boutique hotels.
That, at a time when thousands of citizens and children are being housed by the state in actual hotels for months on end. The Minister’s views were met with derision, and a clarification issued.
Whatever side you are on, the discussion on co-living was but one in a continuous stream of rather infuriating “debates” on housing with little actual air given to a conversation on what is actually needed for actual people across actual Ireland.
While the political discussion is perhaps rather inevitably adopting the very binary ding-dong positions of my way is better than yours, at the end of the day, this does not serve the housing question well. 
There was really an appalling level of evidence-based, or lived-experience, design-led discourse about our ways of life in Ireland in villages, towns and cities in 2019.
We simply do not talk enough what we spatially and materially aspire to be as a society and the role of housing in forming and sustaining those ambitions and supporting ourselves might be. We are so much better than this. 

2019:2 – Appropriating The City.

I think Ireland changed in the middle of the last decade when water meters started to go into the ground. It is hard to prove, but every day people passed installers, saw the scars on their pavements. There was something about the physical presence of that installation, the breaking of ground, the cracking of pavements, the literal connections to many houses and homes that was one step too far.
It was not the only thing, but it was a real thing that pushed us Irish to take to the streets and protest. We have not really stopped since. We have seen a growing tendency to appropriate our cities in other ways too, specifically through art.
Somehow it feels like we have become attached to the built world around us in another way. In a world of deeply felt consequences but rather hidden, intangiable causes, we have taken to our streets, to gather, to set down, to draw lines, to both put up and not put up, all at the same time.

Street Life.

2019 saw Subset and others appropriate the public walls of Dublin, Waterford, Galway, Limerick, Cork and other towns and cities. Ranging from the abstract to far more explicitly political drawings, murals and messages, much of the work when experienced first hand or via social media, enabled new city conversations to be had and old citizens consciences to be pricked.
Just who owns the city and who exactly is the city for? Why are citizens homeless? Do we love those tourists more than traders? Indeed the work of Subset and others was most potent when it was not just brightening up the place – although this was welcome too –  but rather when it held a mirror up to the city itself. It held our gaze when it faced down those who make decisions about how the city is planned and run. These artists implored us to consider in whose real interest were decisions being taken. The negative reaction to the actual or threatened removal of some of these works on walls gives some indication of the level of interest and acceptance among a wider public.

Your Life is My Life.

In 2019, our streets made their presence felt as thousands of people decided to walk them, block them, lie down in them or park in them to make a wide variety of political points.
Our streets were occupied by students for strikes for climate; marches continued for housing; Extinction Rebellion took over Merrion Square; cyclists lined cycle lanes and did die-ins to keep themselves safe; citizens marched to abolish Direct Provision, and farmers even drove a long way to park their tractors in the city.
Coming on the back of marches for marriage equality, the abolition of the 8th amendment and water protests in the final years of the last decade, this use of the spatial and material fabric of our cities as active sites of public protest, consolidated action and collective conscience are, at times, inconvenient (which is their point) but also exhilarating to witness. Such protests, drawing and holding our attention to long hidden issues of social and class injustice and inequalities, point perhaps to a growing engagement of the new Irish citizen with the city and its very mucky, material stuff, found firmly underfoot.

Night Life.

At night, people are out there. Give Us The Night, led by Robbie Kitt and others, sought a night Mayor and legislative changes in their campaign to ensure a vibrant night-life in the city is returned, sustained and supported. They are being heard politically too.
Back on the streets, the porticoes of the Bank of Ireland on College Green and the GPO on O’ Connell Street are occupied at night.They are used as the most public and civic of shelters as food and kindness is offered to citizens who are homeless or in need of food and other supports.
The juxtaposition of these historic, economic and civic architectures, burderned with the promise of an Ireland for the many and not the few, and the, dignitiy, fragility and humanity of its citizens who often meet there around tables, is stark and arresting. Buildings building kindness. 

 

2019 : 3 – Making an Exhibition of Ourselves.

2019 saw several exhibitions of and about architecture. Many engaged with architecture in the broadest, most inclusive sense, and were not just a photo-heavy celebration of buildings. Our understanding of the relevance of the exhibition in communicating architecture to a variety of publics is ever growing in Ireland.
What has developed is an understanding and a recognition that the exhibition is a valuable form of architectural practice in and of itself. Today many individuals trained as architects are making exhibtions as part of their creative practice – not just as someting to fill the down time between building commissions.
Finally, as some critical reviews and discussions in architecture in Ireland have shown, the exhibition has arrived as a key way to propose and test ideas, adding to our understanding and ambitions for the world around us. Exhibitions, and those that risk much to make them, also confront us with the ways in which our built world haunts us, excludes us, or can even be instrumentalised and used to control us.

FREE MARKET, Irish Tour, Nationwide.

The national tour of the official Irish representation at the 2018 Biennale Architettura in Venice, the FREE MARKET collective of curators kicked off a four town national tour in Castleblaney in July, finishing in Kilmallock in September.
In doing so, they took the opportunity to expand the understanding and range of what architecture is and does in a provocative and direct way. With their outdoor/indoor exhibition, they did not just consult, they listened. They did not just arrive they decided to stay. They did not just talk down, they held up entire towns to the light. Their tour is a significant one in the history of architecture in Ireland and specifically our history of the exhibition.
It demonstrated that a readjustment – and a professional one – of what “practice” is, is not needed, it is already understood. To conclude the year, the team gave a rather outstanding performance at the RIAI conference in October. In November they presented their experiences and their reasonable and rational visions for how Ireland might better manage and plan for our towns to a Joint Oireachtas Committee.
(photo FREE MARKET / Paul Tierney)

 

Close Encounter, Meetings with Remarkable Buildings.

Irish Tour, Cork and Carlow.
First formed as part of the Freespace Biennale curated by Farrell and McNamara in 2018, Close Encounter is an exhibition of sixteen architects of Ireland, “dancing” with an architect from history. The sixteen made a physical and often visceral response to the work of their assigned architect from the past, demonstrating to an audience how architects in Ireland often explicitly draw on history and the work of past-peers in their own work and project into the future. 
The two-stop tour was supported by two key events – an international conference on Curating Architecture in the Glucksman in Cork and a day-long symposium on the legacy of the exhibition itself at VISUAL Carlow. The symposium placed 15 of the 16 architects in a room together for the first time and marked for many a formal end to the unique year of Irish architecture in Venice in 2018. The tour was produced in Ireland by the Irish Architecture Foundation with support by Sebastiano Giannesini. (photo Ros Kavanagh).

A Not So Vague Anxiety.

Architecture is a discipline which combines the social, material and spatial aspects of the world around us. As such a discipline, it appeared in many other exhibitions in 2019, even when not specifically framed as ‘architectural’.  As it did so, many architects and artists began to note and frame a new kind of anxiety, one that is growing, one that is clearly taking root in the built world.
The new Museum of Contemporary Photography of Ireland, invented in 2019 by Ángel Luis González Fernández, presented among a vast and compelling exhibition, ‘and live the space of a door’. New work by architect-now-photographer Aisling McCoy, it featured months of work documenting the use of the former terminal building at Templehof, Berlin as a “reception”centre for refugees. Beautifully cut, framed and edited on the wall of the venue at Dublin Castle, McCoy continues to somehow probe and prod the often simultaneous sinister and supportive natures of the buildings around us. (photo Aisling McCoy)

 

In Spring, Vukasin Nedeljkovic presented work from his Asylum Archive as part of ‘Leave to Remain, Refugees in Ireland 1847-2017’. 
Most utterly devastating were Nedeljkovic’s own photographs taken as part of an extraordinary project to document the reality of Direct Provision centres in Ireland. Although not an exhibition which sets out to discuss architecture, the photos never failed to communicate the impact of the form, type and quality of built space on those who are asked to occupy it. These rooms are bleak and brutalising, yet not entirely blank, as words, objects and traces of lives lived appear over and over.
The photographs, taken together, manage to convey a sense of isolation, confinement, and almost panic, as the agency of those within this system seems denied and denied again in every frame, on every print. The desire to make home, to appropriate, to occupy in such horrendous conditions was devestating. 
In 2020, if the Government proceeds with plans for purpose-built – and one assumes – purpose-designed centres, the issue of Direct Provision will become an explicit, ethical one for the profession – who will answer the call to design these centres, and why?

 

From April to August at I.M.M.A., buildings and the lives within further featured in ‘A Vague Anxiety’. Berlin based architecture-duo Plattenbau Studio showed two drawings, the most compelling being a 1:1 scale drawing of an apartment they once lived in Dublin. Drawn in black lines on a white background and taking up and area of just 20m2, the drawing shows two people and hundreds of objects making a domestic life together in a single room.
Here though,  objects take their righful place in domestic life, points of exhange and covivial neogotiation between people and person and place. 
Elsewhere, photographer Brian Teeling showed two prints of Apollo House at night. This is the now-lost office building taken over by housing activists Home Sweet Home in late 2016 to house homeless citizens. In doing do, Apollo became an object used to advocate for faster, Government action on the issue.
The photographs – dark, lonely and empty but with the concrete, character and material of the building echo present and correct – were uncanny and disruptive on the white walls and formal spaces of that cultural institution, hung above the line draw carpet below.

2019 : 4 : A Pair of Them In It.

2019 seemed like a year where pairs of people, (by design or coincidence), made an impact on culture, discourse and our understanding of architecture in Ireland.
Ireland is rather special in terms of the scale and size of the architecture community and, when Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara of Grafton Architects were named the recipients of the RIBA Gold Medal for 2020, the architecture community seemed rather delighted.
They were also awarded the R.I.A.I Gandon Medal for lifetime achievement in 2019, and by now, they appear to have won almost every award possible in architecture now (bar the Pritzker). Awards are curious things and there is much to be argued against their value to architecture – in confirming brilliance they also confirm distinction, often isolating rather than sharing the discipline. Nevertheless, there is now no doubting Farrell’s and McNamara’s impact on, and leadership in, architecture in Ireland and internationally. Let us hope they receive the appropriate level of national acknowledgement in 2020 as anyone would in literature, film, theatre or science, industry or technology.

Jennifer Boyer + John Tuomey took to the stage at different times on the Saturday of the R.I.A.I Conference in October. Boyer, the Assistant Head of the School of Architecture, TUD, outlined that Schools’ work in 2019 to face down the challenge climate is placing on architecture. Speaking with real commitment, passion and a relentless (in a good way) focus on the matter, Boyer outlined what is a much needed, but rather radical shake up of design studio practice, in the hope of leading to an adjustment in wider design studio culture, within and without the academy.
She argued clearly that for architecture as a profession to cope in a zero-carbon world, every thing we have ever done in education must be questioned, queried, sifted and reframed. Nothing less than that is sufficient. It is a massive undertaking, one which may lead also to new forms of collaborative practice in education with teachers and students working more closely together to frame and develop the new stories needed for this new era of architectural design, practice and production.
Earlier, John Tuomey took to the same stage. To the horror of some and the utter delight of others attending, he reasonably and articulately demonstrated, (albeit with some poetic licence), which architects had won the R.I.A.I. Gold Medal across its 85 year history.
Those much admired and lauded architects  – one of whom designed the Berkley Library in Trinity College for example –  would not, could not, win this Medal today because current procurement rules tend to exclude many architects. So, any architect who has not done a building type before finds it almost impossible to get a commission to design that building type in the first place. 
And many previous winners would now be deemed ‘too young’ anyway to design a school or other public building. Tuomey has a gift of dropping a mic in a room but never so far to the floor that it is out of the reach of others to pick it up if they choose. It is a kind of rare provocative generosity that since October has enabled new conversations and new voices be heard on the complex matter of procurement and critical practice in Ireland. Recently criticised as “complainers” these voices inended to be heard quite loudly in 2020. 

In a year where Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara enjoyed further recognition and success, arguably, in many ways, the two architects with the most applied public impact in Ireland in 2019 were Orla Hegarty and Mel Reynolds.
Regular radio, television, social and print media contributors, the pair offered their expertise and knowledge of the complexities and intricacies of the Irish housing system in a direct and accessible way. When asked about the housing shortage, Hegarty’s repeated message that, “all of this is solvable”,  may finally start to take hold in 2020 as more and more people wonder why on earth things could have gotten to this point in Ireland.
Importantly, the consistent linking of the word ‘architect’ to Hegarty and Reynolds will do much to communicate to a public, (and perhaps to other architects too), that architects are not only those involved in flash shiny new buildings, or being lovely on the television, but actually trained people who have much capacity to observe, analyse, synthesise the complexities of our built world.  Many of them are  also willing to collaborate and offer ideas and solutions to get things done.

 

Founded just four years ago in 2015 by Lois Kapila and Sam Tranum, the Dublin Inquirer is, for sure, one of the most critically important publications on the built environment in Ireland. Quite apart from the quality of the investigation and the writing (Kapila herself was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2019), it is the fundamental understanding of what actually makes or breaks a city that makes the Inquirer unique. 
They know a city is made of places, people, politics. They map and track the forces and desires that act on that trio and through the lived-experience stories of Dubliners new and old, and research-driven reporting they detail, describe and reveal the impacts such forces have on the city. Always written, it seems, with nuance and precision, their objective commitment to the city will remain vital in 2020. (
photo Al Higgins)