Dublin's Hamartia

As Dublin changes around us for the worse, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell asks why we both mourn this loss, but do little to stop it

I am incensed. I have just finished Frank McDonald’s The Destruction of Dublin. His writing captures a city gone by. A city I have missed because developers decided it was irrelevant. But in many ways, The Destruction of Dublin is as relevant today as ever before. Once again, greed is ripping apart our capital. Much like the office blocks which infiltrated the Dublin of McDonald’s writing, hotels seem to be the plague which is debasing the capital today. You can’t turn left or right without finding a Dublin institution being replaced by a corporation; the Bernard Shaw, Hangar, Cleary’s - where next?!

In an ideal world everyone would read The Destruction of Dublin and feel the same rousing anger that I do. As an architecture student, I strongly believe the book should be required reading for students of architecture and urban design here in the capital. In this cautionary tale, McDonald deftly describes the streets and squares which historically set out the parameters of the city we know today. This text is needed to understand how the city of Dublin works. Not only does McDonald track the demolition of a beautiful, complex city, the book also charts the disregard for public space. In the dash for development during the Haughey years, clinical, monotonous office blocks replaced the intrigue of shop fronts. The total occupancy of office buildings was more important than their incredible impact on the public realm. McDonald cites the Telephone House on Marlborough Street as an example where, when granted planning permission by the Dublin Corporation, the ground floor was to be occupied by twelve shops and the first floor animated by a bar, ballroom and restaurant. None of this came to pass. Instead a concrete monotony was assembled, and stands towering above you even today as you wait for the Luas. This sounds hauntingly familiar. We are once again tearing out the richness of the city and replacing it with a bland nothing. Worse than nothing - if the existing city can be compared to a box of coloured crayons, then many of the new developments would be the damp grey-brown colour no one asked for.

McDonald’s discourse is so incredibly provocative and emotive I like to imagine it would rouse new generations of Dubliners to stand up for and preserve voiceless buildings, art and heritage against the greed and apathy of developers, whatever period they may be from. It is apparent that modern Irish architecture are the buildings we love to hate today, and need to be protected just as much as the Georgian red brick terraces. “People get the cities they deserve. And if our capital city has been reduced to a shambles, it is because we never cared enough to save it. '' What a desperate shame that history seems to be repeating itself.

And yet we do little to stop it. As part of my investigation into the art put up for auction by RTÉ it became apparent that capitalism is not only stomping all over the native buildings of Ireland, but our culture too. The national broadcaster claims itself to be a beacon of knowledge, a protector of the heritage of the glorious “Emerald Isle”. Yet this rings hollow when they are more than happy to sell the family jewels. And they are the treasures; the buildings are the crown and the paintings and tapestries are the jewels bedecking it. The five art works being sold were specifically commissioned for the modernist development and display a rich array of cultural histories and tastes. To add insult to injury, it is claimed that they are being sold to raise funds for the broadcaster, however accepting Sotheby’s’ (the assigned auction house) estimations, the funds raised will hardly cover the wage of one prime-time radio presenter. Why don’t we, as a nation, care? 

As students, faculty and carers of UCD it is important we protect our community closer to home too. Much like RTÉ, many of the most beautiful and well programmed buildings were designed during this modernist period, and there is a complete disregard for this side of our culture in our national history. Many of the interiors of original buildings in UCD are vulnerable to being ripped apart and replaced with shiny new lime-green and purple curvy furnishings in an attempt to seem cool and modern (and, more importantly, attractive to investors and students with deep pockets). Instead of awarding the contract for the new development of the Centre for Creative Design to an Irish architect, or even better a UCD alumnus, who understands and values the culture and history of UCD and Belfield as a community and place of education, the contract was awarded to an American firm who decided to look for ‘local’ inspiration (apparently Wikipedia) and found the Giant’s Causeway. Last time I checked, the coast of County Antrim wouldn’t be particularly ‘local’ to D4.

Is there a national sense of insecurity? Since Ireland has never been a great empire do we not deserve a rich, varied and individual history? Unlike many of the cities around Europe, we are incredibly lucky not to have had our capital blown to smithereens in the mid-20th century. Yet we are quite happy to do it ourselves. It is high time for another celtic revival, a renewal of pride in our country - our singular culture; our buildings, our art, our music, our dance, our language.

It would be easy to assume after reading my animated argument that I am opposed to development. I certainly am not. (It would be highly impractical to study architecture while being opposed to change and growth). There are many buildings within Dublin that are not wholly important or of benefit to the city and would be the ideal candidates for development. What I am opposed to is the total disregard for the individual culture of the city of Dublin. I support considered development. There is a definite need for hotels, office blocks, and the employment and resources that large corporations bring. However this should not come at the cost of sense of place. A city needs to be a layered place, created by collaboration out of a necessity - whether that be for commercial units, residential space, green areas - not repetitive blocks built by investors without a client in mind, just a bottom line. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

A celtic revival (version two) can’t come quick enough.