Soft Cities

Colm Lacey - Soft Cities

My kind of town: Colm Lacey

First published in Architecture Today, February 2016 – www.architecturetoday.co.uk.

I left North Dublin for East London a long time ago. I left for love, thinking I would be back soon. Only my mother, sobbing uncharacteristically at the airport, knew I wouldn’t.

Pre-Celtic Tiger, Dublin purred contentedly, uncompetitively. With the notable exception of Temple Bar, physical development in the city had been largely confined to sporadic apartment blocks on brownfield land. Dubliners wore the city comfortably, unselfconsciously, like a favourite jumper.

This made for some fantastic nightlife, focussed around booze, conversation and culture. People went to gigs, plays, events. There was even genuine intergenerational interaction, not that anyone called it that. The original Foggy Dew pub was a case in point, a remarkable mix of youth subcultures and ancient, angry alcoholics.

I left for love, thinking I would be back soon. Only my mother, sobbing uncharacteristically at the airport, knew I wouldn’t.

The journey from there to the northside suburb of Coolock, where I am from, takes in many of my favourite landmarks in the city. Liberty Hall, with it’s crinkly little hat, home to one of Ireland’s biggest trade unions and a long time site of rebellion and argument. Busarus, the beautiful modernist central bus station, designed by Irish architect Michael Scott whose Irish pavilion for the New York World Fair in 1938 beat no less than Arvo Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer to first prize. The distinctive urban forms of Marino, Ireland’s first social housing scheme, very much influenced by the garden cities movement across the water.

There are many impressively beautiful parts of the northside, but it’s fair to say Coolock isn’t one of them. When I left, it hadn’t really changed much since it was built in the sixties. Streets of cheap housing served some factory or another where the menfolk still worked. People sent their kids to the nearest school not the best school.

There are many impressively beautiful parts of the northside, but it’s fair to say Coolock isn’t one of them.

This part of the northside, although explored in films like ‘The Commitments’, was a relatively hidden, functional place. The urban form responded in kind, with very little variation in materiality or form. The houses wore a uniform of pitched roofs, pebble dash and PVC, the streets decked out in concrete, breeze block and thin grass verges. The few shops which did exist huddled together in repetitive parades off the major routes, their location defined more by the car than the foot. Newsagent, pharmacy, pub. Newsagent, pharmacy, pub.

Of course I realise now, after years of trying to ‘make’ places, that the Coolock that I left was a great place, even in the absence of artfully expressive architecture, considered urban form and carefully mixed land uses. A group of young people had bought cheap houses, grown up together and created an environment that suited them. They lived locally, shopped at the local shop and drank at the local pub. They often walked to work. Cars drove carefully, not because of clever highways interventions, but because loads of children were playing on the street. Their street.

After I left, the economic boom of the late nineties changed much of Dublin, pouring disposable income into a place that wasn’t really ready for it.

After I left, the economic boom of the late nineties changed much of Dublin, pouring disposable income into a place that wasn’t really ready for it. For an emigrant and frequent visitor, there was a disturbing sense that money was redefining the core personality of the city, like an old friend with an unsuitable partner. At the same time, there was an undeniable sense of excitement and celebration as the city morphed into a distinctly European place, with infrastructure and public realm to match.

Alas, that particular high was followed by a well documented collapse and by 2010 house prices in Dublin were down 56% from their peak. Shorn of it’s alluring financial confidence, the city emptied out and the socio-economic self-flagellation began in earnest. But even amid the unfinished country clubs, ghost estates and empty high streets there was a palpable sense that for a city like Dublin, recovery was inevitable.

And so it is proving, as the city slowly moves through the stages of a strategic recovery that, for now at least, is shaped by a collective cautiousness. This time, the urban context offers real hope that it will be a considered and sustainable change. There is real infrastructure in place, both hard and soft, to enable growth. The LUAS light rail system offers opportunity to the wider city and the M50 motorway lassos development as much as any M25 or Boulevard Periphique. Large scale development schemes like the Grand Canal Basin, in hibernation since 2008, are lumbering back into life and showing signs of fulfilling their undoubted potential. Small residential schemes, designed by small Irish practices of real quality, are being approved and funded. Most importantly perhaps, there is now a greater diversity of population and opinion in the city and the scrutiny of future growth should happen as much in the Polski skleps as The Shelbourne Bar.

But even amid the unfinished country clubs, ghost estates and empty high streets there was a palpable sense that for a city like Dublin, recovery was inevitable.

I visit Dublin often now, and even though I no longer have family there I have returned to Coolock once or twice. The houses are ever so slightly neater, and some even bear the evidence of ownership by the professional landlord rather than the proud owner occupier. The streets bear some evidence of misplaced largesse, dressed as they are with pointless speed bumps, build outs, even a mini-roundabout or two. But ultimately not much has changed, and for me this suggests that the most important element of recovery, a durable sense of self, is fully present and correct.