by Alan Mee
While it could be said that in Ireland, neglect in the countryside has been forever with us, and the isolated ruin has an almost romantic appeal[i], urban neglect seems to be more recent, and at this point, pervasive nationwide.
Do we neglect our designed environment in Ireland more than other cultures and countries? Given our historically lower densities of population over time, particularly in the countryside, Ireland has not been pushed to re-use its built heritage to accommodate expanding populations, and possibly we associated doing this with poverty, or not moving on.
More recently, with an actively densifying urban culture, it has seemed that generations of broadly suitable urban structures are consigned to some cultural scrapheap, as the newness of urban living is expressed through teen-like mutant building typologies alongside their silent, more mature building neighbours, such as the street shop with house over, most of which are respectably rotting in towns all over the island.
Over twenty five years ago, Barcelona began a city led campaign called Posa’t Guapa (make yourself beautiful), which encouraged the renovation of buildings, as a visible first step in renewing the older building stock. In that time, over 30 per cent of the 87,000 buildings in the City area have benefited from public subvention to renew facades and other parts, and each was covered by the same branded poster during the works. As well as prolonging the life of such essentials to apartment living as balconies, shutters, and other architectural details, the urban image of the city became live again, more like a growing thing than a dying one.
The current mood amongst conservation professionals here in Ireland is dark, as they survey a rapid deterioration of structures and groups of buildings which managed to survive the twentieth century, but ended up in NAMA or attached to planning permissions which have not turned into reality. The sites most at risk seem to be caught in a fog of unclear ownership and responsibility, which in turn is working to the advantage of those who would be happier to see them gone. At this point, there is a need for national scale campaign, run by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and/or the Heritage Council to actively catalogue the urban properties most at risk, and re-state through action the position of the State as regards our urban built heritage.
On the most superficial of levels, the growing graffiti ‘creep’ across the built landscape of Dublin is observed officially, if at all, by the daily clean, scraping away at hundred year old walls, or re-painting surfaces only recently finished for the first time. The arguments for and against are made, and after a few minutes on www.dublincitygraffiti.com you will come away with a whole new reading of the “tags”, “throw-ups” and “pieces” of the city, whether you like them or not. What does this say about the current state of the place ? Is it an indicator of a vibrant visual culture with individual artistry on show on every street corner, or an increasingly depressing indicator of anarchy and urban breakdown ? The discussion internationally can be summed up in the thePolisblog.org discussion, “Graffiti as International Language” [ii], which elaborates on the themes without coming down on either side.
The fact is, that either way, buildings and streetscapes of value are being changed, some irreversibly, and there seems to be no mechanism to communicate the issues to a wider audience. Neither side seems readily identifiable, or even visibly engaged in an exchange, whatever the value this might have. Where are the officials to protect Iveagh Markets on Francis Street in Dublin, the frontage of which survived for over a hundred years until last month, when it was destroyed beyond repair by “artists” ? Graffiti could be argued to be one of the indicators of neglect, like buddleia[iii], and unlike Berlin or London, Dublin has only a relatively small number of buildings and streetscapes of quality, and worthy of care.
Is it possible that Dublin City Council, perhaps together with Dublin Civic Trust, could engage with some collective of the graffiti artists, to explain the craftmanship and dedication involved in making a piece of cut stone appear 100 years ago on a street corner ? As artists themselves, surely they could be brought around to an understanding of the complexity and creativity involved in realising a piece of architecture ? And the knowledge and care required to preserve and maintain it ?
As in the case of other cities like Barcelona, it is arguable that the evidence of care of the urban environment should be immediately apparent, particularly for visitors, and that certain places could be prioritized, related obviously to relative value, but also to urban prominence. As a pilot project this October, Urban Agenda, Open House and Dublin Civic Trust will organize an Urban Check-Up Walking Tour, centred on the Liberties in Dublin, which involves demonstrating methods of measuring and evaluating architecture and its context, and levels of apparent urban neglect, using various recording methods such as drawing, photography, video, etc, and then digitally submitting information to the relevant authorities to assist in addressing this urban neglect. The purpose is to demonstrate collective assessment and engagement in quality and care in architecture and the urban environment, but also active urban citizenship.
[i] as represented recently at the IRCHSS Summer School at Maynooth Lecture by Brian Dillon and Catherine Waugh, http://briangdillon.wordpress.com/my-books/
[iii] Buddleia Open House Walking Tour, Irish Architecture Foundation, 2009
This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 258