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History and Heritage

Architecture in the City: A layered and complex place

Architectural historian Dr Ellen Rowley says knocking buildings down without first reflecting on their historical and cultural significance is a mistake.

Conventional wisdom has it that politics and religion are two subjects best avoided at dinner parties. Perhaps architecture should be the third as everyone has an opinion about what constitutes beauty in the built environment. Dr Ellen Rowley is a research fellow at UCD School of Architecture, Planning & Environmental Policy and one of her main areas of interest is the heritage and value of our 20th Century architecture. It’s a period sometimes described as the “dark age” of Irish architecture and one that tends to polarise opinion about the buildings we love to hate.

The towering spectacle of Liberty Hall is a prime example. For every 10 people that want it to stay, 10 more want it knocked down and if it is judged purely on fit-for-purpose criteria then there is a compelling argument to raze it, Rowley says. “Liberty Hall was built at a time when windbracing technology was more basic so to support its height, the square tower had to have an oversized core. As a result, the amount of useable floor space is actually very limited,” she says. “From this perspective it’s commercially obsolete, but if you consider it in a social, historical and skyline context then its value is significant. The problem with the unloved buildings of the 60s and 70s is that they have low value in public perception and where this is the case people won’t fight for their survival.

“What we’re really grappling with when we consider the merits of what buildings should stay or go is their perceived value,” Rowley adds. “In truth, because of sustainability, the ‘greenest’ buildings in the city are the ones still standing, because once you demolish a building you lose all of its embodied energy. To adapt and re-use something is ultimately better for the planet, but that undermines the very discipline of architecture itself which is all about bringing on new design and bringing new technologies into play, so it’s not simple.”

In truth, because of sustainability, the ‘greenest’ buildings in the city are the ones still standing, because once you demolish a building you lose all of its embodied energy.

Also muddying the water is the fact that how we value buildings has not changed in centuries. The measure still widely used is the enduring Vitruvian Triad (coined by the first-century Roman architect, Vitruvius) which defines the three essential elements as structural soundness, functionality, and beauty or sensory appeal. “The third category is the most complex, fluid and controversial especially when it comes to Irish architecture from the 1940s onwards,” Rowley says. “Before that, there were some straightforwardly ‘handsome’ structures pointing to Art Nouveau and Deco influences such as the original terminal building at Dublin Airport which was built in the late 1930s while the red brick flats in James’s Street, Ballybough and Chancery Place are some of the finest modernist buildings in the country.”

Aesthetics aside, these 20th century buildings are also the bread and butter of everyday architecture and the buildings that framed the daily life of people in the new Free State. As such they form part of social commentary because they often made people’s lives better (health clinics and handball alleys for example) while also providing an insight into what society of the time thought was morally and ethically in the interests of its citizens. As a consequence Dublin has very little city centre housing because it was believed people should live away from the city in the fresh air of the new housing developments in places like Crumlin, Cabra and Doneycarney. Only the poorest who couldn’t afford to move stayed in town.

Rowley says that older buildings are most likely to be demolished during periods of economic prosperity which makes this a particularly risky time for those that don’t fit the contemporary skyline. “A lot of the materials used in buildings of the 60s and 70s were experimental and haven’t stood the test of time the way brick and masonry has. Buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries are distant enough to evoke the past; they are historically significant. Buildings from the 1960s and 1970s are too young to be considered historically significant and this raises questions about the merits of retention. Hawkins House, the former AIB Centre in Ballsbridge and UCD’s own Newman Building are examples.

So, with numerous functional and aesthetic strikes against them, is it time to put these buildings out of their misery? “It’s tricky, because they are stuck in a difficult place, obsolescence is a strong Capitalist force, and tastes change from generation to generation,” Rowley says. “But if people don’t like a building or administrations reckon it’s underperforming, it doesn’t stand a chance. We need to better understand its history in order to shift perceptions.”

For anyone interested in the stories behind Dublin’s 20th century buildings More than Concrete Blocks is a series of richly illustrated architectural histories full of previously unseen archive material. “The series considers the city as a layered and complex place and makes links between Dublin’s buildings and its political, social, cultural and economic histories,” says Rowley who has lead, edited and co-written the series (Volume 3, 1973-2000, is in production) and whose latest book, the 2019 Architecture, Housing and the Edge Condition, presents an overview of Dublin’s mass-housing building boom from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Rowley has also been closely involved with Dublin City Council on the development of the Tenement Museum Dublin Project in Henrietta Street and says that what is “so compelling about many of the buildings now under threat is their social history and folk life and how people’s lives were improved or enabled by them. Until the history is written and people’s eyes are opened to what is hidden in plain sight, the familiar built environment remains undervalued and in peril.”

For anyone interested in the stories behind Dublin’s 20th century buildings 'More than Concrete Blocks' is a series of richly illustrated architectural histories full of previously unseen archive material.

Olive Keogh MA is a contributor to the Business + Innovation sections of The Irish Times.

Image Credits:

  • Fitzwilton House, Shoolheifer & Burley, 1969 (G & T. Crampton Photograph Archive. © Unknown. Digital content by Dr Joseph Brady, published by UCD Library, UCD)
  • Liberty Hall mid-construction, 1963, Mick Foran (photograph courtesy of the Foran family)
  • Desmond Rea O’Kelly, ‘Liberty Hall, Elevations to Beresford Place and Old Abbey Street (165/11) c.1960’ (Liberty Hall Collection, Irish Architectural Archive)

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