Architecture: preservation vs innovation

To state the obvious, I am not an architect, nor do I have even a gifted amateur’s knowledge of architecture. But I have had a lot of dealings with architects, some quite brilliant, and some less so. Amongst the brilliant I would count Andrzej Wejchert, who designed the Helix performing arts centre in DCU. If you look at his firm’s website, you get to see the Helix, inside and out, as the slide show progresses.

But some of my encounters with architects have been irritating. A few years ago I had to argue with the architect who was in charge of the refurbishment of my home – the architect concerned was totally unwilling to let either my wife or me decide how the kitchen should be arranged. What she had in mind was probably an interesting design, but impractical for a working kitchen. In the end I insisted on having my way, but I suspect she thought I was an imbecile or a Philistine or both.

But even worse than architects, in my experience, are people from local authority planning departments. In Ireland, this is because we suddenly came to realise that it is not ideal to destroy the country’s entire architectural heritage, having previously for decades demolished hundreds of valuable and beautiful buildings to replace them with concrete office blocks. When the realisation suddenly dawned that this was bad, the pendulum swung all the way to the other extreme. So for example, a friend of mine living in an early Victorian house was told he could not instal a downstairs bathroom because there would have been none there in Victorian days; and that was the sole reason.

Managing our architectural inventory is a really important task. Our buildings are what see, what we live in, what we work in, what we visit. They define our lives more than most other things. And this being so, they need to reflect who and what we are and to offer us something from our heritage and something for our future. We should sympathetically preserve our old buildings, but not make them all into museums; we should aim to point to the future, in both aesthetic and technological terms, in our new buildings, but not make them soulless and uninviting. And on the whole, we should avoid building pastiche.

It may be hard to say this, but Ireland has a stock of houses and buildings constructed during the decades when the country was poor and uncertain of itself which, in truth, ought not to survive to the next generation. But we also have some buildings that demonstrate confidence and curiosity that works, such as Busaras (the bus station in Dublin), or the government buildings along Kildare Street. And we have the designers and architects who have the imagination, guts and innovative instincts to give us buildings for the future that will stand the test of time.

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2 Comments on “Architecture: preservation vs innovation”

  1. Orla Cahill Says:

    About your new kitchen…I can appreciate the difference of opinion between Architect and client. It’s a common occurrence. I’ve never actually had dealings with an architect but I’ve heard about the ‘clash’ of ideas from so many. Most architects are highly creative people and are possibly edging slightly more towards the aesthetic rather then the functional aspect of a design. While both aesthetic and functional elements of a design are important, it can be difficult to achieve the perfect balance between the two. But at the end of the day the client is the one who is going to live in and use the kitchen so it needs to be a fully functioning and working kitchen. So the client should have final say.

    And regarding your point about the period house… While I believe in the restoration and preservation of historic and period buildings, I do however disagree with the idea that your friend who lived in a period house should be refused the right to install modern conveniences within that dwelling. Houses are for living in and one has the right to feel comfortable in their own home. As long as the facade of the dwelling is preserved I feel that what is done to the interior (within reason) should be the decision of the owner/ person living there. I feel that the exception to this would be for historic buildings which would most probably be public buildings anyway and also buildings of ‘major’ historic significance that may also be private dwellings. In the case of these there should be total preservation.

    Regarding Architectural styles I believe that every era or century should have architecture that is indicative of that era and I just cannot understand why so many housing developments that have popped up during the seventies and eighties insist on building ‘mock’ Tudor and ‘mock’ Georgian styles to name but two. I believe that planning authorities are mostly responsible for this and they seem to have the notion for some reason that building ‘old’ style is best. While I greatly admire and appreciate Architectural styles of all ages, I believe that as we are in the 21st Century we should build for the 21st Century in a 21st Century style. If we don’t…what happens in the 23rd Century when somehow there seems to be little or no record of Architecture from the 21st Century era. It would be as if the 21st Century was obliterated. I believe that the same should apply to all of the Arts…Literature, Painting, Music, Sculpture, etc..

    And on a final note…I have to say I would have loved to have studied Architecture. I just find it all so interesting. Maybe in my next life…
    Orla 🙂
    ps. Hope you are enjoying your new kitchen.

  2. David O'C Says:

    While I agree with a lot of the sentiments in the original blog and then in Orla’s comment, I feel that there is a disservice being made to the planners. I was involved in a lot of planning issues to do with developers in north Wexford and unfortunately, I have to say that in a lot of cases there is far too much political interference in the planning process and very often the planners are over ruled when it comes to making appropriate decisions. Just look at the current tribunals and you will see what I mean. Large tracks of land are inappropriately rezoned for development and then large scale, high density housing estates are built with no services, public facilities or proper design principals.
    How often have you driven through the countryside and, as you turn a corner, come across an urban type housing estate in the middle of nowhere far from any facilities, social centre, shops, public transport, etc. Go down to Wicklow and Wexford and see large estates of housing developments which are holiday homes, empty for nine months of the year, void of any life, community or social structure. Surely this is bad planning in the extreme. I have talked to planners about this and regularly am told that it wouldn’t be their choice.
    As regards architects and opinions on design. Aesthetics is a subjective issue and both sides have to respect each others perception of what is good design. Ultimately, however, if the person who commissions the project is of the opinion that the design is unacceptable then that should be the deciding factor as this person has to live with the decision.
    I sometime feel that there is an element of ‘the kings new clothes’ about it. In last weeks issue of the Property Supplement in the Irish Times, there was an article about a house for sale in a place called Poulshone in County Wexford. While I know the architects well, Ken Meehan and Gerry McClean, and have a lot of respect for their work, I thought that this house was nothing more than a large wooden box in the form of a shipping container situated literally metres from the beach. Yet, this house was nominated for a prestigious award which was judged by their architectural peers. Subjective? Kings new clothes? One wonders.

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