One of the few joys of passing through Dublin airport is that sometimes – depending on which gate you are using – you get to see the original airport building, completed in art deco style in 1941. Still in use for some airport operations, it is a particularly good example of the best architecture of that era.
Posted tagged ‘architecture’
I recently found myself with a little time on my hands in a particular area of Britain, and seeing a signpost with a town name I had never heard of I decided to go and have a look. It turned out to be a ‘new town’, one of those built in the period between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s and which were intended both as architectural and as social statements. Like many of these places, this one had not worn well. The building material was overwhelmingly concrete, and it wasn’t perhaps top quality and a lot of it looked in poor shape. In addition, as was often the case around then, facilities, amenities and services were not provided in an ideal manner, and civic pride never established itself properly. At any rate the place looked run down and neglected and unloved. I suspect that various social indicators, from education to crime, will tell a typical story here.
But as I was strolling through the area (taking some photographs), I came across a display board outside a public building, and one of the news items pinned up there was a proposal by a pressure group to have the town centre protected by a preservation order, as the town was, as the statement put it, ‘an iconic landmark of the 20th century’. I looked around at the crumbling concrete and heavily littered shopping precinct and the ubiquitous graffiti and I wondered about the statement.
In fact, in Britain the Twentieth Century Society has over recent years made increasingly urgent calls for the preservation of that century’s architecture, including the architecture of the 1960s and 1970s (including a good few of the concrete motorway bridges). The 1920s and 1930s produced some really great buildings, and I confess I love art deco. But the rather brutalist 1970s stuff? No, I find that much harder to like.
And now I see that a group called DoCoMoMo (which has as its mission to secure the preservation of the output of the modern movement) wants us to preserve the current Liberty Hall building (headquarters of the trade union SIPTU) as a ‘structure of national importance’. The union has plans to replace it with something bigger and better, and I suspect that not many people in Dublin are anxious to preserve the existing structure. It has rather dominated the skyline of Dublin city centre, with a kind of ‘I don’t look nice but hey, I’m here’ brashness. Surely we wouldn’t miss it! Or would be?
Maybe we need to think again about how we see the post-War years of the 20th century. We know how we hear those years: the soundtrack of the era has the Beatles and the Stones, and this will always be with us. Should we look again at the visual part, and give it another chance? Maybe, but it won’t work unless we can associate it with much more civic price and social concern. As long as litter and debris and burnt out cars set the tone for the new towns of the era, and graffiti is splashed across the motorway bridges, it’s unlikely that too many people will develop that sense of affection. But then again, when Liberty Hall last autumn had a display in 300 windows of computerised images and texts it created a new interest in the building. Maybe we could be won around, with an effort.
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.
Just after I took up my post as President of DCU, I invited an old friend to visit me there. I collected him from the airport one evening and drove him back to the university. We approached the campus along Collins Avenue (for those who know Dublin and DCU); it was 9 pm in the autumn, and it was dark. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘this looks like an oil refinery’. And maybe it did, a little. At the time we were building several new buildings along the road, and the scaffolding and cranes were lit up, and it did indeed look very industrial.
Some eight years later it is no longer like that. The buildings (or at least those under construction at the time) have long been completed, and the campus is, even if I say it myself, rather attractive – for a modern university. It has been carefully planned, and the clusters of buildings in DCU are laid out in such a way as to provide good interaction between the occupants, and also so as to leave some open spaces to avoid the campus seeming claustrophobic and so as to give some room to the human spirit. The campus is clean (mostly), and there are flower beds and other decorative features. I am very proud of DCU.
But as I visit universities both in Ireland and overseas, I am often struck by the rather poor quality of the visible infrastructure. Often I will find an old university with magnificent old buildings that have clearly been neglected, with new buildings pushed in next to them with little regard for the resulting aesthetics. New buildings are often badly maintained and show signs of ageing even before the snagging list has been attended to. And all too often I find a campus that seems to show no sense of the human dimension of what we do.
Why are we so bad at this? Some of the old universities worldwide often have inherited beautiful and grand buildings, occupying a campus that in modern times has clearly not been designed to be sympathetic to this heritage. Newer universities are often struggling with not-fit-for-purpose buildings constructed during the dark ages of design (from the middle of the 20th century until recently). And time and again I find myself looking round a campus that has clearly not benefited from a master plan of any value.
Of course there are also wonderful campuses, that have been well designed and planned and whose buildings and amenities clearly support the professional work being carried out there. And where this has succeeded it is not always just because there has been lots of money to spend – I have seen some universities which have clearly been able to make the most of modest resources.
Our physical environment is a crucial aspect in our ability to find fulfilment in our work. We need to be both comforted and stimulated by it – and certainly not depressed or overwhelmed. We need to get good not just at designing individual buildings, but also at ensuring that the campus as a whole reflected and supports our values. This should be one of the most important tasks for any university management team.