Dublin turns its back on a native son and a chance of prosperity
A month or two ago I was invited to give an opinion on Dublin's Canary Wharf, the monster 21ha development site called Spencer Dock located on the north bank of the Liffey, where it widens out to meet Dublin Harbour. At present, Spencer Dock is no more than a miserable industrial wasteland of disused shunting yards and derelict buildings - much like the backlands of Kings Cross and about the same size. Up to a fortnight ago, it looked as though it might be a candidate for a glit-tering future.
With the aid of Irish-American aia Gold Medallist Kevin Roche - who had already won a competition to design the £150 million Irish National Convention Centre on the site - a consortium of Dublin developers had put together a scheme for a complete business district of 26 new buildings, offices, public open spaces, a linear park and podium parking for nearly 7000 cars,the whole totalling nearly six million square metres. This ambitious scheme, plus a promise to construct and operate the convention centre indefinitely, went in for planning to Dublin Corporation last April: the largest planning application ever served in the history of the Irish Republic.
Alas, it did not take long before it became clear that it was too large for the city's planners to swallow. First, the corporation demanded massive amounts of supporting information from the developers and then - this request having been complied with - reached a snap decision, granting planning permission for the convention centre and one office building only; ordering the car parking to be reduced to 2000 units (1800 of them for residents), and granting only outline planning permission, subject to periodic design review and public inquiry, for the rest of the scheme.
What the Spencer Dock development consortium will do in response to this constructive dismissal of its whole project is unknown at the time of writing. There are clearly grounds for appeal, but equally clearly there is a strong current of official and professional disapproval of the scheme. This now seems to be focused on the 'inappropriate' and 'American-style' buildings proposed by Kevin Roche for the site. For Roche's Irish birth and early Dublin buildings seem to cut no ice 50 years after he left the city to seek his fortune in America. Nor do his aia Gold Medal, his Pritzker Prize or, more puzzlingly, his reputation for extreme skill in the management of public spaces. Somehow, Roche's offering of a state- of-the-art, mixed-use city quarter- precisely what the Dublin Corporation seemed to want in order to moderate the fortress-like ifsc financial-services centre further upstream - seems to have run head on into the great planning dichotomy between art history and economics.
According to the art-historical value system, the value of a city is measured according to its ability to provide vistas and skylines that delight the eye, along with streets of a pleasing homogeneity interspersed with public spaces and buildings that are said to be masterpieces. According to the economic value system, streets and buildings are the circuit boards of the economy, so none of this is worth a light if the buildings are empty and the streets full of people sellingthe Big Issue.
Marinated in Usonian realism for half a century, Kevin Roche took the economic view. His scheme for Spencer Dock offered 15,000 jobs, a medical centre, a leisure centre, a creche, 3000 apartments, extensive landscaping and tree planting, and a direct link to Dublin airport. One can only hope that the corporation is right and the preservation of the desolate view along North Wall will be adequate consolation for the loss of all this.