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force for change

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Dublin Corporation's chief architect Jim Barrett is upbeat about the way the city is growing and is keen to use his influence to ensure high-quality design and a healthy social mix exert a major influence on its urban development by austin williams. photo

I first met Jim Barrett a year ago on a CABE-sponsored tour around some of London's more prestigious social housing developments. Barrett was enthusiastic, garrulous, inquisitive but, most importantly, unpretentious - his unassuming demeanour belying his authority. As chief architect for Dublin City Corporation, he is the ultimate architectural facilitator in the city.

Having worked in private practice, where he nurtured his interest in social housing architecture, he moved to Limerick Corporation, where he rose to chief architect in the early '80s. At the time of the Urban Renewal Act of 1986, 'Limerick was a great place to be, where lots of elements came together'. It had 'plenty of potential, an ambitious council and loads of money' - the holy trinity for architectural quality.

Since moving to his current position, Barrett revels in a 'huge amount of work', and he is keen to be involved at many levels.

When pushed, he describes himself as 'an architectural manager', rather than a designer: a client/architect. At any given stage of a project Barrett will advise on how best to do things, suggest a strategy, argue for its implementation and monitor the process all the way through to completion.

Dublin City Corporation has been divided into various areas, with a lead architect allocated to each zone, so when it comes to the day-to-day running of a particular project, Barrett acknowledges that there are plenty of people who can do that, while he moves on to the next challenge.

Ireland has developed rapidly in recent years, attracting and securing inward investment in high-technology processes and service-sector industries. It now boasts an 11 per cent per annum rise in gross domestic product (compared with three per cent in the UK). With 25 per cent of all US investment in the EU going to Ireland, Dublin has benefited from significant economic growth in the past two decades.

Barrett recognises that the benefits far outweigh the difficulties, and is refreshingly upbeat about issues which seem to worry those of lesser constitutions in Britain.

'Nobody could have anticipated the phenomenal economic growth that this country has seen in the last decade, ' he says.

'The effects are sometimes seen as troubling, but I prefer to see them as advantages.'

The city's population is increasing by 25,000 every year, and Barrett is aware that 'the prospect of buying a house in Dublin is only a dream for most people today'. He believes that he can address this problem through 'conditionality', setting guaranteed percentages of social housing on speculative developments. Currently in any given private development of six units or more 20 per cent must be given over to social housing.

Understandably, many small developers hoping to cash in on the inflated housing market boom have been wary - querying the ability of the social housing element to reflect market value, and wary of the knockon effect of frightening off prized clients.

Barrett is not unsympathetic, recognising that 'you don't want someone changing their motorbike oil on the drive outside your £400,000 apartment', so additional funding has been used to sweeten the pill.

Many developers seem to be happy to get involved in 'conjoined site deals' which separate the social housing from the more salubrious market areas. Even though Barrett sees this as 'not exactly in the spirit of the social-mix ideal', he is keen to explore a variety of different mechanisms if it succeeds in alleviating the housing 'crisis'.

Transport is not in his remit but he has clear views on the subject. As someone whose business is to create pleasant urban spaces, he is directly affected by the transport gridlock throughout much of the city. 'The transport and housing problems are also a manifestation of our successful economy, ' he says. 'The reality is that success fuels demand, and the supply, at the moment, can't keep up.'

Of the recently started relief route through the central area, he says: 'We have spent more time talking about building the bore-tunnel relief road than building it, ' hinting that sometimes important projects need to be railroaded through.

Fifty-four peripheral sites, described by Barrett as 'secondary spaces', have been identified for redevelopment - those areas being subsumed by Dublin's growth. He has brought in 'young architects with flair - sometimes unknown practices', and for a nominal fee 'they can gain experience with the chance of winning a commission'.

'There is a great sense of well-being in Dublin, ' says Barrett, obviously proud of what he has achieved. The Newmarket project he likens to Covent Garden; Ian Ritchie's spire project and Calatrava's new bridge are both under way. A lot of urban dereliction has been cleared and improved, but he recognises that it is not a static problem and that there is much more to be done. He is greatly pleased that development (he encourages refurbishment rather than new build) is facing towards the Shannon - 'the finest river in Europe' - and he was personally responsible for the revitalised boardwalks along the banks of the river.

Barrett is certainly a man who revels in solving perceived problems and does not shirk his responsibility to intervene.

At the close of our interview he told me he was in a hurry because he was flying out to Sarajevo that evening. Sensing my incredulity, he quickly reassured me that he was just popping over to visit his brother. Even so, I would not be surprised if he had a sketch masterplan in his back pocket, just in case.

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