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Roche plans in the shadows with Dublin dock skyscraper decision

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Just as London has fallen in love with towers, Dublin seems to want no more to do with them.

I have written before about Spencer Dock, the huge 20ha mixed-use development for Dublin designed by American-Irish Gold Medallist Kevin Roche. But now the Irish planning authority has rejected the developer's last appeal against an earlier compromise ruling and removed permission for nearly all of it. The result is almost certainly the end of the road with the Spencer Dock Consortium left holding planning permission to build Roche's £150 million Irish National Convention Centre - but none of the offices, apartments, hotels, retail facilities and parking structures that were supposed to pay for it.

What you make of this judgement of Solomon depends on which side of the urban renaissance issue you stand. Spencer Dock is an enormous brownfield site, but it also adjoins streets of grim low-rise housing, whose occupants opposed the development from the outset, convinced that the shadow of its office buildings would plunge their houses into darkness. 'We would have been in shadowlands, ' one resident told a journalist. 'God gave all of us the right to see the sky and sunshine.

To those inspectors I say thanks for seeing it was all so wrong.'

Irish premier Bertie Ahern took a similar view, for feelings ran high. During the public inquiry he rashly remarked: 'It would be a monstrosity, we don't need skyscrapers.' Nor did the chairman of An Taisce, the Irish equivalent to English Heritage, mince his words when he told the inquiry that Roche's scheme was 'an anti-cultural, spiritless architectural cliche from 1970s Pittsburgh'.

Apart from an unfortunate lapse when a member of the development consortium referred to the local community objectors as people who 'eat their young', the supporting view was more restrained.

An editorial in the Irish Independent the day after the decision was announced made the case for the defeated developers in a particularly thoughtful and measured way.

'What was planned for Spencer Dock amounted to a new city and a magnificent waterfront to the Liffey, ' it concluded. 'This would have been modest by comparison with anything in North America but more spectacular than the highly successful waterfront in Belfast: and it would have done no harm to the city centre. To reject it suggests a lack of vision.'

Throughout the battle, from the first planning application 16 months ago to this month's judgement, the issue centred on the emotive identification of Roche's cluster of towers as 'skyscrapers'. To hear the opponents of the scheme at the public inquiry, one would have thought that it would rival the Petronas Towers and be located in Merrion Square itself. In fact the tallest of the so-called 'skyscrapers'would have been only 90m high and erected on a site 2km down the Liffey from the city centre and about the same distance from the Georgian Mile.

While other aspects of the Spencer Dock enterprise no doubt contributed to its failure - it might be argued that any request for permission to put up 26 modern buildings costing £1.2 billion designed by a single architect could be considered a provocation - no other issue came close to the 'skyscraper scare' in the public debate.

Which is ironic because it was the father of the modern skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, another American Irish architect, who had the last word on the subject nearly 100 years ago when he wrote: 'The social significance of the tall building is its most important attribute. It makes a powerful appeal to the architectural imagination where there is any.

But where imagination is absent and its place is usurped by timid pedantry the case is hopeless.'

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