Photographs can tell a story about time and space. Throughout the boom years, I took photographs of advertising hoardings surrounding different developments in Dublin – these included areas around Dublin’s docklands and other new suburban developments. Although cynical about what the hoardings aimed to say, I almost accepted that the marketing of developments was going to be pushed further and further all the time. The images captured a specific period, or stage of development, which has now all but ended. The developments were more or less finished as planned and the hoardings eventually came down. Images taken in 2001 on Macken Street in the docklands read, ‘now these streets have a new story to tell.’ Behind the hoarding is a shot of the builders’ offices, the usual make-shift corrugated box soon replaced by a high-profile apartment development facing on to Grand Canal Docks.
My more recent photos and their attendant hoardings tell a very different story. The challenge was once to try and take a photo of them before they were taken down; now the challenge is to capture them before they are blown down, faded away or, indeed, covered by a new advertisement attempting to sell the development at a slashed rate. Smiling faces of beautiful young couples are replaced by generic ‘to let’ signs – such is indicative of the developers’ desperation to sell or rent remaining spaces. Those that remain seem like something from another age. There is a semi-permanence to these sites that is reminiscent of the half-built spaces in the 1980s, such as the south side of Mountjoy Square and the concrete shell in Salthill. They are all symbolic of a broader phenomenon appearing throughout the country at present.
Sandyford in Dublin is just one example of this. What appears like a docklands enclave airlifted and dumped in low-rise suburbia has gradually been emerging from the industrial park developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The park was supposed to disappear and be replaced by a world of glass, steel and granite-covered concrete for cappuccino lifestyles. This world would never exist. It is the world of hoardings, a world that could not possibly come to fruition, except in the idealised world of city marketing. If finished as desired, Sandyford would gradually have taken on a meaning of its own as ownership passed from the image-makers to the residents and businessses. However, the new reality means that specific facets of it are very different now to how they were originally imagined. Retail units lie vacant but while the signs still promote it as a high-profile destination, the planning application tells a different story: change of use to allow for discount retailers.
Sandyford is a difficult place to grasp. While many of the original industrial buildings and jobs have gone, the remaining ones seem to keep the area going. Some of the spaces imagined as central features of the new Sandyford seem like isolated remnants of a time long gone, like a concierge serviced foyer with flat-screen TV’s and leather couches.
The experience of the central square, ‘The Plaza’, is almost surreal. Upon walking in, the square itself is dominated by an ice-rink installed for the Christmas season. Overlooking this are blocks of apartments. Or so it seems. Closer inspection reveals that a sheet of material has been decorated in the outline of one of the originally planned apartments, covering a concrete shell. The detailing in the covering is impeccable. The window frames almost exactly match that of neighbouring buildings. The only give away is the lack of depth in the balconies and the sheer lack of movement by those presented as using their balconies. Despite the sense of illusion – the combination of a number of retail units, the ice rink, and a children’s learning centre called ‘Imaginosity’ – the square is relatively active. This mix is what makes a place like Sandyford so difficult to understand. While on the one hand, it is symbolic of the mess that is post-boom Ireland, there is a sense that social life somehow adapts.
This raises some pertinent questions (raised by Cian O’Callaghan elsewhere on this blog): How can urban planning deal with the sudden collapse of the property market? From a social perspective, how can it cope with half-finished buildings, half-finished footpaths; the emergence of the concrete bollard as a semi-permanent feature? Does the visual blight of these post-Nama landscapes tell the full story; or, in the same manner that we should not have read the visual clues of boom-time Ireland as a form of social reality, should we now be careful as to how we treat the sight of half-baked projects? We must consider here that these landscapes are now a social reality. In many ways, the slogan ‘A fresh view for a new way of life’ is therefore more fitting to the situation because it is now a new way of life. On one level, such spaces can try to hide behind their illusions, but there is a reality to them that many people have to experience in their everyday lives. What are their hopes and fears regarding a space like Sandyford? Would many of those who bought apartments here return to a ‘business as usual’ model (no matter how unlikely it is), where the physical spaces are completed, and those in negative equity are once again living in an apartment worth somewhere near what they paid for it? This, it seems to me, is the key aspiration of Nama, whether or not it is feasible or desirable. This is a central feature of Ireland’s future.