Recently, an increased amount of attention has been given to the role of architecture and design at both a national and the local level. This has been highlighted by the introduction of a Government policy on architecture, and the establishment of the Architecture Foundation, whose role is to promote the importance of architecture and urban design in society. The annual Openhouse Dublin and now Openhouse Galway illustrate how such bodies can play a role at the more localised level. Such strategies are furthered by the introduction in recent years of a ‘Public Choice’ award by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI), and indeed, the opening of darcspace, a gallery orientated towards the built environment.

To a large extent, widening the debate about architecture and design in Ireland is timely. Given the poor quality of many of the developments of the last two decades, it is now possible to rethink the relationship between planning, development, architecture, urban design and the social spaces which they help to create. There are a number of ways of looking at these areas. The approach taken is of crucial importance. Take the aim of the Architecture Foundation for example: “the IAF is all about promoting a better built environment for everyone’s benefit. We strive for an Ireland in which the importance of architecture is widely acknowledged, and in which people are able to relate to and influence the built world around them, and where high standards of architectural design are appreciated by all.” A key question is therefore related to what better architecture is? Can it be a democratic process, or is it inherently given to the few who are trained in the area of design?

From a normative perspective, perhaps it is time to cast open questions about the role of architecture and query what makes better places for people to live in, and indeed how our ways of life should influence future design and planning practice. This is not just a matter of the admiration of the latest award winning projects, or architecture as art, but instead placing the focus on how we can create a more democratic and inclusive built environment. In this regard the launch of Dublin’s bid to become the Design Capital in 2014 might act as a point of departure. Although not exclusively aimed at the built environment, It offers an opportunity for individuals to submit ideas with the aim of winning the design capital status. The debate about how the spaces of NAMA can be integrated into such a bid is surely crucial to its potential success. As well as allowing for reflection on how an over-inflated property market has negatively impacted upon our cities, suburbs and towns, it might also help to widen debates about the role of architecture as just one element of the built environment. The future of the country is reliant on the process of planning, designing and building becoming a public good for the benefit of society as opposed to the unpredictable outcome of extreme forms of speculation.

Philip Lawton

N.B: As part of Openhouse Dublin, a debate entitled ‘Does Size Matter’ will take place in the new Lansdowne Road stadium on the 7th of October at 7pm