The front cover of U2’s 1981 album, October, features the band members standing on front of the Grand Canal Docks in Dublin. In keeping with the same theme, the  scene is put to motion in the video for ‘Gloria’, the second single from the album. At the end of the video, the camera zooms to the sky to overlook an area that has now all but disappeared. The landscape presented is a bleak one of the Grand Canal Docks and surroundings heading towards post-industrial redundancy. When viewed now, within the context of all that has been built since, the presentation of the Docks becomes a powerful reminder of the Dublin from which U2 emerged.

Although secondary to themes such as love, loss, and faith, Dublin has been a regular feature of both the lyrics and visual effects of U2 over the last 30 years or so, presenting the everyday landscapes and spaces of the city to a global audience. Their rise to fame preempted the property boom of the 1990s/2000’s, and by the time Dublin had gone from bust to boom and back again their connection to the city that they are from had moved from that of a point of reference and emotional attachment, to being one that was visually and culturally inscribed within the spaces of the city. Over the years, this association has shifted from what Niall Stokes cites as the sea of North County Dublin in ‘The Ocean’, to the more overt mention of the ‘seven towers’ of Ballymun in ‘Running to Stand Still’, and on to what, for now at least, remains only as the mythical creation of the U2 Tower overlooking The Liffey.

For much of the 1980s, the references to Dublin were predominantly lyrical and audiovisual. For example, following on from the above-mentioned October, and, later the video for ‘Pride’, the opening scene of Rattle and Hum from 1988 changes from a live performance of ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘van Diemen’s Land’. Here, the camera moves over a cliff and then suddenly shifts to the almost vacant post-industrial space of the Point Depot just prior to its transformation to a concert venue. For the duration of the song, the camera drifts in and out from images of the band to various Dublin landmarks of the time, including the Guinness ships with Liberty Hall standing boldly in the background, the now demolished Gasometer, the Pigeon House chimneys, and then back to Grand Canal Docks.

As U2 became more renowned, their relationship to Dublin began to change. Perhaps the first inscription of the band within the space of the city is the informal development of the graffiti wall in the area of the Windmill Lane studio (and, later Hanover Quay). Then, gradually, in as much as U2 set out in a raw post-punk format, and went on to become a sleek global rock act, their relationship to a rapidly transforming city began to change in tandem with such an evolution. The early 1990s heralded a new dawn for both the band and Dublin. Here, just as the architects responsible for the transformation of Temple Bar were taking reference from newly emerging design influences, such as IBA-Berlin, U2, now in the middle of their embrace of all things European, from the Trabant to ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, were buying their own bit of ‘European Dublin’: The Clarence Hotel.

While the Clarence sat neatly within the redevelopment of Temple Bar in the early 1990s, its planned transformation of the mid to late 2000’s was symbolic of the dawn of a new level of desire within Dublin. Gone were the contextual insertions and careful treatment of the historic fabric of the area, in came international star-architect Norman Foster to create a bold new Clarence Hotel topped with a ‘Sky catcher’.  The facades of the demolished buildings may have been retained, but the new Clarence was  to fit directly within the new language of ‘iconic architecture’ which was then gathering momentum. However, if the redevelopment of the Clarence was certain to stand out from its surroundings, it would be dwarfed by the plans to develop the U2 Tower in the docklands.

Foster and Partners, U2 Tower Render. Source, Irish Independent

The story had now come full circle. The docks no longer represented the yearning to break out of the mold, but the desire for U2 to become inscribed physically in the space of the city, with a commanding view of the newly emerging landscape. That both the U2 Tower and the Clarence were designed by Norman Foster* reflected the strength of two powerhouses from separate elements of the globalised cultural realm. The U2 Tower was to become the symbol of the shifting nature of both the meanings of Dublin’s landscape and that of ‘culture’ in our society and city. That which had been outside and cutting-edge was now centre-stage. Culture was the future of the city, and here it was, in a sense, almost growing; 120 metres, then 180 metres in height.

Then, as though almost over night, all that emerged was a hole in the ground, and the Grand Canal Docks and surroundings took on a new feeling; one half vibrant, the other half vacant.

Philip Lawton

*The Foster design replaced an earlier design. For discussion and copies of various news stories on this, see here.

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