It’s not just Ireland’s newest build of unfinished estates that requires maintenance, restoration and completion work. The Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) have just released a statement, reported in the Irish Times, concerning the fate of some of Ireland’s historic buildings, such as the Hume Street Hospital in Dublin, bought by developed Michael Kelly for €30 million in 2006. They note that such buildings are suffering in two respects. First, that some of them are being left to the mercy of the elements, with nature doing a fair amount of damage to the structures. Second, that some of them are being visited by plunderers and vandals. For example, in the Hume Street case, the roof has been plundered of lead and building of copper piping, and no doubt ornamental fittings and other items. Belcamp College, on the north side of Dublin, was recently ransacked and set on fire.

The RHA strongly criticise NAMA for failing to ensure that developers with properties in their portfolio properly secure and maintain historic buildings. They argue that ‘conduct of omission as in itself an act of vandalism.’ They have accused the organisation of ‘not taking its legal responsibility seriously in regard to appropriate protection of several historic buildings currently under their ownership’ and said its ‘response to our approaches to them . . . has been evasive and ambiguous’. NAMA it said, would not admit to possessing the loan book on certain historic properties and would not any commitment with regards to safeguarding them. In this sense, NAMA is staying true to form, as it’s hardly a paragon of openness and transparency.

NAMA has responded by stating that it does not directly own any of the properties, only the loan books, and a spokesperson for the agency said that ‘it is incorrect to say that Nama has a direct responsibility in this area’, although it ‘has directly taken action with the property owners or with the relevant authorities to try to ensure that the properties are properly secured.’

However, properly secured is not the same as properly preserved and in response, the RHA has said that ‘section 141 of the 2009 Act that established Nama gave it the authority to seek “entry and maintenance” orders in the District Court to secure any building “at risk from trespassers or vandalism”.’ They would clearly like to see NAMA be much more proactive in forcing developers to secure and preserve Ireland’s architectural heritage.  The alternative route will be, as with the Hume Street Hospital, seeking planning enforcement notices to try to force both the developer and NAMA to take action.  That action has been taken by Dublin City Council and it requires repairs to be carried out by April 29th (this Friday).  Having to serve notice on NAMA to ensure saving some of our most historic buildings is not an ideal way to proceed, but it might well be the principle route open to the RHA and others unless a more proactive approach is adopted by the agency and developers.

Rob Kitchin

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