The recent closure of the Smithwick’s Brewery in Kilkenny City has end over three centuries of brewing tradition on the sixteen acre site. Its purchase by the local authority presents a once in a century chance to enhance the economy of the region and the liveability of the city. The Council are to be commended for purchasing the land at such a low cost. However, that was the easy part. Now begins the real work.

The whole place is dripping with heritage. However, heritage on a construction site is usually the last thing any developer wants to see. Clean, green, locations have few surprises and require less brain power to develop. Such sites provide the best opportunities to design easily, get planning, construct, and make a profit in as short a timeline as possible. This approach is certainly understandable, especially if you are the one paying. Heritage can add value but usually it is perceived to be not worth the trouble beyond a marketing driven sop. Typically, it is only in the highly developed marketplaces of major cities that heritage attributes are fundamentally incorporated into the design of a development. In these markets, heritage can be a key distinguishing factor that adds exclusivity and helps create a memorable experience. It is these latter developments that add positively to a city over a long period.

Kilkenny is a relatively small place. However, it is a small place that can think big. The Council obtained the Brewery Site at a bargain price. This allows the pressure for quick returns comprising crass buildings to be somewhat relieved. There is time to reflect. It is interesting to note that the city’s best spaces and buildings are almost all hundreds of years old. That is the timeline that should be thought about when planning the future of the site. These are also the places that have led to Kilkenny being such a great place in which to live, work, and visit.

Plainly, the heritage of the Brewery site will be central to the long term success of any development. Unfortunately, despite having some interesting ideas about the reinstatement of medieval burgage plots, the current masterplan lacks creativity when addressing the past. This is not surprising given that there was no obvious heritage professional on the project team. Thankfully though, there is time to amend the document.

In the current plan, archaeological finds are listed as an opportunity. Despite this, during a recent public consultation meeting I got the feeling that some senior Council staff saw archaeology as a threat. According to this perspective, archaeology is best avoided, not so as to conserve it, but because it costs money to remove and does not add value. Nowhere in the masterplan has the possibility of having an exciting urban excavation open to the public been entertained. In York, thousands visited the Viking dig. Elsewhere in the UK, at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, 100,000 tourists pay each year to witness archaeologists peel back the soil. Hundreds more pay to dig.

Currently, very little is known about the nature of the Brewery Quarter’s archaeology. Despite some previous disturbance, it is likely that the archaeological deposits are extensive, dense, and deep. Clearly, more information is needed to enable a well thought out redevelopment. If this has to be conducted, is it not better that archaeological investigation is embraced and used as an opportunity to increase both the number of visitors to Kilkenny and their length of stay? Nowhere else in Ireland would there be an urban excavation open to the public. It would also bring added authenticity to the Medieval Mile marketing initiative.

The Council themselves admit that the site will take years to fully develop. All this offers the possibility for a large scale excavation to occur over two or three extended summers. Such a dig would attract tens of thousands of tourists to the northern end of the city. Finds could be stored and displayed securely in the Brew House. A pop-up museum such as the one on the Parade last August has shown the public’s thirst for archaeological knowledge. In just four days 3,200 people visited.

Learning about a place and avoiding archaeology for construction is one thing but how about using the information? In the Rocks district of Sydney there is a four storey 106 room youth hostel built over one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia. Constructed on steel columns, the hostel hovers over the archaeological deposits. Like in Kilkenny, the landowner was the local authority. For many years they had identified the then derelict site as a place of high development potential. It was also place that if its potential was realised would rejuvenate an area which was underperforming. In 2006 they put out a call for suitable proposals on how to develop this archaeologically sensitive place. The judging panel – which was dominated by heritage professionals – chose the youth hostel (YHA) project.

A 99 year lease was then granted. An excavation that had been partially undertaken in 1994 was restarted. The dig was halted when the archaeological research questions were answered. Throughout the whole project heritage professionals were at the heart of the design process. The excavation informed every aspect of the build. On several occasions steel columns were moved to avoid newly discovered archaeological deposits. Ultimately, only 10% or so of the remaining archaeology was removed to make way for the 4,700msq development.

Today, the whole building permeates with its past. The central atriums of both blocks look down on to archaeological remains, tourists walk along reopened historic laneways, and tens of thousands of students go to the education centre to learn about early Sydney. Overall, the Rocks YHA is a massive success, not in spite of its heritage but because of it. Imagine a similar approach taken to the abbey of St. Francis and its extensive medieval wall foundations that lie under the concrete slab.

During a recent public consultation meeting there was much made of the removal and retention of existing buildings. It was disclosed that the Brew House and the former Mayfair Ballroom were to be kept while all other unprotected buildings would be removed. In order to aid transparency the report upon which these decisions were made was released. Unfortunately though, instead of clarifying issues, the report has perhaps muddied them. How, for instance, is a 20th century former ballroom worthy of keeping while a 19th century oratory listed on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is not? Similarly, the brewing equipment in the Brew House is marked for full removal even though it is this same equipment that the building was constructed to house. Surely, this wholesale removal radically reduces the importance of the building? Overall, there may be very good reasons for the recommendations of the report. However, these are not obvious when reading the document.

Certainly, many of the tanks and piping in the Brew House will have to be moved for the building to be made useable. However, by taking out everything, the chance to create interesting and special internal spaces is massively reduced. More imagination is needed. Items that are deemed not suitable for retention in the building should be considered for use elsewhere on site. During the redevelopment of the Carlton and United Brewery in Sydney, a survey was undertaken by heritage consultants and an artist to assess the possible use of industrial heritage components for art pieces in the new residential and commercial blocks that were on the way. Closer to home, Lough Boora, Co. Offaly, has shown how the reuse of seemingly useless industrial artefacts can add significantly add to the distinctiveness of a place and its ability to act as a tourist attraction. Similar actions could take place here.

The possibilities presented by the Brewery site are almost overwhelming. However, no matter what the area is used for, the true incorporation of the site’s heritage into its redevelopment must be done. To do otherwise would undermine the uniqueness of the site, and its ability to significantly improve the economy and liveability of the city. Bad places are cheap. Good places that provide a sustained long term benefit are not. That is the choice Kilkenny – the Medieval Capital of Ireland – has to make.

 

This article appears in an edited form in the current edition of the Kilkenny People.

Liam Mannix, Heritage Consultant

Liam is a heritage consultant with experience of working across the private and public sectors in Ireland, Australia and Papua New Guinea. He project managed the educational programme of the Irish Walled Towns Network which won the EU prize for cultural heritage / Europa Nostra Award in 2013. @maxmannix

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Like many of you, I have been following the Limerick City of Culture debacle with a mixture of anger and amusement. Recent commentary has noted the lack of true appreciation of what the arts can do and the low level of trust between those in control and the people who create.

The picture in the heritage sector is depressingly similar. Since the 1990s heritage has been seen as a way of regenerating cities and towns through the country. This may take the form of an area based focus or by using a historic building as a totem around which a district may develop. From the outset, the obvious thing to do in both situations is to centrally involve a team of experienced, innovative, heritage professionals. However, just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it will be done.

What usually happens is that key decision makers in both the private and public sectors do their best to minimise the use of heritage professionals. There is a perception that archaeologists and conservation architects will only get in the way, slow things down and not allow them to do what they want!

In Ireland, most schemes in both the private and public sectors originate from the top down. Consultation is something you do after the plans have been made. One consequence of this is that the key decision makers often have a sense of emotional ownership. Put simply, it gets personal. Obviously, this situation does not lend itself well to compromise. Compounding all this is a general lack of knowledge by those in control about what heritage, used innovatively, can actually do.

The consequence of all this is conflict with locals, heritage professionals and national legislation. In this scenario, the archaeology and historic buildings being utilised move from being perceived as an asset to a threat. In the opinions of some decision makers certain heritage assets not seen as being core to the vision are seen as problems to be managed. Ultimately, opportunities are missed and initiatives suffer. Nowhere in Ireland is there a project like the Rocks YHA in Sydney. Located above one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia, this large four storey hostel has managed to reanimate an area of the city by fully utilising the potential that the underlying archaeology provided.

Without doubt, there are people in Ireland’s public and private sectors who truly value the contribution heritage professionals can make. However, within a development culture that is slow to change, they are a minority. Because of this, the prospect of places like the Rocks YHA being built around the country is sadly not great.

Liam Mannix is a heritage consultant with experience of working across the private and public sectors in Ireland, Australia and Papua New Guinea. He project managed the educational programme of the Irish Walled Towns Network which won the EU prize for cultural heritage / Europa Nostra Award in 2013. @maxmannix

GraftonStreet1956I have commented on Grafton Street before (here and here), while also discussing Schemes of Special Planning Control (SSPC) and Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs) (here). In light of the current draft for the renewal of the Grafton Street SSPC, there are, I feel, a number of elements that need to be discussed about the relationship between land-use, social space, and heritage in Grafton Street, which are, to a certain extent, reflective of wider dynamics in Dublin more generally. The revision of the Grafton Street SSPC provides the opportunity to redress the bias towards elite notions of heritage and instead celebrate the role of contemporary social life in the street.

The current draft of the Grafton Street SSPC opens with the following vision: “To reinvigorate Grafton Street as the South City’s most dynamic retail experience underpinned by a wide range of mainstream, independent and specialist retail and service outlets that attract both Dubliners and visitors to shop, sit and stroll, whilst re-establishing the area’s rich historic charm and urban character.” The language of such documents tells a very interesting story.  There is an explicit perspective within the Scheme of Special Planning Control that the area of Grafton Street has somehow lost some form of character that needs to be re-established or reinvigorated. How this is to be achieved is perceived to require a set of processes that promotes certain forms of land-use over and above others.

In drawing on an imaginary of some unspecified ideal time, the document naturalises the connection between elements such as prestigious forms of consumption and architectural conservation: “A number of uses on Grafton Street are of special significance through their long association with the street. Businesses such as Brown Thomas, Weir and Sons and Bewley’s Cafe are now an essential part of the street’s character and continue in the tradition of providing prestigious products and fine service in high quality surroundings.” When taken at face-value, such language might seem innocuous, and it is difficult to dispute the relative importance of such establishments to the commercial core of Dublin. However, when looked at in more detail, I would argue that in privileging the connection between what are deemed as prestigious land-uses with notions of ‘character’, the SSPC presents an elitist ideal of what the street should be, and, by connection, whether it is intended or not, who Grafton Street is for.

This is not a desire to argue for the retention or promotion of poor signage and shop fronts (however they may be defined), but to seek to expand the remit of what is valued beyond the supposed virtues of exclusive high-end retail and a loosely defined notion of what the street is imagined to once have been. From a broader perspective, it can be argued that in light of the evolution of Dublin over the last number of decades, Grafton Street – and Dublin city centre more generally – has to distinguish itself to compete with the out-of-town centres. Yet, there is also a need to at least try to imagine or think through what the social life of the street might actually look like if the vision of the SSPC, as it currently stands, is achieved. Would it still be a container of a rich variety of social life that it is today? Would it be the street of buskers and flower sellers? Would it still be the street on which younger age-groups gather outside McDonald’s?

The street has and will evolve in response to the dynamics of wider social and market changes. Yet, there also seems to be a need to actually think through what the social dynamics of such streets are beyond the conception of notions of urban character and heritage-value as being directly connected to upmarket land-uses alone. Celebrating those social dynamics of the present and recent past which serve to define the everyday life of Grafton Street rather than decrying some loosely defined imaginary of what has supposedly been lost would be a start to such.

Philip Lawton

Following from the recent post on this site about Dublin’s urban heritage, a number of recent news stories may be of interest to some readers. The first of these is the announcement, as reported by the Irish Times, that the government may seek to repossess the Bank of Ireland building on College Green. From a broader perspective, the reclamation of the bank building would be  a hugely significant and symbolic statement by the current government about its new-found role in the banking sector. More particularly, it would present the opportunity to create a new public use for a historically and architecturally significant building.

The proposed repossession of the bank would provide the potential to create a public building facing onto what has been seen by many, going back at least to the Metropolitan Streets Commission in the late 1980s,  as a central public space for Dublin (something which perhaps has increased currency with the recent visit of the U.S. President, Barack Obama). While the full pedestrianisation of College Green may prove somewhat difficult to implement, new uses for the former parliament building would certainly help to promote its position as a central public space within the city. As mooted within the Temple Bar Framework Plan of 2004 (available here), it also presents the opportunity to promote pedestrian connections between Temple Bar and the Trinity/Grafton Street area. The question remains, however, as to what use the building should be put to?

Proposed links through Bank of Ireland, College Green. Source: Temple Bar Framework Plan, 2004 (Howley Harrington Architects)

Following from Eamon Ryan’s call for the bank to be transformed to an elibrary a number of years ago, Labour TD for Dublin North  Central, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has recently opened an online survey seeking public views on its transformation into the Dublin City Library. Meanwhile, in its own poll, the Archiseek website is broadening the question somewhat, with  the library option included with a number of others, such as a Dublin City Museum, or the location of the Irish Senate. If the repossession goes ahead, such discussions could perhaps be broadened to provide the opportunity for the public to present their ideas on what its use might be through an ideas competition or similar.

I would argue, as I have before with regards to Smithfield, that if College Green is to become a central public space, which is at least given pedestrian priority, then the location of a public building with full public accessibility is of significant importance. I would also argue that while the transformation of the bank may certainly boost Dublin’s tourist industry,  we should not solely seek what is primarily a tourist function as its use. Thus, in as much as it fits within Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO city of literature, the movement of Dublin City Library to this location might tick a number of boxes, so to speak. Particularly given that the proposed move to the Ambassador cinema seems to have fallen through (as mentioned on the poll being run by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin).

Meanwhile, and in a similar vein, as also highlighted by the Irish Times in recent days, the announcement by Dublin City Council that it is to carry out the rejuvenation  of numbers 15 and 16 Henrietta Street may come as good news for those interested in the preservation of Dublin’s Georgian heritage. Pointedly, the redevelopment of the site, which is the outcome of a design competition from 2008, will include the development of a theatre and, according to the original design proposals, a craft training centre focused on stone and brick masonry trades. That this project is currently going ahead highlights the potential for the future use of interventions, such as the Derelict Sites Act, or, indeed ownership of land within NAMA, for the delivery of positive publicly orientated outcomes.

When taken together, both interventions indicate the potential that the public ownership of land, when orientated for the public good, presents in terms of the protection and use-value of the heritage of our towns and cities.

Philip Lawton

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