Dublin Transformed: Behind the Hoardings

Philip Lawton, Dept of Geography, TCD and Eoin O’Mahony, School of Geography, UCD

Walking across The Samuel Beckett Bridge over the last few months, it is hard to escape the giant hoarding covering the Tropical Fruit Warehouse. It is an artistic rendering entitled ‘Abiding Traces’ by the artist Leah Hewson. This is the latest in what is now a relatively long history of development hoardings that have become a ubiquitous feature of new developments – both in Dublin, and on a global scale. Yet this one is perhaps unique, embodying the overlaps between urban development, investment strategies, and wholly enmeshed ideals of creativity within the contemporary city. This artistic motif conjoins with a dash of history – ‘Established 1892: Re-Imagined 2019’ – to give an air of both established heritage, and a  ‘new innovative future’.

These kinds of hoardings are now an almost common-place feature of Dublin Docklands. Slowly, but surely, since 2015 or so, the Docklands has become a focal-point of forms of  transformation last seen before the 2008 crash. The 2008 Great Financial Crisis flushed out the smaller operators and what we’re left with now are those that started making deals while in NAMA-hibernation. International companies, such as Oxley, Hines and King Street Capital have all joined up with Irish-based companies to provide the money to build large office blocks and apartments. Yet, these changes are not only confined to the Docklands, with the city and suburbs yet again undergoing significant transformations. In the office district of the south core, for example, on streets such as Dawson Street, Nassau Street and Molesworth Street, 1970’s modernist office blocks have been torn down and replaced by shiny new glass and brick panels. When taken together, this is the new and bold turn in Dublin’s continued emergence as an ‘entrepreneurial city’. In short, the coming together of capital and image-making strategies is bringing about profound changes in the way the way the city looks and feels. 

In the summer of 2017, as a means of analysing these changes, we began to systematically track the hoardings surrounding newly developing sites around the centre of the city. The use of stylized hoardings was a trend that, at the very least, can be traced to the Celtic Tiger period, where the hoardings concentrated on the luxury afforded by a new scheme. When recollecting this period, it is hard to forget Belmayne, with women in evening wear draped seductively across kitchen islands – a point that perhaps defined the moment when things began to turn. The more recent hoardings are muted, and less garish, with a focus on style. The work we carried out involved analysing the as-then existing hoardings, with fieldwork focused on the existing hoardings in Dublin 2, parts of Dublin 4, and the Docklands area. This was followed up through an analysis of related materials, such as websites and associated materials such as brochures.

The current hoardings range in style from the use of slogans, to large street numbers, to the rendering of an idealized future via photomontages. As we discuss in more detail in the finalized paper, the use of  street numbers – normally seen as wholly rational – so as to distinguish the building and tie it to the history of the particular locale in which it is located is of particular note. More specifically, in the case of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4, the hoardings are used as a means of affirming the presence of the building in an established up-market part of the city. Meanwhile, the emphasis within the Docklands is placed upon situating the particular building within a global frame of reference. This is achieved both through the slogans themselves, and through a charting out of the position of the building, both in the city, and in relation to the global scale, within the associated brochures and promotional material. 

Crucially, although developers seek to act in a self-interested manner, we also identified a form of collective image-making at work. Pointedly, although hoardings can be seen to be highly globalized in their reference-points, there is also something highly localized in the manner in which they are utilized. This is perhaps most explicit in the ways in which the particular locales are highlighted through the afore-mentioned use of street numbers, where a form of serial monotony has emerged. When viewed together, the manner in which hoardings are utilized demonstrates the overlaps between, on the one hand, the promotion of image making as critically analysed through David Harvey’s ‘Entrepreneurial City’, while also demonstrating the changing forms of growth machine dynamics in a city such as Dublin.

Finally, in as much as the hoardings, albeit temporarily, mark out specific parts of the city in a particular manner, they form a specific form of interface with the city in which they are situated. Here, in standing between the private and the public, they demarcate what the city is or should become as opined by the development industry. This is an idealization of a future that is desired and promoted through the intersection of globalized speculative capital, floating ideals, and both local and international actors. In as much  as these spaces are focused upon particular groups of people, the hoardings can be seen to reinforce an idealization of space that is focused explicitly of some groups at the expense of others. This reality is brought into full relief as the spaces being developed emerges from behind the hoarding. Spaces exercising the idealization of a possible future emerge fully formed, where property pieces gush how they are “… designed to entice “fun-loving, time-poor” professionals”, and with a price tag to match. With such in mind, it may not be that the hoardings have a causal impact, but they act as a means of reinforcing a dominant narrative about the city according to one particular set of actors with the power to reshape the city in their own particular image. Yet, as is attested to by the collapse of the boom of c.2008, the future it projects is a fragile one, with extremely unstable foundations that can fall apart at any moment.