Cities; Urbanism; Architecture; Art
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH is both a book and a wider design initiative whose creative aim is to promote a critical conversation on the future of Dublin urbanism.
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH was published in the autumn of 2014 in conjunction with the temporary installation of a public sculpture in Clarke Square, National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin. BEYOND PEBBLEDASH has also created a local schools engagement programme designed to facilitate the empowerment of young people in expressing their voice on the central theme of city-living. The installation, also titled BEYOND PEBBLEDASH, involved the erec- tion of a ‘typical’ Dublin pebbledash house (scale 1:1) to include a reconstructed pebbledash façade and steel skeletal frame construction of its walls, stairs, doors, rear fenestration, ceilings and roof.
The BEYOND PEBBLEDASH sculpture has echoes of a ghost home in an Irish ghost estate, a shell or skeletal frame of an empty, uninhabitable house. The static frame becomes a kind of interactive three-dimensional animated line drawing, revealing a distorted and confusing reality. The erection of the BEYOND PEBBLEDASH installation is intended to provoke questions in the mind of the viewer. What have we built? And, critically, why have we built it here? We literally reimagine or redraw the house by tracing visually the skeletal frame, to playfully rework the familiar question ‘when is a house a home?’, and instead ask, ‘when is a home not a house?’
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH, an installation and book, endeavours to encourage us to look beyond the surface meaning of any built landscape, to peel back the façade, to enter a different, engaging and challenging realm of questioning. How do we read the built environment? What can we see beyond the literal structure or structures standing before us?
The traditional local authority pebbledash house is a hugely familiar, yet peculiarly overlooked icon of Irish residential architecture. This typology is home to tens of thousands of Dubliners. Thus, BEYOND PEBBLEDASH, as a piece of public sculpture, is recognisable yet potentially dislocating. It is intended as a visually accessible introduction to a citywide conversation on the very nature of ‘house’ and ‘home’. Where do we live and why? What type of homes do we desire? What informs our choice to forsake a city life for the suburbs? Do we understand how that housing choice has been shaped by public policy or how that same public policy is shaped by policy-makers, who bring their own assumptions and belief systems into play? Why should it even inter- est us at all?
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH is about democratising and popularising an inclusive discussion about our future urban development. At the heart of this concept we pose the question: what do we really see? What are the real but often hidden urban messages behind an Irish rural landscape littered with so called ‘ghost estates’? How do we interpret or make sense of the blended fusion of suburban sprawl?
This is a particularly challenging time for both Irish architecture and related design professional disciplines. It is also a challenging time for tens of thousands of home owners trapped in negative equity in isolated communities of half built housing estates. It is a considerable challenge to engage the imagination of the public at a time of profound national and personal economic crises as to the possibilities of better design in compact, sustainable domestic living.
For architects and urban planners, there is an opportunity (arguably, a responsibility) to advance a rigorous discussion on our built environment. We need to proffer more than media sound bites and extend the debate beyond the language and culture of ‘property bubbles’, ‘ghost estates’, ‘reckless lending’, and ‘rogue developers’. Critically we need to weave a positive critical narrative that links architecture, built spatial chaos and the individual’s decision of where and how we choose our home. The conversation to date is, unfortunately, largely devoid of any rigorous discussion on the future of our towns and cities, and is instead dominated by economic journalists, housing statisticians and estate agents.
We appear to know all the facts on the ground, but are we asking the right questions for our future. Specifically, what are the spatial and design questions we need to be asking? And, critically, can we reposition our conversation on economic recovery around a coherent housing strategy to support and sustain the heart of our cities and towns? Before we do so, we must first confront a simple but challenging question: why do most Irish people choose not to live in the heart of their towns and cities?
Much has been written on how and why we built an oversupply of houses in the ‘wrong place’ isolated rural areas with minimal community services. Little attention has been devoted to the corollary why people have ‘chosen’ not to live in the ‘right place’, the ‘right place’ being the heart of our towns and cities. Put simply, what if the Celtic Tiger boom had not resulted in an oversupply of homes in rural Leitrim, Mayo or Longford, but instead had provided a plentiful supply of high-density, well-designed spacious apartments at the heart of the country’s towns and cities. Might this not be seen as an asset rather than a waste? Seven years after the property price crash, with an acute housing shortage in Dublin, this may seem somewhat obvious. But in 2007 and 2008 there was a consensus that we had built, to varying excess, an oversupply of property everywhere.
Have any important lessons been learnt? We appear to understand it is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable to build ‘desirable’ homes in the ‘wrong place’. We have, unfortunately, yet to seriously address our failure to deliver desirable homes in heart of the city, in particular the centre of Dublin city. The questions are simple, the answers perhaps uncomfortable. Why do Dubliners not wish to live in Dublin’s inner city and why do they not wish to live in apartments? Instead of addressing either, we seem to be hastily admitting defeat. The typology of apartment living in Dublin has become almost toxic. Instead of aspiring to build more, but better, apartment homes, as policy-makers we have collectively decided to simply build fewer. We are told everyone wants a three or four bedroom semi-detached home in the suburbs.
Ironically, despite 15 years of a building boom, Dublin’s inner city continues to be scarred by a significant number of inner-city vacant and derelict sites. Collectively, they amount to a significant land bank which could be used for future high-density residential development. The reality is that the housing typology for these future homes will remain the apparently now abandoned and discredited apartment.
There are many losers in this sorry housing tale a physical environment degraded by sprawl and traffic congestion, and the loss of real housing choice for tens of thousands of potential residents. Perhaps least understood is the lost opportunity to consolidate a quality, high-density apartment urbanism for Dublin city. Just why have those with the greatest housing choice, those on above-average income, chosen not to live in the centre of our capital city?
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH argues for the need to query the received wisdom or narrative that cultural choice an innate love of a house and a garden is the predominate factor informing where we chose to live and what we choose to live in. It is considered such a given that it is rarely questioned. The profession of architecture and urban planning should be fronting a discourse that imagines and communicates a vision of urban possibility. Can we imagine or design spacious, more desirable, beautiful high-density homes? BEYOND PEBBLEDASH is interested in exploring Irish definitions of family house and home, and, critically, investigates our apparent collective resistance or desire to live in high-density homes at the heart of our towns and cities.
The modest and predominantly suburban terraced and semi-detached pebble-dash house, typical of the working class housing estates of Ballyfermot, Finglas or Crumlin in Dublin, and found in cities and towns across Ireland, is probably the most iconic, if uncelebrated style in a period of transformative Irish home-building. The pebbledash home is ubiquitous in our towns and cities, and yet practically invisible in the literature of housing. BEYOND PEBBLEDASH, however, is neither a nostalgic celebration of a housing typology nor a critique of a suburban life, but rather an invitation to question, to strip away the layers and peel back the exterior. BEYOND PEBBLEDASH is concerned with critical enquiry, a quest to look beyond façades to excavate the sur- face image or material for meaning.
Two-storey low-density ‘pebbledash housing’ built some seventy years ago would perhaps seem a very unlikely place to search for adaptive or relevant lessons for any ambitious plan for Dublin’s urban future. But therein lays the clue ambition. The construction of tens of thousands of ‘pebbledash homes’ represents one of the most visionary, ambitious and successfully enduring legacies of the then relatively young, and relatively impoverished, Irish state. At its most obvious, this was a response to an acute housing crisis, a response to overcrowding in inner-city tenements. Perhaps what is less appreciated is that the construction of these homes at the time had a transformative impact in not only positively expanding housing choice for Dubliners, but it literally imagined and, critically, delivered, new (largely unseen) living possibilities. This wasn’t a simple story of building ‘more’, more of what then existed; the ‘pebbledash suburbs’ required a new way of thinking. The construction of these homes was preceded by a vision. Something new for Dublin was imagined and successfully acted upon.
The challenge today is perhaps not so different. A Dublin housing crises is gathering pace; there is an urgent shortage of desirable homes. As city policy-makers, we require bold and imaginative solutions. The answer, tempting as it is, is not simply to build more suburban homes, but to imagine something different. It requires an appropriate response to the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century Dublin.
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH, both as a sculptural installation, educational programme and book, should be viewed as a continuation of the interrogation in our previous book, REDRAWING DUBLIN. Since its publication in 2010, the authors of REDRAWING DUBLIN, in collaboration with the Irish Architecture Foundation, amongst others, have sought to popularise and democratise the discourse on the built environment. Over the past few years we have invited Dubliners to participate in a number of city-living themed public events, such as THE URBAN PARTY,1 BLOOMING ATTITUDE 2 and THE DEAD CITY.3 In BEYOND PEBBLE- DASH we extend this invitation to interrogate our built environment. We present the pebbledash house as the archetypal Irish home, but in so doing are asking that people look beyond the obvious or the literal, the house as home, the home as house. We are encouraging the viewer to question what they see, to imagine what is possible, to literally think outside the box.
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH does not concern itself merely with the local. It communicates an international and universal message the necessity to look beyond the physicality of built landscapes, be they urban, suburban or exurban, to better understand the interaction of the economic, social and cultural forces that ‘produce’ our built environment, our homes, our towns and cities. Every city or landscape has its own story and its own peculiar secrets, as yet unrevealed. Just as historical landscapes obscure or cloak past lives, contemporary geographies camouflage current value systems. Peeling back the layers, deconstructing, revealing sometimes hidden ‘truths’ is a critical objective of BEYOND PEBBLEDASH.
BEYOND PEBBLEDASH seeks to engage both a do- mestic and international audience, be they architects or the consumers of architecture, on the value and necessity of the interrogation of everyday space and place. What do we really see? And can we see or imagine something better?
PAUL KEARNS + MOTTI RUIMY August 2014
Helen Beaumont, James Byrne, Eoin Collins, Oonagh Collins, Lorraine Comer, Nicola Dearey, Charles Duggan, Ali Grehan, Bridgid Kearns, William Kearns, Greg Kelly, Brendan Kenny, Jim Keogan, Maxim Laroussi, Lynne McGrane, Aidan Mannion, Paul O’Connell, Ruairí Ó Cuív, John O’Regan, Nessa O’Shea Brady, Kieran Rose, November Wanderin, Nathalie Weadick, Mick Wilson