Why Dublin?

Before Dublin was a city it was a town. Before it was a town it was a simple river crossing, a woven mat of  timber cleaved and crossed and lined up at a naturally shallow point in the river. The city that we know, or think we know, came into being as the human settlement that surrounded this hurdled ford: Baile(town) Atha(ford) Cliath(hurdle). The first inhabitants of this place were weavers eager to get to the other side.

Before this hand-woven hurdle was laid down the river was known in the Gaelic tongue as 'an Ruirtheach' or 'tempestuous one'. The river was spread over a much wider area and the water here, being a tempestuous confluence of the mountain freshwater from the south west and the tidal sea saltwater to the east is geologically known as brackish: a freckled, mongrel word. In a curious coincidence, Viginia Woolf, after reading the great Dublin masterpiece, called James Joyce's Ulysses, somewhat like an Ruirtheach itself, "diffuse, brackish and pretentious".

We also know Dublin as the black (dubh) pool (linn) that formed at the confluence of the Poddle and Liffey rivers. A safe sheltered haven of seaship-suitable deep water easily accessible and thus an efficient site for trade and the formation of a city. These natural features interferred with by its first settlers are crossings, places for human interaction, sites for conversation, trading goods, trading stories, trading insults.

Architecture is a type of crossing too and often a crossing of seemingly opposing worlds. Construction is crossed with poetry. The most private ethics that exist behind closed doors emerge into the most public domain. It is a built language of that which is most ineffable in the endeavour of humanity. Frozen form relating to the passage of time and human behaviour. Good architecture is good jointing, positive meetings, conflict resolution. It may be somewhat self-evident but Dublin's architectural history is peppered with resolutions between apparently conflicting parties; the new and the old, tradition with innovation, international styles with local context, or in the following four examples; youth with the seniority of the state and the ancient and eternal act of architecture. 

The 1727 the commission to design the Houses of Parliament (now Bank of Ireland) on College Green, was given to Edward Lovett Pearse at the age of twenty seven establishing the world's first purpose built Parliament House. The historian Maurice Craig described its south facing collonade"as one of the most memorable architectural experiences in Dublin, a continual source of delight".1 There's another architectural confluence hidden in that statement, the principle that architecture is best considered not simply as a built thing but a human experience.

Then there's the architect Thomas Cooley who, at the age of twenty eight provided a pitch perfect frontispiece for Dame Street's City Hall outside of Dublin Castle. Either viewed axially from the northside on Capel Street or obliquely from Dame Street, the impressive depth of the collonnade draws the functions of the interior out to the street with the offer of elemental shelter and grand civic symbolism. This too is an architecture experienced and experienced best while in motion. The vibrant life of a Dublin street made confluent with the frozen order of a refined classical architecture.

The new Dublin Airport of 1937 was won by a young team of architects headed up by the equally young twenty eight year old Desmond Fitzgerald. Described as the  'most adventurous...elegant, graceful and majestic example of the International Style in Ireland', it was completed in 1940 and won FitzGerald's team the triennial gold medal of the Royal Institute. The new airport married the emerging style of International Modernism with a unique expression for the new Irish state and despite the glut of construction it still stands out as the finest work at Dublin airport, largely due to its handling of proportion, light and craft; all eternal and ancient aspects of architecture.

Finally, the Berkeley Library in Trinity College followed the same procurement route as Cooley's City Hall, an open international competition that was won by three architects still in their early twenties and in their final year in college: Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek. The resolutions evident here are equally as poetic: how a heavy concrete mass supports extensive zenithal daylight, how the individual study spaces are integrated into the overall facade as it looks over Trinity's Fellows square, how this properly brutalist architecture speaks with its older neighbours, also equally significant works of their day.

The attitude of our own practice is one with the 'dialectical materialism' that the Italian architect Aldo Rossi spoke of, i.e. the successful relationships or dialogues between elements of our built environment rather than the making of individual statements in isolation from issues of context and tradition. As Dublin is a city of conversations, it is a fine location to keep the language of architecture alive.

Douglas Carson, Dublin 2012

1: Maurice Craig 'Dublin 1660-1860' p125. Allen Figgis & Co Ltd. Dublin 1969


Lecture given at the Dublin Biennale 2012


Top: Gaelic Map of Dublin, Irish Historic Towns Atlas Series