Why do we hate attractive cities?

Charlie Miliken argues that the desire to be “modern” compromises a city’s principles

Illustration by Jenny Corcoran

Dublin, like many other Western cities throughout Europe, is in the throes of a construction epidemic. The need to fulfil housing quotas, alongside the rich rewards from foreign investment, has led to a clear demand for high-rise towers in central locations.

Most notable in this has been historic Dublin Dockyards area, which back in 2016 was chosen for a €700 million development scheme by the Ballymore property group, providing both office, retail and apartment space. Such developers would have us regard this as a step in the right direction, a sign of Dublin shedding its monochrome past and embracing the modern age.

The accommodation constructed here is, in reality, less about actually improving the city for everyone than an exorbitant bid to appear chic and modern. This attitude is typified by the Progressive Democrats’ claim during the Celtic Tiger about the potential “Manhattan on the Liffey”. Such statements are in line with the rhetoric of other European cities such as London, which back in 2015 had 260 luxury high-rise blocks in construction, each over 70 stories tall.

Development in Dublin has not only been focused on the Dockyard area, however. Currently, Dublin is in the process of constructing 2,000 new hotel rooms in key city-centre sites, as the city council clearly understands the profits gained from supporting Dublin’s tourism industry. While good for business, it will not only leave the city centre under-populated, but soulless as well.

This leaves both the daily atmosphere and integrity of such historical cities in a characterless miasma. To try and quell general dissatisfaction, city councils offer the illusion of providing new public spaces, yet these leap from insignificant to grandiose.

The London “Garden Bridge” for example, a scrapped £52 million vanity project by former London Mayor Boris Johnson, had the veneer of improving the otherwise grey and bleak urban experience, yet went about it in the most impractical and inefficient manner possible. The bridge  was perhaps a step in the right direction, but instead exemplified city developers’ prioritisation of superficial appeal over practical use.

Are historic city centres such as Dublin at risk of emulating the hodgepodge layouts of cities like Dubai and Shanghai, approved under the guise of modernising our cities with contemporary architecture that promises to place us back on the map?

Such misguided views are posing a serious risk to the identity and ethos of our citizenry. The American writer Joseph Campbell was right when he said:“If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.” Such inaccessible vanity projects, despite their “lucrative importance”, show a clear lack of concern for the needs of local communities. This places a permanent divide between local government and the people.

There is no doubt that city centres are losing their mystique. The rush for cashing in on valuable land is destroying the aura of charm, beauty and intricacy that draws many across the world to visit cities such as Dublin. Without a clear direction over how a city is laid out and what its architecture should represent, even a city with such an ostensibly strong national identity as Dublin is at risk of losing itself in its own success.

It is no marvel that worldwide, people still fawn over and admire the old Renaissance cities of Italy, built over 600 years ago, far more than the cities constructed in the last 100 years. Unlike modern development groups today, the merchant families of old wanted their public spaces to be beautiful and reflect the values they believed to be important. Investment in communal areas and the control of the talented artists of the time show their commitment to this vision.

Architecture had in those times the clear intention of encouraging its citizens to be outside and interacting in public spaces, because it improved the public perception of themselves as upstanding citizens. People would rather be on the streets than holed up in private estates.

The legacy of such a vision remains today in the lauded position these ancient cities hold within the modern world. They stand as a constant reminder of what the benefits of a clear architectural vision can be.

But perhaps that is the crux of the issue. How far do we as a citizen body hold our government accountable for the design decisions they take with our cities? Do Dubliners care whether these buildings fit within the context of Dublin’s history; and if they don’t, why are we not pushing for firmer restrictions? After all, it is only through collaborative public effort that we can convince local councils to stand up to vested financial interests.

In the modern age we have forgotten the vital role that design and architecture have in shaping our outlook on life. If presenting a “contemporary” and “progressive” image is so important for modern architects, we should be demanding that new buildings reflect the values of openness and democracy, rather than the distant and exclusive image these new high-rises present us.

The lack of a clear direction for Dublin by its developers and citizens runs the risk of ruining its legacy for generations to come. Rather than wallow in apathy, Dubliners must demand that its architects respect the sense of beauty and national identity that draws tourists all over the world to its streets every day. For soon it may be too late to save it.