Social housing in Ireland has traditionally been regarded as building rather than architecture, and it shows. Driving through the capital’s sprawling western suburbs is dispiriting. There is a bland and dreary sameness to what was built before we stopped building. Planned without ambition or vision, too many communities lack any recognisable sense of identity. The problems of Dublin’s suburbs were brought home to Seán Harrington almost thirty years ago. For his thesis in UCD in 1987, he worked closely with a community group in Castletymon in East Tallaght, cycling out to meetings every Thursday with a discussion model of the area packed into a suitcase strapped to his bicycle.
“Back then, the Square in Tallaght didn’t exist,” he says. “There were four pubs and three newsagents for a population of 80,000. It was a model of how not to go about urban development, banishing poor families to low-density suburbs where housing leads the way and services follow later.” What came out of his thesis were ideas about improving the social and economic viability of neighbourhoods by increasing the density of existing housing areas, building up corner sites and providing mixed uses locally – ideas whose time finally arrived, if only briefly, a generation later.
Harrington worked in England with Royal Gold Medallist, Edward Cullinan, who is renowned for his devotion to the art of building. Back in Dublin, he was Gilroy McMahon’s project architect for an apartment block on Essex Quay, next to Sunlight Chambers in Temple Bar. Despite the obvious connections between Essex Quay and Balgaddy, “You need to do it yourself,” says Harrington. “Developing a language of architectural expression is hard and risky but you’ve got to try.”
His approach to social housing is “based on an age-old pattern language.” Pattern language is a concept popularised by Christopher Alexander. Based on the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by ordinary people, Alexander catalogued a network of more than 250 patterns – or generic design solutions – at different scales, ranging from the ideal distribution of towns to choosing climbing plants and installing paving with cracks between the stones. The aim of a pattern language is to create identity, local distinctiveness and a sense of place that will stimulate individual wellbeing and local community pride.
A century ago, Raymond Unwin, who designed the first garden city, at Letchworth, and the garden suburb of Hampstead, brought similar ideas to the new discipline of town planning. Unwin stood for spatial enclosure and against vistas. He favoured a picturesque arts-and-crafts mode of design, with continuous public space manipulated by the solidity of buildings. He had a concern for visual pleasure. His emphasis on proportion, outline and richness of detail, as well as space, visual scale, contour and character, established a pattern language of town planning that was adopted and employed with intelligence at Balgaddy, which also bears affinities to the plainer mid-century Bord na Móna towns planned by Frank Gibney.
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