In 1991, the Temple Bar Architectural Framework Plan was welcomed as a visionary approach to creating a new “cultural quarter” for Dublin in one of the most historic areas of the city.
Group 91 was born and included many architects who are now internationally recognised. Their task was to develop “a bustling cultural, residential, and small business precinct that will attract visitors in significant numbers”.
Getting the balance right between the protection of an historic city and the promotion of development was met in Dublin in the 1990s by combining the Temple Bar approach in the city centre with development of the docklands.
The Temple Bar approach eventually spread across the city to include the repair of vast areas of the historic centre. The World Bank has recognised that “a city’s conserved historic core can differentiate that city from competing locations, branding it nationally and internationally, thus helping the city to attract investment and talented people”.
The Greek city of Miletus was designed in the 5th century BC. It is considered to be the first ever urban plan in the European tradition. Through Greek and Roman civilisations and the Renaissance in Europe, cities adopted the same forms of design that we still see clearly today, from Istanbul to Stockholm and everywhere between.
Cork developed in a time of great prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries in the new Age of Enlightenment at the end of this great defining period in our history. The 18th century was a golden age. Cork was Ireland’s main trading port, competing with Amsterdam, Antwerp, London, and Bristol. Worldwide trade meant the city was on the information superhighway of the day and as modern and well informed as any city could be. This resulted in a cultured place of advanced knowledge of the arts of architecture and urban design.
In the early 18th century, Cork was visually comparable to Amsterdam, Copenhagen or London, with open quaysides, clay tiles on roofs, and brick-faced facades.
As the century progressed, the city adopted the Palladian design principles that define Georgian architecture, including bow-fronted windows and monumental classical buildings of white limestone. Applying accepted wisdom of urban design in a city of wealth and knowledge led to great sophistication in the urban landscape of Cork, never before seen in Ireland.
Architects, painters, sculptors, stonemasons and joiners thrived in this environment. The quality of design was refined by the study of continental forms of classicism from Greece and Rome, resulting in a highly sophisticated uniformity of thinking and of skills that had not been seen before or matched since.
Limestone provided one of the best building materials, that rivalled the quality of the stone of Venice and Verona in form and colour. The entire urban streetscape was defined by dark flag stone, contrasted by the whiteness of limestone kerbstones, exactly as can be seen in Venice today.
When Cork required the extension of its medieval quays in the 18th and 19th century the best forms of Georgian maritime engineering were employed as part of a great seafaring tradition. Abercrombie, when appointed to survey historic Cork in 1925, said that the riverside landscape of the city “should be jealously guarded”.
He spoke of the pleasing curves of the river, the decorative values of bridges, and the discerning placement of public buildings. Equally, the tradition of constructing buildings on the edge of the river that stretches from Parliament Bridge to Lancaster Quay defined our medieval city. It is the specific nature of Cork, combined with the unity of ideas of the European tradition that makes the city significant and worth protecting.
Good design can be quantified. In its simplest form, good design is defined by an economy of thinking, meaning the requirement to create something new is balanced by a need to create the greatest benefit for the least use of resources.
Good design is created in nature by infinite consideration of all that is required to create something that is fit for purpose without any waste or excess. Good design respects the forms and materials of historic context, preferring ingenious solutions for development opportunities.
Cities like Cork require protection from the modern world, where the application of a limited set of design criteria can lead to distorted buildings that dilute significance.
We rely on local and national structures to create new opportunities for development and to create boundaries that may protect the value of our historic cities. Protecting Cork requires a confident city authority, not in crisis, that values the specific nature of the city and is willing to protect it.
Successful cities define their historic centre or river landscape as assets and opportunities that may support economic development and expansion. Currently, our greatest opportunity for development is to expand the city east into the dockland area. Cork could look forward to a significantly better outcome for development if expansion to the east is combined with the respectful repair of what lies to the west.
The old town of any modern city lucky to have one can become a place of leisure and cultural pursuits that supports sensitive new development.
Cork is at a crossroads in its history, hovering between limited or enlightened thinking in the next phase of its development. There are many issues to be faced but the issue of flood defences requires obvious consideration.
In 2018, Cork lost millions in potential investment from central funding for urban development and climate change study. Money that could have sensitively paved Morrisons Island or created a design-led masterplan by which the entire quarter could be developed, wasn’t applied for.
New reports on ground water issues relating to city centre flood walls and pumping systems at worst put the foundations of Holy Trinity Church at risk, and at best warn us that Cork will flood from underground regardless of any flood walls built.
A highly flawed flood defence scheme is creating economic uncertainty in our city and is limiting the real potential of Cork. We have the viable option to say yes to climate change infrastructure that is proven to provide faster, more economical flood protection for more of our city. We need to start defining our own future because only we know the real potential of our city.
The poet Paula Meehan recently compared the consequences of living with a malformed poem, or a dangerous poem, or a badly-built poem and that of living with bad architecture, recognising the great responsibility given by society to architects and urban designers; but we face greater additional challenges than this in the modern world.
Energy consumption, climate change, and mass extinction of life on Earth form the great questions of our time. We have many decisions to take for a city worthy of our ancestors. Solutions need to be informed. They may also need to be radical.
John Hegarty graduated in architecture and urban design from the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow. He is a member of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and RIBA, and a director of Save Cork City.