Dublin’s future skyline and a history of high rise

The “International Style” can be seen in cities around the globe.

Peter McNamara

Since the beginning of Dublin’s housing crisis, politicians, planners, developers and Dubliners have been arguing about whether we should be building up and not out to solve our shortages.

To some, the sky (and sky-scrapers) are the limit. To others, very tall buildings are needlessly expensive, and a threat to the character of the city. With the recent goings-on at York Road in Ringsend, and the 15-storey building that is proposed for the area (see else-where), this debate has become even more of a live issue.

We have little history of height in Dublin. In the 1960s, we built two tall buildings – both of which, by today’s standards, are hardly classifiable as skyscrapers. They were: Liberty Hall, coming in at 60 metres and 17 storeys, and OʼConnell Bridge House, standing at around 40 metres and 12 storeys.

Since then, typical ‘tallʼ commercial buildings built in and around Dublin were no more than six to eight storeys in height. More recently, planning was granted for taller buildings in city suburbs and a limited number of strategic high-rise designated development zones in major cities. These include the 16-storey Santry Cross Hotel in Ballymun, Sandyfordʼs Beacon South Quarter with heights of up to 15 storeys, and hotel and office developments in Blanchardstown of around 14 storeys.

Recently-commenced Dublin city centre sites include the 19-storey Capital Docks residential scheme and the Exo Building office development at the Point Village, due to top off at 18 storeys or 73 metres.

Irelandʼs tallest building to date looks set to be built in Cork city, with details of the 34-storey hotel tower at the Port of Corkʼs Custom House site unveiled recently.

Even with this foray into taller structures, our building heights fall well behind cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm, which are seen as good examples of cultural preservation: low-rise cities that other capitals should aspire to. That said, some architects, planners, and developers argue that high-rise offices and apartments are an inefficient and expensive solution to commercial and housing needs, with most of these buildings being put up more out of pride, as indications of wealth and status.

As we consider this debate, a look at the history of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings might be instructive. Once a symbol of compassionate Utopian ideals, many high-rises have come to be seen as places of deprivation and missed opportunity.

As Dublin considers building upwards to ensure a better future for its people, will planners be mindful of similar attempts made in the past?

America on the up

From the legendary Tower of Babel to the iconic Burj Khalifa, humans have always aspired to build skyward. Over the centuries, we have constructed towering edifices to celebrate our culture, promote our cities – or simply to show off.

Historically, tall structures were the preserve of great rulers, religions and empires. The Great Pyramid of Giza – built to house the tomb of Pharaoh Khu-fu – once towered over 145 metres high. It was the tallest man-made structure for nearly 4,000 years, before being overtaken by the UK’s 160-metre- Lincoln Cathedral in the 14th century.

Other edifices, such as Tibetʼs Potala Palace (the traditional home of the Dalai Lama), or the monasteries of Athos were constructed atop mountains or rocky outcrops, to bring them even closer to the heavens.Yet these grand historical efforts are dwarfed by the sky-scrapers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Londonʼs Shard looms at 310 metres tall at its fractured tip. But even that monolith is dwarfed by the worldʼs tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which stands at a staggering 828 metres. And both of these behemoths will soon be left in the shadows by the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah.

Originally planned by architect Adrian Smith to reach 1,600 metres, the tower is now likely to reach one kilometre high, once itʼs completed in 2021.

How did we make this great leap upwards? We can trace our answer back to the 1880s, when the first generation of skyscrapers appeared in America, in Chicago and New York.

The booming insurance businesses of the mid-19th century were among the first enterprises to exploit the technological advancements which made tall buildings possible. Constructed in the after-math of the great fire of 1871, Chicagoʼs Home Insurance building – completed in 1884 by William Le Baron Jenney – is widely considered to be the first tall building of the industrial era, at 12 storeys.

Architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler first coined the term “tall office building” in 1896, drawing on the architectural precedent of Italyʼs Renaissance palazzi.

Their definition denoted that the first two stories are given over to the entrance way and retail activity, with a service basement below, repeated storeys above and a cornice or attic storey to finish the building at the top. Vertical ducts unite the building with power, heat and circulation. This specification is one that still holds well today.

The American technological revolution of the 1880s produced a wave of new inventions that in turn allowed architects to build higher than ever before. Bessemer steel enabled taller and more flexible frame design than the cast iron of the previous era; the newly-patented sprinkler head allowed buildings to be more fire safe; and AC electricity allowed elevators to rise to ten or more stories. So began the Art Deco boom.

By the late 1920s, the mania for profit-driven tall development got out of hand, culminating in 1931 with the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings. Though undoubtedly iconic, these structures that were conceived in the roaring twenties were finally completed at the time of the Great Depression, ending up quite out of step with the times. Soon, the oversupply of office buildings, the down-turn of the 1930s, and the on-set of the Second World War brought an end to the Art Deco skyscraper era.

There were to be no more skyscrapers in America (or any-where else) until the 1950s. The post-war era summoned forth a third generation of skyscraper architecture: the International Style. These were steel-framed structures with walls of sheet glass. These undecorated, un-encumbered structures were meant to express a new spirit of rationality and order, after the wild ravages of war. They are actually the sort we see in most of the worldʼs cities to-day: big windows with narrow steel walls. How many are erected out of a spirit of reason and peace is another question – compared to Art Deco, the International Style is by far the cheapest way to build!

Stairway to Heaven: Concrete and Communism

High rises – and architecture itself – has long been argued as a key component in improving the lives of people. According to art critic Robert Hughes, “it’s the art you live in,” and, without your realising it, the spaces you inhabit “hugely influence how you think and feel.”

The same might even be said of the ground on which you stand. It might seem strange to think of concrete as a symbol of collective power and socialist compassion. But, at the time of its invention in 1861, this new wonder-material was predicted to transform the world.

“This process,” wrote Francois Coignet, of his new product, “will transform the safety, well-being, health and morality of mankind.” He predicted it would inspire nothing less than a “revolution”.

Coignet believed that concrete would be a step towards a world in which working people would own the means of production. Wherever the raw materials for concrete – sand and limestone – were available, which is to say just about every-where, people of no skill would be empowered to build clean, dry, comfortable dwellings and be able to live in dignity. No more peasantsʼ hovels.

This messy, sloppy stuff represents a superior means of construction that is now within reach of the worldʼs poor. The greater part of the worldʼs cement production is used by people with no professional or technical training: self-builders and small-scale constructors. The results may not look much, but if we are to measure the social effects of concrete, the greatest have been in the advances brought to ordinary people through informal construction.

But of all the features of concrete that might be considered revolutionary, what has perhaps been the most important has been its use to bring about rapid change. When sudden or urgent transformations were called for, whether it was five-year plans in the Soviet Union, the New Deal in the USA, the Great Leap For-ward in China, or post-second world war house-building in Europe, concrete was pressed into service.

When in 1956 the Soviet Union set a seven-year tar-get to “catch up and over-take the USA”, concrete construction was a vital component. Two years earlier, Nikita Khrushchevʼs first major speech after the death of Stalin had been on the advantages of concrete. It lasted three hours. No head of state before or since has delivered such a lengthy or detailed speech about concrete, nor made concrete the subject of such a politically-explosive address: Khrushchev used it to announce his break with Stalinism. He did so by criticising the inefficiencies of the craft methods of construction favoured by ‘Uncle’ Joe Stalin, arguing instead for more modern methods.

Although concrete was rarely cheaper, it promised to be faster. And by creating an entirely new look to the built environment, it would signal to the public that a new transformation was indeed afoot.

And, far from the sleek glass boxes of city office buildings, with concrete came the ability to develop new kinds of high-rise housing. This revolutionary, “morally improving” material, gave us the tower block, and a new solution to the problem of housing. In cities and suburbs the world over, there was to be a new – and according to modernist architects like LeCorbusier – positively futuristic way in which to live.

High rise reality: Grenfel and Ballymun

Although architects and city planners argued passionately for the power that high-rise building projects could have in transforming people’s behaviour, when these structures were actually built, the results fell far short of what was expected. Rational planning was supposed to yield rational people. In reality, these tower blocks became magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, the notion of high-rise tower block as a Utopian project lost all credibility. In the UK, the US – and in our own Ballymun – buildings were often left with a lack of servicing and local amenities. If further proof was needed of the troubles created by improperly developed high rises, it came in the summer of 2018, when a devastating fire ripped through the 24-storey Grenfell Tower apartment block in west London.

The blaze claimed the lives of 71 of the building’s residents, triggering sorrowed debate in Britain about the direction of the country. Had a nation that pioneered welfare state provision forgotten how to care for its most vulnerable citizens? Had the idea of decent housing become a luxury rather than a basic expectation for the poor? The notion that the condition of public housing could be seen as a marker for wider questions of social progress felt like a return to a previous age.

Under the neo-liberal privatisation policies of the Thatcher and New Labour governments, high-rises, and the social policies that under-pinned them, were increasingly forgotten. In the time since, inequalities of wealth and the marginalisation of the disadvantaged have left these unmissable concrete structures essentially invisible. So much so that, in the UK, when a new leader was appoint-ed to rectify the council’s disastrous response to the Grenfell blaze, she was quickly forced to admit she’d never visited any of the borough’s tower blocks. It had taken the fire for her to even notice their presence.

According to their chief architect, Ali Grehan, Dublin’s Ballymun flats were a “really great idea”. Grehan, the city’s chief architect, argues that, be-fore the plans got off paper, the project was doomed to fall into decline because of poor government policies.

Speaking at a 2019 design conference in Dublin, she expanded on these ideas. “I think the homes created were good quality, but it was an urban design failure. Like so many estates built around the world at the time it was 100% public housing: 5,000 homes constructed around a roundabout … a dead end.”

Work first started on the first Ballymun project in 1965 and it was initially planned to include about 3,000 homes – the vast majority of which would be flats in Ireland’s first high-rise, out-of-centre public housing scheme.

A town centre with shops and other amenities was supposed to be built in time for the earliest waves of tenants, but the construction was delayed for years and residents were left without some basic services. The development was also plagued with failures including lift faults, heating problems and claims Dublin City Council wasn’t keeping up with the general maintenance backlog.

According to Grehan, the “killer blow” for the project came in 1985 when “with the best intentions” the government brought in a scheme to encourage public-housing tenants to buy their own homes. “Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you live in a flat as a public tenant you can-not buy that flat, you can buy a house,” she said. “So anybody in Ballymun flats who wanted to buy had to move out – they had to move to a house and buy a house. And that started a cycle of decline.”

The original Ballymun towers have been progressively demolished since 2004 and now only the Joseph Plunkett tower still stands, although its last tenants have gradually been shifted out. They were replaced with lowrise developments for a broader mix of tenants, although there remain problems with general upkeep, vandalism and delays in providing local amenities.

Construction of a planned €800 million shopping centre to service the area was supposed to be finished two years ago, but the process stalled after the developer went out of business in 2008. Grehan said this time the council had tried to design the housing “properly in every aspect” taking into account physical, economic, social and cultural considerations.

Compared to other cities, Dublin is low-lying.

Can high-rise solve the housing crisis?

Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at UCDʼs School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, said that it was “a mistake to think that itʼs either sprawl or high-rise.”

There has been a lot of work done over a lot of years on how to do that sustainably, how to gradually build up the city, which locations are appropriate for taller buildings, and what capacity there is in the city now as it stands.

Hegarty said that high-rise builds cost more to construct and use more energy to trans-port people, water, and electricity to its top floors; meaning they can cost more to buy and maintain.

Because of this, private developers are more likely to propose offices, hotels, and high-end apartments for construction, rather than affordable housing. She also argued that high-rises take longer to build, meaning that if there were to be another financial crash, tall builds could be abandoned half-built.

Kenneth Rouse is managing director and head of investment at BNP Paribas Real Estate Ire-land. Developments like Project Waterfront, as spectacular and ‘tallʼ as they might be, are not going to make Dublin more affordable – because they are not designed to.

According to Rouse, “these expensive showpiece developments of expansive offices and homes are for individuals and businesses with deep pockets and a liking for premium life-style and brand statements.”

The BNP managing director is clear in his opposition to skyscrapers as a solution to Dublin’s woes. He believes showpiece high-rise city developments are “truly expensive, both to develop and, in turn, to occupy.”Building costs are exponential with height over six storeys, with increased fire safety, structural requirements and infra-structure demands, and the high cost of maintenance involving service charges, sinking funds and the like. “Anything above six storeys is counter-productive when it comes to afford-able homes.”

Regardless, then-Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy released new guidelines in 2019, where he dramatically shifted what had been the norm. He called for councils to lift “overly restrictive maximum heights” and encouraged authorities to “actively pursue” taller buildings, particularly in the “main centres of the city” so as to indicate the most activity within a city.

The guidelines state that continued sprawl would lead to increasing costs of both infrastructure, and “the energy intensive transport systems needed to feed it.”

Those in favour of skyscrapers seem to agree that they should be kept from the centre of Dublin.

“I donʼt think youʼd be building high-rise in the historic core,” Paul OʼBrien, chair of Henry J Lyons Architects, recently told the Journal.ie.

“I donʼt think that that is appropriate. But it should be in areas with really good rail networks, really good transportation systems, so the Docklands, Heuston, Connolly… Theyʼre all areas that should be developed for high-rise.”

The tallest structure to be given the green light in Dublin is the Tara Street building, proposed by Company Tanat Ltd, which is run by high-profile Celtic Tiger developer Johnny Ronan. After two years, permission has been granted to build.

Set near the historic centre of Dublin, it will be 88 metres high and have 22 storeys when it is complete, making it the tallest building in Ireland (Dublinʼs tallest tower is currently Capital Dock, which is currently among the tallest at 79 metres). The plans include a 110-bedroom hotel and a roof-top bar.

After approval for the Tara Street building was given, Dublin city officer with An Taisce Kevin Duff said that the decision was “gravely erroneous” and that the tower would be “a massive intrusion on the established character of the city.”

“This new building will be al-most directly opposite the Custom House, and in winter time, youʼre going to have a shad-ow crawling the facade of the Custom House. It will also be highly visible from Trinity College, which is just at the end of the street, and from OʼConnell Bridge, and from College Green also – it will stick up like a sore thumb.”

With the onset of COVID, this debate has cooled some-what, given the summer lock-down of the construction industry, and the general economic uncertainty of the times.

The pandemic has also seen a surge in remote working, leading to less demand for commercial office space in the city centre, and, potentially, less demand for housing in Dublin altogether – if remote working allows for rural relocation.

That said, as a tower of potentially 15 storeys is being applied for in Ringsend, questions around housing affordability, and preserving the character of Dublin, remain as important as ever.