Trip on the M50

As in the famous opening line of that émigré author’s Finnegans Wake, the Liffey still flows through the Hibernian metropolis to decant in the environs of Howth Castle on [its promontory defining] the northern curve of Dublin Bay.

Like the city it serves, Dublin Airport is spreading outwards. NEVERTHELESS your Arrival Lounge remains in essence a single large room where businesspeople and tourists both visiting and returning home hustle to retrieve luggage from an over-burdened conveyor system. [The situation is improving, with] Rather sleek new additions HAVE BEEN designed by commercial practice Henry J. Lyons and Partners. But as so often in booming (or post-booming) contemporary Ireland, qualitative aspects of the long-term plan for this important element of national infrastructure are not immediately clear. Certainly the 1940 International Style Air Terminal, built by a team led by Desmond FitzGerald, is in grave danger of being engulfed by ‘improvements’. The carpark seems farther and farther away.

The traditional ideogram of Dublin, its character in a graphic sense, was a horizontal line representing the Liffey flowing eastwards into the Bay, encircled TO NORTH AND SOUTH by the Royal and Grand Canals [to north and south respectively] (more proto-modern infrastructure). Today the reality of Dublin is better characterised by the great ‘C’ of the M50, the new orbital ex-urban network connecting thOSe advanced communicators [those airport signs brag about] as they shuttle between sites of employment (often by foreign high-tech companies), sprawling suburbia (mass and uncritical repetition of the English model) and Edge City entertainment/service complexes. From the air, this [new] urban graphic of motorway (crescent) and river (horizontal) is a vast Euro-symbol nudging up against the Sea.

There is as yet little urbanization in the immediate area of Dublin Airport. Rather it is part of this new necklace of industrial and service facilities encircling the OLD twentieth century city, strung out in nodes along the almost completed periphery road. The traditional city of monuments and tenements and Victorian suburbia – Joyce’s Dublin – was organized radially. The public transport system originated like the spokes of a wheel from Nelson’s Pillar, a neo-Classical central pivot commemorating that British admiral.

Now with Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy, its capital is being radically reconfigured. The empty Pillar site is finally to be reinhabited (in 1966, maverick Republicans demolished it to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising). As the result of one of several recent competitions for Dublin, London architect Ian Ritchie is to erect a vertiginous and illuminated stainless steel ‘wand’. THE LOCAL AND PHYSICAL IS MIXED WITH THE GLOBAL AND IMMATERIAL. [But] The real growth, the real city perhaps, is of course now far from THE comprehensible urban core.

Dublin Airport is run by Aer Rianta,[a semi-state organisation] as is Shannon Airport on Ireland’s southwest coast. IN Shannon’s heyday [was] in the 1950s, [when] airplanes could not manage the U.S.-to-mainland Europe run without refueling at SUCH [this] remote mid-Atlantic outpostS. An early harbinger [perhaps] of this economically underdeveloped state utilizing its intercontinental position to profitable effect. During the 1970s and 80s, a major customer for Shannon was Aeroflot, [stopping off] en route from Moscow via neutral Ireland to Soviet clients in Havana. Today Aer Rianta runs duty-free shops at Moscow and [many] other international airports. Driving out of Dublin Airport, you [cannot but] see the enormous maintenance hangar where aircraft from European and Third World carriers are serviced.

TO govern this city SWOLLEN BY unprecedented economic growth throughout the 90s, County Dublin has been split into three new political units. The Airport is in Fingal, an ersatz entity with administrative offices in the old Norman town of Swords. Like South County Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal organised an architectural competition for its County Hall. The winning proposal, recently completed by Bucholz McEvoy with BDP, breaks new ground for Irish architecture in its coordination of technical, contextual and ergonomic issues. Elsewhere around Swords, farmland is being taken over and colonised rapidly by office parks and computer factories (Motorola, AMDAHL). The community seems to have jumped decades if not centuries in ten years or so.

The M50 starts south of the Airport, where the Belfast-to-Dublin road – Euroroute One – leaves the rather bucolic Swords to pierce [the] working class estates AT Donaghmede and Darndale. You are here close to the sea, but there is no sense of topography or connection to nature. Part of the former constituency of Ray Burke, one-time Minister for Foreign Affairs and now the subject of illegal payment allegations, Darndale is a 1960s precinct with few social amenities. It’s a cousin of Ballymun, just west along the M50, and IMAGINARY Kilbarrack, depicted with wit and humanity by [the] contemporary author Roddy Doyle in his The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van.

Bono sang about Ballymun, its drab apartment towers and problems of heroin abuse. Individually named after signatories to the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, the seven towers were constructed unsin the Balancey prefabricated system in the 1960s, then filled with Dubliners decanted from the traditional city centre. Now, like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, the Ballymun Towers will be demolished, eliminated from the skyline. From a motoring point of view, one of the M50s few distinctive landmarks will give way to a lowrise gemütlich Ballymun master-planned by the London firm MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard. Two dozen Dublin practices, many young, have also been asked by Dublin Corporation to design new housing projects here. Word has it that the residents have had enough of architectural experimentation – they aspire to the suburban model.

Proceeding in an anti-clockwise direction, the fields of Meath now begin to appear to the right, to the northwest of the conurbation and the orbital road. In fact, until recently, nature, landscape and even agriculture seeped into the inner urban fabric of Dublin. In an elegant drawing by Derek Tynan – one of the architects for Dublin’s central Temple Bar quarter – and Colin Rowe, Tynan’s professor at Cornell, the vast Phoenix Park, Europe’s largest urban park, is rendered as a green valve and as connective tissue between Dublin’s city quays and the outlying hinterland of rural Ireland. That seepage is now being plugged by the ‘redevelopment’ of the historic Phoenix Park Racecourse.

Suburbia, meanwhile, spreads inexorably outwards to demobilise the ecologically rich farmland of Meath and Kildare. At Abbotstown, facilities for the State Agricultural Laboratories include one small architectural jewel: a post-modern ‘testing station’ by John Tuomey – another of the Temple Bar Group 91 collective – realised soon after his return from James Stirling’s London office in the early 1980s. It [will] MAY soon disappear if the government goes ahead with plans to erect THE state-of-the-art Sports CAMPUS IRELAND [Stadium]. Known colloquially as the Bertie Bowl, after Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern, a zealous sports fan and canny politician, the masterplan for this campus is from the Stuttgart office of Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner.

Two proposals originally vied with each other for official favour. The site for the alternative package (both WERE intended primarily for soccer) is further south along the M50, close to City West, a [key recent] LANDSCAPED office development SIGNALED BY THE VAST ILLUMINATED VITRINE OF ROBINSON KEEFE and DEVANE’S PRINTING PRESS FOR INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS. The City West proposal was sponsored by Eircom, formerly the state telecommunications agency. Recently privatised (the Dutch took a large stake), Eircom shares dropped massively in value. The company has now been dismembered, one of the few disappointments in the [current] gogo Irish economy. In fact, sharp-eyed visitors may also have spied a sign heralding ‘For Sale, 30,700 sq m’ at the former Gateway 2000 plant near the Airport.

Near to Abbotstown, Blanchardstown used be a small outlying village. It has become home to some of the biggest international set-ups in the Irish state (IBM…) and one of three shopping centres that plug into the M50 – Blanchardstown to the northwest, Liffey Valley to the west, and The Square, Tallaght to the southwest. Designed by Polish émigrés Andrej and Danuta Wejchert, Blanchardstown is the most impressive, its public spaces generous and filled with light. At the junction of the M50 and Ireland’s main artery to its western provinces, Liffey Valley has the liveliest cinema and a useful chain of out-of-town car salerooms; it is also a subject of debate in an ongoing tribunal into political corruption.

The new motorway to the west, funded in large part by European Regional Development, follows the Liffey valley upstream through the villages of Lucan and Leixlip, formerly rustic communities now changed forever by the arrival of international computer companies. Leixlip, from the Norse for ‘salmon leap’, with its one main street and a population until recently of a few thousand souls, is now home to Intel, an operation up to 7,000 direct or indirect employees. Science fact or urban myth?: Intel is clad such that satellites cannot detect its whereabouts.

Nearby, Hewlett-Packard’s European Headquarters employs 2,500. More design-conscious and visible that Intel, HP – by Robinson Keefe and Devane – aligns itself with axes from the gracious eighteenth century Castletown estate. Both buildings are essentially identical to sibling facilities at a handful of locations around the globe, in Singapore, Puerto Rico and the American West Coast – physical evidence of the division by multinationals of the entire world into neat, hour-determined tranches.

Back at the M50, the principal artery to the South heads off in a southwesterly direction, creating a key triangle of growth between it and Liffey Valley. Here, AT PARK WEST, IS also the country’s principal train line and the Grand Canal leaving the city’s boundaries. Not yet perhaps the Piranesian Space of Eurolille dreams but an unprecedented palimpsest, nevertheless, for Ireland’s economy and infrastructure.

Heading south and east from Tallaght, the M50 is temporarily terminated as the road crews work to cut the final phase of the motorway through the affluent southern suburbs towards the sea. It’s difficult to know where the roadworks end and all the attendant construction work – mushrooming office parks at Sandyford, American-style subdivisions crawling across the hillside at Cherrywood – begins (as so often, property developers at Cherrywood seem to have a peculiarly black sense of humour when naming projects). At Sandyford, what has until recently been a mundane industrial estate, is now expanding upwards, a new satellite village.

In a recent essay, the Trinity College academic Andrew McLaren noted that ‘during 200-2002, over a period which will witness the greatest office development boom in the city’s history, 68 per cent of the office space reaching completion will be located in suburban locations.’ At Leopardstown, an elegant office park has several such new headquarters-type buildings, including those for Microsoft and S3, a Hiberno-Dutch company with aN [new] elegant facility IN POLISHED BLACK AGGREGATE designed by the young Dublin practice Fagan Kelly Lysaght. SILICON and SOFTWARD SYSTEM WAS FOUNDED, IN ASSOCIATION WITH PHILLIPS, DURING THE ECONOMICALLY DEPRESSED 1980S WHEN MAURICE WHELAN NOTICED THE EN MASSE EMIGRATION OF HIS TRINITY COLLEGE MICROELECTRONIC GRADUATES.
This drive around Dublin, or rather through THIS new active belt, fizzles out as Euroroute One heads south past Dell through the scenic Wicklow mountains and on to the continental car ferries at Rosslare. The M50 is an economic and physical manifestation that seems to have caught Ireland’s architectural elite off guard: their interests lie more in the quasi-traditional, figurative experiments of Temple Bar. At Leopardstown, there was until very recently a distinctly different manifestation of the Celtic Tiger: the ICON Bailey’s interpretative centre, shopping experience and mega-bar. This seemed to be where Dublin’s burgeoning middle class felt at home: removed from nature, filled with reproduction furniture, vaguely amusing themes and a plenitude of parking spaces. But it has folded, an ominous signal perhaps for thIS IRISH Edge City model.

BUT NOW, For the middle of Dun Laoghaire Harbour, Daniel Libeskind has [recently] proposed a swirling fun palace housing bars, luxury apartments and – in a curious nod to historicity – a Museum of the Irish Diaspora. Ireland’s total population, TODAY approaching 5 million, fell from 9.8 million in 1845 to almost 3 million in 1900 but emigration to America, the key psychological trope, is associated more with Cobh, on the South Coast, than with Dun Laoghaire. IT’s ironic TO IMAGINE [a] Libeskind’S MONUMENT to failure and tragedy in this middle class milieu [complete] with its trio of blue chip yacht clubs. ITS CUSTOMER BASE OF AFFLUENT RETURNEES AND RECENT EMIGRANTS IS, IN FACT, AN ANTI-DIASPORA.

During an April 2000 lecture in Dublin, Winy Maas queried whether Ireland ‘could become the New Zealand of Europe.’ ‘We,’ Maas continued, presumably meaning the Dutch, could use zones like yours in order to feed ourselves.’ Of course, it makes sense for Ireland to utilise its land, its most obvious natural resource. But planning is not Ireland’s forte and land continues to hold an emotional place in nationalist politics.

The success of the Irish economy is due not to land but to people. This is the official party line of politicians and also, this last year, of Nicholas Negroponte who – in launching MediaLab Europe, the first foreign satellite of the famous MIT Media Lab (to check website) – underlined special educational and imaginative qualities in the Irish workforce. Until a decade ago, Ireland essentially exported its people. Now they return, the entrepreneurs and cyberworkers and call centre personnel, but to a radically-adjusted world.

This is indeed a New Ireland in which issues of access and privacy, speed and nature await scrutiny. Will the New Irish accept collective environmental responsibility or just SURF with the ECONOMIC flow?

Dubbing Dublin