Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

O’Brien Press/Royal Institute for Architects in Ireland
ISBN 9781788491679

Reviewed by Joseph Brady

Joseph Brady is Adjunct Associate Professor of Geography at University College Dublin.

Dublin by design: architecture and the city is a very welcome addition to studies of the development of the city. Including the introduction by the editors, there are twenty contributions, which are grouped into three major sections—‘From Whence We Came’, ‘A Phoenix Reborn’ and ‘History of the Future’. The first two labels give a good indication of their focus but the title for the third is more mysterious, perhaps because of the variety it contains. It is further divided into five groups that address matters such as circulation, health, community, green issues and culture. Most of the contributions are from architects, either in practice or in associated activities, but the group includes a geographer, an environmentalist and a journalist. The approach taken in the various chapters also varies considerably. Putting these facets together—the range of topics, the length of treatment and the type of approach—results in a book that will surprise and is probably not quite as expected but which succeeds nonetheless.

Many contributions, especially in the first section, are academic papers in the usual style. Mary Clark, the City Archivist, provides a comprehensive discussion of the changing governance of the city from the late twelfth century to the present day. Grainne Shaffrey analyses the importance of Sackville Mall/Street/O’Connell Street from its first beginnings and wonders whether it can claim to be central to the psyche of Ireland—its ‘main street’. The second section begins with a paper by Ellen Rowley. The Catholic Church does not readily come to mind as one of the main actors in the development of Dublin’s suburbs but its importance should not be overlooked. Rowley looks at how the spiritual and educational needs, as seen from the perspective of the Church, of a new suburban population were met. The ‘Catholic building’ in the new suburbs from the 1940s was often impressive, and the extent to which this was readily accommodated in designs and layouts tells much about the socio-political world. Jackie Bourke, a geographer, looks at how children have been provided for in Dublin, while Gerry Cahill’s paper examines how some of the needs of other marginalised groups have been met in ‘communities of care’. Éanna Ní Lamhna reminds us that the city is more than its built environment; it has an extremely rich biodiversity. This leads the discussion neatly into the following paper by James Pike on the Phoenix Park. He cautions that it is a designed landscape and that it requires management.

Other papers are more in the form of opinion pieces and the reader will be both informed and challenged by Frank McDonald’s chapter, which is intriguingly titled ‘Condemnation, damnation and salvation’. This is a strongly felt and expressed piece, as is that by Ciaran Cuffe, which examines the perennial and perhaps intractable issue of transport in Dublin. McDonald believes that ‘a younger generation are more insistent that the city be made greener, cleaner and easier to get around without a car’. Other papers are structured as interviews, such as that with Shane O’Toole in discussion with Noel Brady, largely about the process of making Temple Bar a reality. It is an interesting, personal reflection on what has become a distinctive, if controversial, enclave in the city. In a similar vein is the conversation with Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, which is structured as a question and answer session. This, too, is a personal reflection on projects and experiences. It is not possible in a review of this length to introduce all of the papers, but it is hoped that the reader will get a sense of the variety in both topic and approach. The editors say in their introduction that they want to explore the interwoven layers of the city, and the variety of interests and opinions that are offered by the various chapters attest to that multi-layered nature.

This is a beautifully produced and presented work and great credit is due to O’Brien Press and the RIAI. The assistance of Dublin City Council is acknowledged by the editors and this was doubtless important in keeping the price very low for a book of this quality. A little smaller than the old ‘quarto’ at 28cm x 24cm, the page size allows the many illustrations to be reproduced at a size where they can be read as text and not just as decorations. Many of the illustrations are uncommon, such as the map extract showing the extent of military engagements during the Easter Rising. The photographs, which are of superb quality, often show buildings from perspectives that are not easily obtained. The pages are uncluttered and the text is easy to read. The book lacks an index and the notes are rather sparse. This is perhaps understandable, given the variety mentioned above, but readers would have found either or both useful in cross-cutting the various themes and approaches. This is a small quibble, however, and the book will engage, stimulate and occasionally annoy the reader, especially in its more opinion-oriented pieces. The jacket flap says that the book offers a ‘fascinating and unflinching examination’; that is a fair comment. It deserves a wide readership and the reader will get value for money.


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