The Corpo, as everyone used to call it, is finally digging up Wicklow Street to give it a makeover. We are told by Dublin City Council that the finished product “will be similar to the new-look Grafton Street”, which has already been re-paved at a cost of €4 million.
Yet even though Grafton Street itself has been finished for three months, there has been very little (if any) comment on whether it’s good, bad or indifferent – apart from the odd outburst on Twitter about the late post-modern uplighters that now line the street.
I tried to find out who had designed these new additions, which seem to have been inspired by leaves in St Stephen’s Green. But despite three requests by email, DCC’s press office never answered my query about whether they were the work of deputy city architect Brian Swan.
He was the one who gave us the concrete catafalque that flanked City Hall, topped by three flags, during Ireland’s last EU presidency. Much criticised at the time, even by councillors, for being an overblown response, it was finally removed with no fanfare earlier this year.
But let’s get back to the “new-look” Grafton Street. A Spanish friend living in Dublin was aghast when the dyed red concrete bricks and magnolia ceramic tiles of 1988 vintage were torn up and replaced by (Spanish) limestone: “They’ve drained the colour out of the street!”.
I told him that the old stuff was totally inappropriate, especially the ceramic tiles, which were slippy in wet Dublin weather, the red brick wasn’t really clay brick and, in any case, it shouldn’t be laid on a street surface. The paving had also been breaking up, making a mess of it.
It’s now a decade or more since Henry Street and Mary Street were re-paved to a very high standard. Good quality stone was used, it had real depth for longevity, brass inlay strips defined boundaries between different types of stone, and the street furniture is really excellent.
Grafton Street doesn’t have the rectilinear quality of Henry Street and Mary Street. It may be Dublin’s premier retail street, but it meanders like a back lane – betraying its origins as a cow path to grazing in what’s now Stephen’s Green during the late Middle Ages.
At first, some consideration was given to using Chinese granite, like that laid on Capel Street’s footpaths, but there was a consensus that “European” stone should be used instead. So DCC opted for Iberian granite on the carriageway, flanked by “paths” of Leinster granite.
Described as “silver grey with a bluish hue”, the stone that came from Spain is very dull, especially when dry; it looks a lot better in the rain, as does the “mottled grey brown” Leinster stone. It also shows up the dirt, especially chewing gum, whereas darker colours wouldn’t.
A “light pink” version of Iberian granite has been used for square panels at intersections. In front of shops along the street, small square pink stones that look rather out of place were used for infill instead of continuing the Leinster granite paving to the property boundaries.
A new “suite” of street furniture was designed for Grafton Street, including bollards that resemble baseball bats and matching dark green litter bins with stainless steel slots. But it’s the lighting that’s been most widely criticised on Twitter and other social media.
Why the green-stemmed uplighters weren’t topped by circular discs, rather than the fussy “po-mo” lids they’ve been supplied with, is anybody’s guess. We’re also told by DCC that the lighting can be changed in colour to mark special occasions, such as St Patrick’s Day.
The controversial uplighters are supplemented by high-level street lighting fixed to buildings along the street. Here, however, DCC has apparently ignored its own policy by failing to ensure that these downlights and their wiring don’t clash with architectural features.
It is now four years since DCC unveiled its public realm strategy for Dublin, promising that our streets and squares would be “world-class”. Yet there isn’t a peep from them about what will be done to improve College Green which is, after all, the very heart of the city.
Translating talk into action on the ground can take a very long time, which is why James Joyce described Dublin as “the centre of paralysis”. Given the huge commercial rates bills that most retailers face, it’s about time they – and us – got a tangible return for all that revenue.