Opinion

On the Unexpected Influence of the Phibsborough Shopping Centre

Emmett Scanlon portrait
Emmett Scanlon

Emmett Scanlon is an architect. His work is focused on the relationship between people and the built world. He pursues this through design, writing, pedagogy, research, policy-making and curation.

The identity of the place we call Phibsborough is made, in part at least, by the existence of a pre-cast-clad concrete office building, carpark and shopping centre that hangs out on the corner of Phibsborough Road and Connaught Street.

It is difficult to think of another borough of Dublin that is so strongly identified with a single building. Nor are there many communities of residents who have been so galvanised around a single object of 20th-century architecture.

Theirs is an active concern for the current state and future development of the shopping centre itself, a relentless energy that has fueled years of debate and events about the general built environment of Phibsborough.

The 1960s building was described by journalist Frank McDonald as a “dreary landmark” in 1985, and continues to attract negativity. You encounter residents and visitors who love and loathe the building.

Photo by Breffni Hall.

In November 2017, the story-so-far of this building, Ireland’s first ever combinedshopping and office centre, designed by architect David Keane, was recorded in a beautiful zine designed by Eamonn Hall of Phibsboro Press.

In the zine, Cormac Murray, in his brilliant biography of the building, reminded us of historian Pat Liddy’s words in the Irish Times in 1987 that the Victorian charm of the place had been,”plundered … in the name of progress”.

Twenty years later, journalist Olivia Kelly wrote that the 31-metre office tower is “often cited as one of the ugliest buildings in the city”. Nevertheless, it is a source of aesthetic and formal fascination for photographers, architects, and artists too – and its image continues to be shared on social media.

This love-hate controversy has helped to ensure that, more than most buildings, the shopping centre has remained present in the minds of local residents and the city, even in times when the centre was in no immediate danger of change.

Indeed, on the night of the zine launch, which was held in a room across the road from the centre, it was clear that the centre was no longer a passive object, redundant over there, but instead, against the odds, it had become an active participant in the social, spatial and community life of Phibsborough.

While we had, in theory, gathered to toast and launch a zine, we were also in a way there to pay our respects to the cover star. It was, you see, understood by those in attendance, that as the building’s physical form and nature was about to change forever, so too was the identity of Phibsborough itself.

Recently sold and bought again, the shopping centre – a challenging site to develop – is the subject of a live planning application. The decision to grant planning was recently referred to An Bord Pleanála.

This means the centre’s future is soon to be the subject of a debate – this time, in the form of an oral hearing – starring those who, bravely, dare to imagine a future life for the development-dowry which the centre commands, and those who, among others, seek to protect the formal and visual integrity of the grey-grid of the 409 panels that wrap its bony, grey frame.

What is clear is that something will soon happen on this site. This entire place is set to change. The questions arise as to how, for whom and by what means will this place be made and remade? If just one building, the shopping centre, has acted as a concrete community anchor for initiating change, what should or could any new buildings do for this place?

Few buildings of architectural note have been constructed in Phibsborough since the shopping centre. The borough continues to have many empty sites, several vacant buildings and a rather dilapidated main street.

This part of Dublin has been long neglected. This is in part because it falls between political and electoral responsibilities and has been cut adrift from place-specific planning guidance. There has been little developmental focus or investment, and a number of large-scale projects – such as new housing on the old Smurfit site – have yet to materialise.

Photo by Emmett Scanlon

However, things appear to be changing. In early 2018, Phibsborough welcomed its first building of clear architectural intent in very many years. The two-storey brick building is not on main street, rather it is found at Phibsborough’s northern edge. It is a crèche.

The crèche is not unlike the shopping centre in as much as the building has a number of streets to contend with, meaning the building has several facades. Rather unlike the centre however, this building really does set out to belong and fit in; building lines of the shops and houses beside are held, the familiar red brick of Dublin 7 is used; the heights and proportions of the neighbourhood buildings are studied and respected.

Yet, the architects rather skillfully riff on all of these local characteristics. So as the building forms a straight edge to the street, the walls that form the rooms inside for the children peel and curve back; the bricks are flat and traditionally bonded on some elevations, but woven-brick screens are also made, some solid, some void; bricks are pushed proud of curved walls to provide depth, texture and shadow, and all of this is witty and pretty and clever and cool.

Today, it appears more buildings are set to follow. In the borough, white planning notices abound, something will almost certainly happen on the shopping-centre site, and Dublin City Council and Bohemians are moving, albeit slowly, toward the redevelopment of the stadium for football and general community use. Projects of significant scale and impact are on the horizon, many new places are about to be made.

In architectural terms, the shopping centre and the crèche appear to present opposite attitudes to place. On a site famously observed first from the air in a helicopter by the developer, the centre appears to have just landed in its context, disrupting what came before, stubbornly insinuating itself.

The crèche however, emerges from the ground up, seeking local acceptance, and strategically uses scale, form and materials, so that at first glance the building appears as if it might always have been there.

What both buildings have in common, however, is that each emerges from the dominant and prevalent culture in which each has been designed and constructed.

The built, material form of the shopping centre bears witness to a once strongly held belief in system building, concrete and prefabrication above all else, even at the expense of the place in which such buildings were constructed.

The council once encouraged developers to build offices in Phibsborough to relieve congestion in the city centre; the tower was a form that, in the 1960s, reflected prevalent political ambitions and confidence in the future.

Unconventional in form perhaps, the crèche reflects our internationally acclaimed, creative ethos of critical-regionalism, where buildings emerge out of – but, let’s be honest, are also often expected to respectfully sit back down into – the material, grain and abstract atmospheres that are identified by an architect as somehow being emblematic of that place.

Your building can stand out, but not too much; you can be an individual, but our terms and conditions will certainly apply. There is much anecdotal evidence that architects and those who commission buildings are forced to employ such aesthetically driven strategies to get any building that has ambition through a thirsty planning system that seems all too easily sated by an often bitter, liquid banality.

Canal, Phibsborough. Photo by HSLU.

In Phibsborough, a place poised to rebuild itself, surely it is time to check where local desires and intentions can find their place with regard to the often external concerns and preoccupations of wider cultural, creative and political forces, be they brutally radical or creatively conservative?

The idea of “place-making”, mentioned many, many times in the recently published Project Ireland 2040: National Planning Framework, is very much part of current political ambition and strategy.

It is also a term used liberally in Dublin City Council’s Development Plan 2016-2022, the current plan governing the socio-spatial future of Phibsborough. What “place-making” is exactly in an Irish context is not obvious from reading these documents.

When you close your eyes and think about it, place-making seems like a fine idea. The term seems broad, but it also implies something very local and specific indeed, perhaps just what we need to move forward.

However, when you read in Project Ireland 2040, with regard to the Eastern and Midland region of Ireland, that the, region’s most significant place-making challenge will be to plan and deliver future development in a way that enhances and reinforces its urban and rural structure and moves more towards self-sustaining, rather than commuter driven activity, therefore allowing its various city, metropolitan, town, village and rural components to play to their strengths, while above all, moving away from a sprawl-led development model, the term “place-making” is rendered impotent and the language presumably intended to clarify, only confuses.

While it should be of concern to all of us as citizens that our state is adopting a term that remains undefined yet is profound in its implications, the meaning of the term should undoubtedly be of urgent concern to the profession of architecture.

Without the demand of evidence-based definitions of what place-making is or hopes to achieve in a specific Irish context, the danger is that architecture will be a passive participant in the socio-spatial cleansing of the everyday reality of our places in the name of the ideology of a rather generic progress.

Without a conscious elaboration of our dominant architectural ethos, architecture could be instrumentalised in the name of place-making to deliver award-winning, beautifully acceptable rooms, replete with all the fine details of an appropriate and real-estate friendly nostalgia.

Constitution Hill Housing. Photo Aisling Mc Coy.

Without the profession of architecture finally acknowledging that all of us – trained architect or not – make and remake our interior and exterior built places through a series of complex, messy, creative, awkward and often slow processes that are social, spatial, material and temporal, our professional actions will only work to exclude our fellow citizens from the places we are meant to be making with them.

In Phibsborough, a single building has provoked a group to collaborate in and through the material, built and everyday reality of their place, fostering and sustaining their community. This person-building collaboration has directed their action when remaking their place.

It was surely not what the architect of the shopping centre intended by design, but it points perhaps to what architecture has to generously and graciously offer, when someone sees beyond the allegedly ugly skin and finds what is needed, what is useful to a place.

 

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  2. Des G
    11 April at 22:39

    Observations on the proposed Phibsborough Shopping Centre redevelopment: Phibsborough Centre planning application 2017 Planning Application Reference: 2628/17

    Observations

    The good news: o Any application in respect of the site is welcome, where the alternative is no planning application at all o My personal wish is that the development that emerges from this process will be an economic and architectural success; a success for the developers, for Dublinc City Council as rate-collector and as planning authority; a success for the local community and a success for the residents. o For various historical reasons, this the first time the site will have been subject to a proper, meaningful and recorded planning process: the original permission to demolish the tramway cottages of Dalymount Terrace was made by the Minister for the Environment, Neil Blaney TD. No records were retained by Dublin City Council and the National Archives are unable to provide access to any archives that may have been generated by the Department o The application ought to trigger some action on the part of the Department of Public Expenditure (headed by local constituency TD, Paschal Donohue) and Dublin City Council in relation to the Dalymount site. Remember the concept of ‘Local Area Planning’? Otherwise the sites would to be developed,one without reference to the other, which would surely defeat the point of Dublin City Council, the planning authority, acquiring the Dalymount site, as it fairly recently did. That’s the good news, but even so, I don’t see how Dublin City Council could have adjudicate this application without reference to what is proposed for the Dalymount site adjoining.

    Nomenclature The developers have spelled ’Phibsborough’ correctly! Kelly’s Drive- Carpetdrome occupied the former Dublin United Tramways Company Tramyard at No 345 North Circular Road from 1977. It was the subject of the attention of the Criminal Assets Bureau and of the superior civil courts. The original tramyard served the city for 75 year, from 1875 until 1950. Referring to the tramyard as ‘Kelly’s Yard’ seems a little bit like a manoeuvre to bury an important narrative thread in Dublin’s urban history. Also buried in the development will be the birthplace of Harry Boland, Minister plenipotentiary to the United States of the revolutionary Dáil Éireann of 1919-1922. That which has been lost: Very little trace of the tramyard remains and, of course, no trace of the tramway cottages which comprised Dalymount Terrace

    Other elements of Phibsborough’s lost acrchitectural heritage include: o Phibsborough Post Office ( 1883 – 1975) o Phibsborough Picture House ( 1954 – 1954) o Bohemian Picture House ( 1914 – 1974) o Graeco-Egyptian entrance to the North Dublin Milling Company ( 1875 – 1978) o The Foster Aqueduct, also Graeco-Egyption, ( 1806 – 1951) o Blacquiere Bridge.

    This by way of context on what is an entirely subjective judgement of mine that the architects designs exhibited seems wholly devoid of merit, when considered aesthetically. The banal themes employed would not be out of place on any good suburban domestic extension. They might as well be anywhere at all. It must be conceded that Dublin City Council’s planning department has played its own indistinguished part in the banalisation of the built environment. From the ornamented Victorian red brick of Doyle’s Corner north to Devery’s lane (formerly Dunphy’s lane) , the city planners have allowed no less than five different brick treatment finishes to developments undertaken since the 1980s . The resultant array looks like nothing so much a display area in the yard of a wholesale brick-merchants’. This display is overlook by Phibsboro Tower which is to treated with a film of metallic gauze. While perhaps inspired by Galen Weston’s status as one of the foremost collectors of Cristo’s smaller works, this homage to ‘Cristo’ in the form of the wrapping of the tower looks just silly – and that’s only on paper!

    Housing The proposal will provide no new housing. As I understand it, we now (April 2027) have 5545 approved student accomodation beds  approved by DCC and An Bod Peanála within ten minutes walk of Doyle's Corner  with an additional 2684 beds awaiting decision. And on top of this comes the proposed 341 beds  of student accommodation in the Phibsboro SC application with the very strong likelihood, so it seems to me, that that the original Phibsboro Tower will also be converted to student accommodation in the medium term future, adding another 100+ units. Don’tt get me wrong: student accommodation is a good thing, but excessive concentration of any one housing type in a ‘brown field’ environment, seems to me to be A Bad Thing and something the DCC Planning Department should reject.

    In April 2014, the Housing Agency indicated that a minimum of 79,660 new homes were needed for the five-year period between 2014 and 2018. Between January 2014 and January this year, just under 40,000 were delivered. The Housing Agency estimated that some 37,500 units of total supply over the five years were required across Dublin, where just 10,779 were delivered.

    That proposed Phibsborough Centre development seeks to add not one single new home housing unit to the city’s supply, so we shall see whether Dublin City Council has written off Phibsborough as a location for the development of family-sized homes. If so, then this development will very likely be approved. This is a site of scale, within walking distance of the city centre, served by bus and LUAS, with the junction of two heavy rail line just a few hundred metres away, waiting for a station the be built. Is it acceptable that it be developed in a time defined by a national housing crisis, without adding a single unit to the city’s housing stock?

    This isn’t just a planning judgement – there are ethical, moral and societal metrics too. In 2008, the centre for Housing research estimated that there were approximately 8,750 bedsits in the country housing 14,500 people, with around 55% of these being in Dublin city. Phibsborough and environs has a substantial share of Dublin’s 7,000 remaining ‘Pre ‘63’ bedsits. The term “pre ’63” refers to a property, usually a large period redbrick – that was divided into multiple flats or bedsits prior to the introduction of the Local Government Planning and Development Act of 1963. Fifty five years on from the 1963 Planning Act This is part of the environment into which the proposed new development is to sit: the housing stock that our planning legislators and planning enforcement apparatus has forgot. Fifty five years on, data from Census 2011 indicate that almost 51,000 dwellings build before 1963 were in the private rented sector. Of the 3,427 such dwellings inspected by Dublin City Council in 2014, only 924 passed the regulatory requirements to allow the property to be rented. The Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness called, in June 2016, for a review of the legislation around bed-sits and pre-1963 accommodation. The Victorian and Edwardian areas of Phibsborough and environs would feature disproportionately, were such a review to be undertaken.

    In addition to the proliferation of ‘Pre ‘63’ accommodation, which is to say accommodation that does not cater adequately to the housing needs of families, Phibsborough hosts a significant array of responses aimed at meeting the needs of people who are, one way or another, vulnerable in terms of their accommodation needs. These responses are, necessarily, institutional, albeit mostly in a minor scale, rather than domestic. Add to this this again the total number of student accommodation units that will have been provides if the Phibsborough Centre development get permission and one sees that the Private Dwelling House ( whether owned or long-term rented) is being pushed the margin of the ix in Phibsborough. What is the policy informing this strategy and what is the source of the mandate for that policy?

    As a municipal body, is Dublin City Council in any way obligate to have regard to the 91,000 people on social housing waiting lists nationally and the 7,000 in emergency accommodation?

    Amenities In its original planning application for a single-storey shopping centre with rooftop parking, Galen Weston’s ‘Commercial Development Limited’ committed a sum £5,000  “to provide new amenities in Phibsboro”. Dublin City Council holds no record today of whether that sun was paid over or whether it was disbursed in accordance with the term in which it was committed. Commercial Developments Limited added the 7 storey tower a late amendment to their plan, promising a clock tower as a feature. “A public clock is a local landmark, it represents a sense of community and civic pride and those values are as valid today as they were in years gone by.[…] Public clocks operate specifically in social and cultural settings, their chimes or faces evoking personal, communal or societal histories. Public clocks have meaning for people. They are in that sense, freighted with  individual experiences of the  common sense of this place ( the clock’s location) and this (or that) time.   Clock time is impartial and transcendent, an ever-ready object of conversational exchange, like the weather Alexis McCrossen , ‘Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and

    Representations Dialectically, the developers are at an advantage in that Phibsorough is not represented on Dublin City Council Certainly, Phibsborough features in the concerns of public representatives elected for Cabra/Finglas; for Ballymun/Whitehall and for the North Inner City, but Phibsborough itself has no political identity, because the City Council uses an electoral map that was drawn up in the 1830s when Queen Victoria’s Uncle was on the British throne and Phibsborough is quintessentially a Victorian suburb. The Poor Relief (Ireland) Act 1838 formed Ireland's first nationwide system of welfare. The local electoral area boundaries that remain in use to this day were originally devised for the election of Poor Law Guardians. In the case of Arran Quay East, Inns Quay, Cabra East and North Inner City ( the LEAs into which modern Phibsborough is sub-divided), the focal point was the North Dublin Union, the remains of which can be see, looking west from the bottom of Constitution Hill. I think the political ‘Balkanisation’ of Phibsborough was a factor in the controversial manner in which the original Shopping Centre was developed in the mid 1960s, but since Dublin Corporation / Dublin City Council retains no documentary record whatsoever of that process, this must remain a subjective, if educated, surmise.

    Change of use? It isn’t my field of expertise, but I cannot see commercial tenants forming any kind of queue to rent in space in Phibsborough Tower, so I imagine that it’ll fairly quickly become the subject of a change-of- use application to increase further the number of student accommodation units on the site. Can DCC insist on a covenant that any such change to residential use would be exclusively to family housing standard?

    The efflux of time We are fifty years on from the exhibition of the first ever Dublin City Development Plan, in the Black Church. We are hundred and three years along from the Dublin Civic Exhibition at the Linen Hall in August 1914, an exhibition that coincided with a wartime pause in the building boom Phibsborough had experienced over the previous forty years, with planning control exercised principally by the Monck Estate.

    It is eleven years since Phibsborough was the focus of Ireland’s first Local Area Plan ( and three years on from the collapse of its successor). It is just two years since the Phibsborough Architectural Conservation Area appraisal was completed. Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000

    Part V (Housing Supply in the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended) is a mechanism through which local authorities can obtain up to 10% of land zoned for housing development at “existing use value” rather than “development value” for the delivery of social and affordable housing. The objective of Part V is to ensure an adequate supply of housing for all sectors of the existing and future population. How does the proposed development comply with Part V?

    Planning Aid Phibsborough was the location chosen for Dublin City’s first Local Area Plan (LAP). Unfortunately, the LAP process in Phibsborough has not been a happy one. Phibsborough is one of 14 Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs)  within Dublin City.  ACAs aim to identify areas of special character and architectural interest and to preserve that special character. Their goal is to provide a framework that will permit a degree of flexibility in terms of design consistent with the maintenance and improvement of the essential character of the ACA. To fulfil this objective all new development in the area of the ACA should be implemented and carried out in accordance with prescribed policies/objectives.

    Phibsborough is the subject of a Local Environment Improvement (LEIP), a five-year working document that sets out to focus on identifying a range of actions and/or programmes to improve the local environment or public realm. 

    Phibsborough is designated a Prime Urban Centre (PUC). The guidelines for Prime Urban Centres state as follows: “;Development should have regard to the existing urban form, scale and character and be consistent with the built heritage of the area.”

    Given the above, Phibsborough affords a particular opportunity for a formal pilot system of neighbourhood planning to be developed along the line offered by the Royal Town Planning Institute’s ‘Planning Aid’ scheme in the UK. I recommend the commencement of such an initiative be included as a condition of any planning permission granted on foot of this application.

    END

    Appendix.

    Nostalgia?, or Coherence?

    Illustrations of the quality of Phibsborough’s lost architectural heritage

    Tramway Cottages, Dalymount Terrace, Upper Phibsborough Road, 1965

    Drawings for Phibsborough Post Office, 1893 The Post Office was demolished and replaced in 1975

    View of Cross Guns showing (left) the Graeco-Egyptian entrance gate to the Dublin North City Milling Co. This was demolished in 1978

    View of the Aqaduct in Broadstone, shortly before its demolition in 1951

    The5 th level of the Royal Canal and remnant of William Purcell O’Neill’s ‘North City Siding’ which was demolished in 1984.

    Interior of Phibsborough Tram Depot which operated from 1875 to 1950.

    Phibsborough Picture House ( 1914 – 1954)

    Phibsborough’s cacophony of post 1980 brickwork ( a less than exhaustive survey)

    APPENDIX ‘Student apartments would suck the life out of residential areas’, says Cork councillor

    Eoin English, Irish Examiner, Friday, April 14, 2017 Plans for a spate of student apartments could strangle traditional residential areas of Cork City. The warning comes from Independent councillor Mick Finn after city planners gave conditional planning for a scheme which could accommodate up to 350 students on a site off Magazine Rd. The proposal for almost 50 student apartments near Denroche’s Cross, was cleared despite residents’ and local councillors’ objections. Mr Finn said it is likely the decision will be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. advertisement “The planners in this city need to decide if they really want student accommodation strangling the life out of existing communities,” he said. “While we know there is a shortage of such accommodation, and we all share in the success of UCC and CIT, the colleges cannot suck the life out of our residential areas which too many of these plans threaten to do. “We have more student accommodation planned for the Beamish and Crawford and a new site by the river on Western Road, and probably more in Victoria Cross.” Mr Finn said the site may require rezoning, adding: “I would have some support if it was a development for residential housing which would add to the long-term development of the community all year round, but do not at all support this location as yet another student accommodation site which will seriously dilute what’s left of the residential nature of the area as well as have serious implications for traffic.” He said the third-level institutions have the money and resources to develop large capital projects on their campuses, and student accommodation units should be no different. END

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