Tom Mulligan, manager at the Cobblestone pub, is furious about a proposed hotel on and around the site of the famous traditional music pub and venue in Smithfield. A new development seeks to demolish the back and upper rooms of the venue, which musicians say would wipe out an important cultural hub.
While many portray this another example of the battle of ‘culture not vultures’ in the growing defacement of Dublin city, the conflation of issues can sometimes obscure a deeper malaise that affects the metropolitan area.
Mulligan hits the nail on the head in his complaint: “I think people are just sick of this stuff. This is killing Dublin, this erection of mindless concrete.”
I’m not so sure about the next claim. “We don’t need a hotel, we’ve got one right across the road that you can get a room in any time you want. We’ve got a hostel down the way, the Generator, and along the Luas line three hotels have popped up over the last year even. There’s enough places to stay, there’s no need for this but mindless greed.”
It is hard to argue that opening hotels is mindless greed. If there is demand, then someone will need to supply or prices shoot up. If there is not, the hotels will not be viable. There isn’t greed in taking up a business opportunity the meets a demand.
The real problem here is the mindless concrete. Dublin is becoming – has become – a city of mindless concrete. No different to the dead and dying town centres across England where planned, faceless, cold and unwelcoming civic space replaced the lived busyness of the streets that emerged from inside themselves over centuries, neighbours adapting, evolving, morphing in reaction to the gradual, minor, creeping changes of others who occupied the streets.
Smithfield Square itself is an example of this type of development. Repeatedly revamped by town planners, it is, year on year, dwarfed by mindless concrete. Once a bustling market, many decades ago, attempts to create a recreation space, revamp after revamp, as the city outstripped the squares natural utility, have failed to manufacture a cultural meeting spot. Around the corner, Stoneybatter, without any blueprint from the urban architects, has thrived as a meeting space, as one of the most desired – though increasingly unaffordable – places to live.
Stoneybatter still feels like community. Smithfield now cries out for one. And if truth be told, the Cobblestone and Delaney’s pub to the North, and Ryan’s and others to South, just about hold the district together in tension with the mindless concrete apartments of Smithfield and south Stoneybatter.
Walking up Manor Street is a walk through town, while walking along Brunswick Street is walk to somewhere else. Queen Street and Blackhall Place, framed evermore by apartment blocks and large student accommodation blocks are evermore places you walk through nowhere to get somewhere else. They are less and less places of their own, but faceless streets that offer no welcome to the pedestrian en route to a place of welcomes.
Each new apartment block, with its communal glass doors offers no connection between the public and the private, but places a barrier to community. Each apartment is less a home and more a temporary residence, and each apartment block, as Le Corbusier desired, a machine for living in. No longer is the streetscape a creation of many individuals living among each other, gradually upgrading and adapting, but always trying to fit in or to stand out with individuality, it is a series of adjoining monoliths, bland, faceless and characterless. This is the mindless concrete that Tomás Mulligan is concerned about.
And each new hotel, designed to capture the fleeting needs of city visitors, adds to the mindlessness, as each is designed for functionality, with cold, uninviting lines, standing out but blanding in to the surrounding apartments that offer nothing to the passer-by but a sense of urgency to get to somewhere – anywhere – else that offers some hospitality and warmth.
Gone are the detailed cornices, the unique door frames, the softened window frames, the feeling that makes Oxmantown Road the most attractive in Dublin. Nowhere to be found is the closeness of all those little Nordic streets – Sitric, Viking and Olaf Street – that gives a sense of belonging and home. Gone are the doorways to step into, the doorsteps to step over. Mere functionality is all that is offered where the public meeting space of person and architecture requires much more.
‘Whole areas of agreeable, and unpretentious dwellings, the architects of which are no longer remembered and perhaps never existed’ as Roger Scruton said of the disappearing American cities, is true for growing parts of Dublin. The Westin Hotel on Westmoreland Street, retained – at great cost – the original façade, and the value of this interactive stonework is evident to any passer-by, and offers contrast to the many hotels that refuse to engage with the city’s inhabitants. Though an expensive place to stay, there is no incongruity for a walker to stop and wait outside its grand façade, while at other nameless city centre hotels, no one need usher you along because the building does that for you.
It is this type of mindless concrete that corrodes the fabric of the city. It is not only hotels, but commercial buildings, co-working offices, apartment blocks, and even these new co-living student accommodation blocks, that tell the city outside their cold glass walls to keep on moving on. Don’t stop here. There is nothing for you here. Aiming to inspire, urban architects today are uninspiring. Their creations, all inward looking, made of glass and shiny materials, create a barrier – not just physical – between those inside and the city.
Windowless and doorless sides – or increasingly, staff only workers entrances further informing the passerby that this space is not for stopping at – warn you away, keep on moving on. Self-contained vertical playgrounds for big business, are probably the most obnoxious of LeCorbusian assaults on the city, built only for the present, to be stripped back and refaced, once their lifespan has run its course, offering nothing lasting, no commitment to urban contiguity, they ‘defy the past and mock the future, exalting only the present (Scruton, again), sheer and shine, not diamonds only glass.
The Cobblestone is a meeting place and though it is a protected structure, if it becomes an unviable business, at best it may end up as an adjunct to a mindless concrete hotel, addended to the building, stripped of its character, a parody of itself as it transforms into the ‘Irish pub’ seen around the world but unknown in Ireland.
The allure of the Cobblestone is that it is the antithesis of the corporate hotel chain. It is a bit crusty. It hosts traditional Irish music. While it is a tourist attraction, it is beloved by musicians who value its small concert venue as much as the lively bar. The protests come after a miserable period for Irish pubs – especially the 350 pubs across the country who will never open again.
Why the Cobblestone is the touchpaper to ignite protest – it isn’t the first pub to be swallowed up by developments and it won’t be the last – is not clear. It feels like protests might be misdirected, since mindless concrete not necessarily greed (commerce against culture) seems to me to be the main issue, but whatever the reasons, perhaps it will spark reflection about how we – and Dublin City Council (Mayo County Council could take note as Main Street Castlebar has been corroded by the shopping centre and car-park sprawl) – should resist the erosion and erasure of the interconnected spaces of softness and shadow on the small streets for the expediency of utility.
The new hotel that will swallow the Cobblestone pub may well be a feat of engineering, with some magnificent design that will win awards for its ingenuity, but the shadows and mouldings of the streets of Dublin, that give the city its identity, will be stripped away for some modernist edges of anti-architecture, another lumpenblock of mindless concrete forced onto Smithfield Square. The culture, the music, can exist here or elsewhere but something more is being lost, something that cannot be transported, the city as a community for living in.
Here is hoping that Stoneybatter can resist, if not the mindless bollards of the cycle lanes, at least the vandalism of mindless concrete that is encroaching from the Quays because Smithfield seems lost already.