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The largest annual gathering of architects in Ireland, one-thousand RIAI members attended
over two days to network, catch-up, and hear from a variety of local and international speakers
Review by Padraig Flynn MRIAI and Helen McCormack MRIAI
Sponsored by Outhaus
With thanks to Cement Manufacturers Ireland (CMI) for supporting the special student rate and to Minima for providing the stage furniture
Friday 4 October
This year’s RIAI Conference theme was ‘Climate Change | Housing | Placemaking’. RIAI President David Browne opened proceedings by emphasising the need
to think long-term regarding the development of our built environment to effectively address climate change.
Minister Josepha Madigan, standing in for Minister Eoghan Murphy, addressed the need for balance between new residential developments and existing cultural venues, referencing the ‘agent of change’ principle which has been introduced in the UK.
The morning session, themed ‘Housing & Sustainable Placemaking’, was chaired by John O’Mahony, who suggested that ‘compact development’ are two words which will change our country completely over the coming decades. Irish-American architect Lorcan O’Herlihy described a diverse range of work in LA and Detroit
in which his practice, LOHA, strive to include significant public space in every project. He noted that architects need a strong argument to convince developers to allocate part of their sites to public use, and described how long-term leasing of city authority land to housing
associations has in some cases accelerated development, as in the Isla De Los Angeles project. Championing the role of the architect as ‘strategist’, he stressed a need to be aware of the economic, political, and social contexts in which we operate.
Jo McCafferty, (Director, Levitt Bernstein) began her talk reflecting on her experience as a resident of Neave
Brown’s pioneering Winscombe Street housing. She emphasised the sense of community created by the absence of plot divisions between homes, the guest rooms with separate access (which gave ageing parents or older teenagers their own private space in the household), and
the impact which one small scheme of five
homes can have, noting that over one- hundred past residents attended a party for Neave Brown shortly before his death. Describing a number of housing projects where her practice has worked to foster
a sense of community through design, including the mixed-tenure Sutherland Road project in London, she stressed the need to challenge the increasingly ‘siloed’ nature of our city developments. Denise Murray (Senior Architect, Metropolitan Workshop) continued the focus on mixed tenures, discussing her practice’s research and publication/exhibition A New Kind
of Suburbia, as well as their ‘Homestead’
concept which proposes a densified suburban condition. In a revealing answer to an audience question, Murray noted the difficulty in convincing Irish developers
to include additional amenities in housing projects, as Irish planning requirements in this regard are much less onerous than those in the UK.
An otherwise stimulating morning session perhaps placed over reliance on persuading speculative developers to consider the wider public good at the expense of acknowledging the growing community-led housing sector, which is increasingly empowering citizens to create long-term affordable homes.
(previous page) 1. RIAI President David Browne opens the RIAI Conference 2019
(this page) 2. Lorcan O’Herlihy champions the role of the architect as ‘strategist’ 3. Denise Murray discusses research into a new kind of suburban housing 4. The Free Market team discusses
the revitalisation of Irish towns with Martin Colreavy (Senior Advisor, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government) 5. Monica von Schmalensee speaks on the importance of urban public spaces which feel welcome to everyone
6. Floris Alkemade asks architects to find the ‘social benefit’ in every project
The afternoon session began with an update by RIAI CEO Kathryn Meghen on the Institute’s activities, including the imminent launch of a new website, and a note on the recent formation of the Irish ‘Architects Declare’ movement. Neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan gave an engaging talk on brain health and measures which can be taken to delay decline in cognitive function, with
sufficient sleep inevitably a crucial factor.
The final session was curated by Free Market. Building on their continued research into the revitalisation of small Irish towns, the chosen theme was ‘Learning From Towns - An International Perspective’. Floris Alkemade, a former partner at OMA, provided a call to
action regarding our responsibility to those who are ‘not in the light’.
Acknowledging that architects often ‘do not have enough power’, he noted that OMA set up their AMO research wing to address this fact and to apply architectural thinking to wider societal
issues. In his current role as Dutch Chief Government Architect, he has made it his mission to find the ‘social benefit’ in every project; even water infrastructure projects offer opportunities to improve the public realm. Continuing the theme of converting research into practice, Phil Prentice (Chief Officer, Scotland’s Towns Partnership) explained his organisation’s role as a hub for information on best practice. STP distil exemplar case studies of town revitalisation into toolkits which other struggling towns can implement,
and he closed with an offer to share these toolkits with Irish policymakers. Giulia Valone (Senior Architect, Cork County Council) commented on the proliferation of signage and bollards in the Irish public realm. She described how more subtle
techniques, such as variegated paving and carefully placed street furniture, have been employed in Clonakilty’s revitalised town centre to emphasise pedestrian priority over cars. In a closing panel discussion, a recurring concern was the need to restore the architect’s role in small Irish towns and local authorities.
Saturday 5 October
‘You cannot talk about climate change without talking about housing and without talking about placemaking,’ said Ciarán Cuffe during his talk on day two of the RIAI Conference, stressing the inherent complications of tackling the current climate crisis. Day-two speakers approached the conference theme of
‘Climate Change | Housing | Placemaking’ by way of addressing democracy, inclusivity, and sustainability in design. Monica von Schmalensee introduced these concepts as the core values of her practice, White Arkitekter, and asked ‘for
whom do we design our cities?’ Achieving
an affordable, inclusive, and sustainable city is a problem we all share, she noted, while also acknowledging that democratic social space is important to make urban public spaces where everyone feels welcome.