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Review by David Magennis MRIA
Titled #Solutions, the RIAI Conference 2021 promised much, and mostly delivered in providing potential answers to some of the global, social, and professional issues with which we are increasingly familiar.
The lineup of speakers included a varied mix of topics and expertise: architects of international acclaim, practices questioning the future of the profession, and in-depth assessments of national policy. Being a hybrid event, the in-person aspect of the day certainly helped set the atmosphere of celebration; no doubt worthwhile organisations such as the Irish Architects Benvolent Society must have appreciated the generosity of those present, something not easily replicated through Zoom.
The morning started with conference addresses from both Taoiseach Micheál Martin (via video link) and an in-person address from Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien. Of perhaps greater interest, however, was the RIAI’s response to the government’s Housing for All plan. This response was presented by Claire McManus MRIAI, Chair of the RIAI Housing Committee, and David Dwyer MRIAI, Chair of the RIAI Urban Design Committee. The key theme of this presentation was an identified lack of scope or encouragement within the initiative to prevent our current reliance on urban sprawl, both within
Dublin and commuter towns. Also key is the absence of supports or a framework for ensuring design quality in housing supply. The presentation highlighted good design principles; this worked well with the first theme of the morning, ‘Living Cities’. It was illustrated just how feasible it is to reuse, densify, and improve the quality of residential accommodation in our town centres without resorting to sprawl. Importantly, methods to place the profession at the heart of this process, along with the importance of bringing younger practices into this sector through competitions and changes to procurement, were all welcome points. Given the relevance and quality of this response, it was a shame the minister responsible for the implementation of Housing for All had to leave without seeing these points. I hope this presentation will be made available to both he and the members of the institute as essential reading for anyone involved in this work.
Of the ‘Living City’ thematic presentations, the most fascinating was Valerie Mulvin’s. Her exploration and explanation into the often mistreated character and quality of our towns’ and cities’ urban form, at all scales, was timely and thought provoking. Through a series of engaging examples, Mulvin ran through the issues hindering the reuse of the towns and hinted at how changes such as remote working can offer an opportunity to bring life back into these culturally important spaces.
In my opinion, it was telling to see the 1960s-era interviews with the public in Mountrath, debating the demolition of their market hall at the town’s centre, which had fallen into dereliction. The comments for demolition mainly focussed on the need to improve traffic flow, a conversation that continues across any number of smaller towns in Ireland. This was followed by an image produced by the practice highlighting the benefit to the overall life of the town by a public building placed at the location of the demolished building. Perhaps as Valerie points out, the mistakes of the past came through a misunderstanding of what we have. We, as a profession, have a responsibility to change this going forward and to gain a key role in the reuse of these pieces.
In contrast, the presentation from Carlos Moreno on the ‘15-minute city’ perhaps added little more to this concept than we already knew. It felt a little like a TED talk, which outlined some the strategic work Moreno has worked on. Though each core idea was backed up with tangible examples, the projects presented tended to display a questionable level of quality and relevance to the overall theme.
The two works were interesting for different reasons. The International Rugby Experience in Limerick had, of course, a local interest, in its possibly controversial reading of the Georgian grain of the city. The other building, a library for Oxford’s Magdalen College, was an exceptional celebration of brick and Kahnian geometrical resolution. Both projects were presented in an open and revealing way, providing a welcome behind the scenes look at both the conception and technical delivery of public buildings of great quality.
The ‘Sustainable Housing and Communities’ session in the afternoon offered two very interesting and different presentations from Gbolade Studio and Metropolitan Workshop.
Both suggested innovative methods of practising architecture, demonstrating approaches on how architects can work within existing communities and offer them a sense of agency and power within the process of making their home. Tara and Seun Lanre Gbolade offered an energetic and positive position, featuring a multi-strand approach to practice, design, and the use of technology to help community groups, local authorities, and others affected by the built environment in a truly sustainable manner. The work presented focused on their knowledge of off-site construction, technology, and policy to bring the energy akin to the best student projects to reality, transforming both how we think about the practice of architecture and how we could approach design.
Metropolitan Workshop’s ongoing research into meaningful community engagement, presented by Denise Murray and Johnny McKenna, outlined a method which should become more widely used, particularly when we consider the sheer quantity of new homes we need to build to tackle the current housing crisis. The example given was that of the Westbury Estate
Session two focused on the theme of ‘Design Innovation’. Niall McLaughlin’s presentation on his practice’s recent work concentrated on two remarkable brick buildings. Two public buildings which have a real material atmosphere and an exceptional clarity to their conception and spatial resolution. These projects clearly had their roots on show, as a former student of John Meagher, to whom this lecture was dedicated in London, a community engagement initiative which puts the normal process of pre-planning consultation to shame. Here, the team provided a rudimentary training in architecture to allow the community to understand and contribute to the development of a brief appropriate to the area.
The resulting scheme, consisting of buildings added to the existing estate, suggests this was a more successful procedure that the typical relocation, demolition, and displacement normally associated with such schemes.
The closing session on ‘Building Innovation’ consisted of two differing approaches to tackling the amount of carbon emitted through both building construction and use. The appealing proposition from Professor Dietmer Eberle was a precise presentation of a building system, which through a combination of a highly insulated envelope, sensors, and software- controlled apertures uses the heat generated by a building’s inhabitants, computers, and other appliances to maintain a comfortable internal environment, appealing to me at least in the use of architectural methods over a reliance on excessive technology. Similarly, the presentation on timber from Karen McEvoy and Merritt Bucholz was interesting, but maybe a little too focused on their new building in Canada. On reflection, both presentations were perhaps too focused on their specific contexts and issues to be directly translatable to Ireland.
Overall, throughout the RIAI Conference 2021, many #Solutions were offered, some useful, insightful, and broad enough to really change how we develop the built environment on this island. At the end of the day, there was much to ponder and consider further, with all attendees no doubt able to take with them an understanding of how to improve or change their own approach to architectural practice for the better.
Also of interest: Conference Recording