• RIAI Conference 2022


Places for People

Review by Robin Mandal FRIAI
Day 1 - 5 October, 2022

Until the mid-eighties, when then president Kevin Fox held the first RIAI Conference in Kilkenny, the only time that the profession got together was at annual dinners. These dinners were generally scattered in time, belying their title. These occasions held little attraction for younger members.

After a shaky start, by the mid-nineties the annual conference was beginning to take hold as an event. A number of them took place around the country and, by 2000, they were beginning to be held overseas. My first one was in Lisbon in 2001, when Arthur Hickey was president and I made it to a few more. They were exceptionally well organised by John Graby, who combined social events with educational ones in a fine balance. The locations included Helsinki, Verona, Chicago, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin. The visits coincided with the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger and excluded many members who found them too expensive.

 After the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the conference re-located itself to the RDS in a symbiotic relationship with Architecture + Building Expo. It remains in the RDS. Combined with the requirements for CPD and its accessible location, the numbers attending increased substantially.

With the arrival of the pandemic, the conference became a virtual event for one year, and the past two years have seen it being a hybrid one. This has further extended its reach and accessibility. From 2014, they have been recorded, originally in audio only and later with video, as an archival record.

All those that I have attended have addressed the issues of the day and every subject imaginable, relevant to the architect. Most have been inspirational. Their agendas are generally set by the president of the day. The current major issues are housing and planning. The existential issues of climate and biodiversity are major drivers in the debates.

In the established tradition, the president, Charlotte Sheridan, started the conference with her keynote speech, with the conference title – Places for People – being the same as that of the new government Policy on Architecture. Starting with the global context she noted the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, and the uncertainty of world affairs. She referred to the confluence of the Union of International Architects Year of Health with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the role that architecture plays in wellbeing. She emphasised the importance of the National Policy on Architecture, the European Green Deal and the New European Bauhaus. Relating the work of the Institute during the year, her emphasis was on the National Policy on Architecture, the work on the planning code, and our involvement in the Planning Advisory Forum.

Other than a few years in the mid 2000s, a minister has generaly addressed the start of the conference. This year was no exception – the Minister of State for Local Government and Planning, Peter Burke TD, set out the work that his department has been doing.

The rest of the day’s programme then started with an inspirational presentation by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects. When they speak the breadth of their intellectual generosity shines. Yvonne showed a number of their current projects, including those at Arkansas, Constitution Hill, Saint Anne’s Park, Grangegorman, and Kongju. She described architecture as the ‘… built skin of humanity’. Shelley continued with the Marshall School, the ESB building, Toulouse, Dreispitz in Basel, Dublin Port, and the Ulysses literature project. Her view of architecture as being ‘… the philanthropy of form and … a political and social act …’ challenged us. She noted that ‘… Public space is the oxygen of the city’. As we seek to densify our places, that message has not got through yet.

The next session was by Nicola Matthews and Nessa Roche, who presented work on national policy, with the Policy on Architecture taking centre stage. They outlined its context in relation to the Green Deal, the New European Bauhaus, the SDGs, international co-ordination, and integrating best practices in quality. Nikki showed the ‘Quality Tool’, by which we can assess a result. She also noted that the RIAI Design Review was a template for Europe. Nessa described the integration of architecture in culture, advocating the cultural shift of sharing knowledge and achieving consensus. They both regarded the management of change as a crucial part of integrating design, quality integration, and capacity.

Cristina Gamboa, from Lacol, presented her non-profit, architects co-operative work on affordable housing in Barcelona. She explained how her work was a result of the failure of housing policies after the Great Recession, a common thread in many places.

Lacol works on a new housing model, with citizens as the instigators. Reflecting a Danish model, its housing is non-speculative, community-led, affordable and inclusive, sustainable and repeatable. It empowers inhabitants. Cristina illustrated built and designed schemes and outlined the financial structures that made her work as part of a social and solidarity enterprise possible: subsidies, social banks, and rent support; with much of this linked to the Barcelona Housing Plan 2016-2022. This plan mobilised public stock as well as private real estate. In the panel discussion, Michael Goan noted the committment to community engagement, but that our processes are quite inimical to public participation.

 The day finished with a whistle stop talk by Maureen Gaffney, which should be compulsory for all architects. Outlining the relative impacts of negativity and positivity, she noted that a negative first impression required nine pieces of information to reverse. She described the connection between resilience and competence and the reserves that we have to draw on to adapt. Resilience is adaptation without harm. Recommending that we be foxes rather than hedgehogs, she encouraged us to actively build a strategy for positivity, by using SNAP – search, notice, absorb and practice.

Slotted into the programme was a short presentation by Carole Pollard on the work of the Irish Architects Benevolent Society. For as long as I can remember this appeal has been a part of every conference.

After Maureen, the delegates mingled in the hall at a reception. The social aspects of the enjoyment of the company of colleagues has always been a highlight of the annual conference. While the issues of the day might change, that collegiate engagement remains constant. Somehow, the issues of the day appear to remain fairly constant too – the role of the architect in policy making, problem solving, and making places for people.


Review by Aakriti Sood
Day 2 - 6 October, 2022

In face of the climate emergency, the construction industry is a daunting space for practitioners, especially young graduates as they step into the real world. Traditional urban solutions are not resilient and our cities and towns require rethinking, replanning, and reshaping. The RIAI understands this predicament and day two of  the conference sought to address the rising anxiety within the profession. The opening address by RIAI President Charlotte Sheridan and RIAI CEO Kathryn Meghen updated the audience on the work the institute is doing to advocate value of quality, address the climate and housing crises, and promote innovation and digital adoption.  

Caroline Pidcock, followed the opening address. Presenting from Sydney, Caroline’s ethos is concerned with strategically accelerating meaningful action on climate change, with making the move from an ‘ego-system to an cco-system’. As a part of her holistic approach, Caroline has given a platform to the indigenous community in Australia, who have been widely ignored by the mainstream western construction industry. The immense wisdom embedded in their relationship with the environment can offer a new lens to understand the world around us. The construction industry is not functioning in vacuum. Caroline underlined the need for collective responsibility. We need to harness the strengths of the planet to our advantage, all the while being sensitive to its demands.

‘Architecture in the post-digital world’ was discussed next by Dr Marjan Colletti. A professor and expert in post-digital practice, Dr Colletti is adopting the tools of lectures, workshops, exhibitions, and permanent installations and using his platform as an educator to train the next generation of designers in digital methods for practice. Beyond drafting tools, the digital interface is a powerful entity and can be employed by the construction industry to design, structure, and quantify materials and use them efficiently. There is still a lack of literacy regarding the embodied carbon in our buildings. The construction industry accounts for nearly 40% of carbon dioxide emissions. Underutilisation of the digital tools has been leading to over structuring and waste generation in the construction process. Digital tools have the capacity to empower design practice and in our highly digitised world it is a force that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Leading the world in urban regeneration, the fjord waterfront redevelopment presented by Stein Kolstø illustrated how implementation of new governance models can ensure effective development of highly complex areas. As a result of the seminal collaborative process undertaken by the municipality of Oslo, the developers, landowners, and designers the fjord district has been completely transformed in the past forty years from an impenetrable industrial waterfront to an extension of the city centre with over 70ha of continuous public amenity. Local government recognised the embodied energy within cities and the power of well-designed public spaces against the shift to a sprawling model. Stein remarked that since the redevelopment over 95% of the population of the city has interacted with the new public realm, designed by world leaders in design practice. Fjord’s success offers a toolkit that can be translated back into urban centres in the Irish context.

The final session on ‘Irish Housing’ brought the attention back to home, concluding the discussion on where current practice is and where it needs to be. Carr Cotter & Naessens Architects offered discussion on the Dominick Street Lower mixed-use development, a sensitive approach to a brownfield site in the heart of inner city Dublin. Materially and functionally, the scheme adheres to its surroundings, a contemporary response to the Georgian archetype dominant within the capital.

O’Briain Beary Architects presented Ard Cré Social Housing, in Ballymoneen, mitigating the city and the sprawling suburbs of Galway. The two projects show medium to low height can achieve high density if designed carefully.

The final project discussed was GKMP’s redevelopment at St Senan Hospital, Enniscorthy, acknowledging the responsibility of architects to reuse the existing built fabric, not only in terms of aesthetic and cultural heritage value, but to encourage a regenerative approach towards existing building stocks at risk of dilapidation. All three projects illustrated how feasible it is to reuse, densify, and improve the quality of housing while working within pre-existing communities and conditions ,although we still have a long way to make the building materials we use more sustainable.

It was an enlightening experience to listen to the pioneering voices of the architectural world sharing their knowledge so freely. There was a palpable vigour in all the speakers which was infectious to all those present. The climate emergency was the underlying theme of the day’s session, each idea shared reiterated the point that to be able to see the results in 2030 we need to start acting now. Collectively, we need to look for radical alternative solutions in order to reach our climate goals. The effects of climate change become more prevalent each day and it is only through collective action that we can emerge from this crisis on the other side. Yet, there is an apprehension to act; most of us find ourselves waiting for policies and government leaders to tell us how to act. Another underlying theme was the lack of education beyond the conventional tools and that, to me, seems like the place to start. Incremental changes today can help achieve exponential results tomorrow.


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