Peter Sirr writes: The immediately likeable thing about Pearse Square is that it has seceded from Pearse Street so completely that not a trace of that wide trafficky thoroughfare, with its atmosphere of subdued depression, leaks in through either of its entrances. The first thing you notice, apart from the pleasant aspect of the terraced houses, is the silence. The square is three-sided with a leafy park in the middle and the north end is closed off so that the west and east terraces provide the only entrances. This greatly increases its intimacy – you have no business being here unless you live here or wander in to have a look.
The only external occupants today are myself, a girl sitting on a bench in the park, and the drizzle. I walk around the square admiring the narrow squashed-down fanlights that look as if someone had sat on them. On the east corner a blue wall promises an all-day breakfast but the café is closed and the last sausage and black pudding have long since left the frying pan, the last teabag yielded its watery tea. There’s an apartment for rent, I notice, and through force of habit I note down the details. The square could have drifted over from Rathmines or Donnybrook or any of the townships created in the nineteenth century to provide the prosperous with better air and more space. To move from it to Pearse Street or back is to shift between worlds. The difference might have been less noticeable when the square was built in the early nineteenth century, but as time has passed the street outside has become a major artery with a constant din of traffic. Pearse Street is emphatically a street of the clamorous present; the square lags several decades behind. Even the parked cars don’t seem to belong entirely. You expect a few stately Humbers, Triumphs or Morrises. It must be strange to live here and pass daily through the membrane between silence and noise, a raw city clamour and motion and an island of stillness. One foot in the city and the other in the suburbs . . .
There’s another sense in which the square inhabits a double zone. It’s built on reclaimed land, on an area that was part of the river until the eighteenth century, when the Liffey was enclosed within a wall and quay. There’s no hint of water now, but we’re in river country nonetheless, in a place that the city claimed for itself to accommodate its relentless eastward expansion. Between the square and the river it has turned its back on are signs of further expansion. The glass and steel of the tall office and apartment buildings of the new city loom over the square to the north and east, yanking it out of its quietist reverie, and it’s to this city I now make my way, moving up along Pearse Street and looking at Alto Vetro, the skinny sixteen-storey apartment building that stands at the top like a herald of confident modernity beside the Grand Canal Basin. Welcome to South Docklands, it seems to say, look around and be amazed. A little farther ahead Boland’s Mill is in the process of being transformed into “three new signature buildings whose tapering forms are designed to be read as a composition within the skyline set by Millennium Tower and Montevetro and whose coloured tones will complement the brick surrounds and limestone walls of the existing stone heritage buildings”.
Grand Canal Square’s east-facing aspect gives it a sharp edge; it’s grey now but on even the sunniest evening the sun will have migrated to the other side of the city. As if to compensate for this greyness, the square, a huge expanse, has been given a spectacular design. The centrepiece is the two-thousand-seat theatre designed by Daniel Libeskind, side by side with 45,500 square metres of office and retail space. Everything in Docklands, you quickly realise, is big. Big signature buildings, large public spaces, vast office and apartment complexes. The theatre looks like a tilted hangar lurching over the square, a massive and self-consciously theatrical gesture. The building, according to Libeskind “is based on the concept of stages – the stage of the theatre itself, the stage of the piazza, and the stage of the theatre lobby above the piazza, illuminated at night. The theatre becomes the main façade of a large public piazza that has a five-star hotel and residences on one side and an office building on the other. The piazza, all 10,000 square metres of it, acts as a grand outdoor lobby for the theatre. With the dramatic theatre elevation as a backdrop and platforms for viewing, the piazza itself becomes a stage for civic gathering.”
The physical building is certainly powerful, but it’s a corporate kind of power. A place this big was never going to be about risk-taking or innovation, but about importing large, expensive international productions, the ballets and musicals that have proved themselves elsewhere. Swan Lake. Les Misérables. Motown The Musical. The boldest gesture is the building itself. The design, the scale, and the ambition are utterly Docklands, yet I rarely darken its door. It opened in 2010 and is currently on its third owner, and doing pretty nicely, with a profit of €683,000 in 2017, when half a million people saw a show. Thanks to – what else? – Les Misérables, that figure will be increased for 2018.
I walk by the big red lopsided poles that extend from the front of the theatre along a red “carpet” that runs right out into the basin, as if to welcome the boats that might bring the audiences from the river or the Grand Canal. The vision was Boston-based landscape architect Martha Schwartz’s. The red “carpet” is made from a bright red resin-glass material and is completed by the glowing red angled light-sticks which are intended “to mimic the ‘bustle’ on the red carpet”. A green “carpet”, with seating on the edge of large planters, connects the new hotel and office developments. The square is be crossed by a series of narrow paths that “allow for movement across the square in any possible direction while still allowing big activities such as markets or fairs.” Schwartz saw the new square as “an urban magnet with twenty-four-hour activity”.
Both Schwartz and Libeskind saw their projects reflecting something already inherent in the city. Libeskind’s composition “creates an icon that mirrors the joy and drama emblematic of Dublin itself”, while Schwartz envisioned her design for the square an as “accurate interpretation of Dublin’s energy”. Likewise, the hotel beside the theatre complex, by the young Portuguese partnership of Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus, was inspired by the “telluric, primordial geology” of the Giant’s Causeway, though the final chessboard model result seems far from the original conception. The descriptions of these projects may be the necessary international design rhetoric grafting on the city’s involvement with what are international gestures in the same way that Santiago Calatrava’s bridges happen to span the Liffey but could as comfortably and interchangeably traverse a dozen other rivers. Docklands inhabits an international urban realm nowhere better exemplified than in this vast and busy square, but it’s less the internationalism that strikes than the reliance on the global brand leaders: we’re very much in the realm of the starchitects and designers who flit easily between cities across the globe, so that Docklands’ true neighbour is not the rest of Dublin but other dockland developments or urban sites in Berlin, Seoul, Denver, Belgrade or Boston. The hotel looks at the moment more like a giant cubic chessboard, white granite blocks alternated with black glass through which the guests can peer out at the activity below.
When you walk around any urban area you tend to take it for granted; it’s here, it seems always to have been here. But it’s instructive to pause for a moment just to consider the sheer scale of the reclamation that underlies Grand Canal Harbour. This was where the gas for the city had been produced since 1830, which meant that the soil was full of contaminants. That in turn meant the site lay deserted for many years. The Dublin Docklands Authority, which existed from 1997 until it was dissolved in 2015, had to spend €50 million to decontaminate the ten-hectare site. An underground wall had to be built into the soil to prevent any of the pollutants from leaking, then the site had to be excavated to a depth of four metres and the groundwater pumped out to a treatment centre. Dangerous soil was exported to various EU countries and the rest treated on site. 134,000 tonnes of material had to be removed. The process took five years. It’s a reminder of the sheer ambition this area represents, and of the huge powers that determined it.
I walk down around the dock looking down the newly created streets, narrow channels between large apartment blocks. At Grand Canal Quay there are shops, cafés, Dublin Bikes, a Viking bus on the basin. At Hanover Quay, more restaurants and apartments. Yet as I walk around what strikes me, as always when I’m here, is how quiet it is, how empty the spaces are. It’s like walking around a distant suburb except that there are no prams, no parents with toddlers, no evidence at all of children, no schools, no evidence of a complex community here in South Docklands. It has the appearance of a densely occupied urban zone but in fact, given that there will eventually be almost thirty thousand workers in the office buildings here, there’s a serious shortfall of housing, with space for a maximum of 6,500 people. So one in four who live here might be close to their work; the other three will have to commute, which seems like a lost opportunity.
I pass some original dock buildings as I walk past Blood Stoney Road, called, apparently, and maybe a little disappointingly, after the port engineer Bindon Blood Stoney who designed a diving bell. Here, until it was demolished, was the wall covered with graffiti by U2 fans. Germinal loves Lucia. U2 are magnificent. All I want is you Larry. Engie was here. After a tussle with the local residents, and slightly lower than originally planned, the U2 Visitor Centre has recently been approved. When it’s finished, several hundred thousand pilgrims are expected to flock here every year. In the meantime, preserved parts of the wall are on view over at CHQ on Custom House Quay.
Down at the waterfront, along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, all is quiet. Office buildings, pedestrian walkways and cycle routes along the river. This part of the area will, like the companion area on the opposite bank, become an extended linear leisure area with trees and benches. Every time I come here I remind myself how unusual it is to see anything here, how not much more than fifteen years ago few who didn’t live here would have ventured this far east. The Ferryman pub marked the limits of the navigable city for many and walking westward past the Custom House you always had the feeling of returning into the (relatively) safe embrace of the city. This part of Docklands is still eerily quiet. A large glass office block presents the spectacle of quiet industry to the waterfront: men and women hunched over computers and photocopiers, their desks surrounded by large white cartons. Legal files, maybe. Solicitors, trade mark advisers, business and management consultants, fund managers, debt recovery specialists . . . all engaged in their mystifying professions. A coffee kiosk operates on the quay, with no takers at the moment. I sit on a bench and look across at the angled glass tube of the conference centre. What would it be like to live here, I wonder, in one of these apartments? Who in fact does live here? Most of the apartments are occupied by young, high-salaried professionals working for the likes of Google, Facebook, Airbnb. Many of the individuals who bought apartments here and were then stung by the crash and ended up in negative equity have now sold on, and most of these properties have been snapped up by investors. A recent estate agents report gives a flavour of the current occupants:
Only 19% of our tenants are Irish though this is an increase on 2017. We are noticing more Brexit related demand and the average salary of our tenants has increased to €117,095 compared to €57,000 in 2015.
The outlook for this year is very positive. Given there is enough office space planned or under construction to accommodate 40,000 workers in the greater Docklands area and the various schemes planned that will further cement Docklands as the most sought after city quarter in Dublin, I am confident capital values will increase in the region of 5% this year. The supply/demand mismatch in the rental sector will continue for another couple of years so I predict rental values will increase at least 8% this year and I believe improved rental yields will encourage more investors to buy.
Well, that’s one Docklands dialect. Part V of the Planning and Development Act (2000) specifies that 10 per cent of a development of ten or more units must be used as social housing. This itself is down from the 20 per cent included in an early Docklands development plan agreed with local residents. There is some social housing in Docklands. Of the 187 apartments built in Clarion Quay, for example, thirty-seven were set aside for public housing. The mix of public and private occupancy was a deliberate strategy, termed “tenure mixing”, aimed at preventing the kind of stigmatisation that can arise when poorer residents are all grouped in a single development. Stigmatisation can happen anywhere of course, and can take many forms. A recent study referred to the lack of interaction between the private and public sections of the development: “None of the private residents of Clarion Quay who were interviewed for this study reported ever visiting the home of, or knowing the names of, any public renting neighbours. The former did not think this unusual but public housing tenants found this situation odd and unsatisfactory.” (Tenure Mixing to Combat Public Housing Stigmatization: external benefits, internal challenges and contextual influences in three Dublin neighbourhoods, Anna Carnegie, Michelle Norris, Michael Byrne, 2018).
It would be possible to make too much of this. Lack of interaction with other residents is, for many, the point of apartment living. More revealing, maybe, is the tension that emerged over different perceptions of public space. Residents share a single communal space – a grass courtyard in the centre of the complex. The private residents, apparently, viewed the courtyard as a “visual amenity” rather than as a space to be used for activities. We are, of course, in the familiar realm of class conflict here. They also considered unsupervised play in the courtyard (almost entirely by public housing residents’ children) as de facto problematic and raised questions about noise levels, children’s safety and ultimately the quality of parenting. Public housing residents had a contrasting interpretation – they viewed the courtyard as a space which could and should be used and believed it was not only normal but inevitable that children would play there. So they couldn’t understand objections to their children’s play and interpreted these as a form of stigmatisation.
Children. Play. Unsupervised play. Another reminder that we’re in a planned world, with guidelines for everything. Smart lighting, smart bins, the city as code and data. At a recent conference on The Programmable City one of the participants spoke of Docklands as the new Ardnacrusha, showing a slide of the famous Seán Keating painting, but if it is it’s the Ardnacrusha of Neoliberalist Ireland, the triumph of silicon economics and profit-led development.
And what’s happening the Part V social housing? The City Council is saying that it is being priced out of the area and cannot afford to acquire apartments for the 10 per cent social housing provision. Therefore, developers will be able to offer sites in other parts of the city in lieu of lucrative Docklands sites. In the Kennedy Wilson apartment development, Capital Dock, for instance, (“Offering superior living accommodation with exclusive, private on-site access to a range of five-star residents’ amenities and unrivalled dedicated concierge team, including on-site professional management, chef’s kitchen, cinema room and 24-hour security to respond to your every need”) where rents will be almost €4,000 a month, the developers intend to provide their 10 per cent social housing quota in Rialto, far from Docklands, a decision described by Labour senator Kevin Humphreys as “social cleansing”. There are currently eleven places in Docklands where developers are planning to build but a report from executive housing manager Anthony Flynn confirmed that “Some off-site units have been identified in the electoral area and deposits have been paid to acquire these units.” In April 2019 The Irish Times reported that in the case of three developments, 6 Hanover Quay, Boland’s Mill and 8 Hanover Quay, sites for social housing had been acquired off-site. The apartments at 6 Hanover Quay are expected to generate €800,000 per unit, and the council has agreed with the developer to acquire thirteen units at Castleforbes Square in Dublin 1. The Boland’s Mills development, sold last year to Google, will have 28,000 square metres of office space, forty-six apartments, cafés and cultural space, but rather than acquire apartments at the site the council will buy three units “within the electoral area”. Likewise, with the Reflector Building, 8 Hanover Quay, where AirBnB and LogMeIn are based, none of the forty apartments are being set aside for social housing and four will again be acquired “off site”. All of this, of course, negates the original intention of mixing tenure types and means that, in terms of housing provision, the area will be a ghetto for the affluent.
There are plans for most things in Docklands. It is a planned city state whose overarching ambition is the attraction of wealth. The cold order of money is apparent everywhere. But communities, and cities, thrive on disorder, on unplanned organic growth, on various kinds of civic spontaneity, and maybe most of all on the conjunction of difference: different communities with differing levels of wealth living alongside each other and colliding on the streets, in the shops and cafés and in the educational and cultural institutions. Otherwise there is sterility, segregation, indifference. What Richard Sennett said of large cities applies equally to a mini-city like Docklands, that it takes “dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities” to give us an idea of the real complexity of life and human relations.
If the social elements of Docklands feel tacked on or underdeveloped, it’s because the place is driven primarily by money. In the sixties, the original docklands were badly affected by the containerisation that removed the need for dockers. At the time the government response was to encourage families to move out of the area into the suburbs, which was the policy for much of the life of the new state and which resulted in a considerable thinning of the inner city population. The engine of the current incarnation was the Irish Financial Services Centre, which was largely the brainchild of the financier Dermot Desmond, personally supported by the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey. It was specifically designed to attract international investment; it provided a tax haven with quick access to European markets and a low corporation tax rate of 10 per cent. It’s unlikely that the government anticipated the staggering success that would reward the initiative, the hundreds of millions of tax revenue, the hundreds of companies attracted by the IFSC terms, the hundreds of billions of international bank assets located in Dublin, the thousands of jobs created. (For a full discussion of the Docklands regeneration see Niamh Moore, Dublin Docklands Reinvented: The Post-Industrial Regeneration of A European City Quarter, Four Courts Press, 2008.)
The very success of Docklands as a financial enterprise tended to push everything else aside, and the initial development around the Custom House docks was entirely developer- and investment-led. There was little sense of it having a meaningful relationship with the troubled and disadvantaged community around it. It showed all the classic signs of urban gentrification the world over. One of the starkest images of the social apartheid that characterised the first phase of development is the wall dividing the Custom House Square apartments from Sheriff Street. Effectively, all the local community got was a view of the new wealth crowding into the area, glimpses of smart new apartments they could never afford to live in. The original state agency for the development of the docks, the Custom House Docks Development Authority, was content to follow the model of dockland developments elsewhere and provide investment opportunities for private developers.
In 2012 the Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) for North Lotts and the Grand Canal Dock replaced the 1997 docklands plan, and the Poolbeg West SDZ was announced later, but there’s no sign priorities have shifted. They fast-track planning, but only a very specific kind of planning that favours business and capital. Plans to build 3,500 homes at the former Glass Bottle site on the Poolbeg Peninsula, including nine hundred affordable homes, were stalled for years, but this April (2019) An Bord Pleanála finally announced the development of an “urban quarter” that will include almost nine hundred social and affordable homes at the site. Plans for the site include 350 units for social housing, while a further 15 per cent – or 525 – of the residential units are designated for “social and affordable housing purposes”, which will bring the total to 875. The plan will also deliver 860,000 square feet of commercial development, as well as school sites and community space. It will be very interesting to see if this plan is delivered.
Some, including former Trinity geographer Andrew MacLaren, have criticised the narrow focus of the development zones: “the very delineation of this Strategic Development Zone is problematic to me, because it zones out Sheriff Street, East Wall, Ringsend and Pearse Street”. Elsewhere MacLaren has gone so far as to call the Docklands site a delimitation, “clearly gerrymandered to exclude concentrations of poor indigenous Docklands residents”.
One new intervention, in poorer city centre locations, has been the investor-led luxury student housing schemes aimed at the forty-odd thousand international students the government wants to attract. These are relatively cheap to build, with more lenient planning guidelines and no need to provide parking. One of these is in Sheriff Street. Gerry Fay, chairman of the North Wall Community Association and community activist, welcomes the arrival of young people into the area but deplores the lack of local housing provision, citing, in a recent Irish Times interview, “broken promise after broken promise”. Of the 2,369 households on the area’s housing list few are likely to end up there. “There’s no land left to build housing,” says local Workers Party councillor Éilis Ryan in the same piece. “Every site has been bought and you can be sure no developer is interested in social and affordable housing. The big profits are in hotels, student accommodation, offices and luxury apartments. The vast, vast majority of people on the list will have to leave the area.” City planners often view purpose-built student accommodation favourably precisely because they are built in “depressed” areas of the city and supposedly bring life and money into the area. I’m not sure what the evidence for this is. I think of the large units in Blackpitts, near where I live. What was supposed to be a public courtyard through which the local community might pass is now shut off by an iron gate so that the complex is effectively a closed-off compound, in defiance of the planning permission, while none of the promised “retail, restaurant, event and social spaces” so prominently displayed on the billboards were ever built.
The disparity between the needs of the existing community and the vision of a shiny new cosmopolitan district designed for high-earning executives is hard-coded into the various editions of the Docklands vision. There is, you feel, always going to be a difference between what the dreamers of the dream actually want and what they are impelled to accommodate. This is most obvious in the early publicity material that came from the Custom House Docks Development Authority. Niamh Moore quotes a telling example in Dublin Docklands Reinvented:
It is a warm, calm September evening. The highly paid executives in the Financial Services Centre are still at work – their VDUs giving out the latest on Wall Street. At the Liffey’s edge the tanned and fit members of the Custom House yacht club are tying up their craft and are strolling leisurely to the dockside pub for a pint or a G&T. The kids are not yet back in school. The culture vultures are on their third museum – in the Dublin section they are still not over the shock of what the city was like when it had vacant sites. At the heliport a Ryanair courtesy helicopter arrives with some more tourists. A limousine whisks them to their luxury hotel. In the apartments a successful young barrister has just arrived home via a vaporetto from the law courts up the quays. She sits on her penthouse balcony admiring the spectacular view of the mountains. As she sips her Campari soda she wonders if the Bunuel movie is playing at the Screen on the dock. (Dublin Docklands Reinvented, p 172)
That was 1987, and if you remove the local references it could have been the blueprint for any urban gentrification. And many of those elements are still very much in the mix. We might have to swap the vaporetto for the recently reintroduced Number 11 Liffey ferry, and the Campari for craft beer and complicated gin, and replace the barristers with the Facebookers and Googlers, but the picture isn’t that different. Divisions between the original and the newly arrived inhabitants begin to seem a necessary part of the dynamic. These divisions are often expressed physically: walls, gated compounds, security guards, the ever-present CCTV cameras. The presence of security and surveillance, with many apartment buildings offering 24-hour security, highlights another aspect of Docklands life: the blurring of the boundaries between public and private space. In the early days there was a strict policy on photography, particularly in the vicinity of the IFSC, and an expensive permit had to be applied for. You were allowed to take photographs outside the IFSC and private buildings but a spokesman for Dockland specified that “we would like to be informed when and where someone will be photographing”. Today we take surveillance, control and exclusion for granted, but then this is part of a growing worldwide trend, not only in new areas that are heavily privatised but also on public transport, in shopping centres or central city areas as part of crime prevention or anti-terrorist policies. Cities everywhere are increasingly governed by fear, and docklands developments around the world, with their ubiquitous cameras and security guards, have been particularly blighted by an obsession with draping their urban landscapes in protective blankets of privacy.
It’s often argued that “social regeneration” regenerates very little but simply builds new complexes and ignores what was there before. This is a criticism often levelled at London Docklands. Yet it shouldn’t be thought that the DDDA’s efforts at social regeneration were fruitless. The interaction between the authority and the local community did yield some tangible benefits in education, housing and jobs. The local community fought hard for a Local Labour Charter, which secured some construction jobs. The DDDA did work closely with the local Docklands schools and the communities and many educational development projects were implemented at primary, post-primary and third level. There were programmes designed to increase the skills of local residents, such as the Apprenticeship Programme and the Community Training Workshop. Under the Schools Job Placement Programme, locals with the Leaving Certificate were given jobs by IFSC and other businesses in the area. Since it started in 1997 more than 300 young adults have been placed within the IFSC. A quota of places in the National College of Ireland in Mayor Street is reserved for inner-city residents and the Pathways to Employment guarantees locals who finish courses jobs in financial services. The NCI’s Discovering University programme brings young people from the Inner City Docklands area to take part in summer courses to give them experience of student life. And, as we have seen, a certain number of affordable homes were built, with more planned, but nowhere near the original target of 20 per cent which the local community managed to get into the 2003 Master Plan.
Docklands, the DDDA. But what are these things exactly? I feel like a host at a conference who has forgotten to introduce the keynote speaker. Everything you see in Docklands is the result of a decision made by the now-defunct Dublin Docklands Development Authority. The authority was a state agency, its funds were state funds, its gains or losses were the taxpayers’. It was created by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority Act 1997 “to lead a major project of physical, social and economic regeneration in the East side of Dublin”. It was responsible for 1,300 acres of land. It had a fifteen-year development period (1997-2012). Every five years a new Master Plan was issued, the most recent of which was Master Plan 2008. At the top of the organisational tree sat the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Beneath this was the executive board, and under this was the council, which was made up of representatives from the public and business sectors and the local community. A staff of around fifty people was deployed in finance, marketing, architecture and planning, project management, legal services and social regeneration.
This is all clear enough, but as always, it’s when you begin to follow the money that the clear structure starts to become clouded and the DDDA begins to take its place in a very familiar Irish nexus of power, money and cosy relationships. As property values shrank and developers went broke, the authority started to come under close media scrutiny. It emerged that directors had been financially involved in Docklands sites. Questions were asked about possible conflicts of interest. The Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend had been purchased for €412 million. After the crash, the value of the site, which was so toxic the authority had to spend millions cleaning it up, fell to about €60 million.
The DDDA story was always short of glorious. A chairman of the authority stepped down following his appointment as chairman of Anglo-Irish Bank. His successor survived for less than a month, resigning when details of a complicated tax avoidance scheme he was involved in were published. In the words of the leader of the Labour Party, the chairman “legally avoided the payment of Capital Gains tax by the convenient means of transferring the shares of his spouse, who then transferred herself to Italy for the best part of a year to qualify as a tax exile”. In 2012 the Comptroller and Auditor General found serious shortcomings in the conduct of the DDDA’s planning and development functions, particularly in relation to the Glass Bottle site purchase, prompting the then minister, Phil Hogan, to announce that the DDDA would be abolished and its powers transferred to Dublin City Council. In the same year the site passed into the control of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).
Little of this might have come out if the fall in property values had not been so catastrophic. Without rehearsing every detail of the saga, what became clear was that this vast area was controlled by a small group of financiers and developers and that everyone involved was playing a hugely risky game for giddying stakes. A single bank was the primary lender, and its clients made millions in profits determined in large part by the decisions of the state agency. A small group of developers, most of them bankrolled by the same bank, were the main builders. It seems pretty remarkable that a state agency such as the DDDA would gamble so recklessly in a speculative deal like the Ringsend site. Towards the end of its reign a new chair, Professor Niamh Brennan of UCD, was appointed, a specialist in corporate governance and forensic accounting, and she oversaw inquiries into the activities of the authority during the boom years. One of the things she found was that key records of the DDDA had gone missing: “We understand that under the previous regime, it was not always the policy to ensure proper minutes of discussions and decisions taken at subcommittees of the board,” she said at the time. “As a result, we understand that there are a number of meetings where there is no proper record of what transpired. We are also aware that there were instances where minutes were kept but are no longer accessible. Clearly this is an unsatisfactory situation. It is now policy that all meetings are minuted.”
Paul Maloney, who was chief executive of the authority from 2005 to 2009 and was central to the disastrous investment in the former Irish Glass Bottle, told the Dáil Committee on Public Accounts in 2013 that he had “watched aghast” for four years as Professor Brennan “issued report after report on DDDA without ever offering an opportunity for those involved to present their views or have a say”. He vigorously defended the record of the DDDA but the fact remains that the loss to the authority, following the transfer of loans associated with the Glass Bottle site deal to the National Asset Management Agency, was €52 million. Professor Brennan in turn objected to what she called “inappropriate and personal attacks” made on her under evidence at the PAC by other DDDA officials. She disputed claims by one DDDA official that she had questions to answer as to how she carried out her functions. The truth is that that the history of Docklands is a labyrinth of claim and counter-claim, of incomplete investigations, complex money trails, shifting policies and governance, and it will take a comprehensive study to tease out the detail of the making of this new urban quarter in all its gnarly intricacy.
As I walk down the quay, I stop to admire the Samuel Beckett Bridge. We have the James Joyce Bridge, the Sean O’Casey Bridge, and now the Samuel Beckett Bridge. What would the writers make of their incorporation into the civic infrastructure? Samuel Beckett was imported from Rotterdam. At home on my computer I watched its stately progress through the Dutch port, laid on a huge barge and hauled by an impossibly small tug. Then I watched it coming up the Liffey through the East Link bridge. The bridge, a Calatrava, is a cable stay bridge that fans across the river like a lyre. Looking at is another reminder that there is plenty to look at in Docklands. It is a visually fascinating urban space. I cross the Sean O’Casey Bridge, for me the most attractive of Dublin’s new bridges, and enter the CHQ building on the other side. This is what used to be known as Stack A, a large nineteenth century tobacco warehouse with a spectacular iron roof, built over stone vaults designed to store wine, most famous for hosting the Crimean War Banquet in 1856, celebrating the return of three thousand Irish soldiers.
All kinds of proposals for a cultural use of this historic building were made: a science museum, a museum of Dublin, a gallery of modern art, a maritime museum, a transport museum. The architects who restored it were given a brief to convert it for use as both retail space and museum. London has its Museum of London Docklands. Rotterdam has it Havensmuseum in Waterstad, the heart of the harbour; Toronto’s docklands will house an ambitious multicultural Toronto Museum Project. All of these make an explicit connection between their maritime location and the heritage of the docks. CHQ, for all the attractiveness of the building and location, has struggled to make an impact. The Grade One listed building was redeveloped by the DDDA in 2005 for a cost of approximately €45 million but struggled to attract tenants: 82 per cent of the development was vacant when it was put on sale in 2013. It was bought by Neville Isdell, a former CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, for €10 million and now houses the usual run of generic cafés, sushi places, office space and EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum, which tells the stories of Ireland’s emigrants through the stories of those “who became scientists, politicians, poets, artists and even outlaws all over the world”. (“What is Rihanna’s Irish surname?”, “Where was Ronan O’Hara born?”, “Which Irish-born author wrote The Chronicles of Narnia?” ask the bright green posters outside.)
Culture, it has to be said, doesn’t feature heavily in Docklands, as the Master Plan admitted back in 2008: “To date there has not been a significant provision of arts and culture infrastructure in the Docklands.” (DDDA Master Plan, 2008, p 191) It’s as if Docklands doesn’t want to link itself culturally with the surrounding community or, particularly, with Dublin. It was quite happy to vest its cultural interest in the two signature venues, the O2 and the Grand Canal Theatre, a few art galleries and some public art, including another giant but ultimately ill-fated commission, the proposed forty-eight-metre-high Antony Gormley sculpture close to the O’Casey footbridge (“almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty”, “nearly as high as Liberty Hall”, “bigger than Rio’s Christ the Redeemer”) which would, in the artist’s words “allude to the human body as a dynamic interconnected matrix evoking the collective body”. This project was, inevitably, doomed by the crash, which is possibly no bad thing.
Other than that there was the usual bland rhetoric about “developing the arts identity of brand Docklands” and actively promoting “the sustainability of the arts in the future”. There is also talk of seeking to “explore the feasibility” of a maritime museum, but given what happened with Stack A, this feels a little hollow.
A few years ago as I left the old CHQ I paused to take a photograph of a Luas coming down Mayor Street. Within seconds a security guard came running up to stop me. “This is private property,” he said, “photography is strictly forbidden.” Did he mean this street, or this area? “No, the whole Docklands area is private property. If you want to take a photograph you can go to Amiens Street.” Dublin ended at Amiens Street, it seemed. When I asked why Docklands objected to photography, he explained that the “clients” don’t like it. The “clients”, whoever they were, were the real occupants of Docklands. The rest of us were visitors. Today, I take out my phone and snap away unaccosted and yet as I cross the expensive bridges and walk up and down the quiet pedestrian walkways it still has the feeling of patrolling a private district, a corporatised park at the edge of the city, in search of a heart to call its own.