I sat down to read the latest edition of the RIAI journal ‘Architecture Ireland’ last night. Its presentation gives the, in some cases, deserved, impression Irish architecture is at the cutting edge, with cleverly photographed contemporary architecture featured on the cover. The table of contents looks impressive and lead me to the obituary of Sam Stephenson, which I found genuinely interesting. The treatment of recent examples of Irish architecture in a range of articles is excellent. I also think the publishing of excerpts from the best architecture theses of recent students is a great idea. For the most part this is a serious magazine for the architectural profession and one which, as a planner, I always try to read.
Where this edition, and the previous, falls down is at the President’s Column on page 5. Here the incumbent, Mr James Pike, Partner in one of the largest architect firms in the country, appears to have decided to take a very large brush, brandished it in front of the planners of Ireland, and to have tarred planning and planners with the words: “Irish planning is crap” in a way that can only be taken as offensive to the planning profession.
Given the current political climate for planning, documented in the recent book ‘Chaos at the Crossroads’, it is not surprising that there are some bad examples of Irish planning. This does not mean all Irish planning is bad. In fact, follow the course of Irish planning since about 1910, and it is obvious that the progress planning has made, including developing and successfully instituting a statutory planning process for the entire country since 1963, and producing recurrent land use plans which now provide policies for every part of the country, is near on amazing. Mr Pike’s views which include, if his recent comments in Venice are read in detail, a possible scrapping of the current planning system are irresponsible and short-sighted, representing an attack on what planners do and why they do it.
Mr Pike’s comments read like notes from a first year lecture in planning to undergraduate students. The lecturer asks: “so, what do you think of planning?” Response from cider-smelling students: “shite”. What planners learn while undertaking their – often many – qualifications, which are required to get a job as a planner, is: we do our best in the face of, and, often in spite of, an incredibly well organised development industry (both public and private) of which I am part. Mr Pike’s column, when read by a planner (public or private), comes across as so simplistic as to be clichéd. It has become all too easy to grab headlines with some story of bad planning and for the RIAI to support such comments reduces the credibility and certainly the newsworthiness of its journal.
Planners do not often defend themselves, as most work for Planning Authorities or An Bord Pleanala, which don’t permit it. Those few planners trying to represent the profession, the IPI and RTPI, do so in the face of enormous negativity from those who do not understand the inherent complexities, political requirements, Development Plan policies, and insistency and resourcefulness of the development industry. For the RIAI to publish Mr Pike’s ongoing negative comments about Irish planning in edition after edition, is for it to appear naïve and ill informed, when its members clearly understand the ‘why’ of bad planning. The RIAI should focus on areas where it has specialist knowledge, where changes are possible: not slag planning as a whole – an incredibly complex and inherently political subject.
There are few in the development industry who can claim they are not part of the problems which are endemic in Irish planning – as perceived by the public. An example of this would be Mr Pike’s firm’s own high density housing developments, which now litter Dublin and other parts of the country. Mr Pike has been and still is a firm proponent of very high density residential development and continues to be under the auspices of the Urban Forum. Campaigning by the development lobby, including by the RIAI in the late 1990s, led to almost every Development Plan in the country supporting such development up to present day. Since then, many communities have learned the meaning of high density development on their doorsteps and have tried to oppose it. Such developments have often been built on what was once institutional land. The communities adjacent to such development quickly become cynical about planners and architects. Fact is, whatever example is taken: rural housing, urban housing, offices, tall buildings, mixed use developments, shopping centres, roads, wind farms, you name it: all bad planning is designed by someone and considered fine by some and shite by others. It’s a matter of opinion.
In his Column, Mr Pike appears to be allowing his personal views of planning, his ‘opinion’ to influence his comments when he should be representing architects. Whatever the reason for driving another nail into planning, the RIAI should stop doing it and stick to stories which are specific to architecture.
How many Irish architects would accept a President’s column from an Irish planner which said: “all Irish architecture is terrible”. All Irish architecture is not bad; all Irish planning is not bad. When teased at parties about how bad much of Ireland’s architecture is, architects have a get-out clause, they say: “Most Irish buildings are not architect designed” (Note: The Building Control Bill plans to alter this, so this clause will not last much longer). If planners have a similar retort, it might be: “Most examples of bad planning in Ireland are produced by those who clam to be architects”. If the RIAI should do anything, it should accept its role as part of the development industry; recognising that for many communities, the designs of its members often represent examples of bad planning (even if they are later medal winners – ask Joe Public about Busarus), as evidenced by the scale of objections to many architect’s proposals. The soapbox is not the right place for any architect to stand when talking about planning, as architects benefit daily from planning decisions: both good and bad.
Planners accept criticism from many sources, but from the RIAI President, it seems unnecessary and hypocritical. We are both, architects and planners, part of the same planning process, some days we love it and some days we hate it. We try each day to make it better and we should do so together.
The website for ‘Architecture Ireland’ states: “ARCHITECTURE IRELAND is the Official Journal of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland founded in 1839, is the governing body of the profession in Ireland. ARCHITECTURE IRELAND’S main objective is to give the widest possible coverage to both Irish architecture and to Irish architects”. I suggest that this aim should once again be brought into focus, rather than entering the taxidriver-like debate about the state of Irish planning.
6 January 2007