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A city frozen in time

Angela Nagle writes: When it comes to architecture and public engineering structures, Ireland typically prefers small and charming to tall and imposing. How then to explain our new love for the Poolbeg chimneys, once maligned as an example of modern ugliness?

Amid fears that the 680ft candy-striped chimneys located on the Poolbeg peninsula in Dublin’s Ringsend might be knocked down, a successful campaign to conserve them was launched involving a public petition and advocacy from Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who said: “We have been very bad at protecting the industrial heritage in Dublin.” Design companies like Jam Art Prints and RetroEire have produced a variety of popular illustrations of the chimneys, which can now be seen framed in cafes and galleries all over the city. The collective attempt to elevate the chimneys to iconic status is highly visible in Dublin media and street life. I personally know of two people with tattoos bearing the image of the chimneys. This extraordinary attachment to the structures among the younger generation in particular deserves some analysis.

Ordinarily we don’t warm to modern architecture or industrial structures imposing themselves upon the Irish skyline, especially not if they serve an industrial function. The Save Our Seafront campaign made socialist TD Richard Boyd Barrett popular in one of Dublin’s most prosperous areas and campaigns against electricity pylons and even wind turbines gained support during a post-bailout period many argue was otherwise marked by an atmosphere of political passivity, not to mention low investment and consequent infrastructural underdevelopment. We like to conserve. Campaigns to save the bogs from commercial exploitation are supported by poets, nuclear power opposed by folk singers and everything from Moore Street to crumbling Georgian buildings has inspired campaigns to keep pockets of the city frozen in time. While we allow much of the city centre to go unused in the middle of a rent crisis in the name of preserving historic architecture, we loathe architectural styles that suggest an unsentimental, future-oriented character.

The Dublin City Development Plan 2011-2017 restricted buildings higher than 50m to the Docklands cluster, Connolly, the Heuston area and George’s Quay. A 2008 report, “Maximising the City’s Potential”, noted that “Dublin is a predominantly low-rise city, and has remained so through the significant regeneration of the past 20 years”, heights generally maintained at what it called “the European scale of 6-7 storeys”. Dublin’s tallest building, Liberty Hall, stands at 58 metres, over 90 metres short of “super high-rise” standards. Celtic Tiger-era flagship developments, including the 36-storey, 120-metre U2 Tower, 11-metre, 32-storey Heuston Gate and 130-metre Point Village Watchtower, came to nothing. A December 2014 Strategic Development Zone plan for North Lotts and the Docklands would restrict building heights to 60 metres. And it shows. A friend and foreign correspondent once told me that some in the City of London have given Ireland’s financial district the unimprovably excellent title of “Canary Dwarf” because of the squat buildings, amusingly failing to look like the temples of international finance their investors may have wanted.

Architecture critic Owen Hatherley wrote about how Britain’s oxymoronic “heritage modernism” consigned the post-war egalitarian ambitions associated with the style to the past. It is easy to see why the first industrial nation should be nostalgic for its modernism as well as its monuments to industry, such as Battersea power station, having once been the most productive nation on earth and, until the Thatcher era, with a militant labour movement to go with it. But what are we in Ireland being nostalgic about in the Poolbeg chimneys? Like many of its European counterparts, Ireland had a period of industrial and urban development, in which new infrastructure and manufacturing reshaped the country but it was significantly later, shorter and smaller in scale than most, with agriculture remaining dominant. In the 1990s, Ireland was praised by advocates of the information society for “leapfrogging” the industrial stage of capitalist development, with Wired magazine calling it the “Silicon Isle”. Is our new-found affection for “industrial heritage” trying to will into existence a fictional glorious industrial past, while also implicitly consigning all that came with it to the past?

Perhaps the nostalgia for the chimneys is recalling in the public imagination the hope of the modernising Lemass years when they were built, which its young fans can only imagine. Central to this imaginary is the state-owned ESB, which built other ambitious infrastructure in the same period of the 60s and 70s, such as the hydroelectric Turlough Hill station, where my grandfather worked as a machine operator. But significantly these now preserved twin structures are no longer in use after the company shut down its oil-burning plant as part of a deal to create more competition in the electricity generation market.

There is of course an irony in this modernist nostalgia. Music critic Simon Reynolds diagnosed our desire to culturally relive the recent past as “retromania”. But in Ireland a generation hit hardest by the unemployment and emigration of the post-bailout period are actively celebrating a symbol of industry and the future-oriented promise of 1960s, but doing so in a nostalgic mode. One of the creators behind the ubiquity of the chimneys at Jam Art Prints, Mark Haybyrne, commented that the prints were particularly popular among this period’s emigrating young people or as gifts for their emigrating friends. Is this nostalgia an attempt to re-evaluate the past as a critique of the present in a period of job insecurity, financialisation and the privatisation of natural resources and basic infrastructure? Is this critiquing or merely aestheticising the worst elements of the present expressed as a romantic longing for the past?

In The Irish Times, Una Mullally, also a defender of the chimneys, wrote of the largely derelict central Thomas Street: “Give me a semi-derelict Georgian house any day over another disposable building.” In this worldview, even dereliction is preferable to anything the future is likely to bring. But what could be more antithetical to the spirit in which the chimneys were built? Would many of those nostalgic for the bold imposing structures of yesterday, preferring instead a “small is beautiful” pop-up aesthetic of temporariness, oppose their construction today? Perhaps we should take this as a lesson, that in order to create buildings and structures that people will love in the future we need to create the kind of culture that will build their equivalents today. Let’s hope that the cultural retromania for a modern spirit safely consigned to the past doesn’t mean we no longer can.

15/6/2015