Conor Skehan article
A restoration project on Dublin’s quays has just been awarded the equivalent of a heritage Oscar
July 25 2021 02:30 AM
Psychologists regularly ask whether there is any cure for what is called ‘News Anxiety’.
The syndrome is an increasing tendency to want to stay informed, and it also causes worry about distant wars, disasters, crime and the economy. It seems to have more effect on younger people and particularly women. This anxiety makes people feel helpless and hopeless.
The antidote, which is news about nearby goodness and decency, is too easily overlooked and under-reported. Sometimes it takes the fresh eyes of outsiders to notice and remind us about good things in our midst.
This has recently happened in Dublin, where a modest restoration project has been awarded the equivalent of a heritage Oscar by Europa Nostra, which is Europe’s largest and oldest federation of heritage organisations.
Every year it celebrates and promotes significant heritage achievements across 40 countries.
This year, the Dublin Civic Trust won a European Heritage Award/Europa Nostra Award 2021 for their restoration of a simple 19th-century merchant’s building at 18 Ormond Quay Upper in the centre of Dublin.
When Geraldine Walsh, the CEO of the trust, bought the building in 2017, she was blind to the fact that the building was a sodden wreck, with holes in the roof and walls that bulged alarmingly. Instead, she and the trust’s conservation director, Graham Hickey, saw a gem.
The building was a fine example of the many-layered 18th century buildings that make up the core of Dublin, with the added bonus of a rare arcaded granite shopfront that may date to the 1780s.
The courage and confidence of embarking on a restoration project like this is the equivalent of stepping off a cliff, and then building your airplane on the way down.
Dublin Civic Trust has already carried out eight projects like this, using an innovative ‘revolving’ fund that completes and sells a renovated building, before using each sale to attract partners to start the next project.
It took three years of meticulous research, daring engineering and expert design by specialists and contractors to allow the original building to re-emerge. Old photographs, scraps of remaining wallpaper and layers of old paint were all used as clues to guide the work.
These projects are so much more than ‘fix-ups’ because they investigate and often revive forgotten materials and methods. Traditional Irish lime ‘wigging’ was used to disguise rough brickwork, and authentic lamps were crafted that precisely replicate historic oil lamps found in old engravings of Dublin street scenes.
The trust’s projects all have two aims — building restoration, and raising awareness about the potential of older buildings to contribute to the city. And it is no accident that this project is prominently located directly across the river from the city manager’s office.
This work is carried out at great risk, with no hope of personal gain. Their motivation is to try to lead by example by showing how to make the city a better place, one building at a time. The work tries to show how places new and old that carry a sense of identity help provide the basic urban building blocks of a liveable city.
Every trust project deepens research and provides training — in materials, methods and designs. Their projects are meant to become visible signposts to more sustainable ways of building, living, and working in the city.
We should sit up and take notice of this success, because it carries a lesson about the qualities we need to cultivate if we are to successfully navigate our journey towards becoming a more urbanised society.
Collections of serviceable buildings and roads start to become civic spaces when they acquire a sense of public goodness. The conjuring of the public realm begins when abstract ideas start to be pursued that are about more than the merely functional. Places also need to become imbued with meaning, history, beauty, and moral purpose.
This doesn’t just apply to big cities. Much of current Government policy aims to revitalise our smaller towns as places from where we can work from home. They hope to balance economic and social development all over Ireland. To succeed we need to kindle the approach of making places that go the extra mile. We need to invest in abstract ideas like the public good.
The award is more remarkable because this modest project — it cost less than €650,000 — succeeded against projects by large national organisations involving huge palaces and stately homes with budgets of millions. In making the award, Europa Nostra was trying to draw attention to the excellence of the trust’s overall approach, as well as the actual restoration work.
Their jury noted, “the project was undertaken to specifically be a model for others, showing that the heritage of buildings common to Dublin has value and contributes to a more sustainable development of the city. The fundraising model is similarly replicable and was developed with the goal of it being repeated elsewhere”.
As Ireland begins its journey toward becoming a more urban culture, we will increasingly learn to appreciate the importance of these older surviving parts of our cities. Arguably, older Irish urban buildings are more important than in many other places — both because we have so few of them, and because expert and authentic renovation is so new to us.
Philosophers recognise this quality of actions which go beyond the call of duty as ‘decency'. The thankless bravery, energy, vision, and reckless ambition of restoring Ormond Quay is the essence of decency.
This trust’s uncalled-for goodness and generosity towards those unknown and un-noticing people who daily pass up and down the quays is the pure essence upon which great cities are built.
Perhaps we have a decent future to look forward to.