Architecture and Politics: making the connections

Architecture and Politics: making the connections

In April 2013 Ciarán Cuffe led a lunchtime discussion on the theme of architecture and politics in Dublin’s darc space gallery. Here he writes on the connections between both.

Architecture and politics both require creativity, hard work and perseverance. They both can be labelled as a profession, a vocation, a calling, a trade, ametier. At its best good acts of architecture can raise the spirit and change our lives forever. So can politics. As architects we rely on others to give shape to our ideas: the builder and the technologist shape, modify and realise our ideas. As politicians we rely on parliamentary drafters, party colleagues, civil servants, and of course the electorate. In politics, the electorate is our client, and voters can be fickle and demanding. If you’ve ever dealt with a Residents’ Association as a client you’ll get a feeling for the challenge. Others can make, or break our proposals.

As an architectural student in UCD in the nineteen-eighties I was politicised by the crimes against the city being conducted by Dublin Corporation. Older buildings were being tore down and communities destroyed to facilitate urban motorways. If Frank Feely was the Robert Moses of Dublin then Frank McDonald was the Jane Jacobs. Inspired by the Living City movement and the love of the city shown by the late Deirdre Kelly and others we joined forces with colleagues in the Dublin Institute of Technology and the National College of Art and Design to save our city.  Back then it felt like the city‘s motto ‘Obedientia Civitas urbis felicitas (Happy the City where the Citizens Obey) was the watchword of those in charge in the Civic Offices.

In college we were learning that architecture can transform people’s lives. Buildings, to paraphrase Churchill shape us. As I was drawn in to politics I learnt that legislation, good or bad can do the same.  Through this interest in the city, I learnt about the concerns of local communities. With colleagues in the Students Against the Destruction of Dublin (SADD) movement we campaigned to replace destructive road-widening with plans for modern trams, andadvocated conserving older buildings rather than allowing the City demolish them. I learnt that the design of the space outside of buildings is too important to be left to road engineers. This space requires both political and design input to create good places. An interest in shaping the built environment brought me through the doors of Dublin’s City Hall, and a decade later, Leinster House.

On the City Council and in Dáil Éireann I learnt about skills that architects bring to the political process.  Listening skills are essential.  As architects we’re sometimes not great listeners, but as politicians we have to be great listeners. Often the quiet voices need to be listened to most. Unfortunately some pride themselves too much on their creativity, rather than their listening skills. Politicians need to be great project managers, time managers and people managers. All of this can be picked up by overseeing a construction project from start to finish. Vision is also needed. Almost anyone in politics, be they dogcatcher or Mayor of Paris needs to articulate a vision. Perseverance is also essential. Good architects need to be marathon or triathlon runners, not sprinters.

The boom years gave us some great architecture. We now need to build and rebuild deep green buildings, increasingly difficult in a prolonged recession.  However we can engage with a  world beyond the boundary of individual buildings. This can be achieved through civic design and through political action. Our skill-set prepares us for both. The Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik left his mark on his beautiful home town of Ljubljana. He built not just buildings, but initiated civic improvements including new bridges, a redesigned waterfront, monuments, markets, plazas and parks. Here in Dublin we need the same design skills to be applied to College Green, the Liffey Quays, and the incomplete new towns and settlements around Ireland.

To design buildings and not engage with the wider urban environment is an abrogation of responsibility. All too-often we’re contributing to obesogenic environments marked by ‘carchitecture’ or design that works best through a windscreen, rather than on foot. We have innate urban design skills, and the space between buildings is so important. I am pleased that some colleagues are contributing to proposals under the Smarter Travel Programme. Making good places as well as buildings should be at the heart of what we do.

Ciarán Cuffe lectures in the School of Spatial Planning at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is a former Green Party TD and Junior Minister. He tweets as @CiaranCuffe, and blogs at CuffeStreet.Blogspot.com