Dublin’s Buildings

February 1, 2010

We got into Dublin at night on Friday, and as a result I didn’t get to see much of the city. In fairness, that was my fault; we were late because I had taken more time to finish some things than I anticipated. Still, we were dropped off in the city centre and got a chance to gawk around for a moment before we caught the train out to Steve’s house. Even at night, the river area near the city centre didn’t strike me as very compelling. Steve pointed out the Dublin financial centre, where all the bankers had ruined the country. The building was hideous. I guess it is true; new money has no taste.

The next day we set out to sightsee, with Ger wanting to show us “real Dublin.” When we were in Russia, I remember it taking a long time for Katie to warm up to St. Petersburg. The parts of the city we got to see have none of the lived in warmth of Nizhny Novgorod; instead it is slick, clean, commercial. I was enchanted enough by the architecture of the old imperial buildings that it didn’t bother me that much, but I know where Katie was coming from. It wasn’t until we were given freedom to roam around the city that we saw some of the seedier alleyways and the more out of the way side streets. This is what I love seeing in cities.

They don’t expect you to go there. Cities expect you to stay on the clearly marked and cleaned paths that all but scream “For Tourists!” Go where the shiny buildings are; go where the shopping is; go to the preserved areas where we can hawk you things you don’t need. Des Moines doesn’t really have this problem. Who just goes to Des Moines? The entire town– I’m not counting the western suburbs– has a scruffiness that I enjoy. A city like Dublin, though, definitely does. I love seeing the parts of the city the tourist board doesn’t want me to see. It’s where the character of the city comes through. Where the character of the inhabitants comes through.

I also really love to see the sides of buildings that weren’t ever meant to be seen. In a lot of older cities the buildings are packed in shoulder to shoulder, hoof to tail. When one of these buildings comes down we get a chance to take a look at a part of the neighboring structures that the architect never intended us to see. This is where they got to hide their work, and we get a chance to see it now. The docklands area presented the final treasure for me: decaying factories.

Dublin, and the Republic of Ireland in general, is like an accelerated version of the rest of the West in this sense. Ireland was well behind economically and industrially until fairly recently. While the rest of the West was shedding jobs and factories Ireland was struggling to set them up in the first place. So while in the US we’ve watched cities like Detroit, Columbus, and Cleveland decay slowly in front of us for the last four decades, Dublin was able to quickly and nimbly make the switch to the new economic realities. Well, maybe too quickly. The country’s finances are a shambles now, but it was great while it lasted. Along the river and going out to the sea, historic dockland buildings and factories were disassembled and replaced with gleaming new modernist buildings reflecting the rise of banking and finance in Ireland. I’d be lying if I said I liked these buildings. They don’t seem to have a soul, not the way the old brick ones do.

The further out you go the more abandoned factories you see, and experience should tell us that these jobs don’t come back. Just the other day another factory closed here in Belfast, putting 200 people out of a job. It’s the challenge of these cities to come up with interesting ways to reuse these buildings, or just bulldoze them over. In the meantime there’s plenty of stuff for me to see.


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