My article in The Sunday Times.
There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris.
For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).
I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.
I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying.
The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.
Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:
…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’
Fads will come and go.
Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.
‘If you build it, he will come’ is the castles-in-the-air catchline of the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’, where the regular Joe character played by Kevin Costner pursues his quixotic plan of building a baseball diamond after hearing voices emanating from his crop field in Iowa.
The (fictional) idea of building a small folly based on Midwestern murmurs coming from your meadows is a disturbing prospect to most rational beings. So where does the construction of the world’s first (real) zero-carbon city – and in the desert, no less – rank on the scale of delusion and downright daftness? Pretty high, it seems.
In 2006 work began on a masterplan drawn up by Foster and Partners for Masdar City, which was trumpeted as a carbon neutral ‘eco-city’ near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its completion date is meant to be this year, but things don’t look good.
The city was intended to accommodate 50,000 residents and be powered by a 22-hectare field of almost 90,000 solar panels. Usage of electricity and water was to be controlled by sensors, and Masdar was supposed to be car-free: residents and workers would journey in futuristic pods programmed to go where commanded, while the compact urban scale would easily allow travel on foot or bicycle. It was hoped this utopian vision could be something of a Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and as a result attract global businesses to locate there.
However, the permanent residents that live in Masdar are all students at the Institute of Science and Technology – just 300 of them – and design manager of the city, Chris Wan, admits that Masdar is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The travel pod scheme was abandoned after two stops were built: the emergence of low-emission cars quickly put paid to that plan. Only a few international companies meanwhile have registered a base at Masdar, such as General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Siemens (which says it has 800 employees there) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has taken over one of the major buildings, in what seems little more than a symbol of solidarity with the ruling powers. Much of the city remains empty, unloved, and unused.
Masdar City being on the fringes of Abu Dhabi means many workers commute, and it is said there is little in the way of human activity (aside from the students) after office hours. Abu Dhabi International Airport is nearby too, so many workers shuttle in and out of the city, making the travel agents in Masdar one of the few places where there’s a thrum of activity.
Other facilities on offer to any prospective citizen sound uninspiring. It reads like a bog-standard gated-community checklist: a medium-sized supermarket; a couple of cafes; a cinema, and so on; not very exciting for a place where people will be looking to escape usual temperatures of forty to fifty degrees on a regular basis. If people do venture outdoors, the streets are made narrow and short to reduce heat, and pathways between buildings are shaded. But still, the plans all sound rather lacklustre for the major challenge of weaving a social fabric in a new community ensconced in the desert.
So why build a city here to begin with?
The UAE is one of the world’s major oil producers (globally, their reserve is the seventh-largest) but the remarkable drop in prices in the last few years has seen moves to ween their economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Masdar City was seen as the antidote. The President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, backed the idea of a smart city, but the most recent estimated cost of $22bn (which naturally will rise if they ever do complete the project) it is quite a tab to pick up, even for him.
Ten years in to the project, and behind schedule, is this the ultimate hubristic gesture of our egotistic mismanagement of the natural environment? Time will tell. We have to question Masdar City’s environmental impact for good in a part of the world that hosts an annual Formula One race, that builds snow-caked ski slopes in its deserts, and constructs golf courses or islands in the sea. We also have to decide if this smart city model has any practical value for the rest of the world, considering its dependency on extreme levels of sunshine that are the norm in the Gulf states, but found few places elsewhere.
At the time of writing only five per cent of the city has been built and the resident count of a few hundred seems unlikely to grow. The completion date has been pushed back to 2030. Masdar City was meant to lead the way in smart, sustainable cities. But now that the idea of a zero-carbon city has gone up in smoke, it may have to check its ambitions and reluctantly reconfigure itself as a large modern education campus: with a very costly first lesson built in.
It was to be built on a giant island on the Yangtze River and to eventually accommodate half a million people, with the slogan ‘Better city; better life’, Dongtan was to be unveiled as a joint-project between engineering company Arup and Chinese developers at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But dreams of a green city with water taxis, state-of-the-art recycling and energy renewal has seemingly sank without trace.
Envisioned as an international community free of money, religion, and government. It was designed by French architect Roger Anger on a former French colonial area on the coast of south-east India. Its visionary founder was Mirra Alfassa, a French expat known as ‘The Mother’, who saw it as a ‘community without nations’. It was built for 50,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000 have settled there. It has struggled with crime and allegations of child abuse and corruption.
Pomp and ceremony does little for me usually, but if I’m ever trudging through the Dublin streets on a crisp cold or ragged wet night then I always find warmth passing the Mansion House on Dawson Street which, until the Luas line developments, was always the prettiest street in the city.
Set back from the road, with two-storeys of seven bay windows, the elegant illuminated facade of the Mansion House has a curative quality to lift any cursing part of your soul, even as you walk into the teeth of a howling gale. It looks best at Christmas time, when snow is falling: its understated tree stood out front, while the shadows loll in the iridescence of the stemmed lanterns running along the lower face of the house, distinguished by its Georgian porch (by Simon Vierpyl) and Victorian wrought iron portico (by Daniel Freeman). The building takes on a magical quality in these moments: like some lustrous smile peering out at you from the depths of winter’s darkness. It always makes me think of the ghosts that may be fleeting ethereally through Dawson Street; past St Ann’s Church, built in 1719 , and the Mansion House, its older neighbour by nine years.
It’s a little more than 300 years since Mansion House came into the ownership of Dublin Corporation, having been purchased on 18 May 1715 from the property developer Joshua Dawson for the princely sum of £3,500 sterling, a yearly rent of forty shillings to Dawson, and the rather bizarre condition of a loaf of double-refined sugar weighing six pounds to be handed over each Christmas (unsurprisingly this was never paid, nor sought out).
Dawson was originally from Dawson’s Bridge, Co Derry but moved to Dublin to further his career, where he became a high-ranking civil servant based in Dublin Castle and MP for Wicklow borough (apparently while living in the city he kept his evenings full too by managing a network of spies working to undermine Catholic priests; well before they started doing it for themselves).
In Dublin Dawson built the Mansion House as his private residence in the Queen Anne style. It was quite an unusual move in a quintessentially Georgian city. But such was the Tory from Derry’s love for the ruling monarch he went ahead with a design type that artist Osbert Lancaster said ‘would be more rational and more just to call Wren… few monarchs have displayed less interest in architecture than that monarch’.
Dawson bought a tract of land to the east of St Stephen’s Green in 1705 and drained the marshy ground and laid out a straight road running parallel to Grafton Street, unabashedly naming it after himself; Duke Street and Anne Street soon followed as part of his urban plan. After the development flurry Dawson was called back to take over the family estate in his home county, and he promptly offered the house to Dublin City Assembly on the proviso he would build an extra room that could be used for civic receptions – the now famous Oak room. It’s fitting the man originally from the county of oaks would depart on such a note.
When the First Citizen of the city duly took residence in the house he was given an annuity of £500 sterling each year for entertainment purposes, along with 10,000 oysters from the civic oyster beds. It’s a pity the Mayor could not get hold of Thackeray in order to lubricate his quill with claret-soused kindness and salt his tongue with Dublin Bay’s finest. The great English writer was not impressed by the Mansion House when his eyes fell upon it. In his essay ‘A Summer Day in Dublin’ from ‘The Irish Sketch Book’ (published in1843) he noted:
“I had just passed his lordship’s mansion in Dawson Street, – a queer old dirty brick-house, with dumpy urns at each extremity, and looking as if a storey of it had been cut off – a rassée-house. Close at hand, and peering over a paling, is a statue of our blessed sovereign George II. How absurd these pompous images look, of defunct majesties, for whom no breathing soul cares a halfpenny!”
He certainly was right on the second point. From reading his travelogues, the ‘Vanity Fair’ scribbler could be dyspeptic at the best of times, and the Queen Anne style had fallen thumpingly out of fashion by that stage of the 19thcentury – Victorian buildings were vogue – and nothing fell harder from Thackery’s pen than that which was not in fashion.
Many original features of the Mansion House remain, the two main staircases for example; quite a feat for a house now in the foothills of its fourth century (it’s worth noting the city of London did not build a mansion house until thirty years after Dublin). Naturally there has been changes to the likes of the Supper Room, the Oak Room, the Lord Mayor’s Garden, and the surrounding area of the house. For indepth details of changes made (and the many mooted) throughout its history it is worth consulting the impressive ‘The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality’ by Dublin City Council for a rich account and meticulous itinerary of this Dublin landmark. Some of the more significant additions or alterations to the house have played a part in Ireland’s storied past. The Round Room stands out for one. It was built beside the Mansion House, on part of the former bowling green, in just six weeks for the visit of King George VI in 1821 (the roof atop the Round Room was a temporary one, such was the builder’s haste; a permanent one was put in place three years later).
This same room would go on to hold the meeting of the first Dáil on 21 January 1919, which is so memorably captured in Tom Ryan’s painting which now hangs above the entrance to the Dáil chamber. What goes around comes around in the Round Room it seems, which John Croker Wilson described as: ‘the circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky: the battlements were a gallery walled with ladies, music and a company of halberdiers in Spanish dresses of light blue silk, as a guard of honour to the king.’
The Round Room was also scene to many a Lord Mayor’s Ball down the years, and the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1861 had ‘The Irish Times’ praising the House Steward Mr McCleaverty whose arrangements were ‘so perfect that although there were over 100 persons present, no inconvenience resulted to the guests’. Things must have become somewhat boisterous however, and maybe even out of hand (although these details were sadly not reported) as the same newspaper carried a number of advertisements looking for valuable property lost at the ball. One offered a reward ‘if found by a poor person’. If such a poor beggar had chanced upon an expensive bracelet or a purse stuffed with coins, I can’t imagine they would have handed them in. Not for all the oysters in Dublin Bay.
‘I’ve said goodbye to the overworked notion that architecture has to save the world,’ said Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a Pritzker Prize winner and recipient of RIBA’s Gold Medal.
In one sense Zumthor was right: architecture is only as good as our intentions, only as good as the values we place on what we choose to build and what those buildings are for.
Did we overinflate architecture’s leverage to change the world? Could it really have created a human idyll where divisions of wealth and class were redundant? If we look at the house prices and urban development plans of the last decade, the short answer is no.
Yet it wasn’t always thus. Such pessimism did not always hang over our ideas of building better lives for all. A beautiful new book called The Tale of Tomorrow (Gestalten) shows the optimism of post-war architecture in all its glory, brimming with lofty ideals: how those involved believed what we built could overcome our divisions on a human level, while also allowing us a more harmonious relationship with nature.
Utopian architecture, the general sticker we would slap on this modernist movement, was intended to be universal, not just the preserve of the elite. The same houses would be built for rich and poor. This was a time when architects, designers and engineers – abetted by governments that believed in social justice – imagined they could construct a brave, better world where we would all reap the benefits of a more equitable and therefore spiritual society.
However, the utopian movement became an unfinished symphony, though a few buildings that period bestowed upon us still shine.
An easy choice, but one that cannot be overlooked, is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille. Built as social housing, it is considered by many to be the idée fixe of a utopian building, completed in 1952 with capacity for 1,600 people.
Unité d’habitation was figured as a “vertical garden city”. A 17-storey concrete block set on pilotis, the ventilation stacks sticking out from the top of the building make it look like a cruise liner.
Each resident has a colour-co-ordinated balcony with unrestricted views, and the facilities are almost unthinkable for most modern city dwellers: on the seventh and eighth floors there are a bakery, butcher, chemist, greengrocer and off-licence.
The building also has a post office and barber’s, while there are a nursery and kindergarten on the top floor, where there are also a running track, swimming pool, rooftop garden, artists’ workspace and solarium. Thanks to the pilotis, there is plenty of parking for cars and bikes underneath the building. Communal, convenient, and self-contained, this is what social housing could and should strive towards.
In marked contrast to the two-hander of Le Corbusier’s modernism and brutalism, US architect Bruce Goff was a leading figure of the organic design vanguard. He built almost 150 commissions and none was more striking than the Ruth Ford House in 1948. The house cost less than $70,000 to build and had the honour of a spread dedicated to it in Life magazine.
The main unit is shaped like a large dome made from bright red prefabricated steel, which wasn’t filled in, so allowed a view inside the house from outdoors. Rising over three levels it resembles a bird cage or a pumpkin with its skin and core removed. The steel ribs realise a remarkable cathedral-like vault inside, while the bottom level of the house has a kitchen and dining room with built-in furniture and fireplace. The house is an enduring object of beauty, though beauty was not always in the eye of the beholder. Fellow citizens of Aurora, Illinois did not take kindly to the new building, so the Fords erected a sign reading: “We don’t like your house either.” Touché.
It would be remiss to make a selection of utopian architecture and exclude the legendary Buckminster Fuller.
Probably best known for his Montreal Biosphere, based on his seminal geodesic dome design, Fuller held more than 28 patents and 47 honorary degrees. One of his most celebrated ideas came to him during a period of severe adversity. After a business plan with his father-in-law failed, Fuller spent two years living as a recluse in the 1920s. During this time he came up with his design for the Dymaxion House (fully conceived in 1945).
If the Ruth Ford House was designed for the hip intelligentsia, Fuller’s was a universal housing solution. The house could be mass-produced, shipped in a single container and built in a matter of hours.
The layout could be easily adapted and was totally efficient with its own heating and cooling system built in. It was the epitome of Fuller’s philosophy of “doing more with less”.
The Dymaxion House led to spin-offs too: the Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion Bathroom, but the mass-production venture of each collapsed due to a conflict between Fuller and his business partners. Capitalism distrusted an idea of making products that were good yet cheap, easy to produce that cut down waste.
Like most utopian architecture, Fuller’s ideas remain unfulfilled, but are still part of the future, even as we look back on them.
Of course, utopian architecture did not always need a function: it could simply add something to the landscape. The St Louis Gateway Arch is a fine example. It doesn’t “do” anything on a functional level, but it does something magical to the city. This transformation is from the designs of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.
The arch is made of stainless steel and, at 192 metres, is the tallest manmade monument in the US. It was completed in 1965, the two legs being built simultaneously and then linked at the top by a keystone. It has a tram inside which carries the public to a lookout area at its highest point.
Saarinen’s design was part of a 1948 project to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and the settlers of the American West. The son of acclaimed art deco architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero survived him by just 11 years but still managed to complete many of his father’s projects, before flourishing with his own commissions; another is the TWA Terminal at JFK.
It is easy to fantasise about a Saarinen-style arch in Dublin; as a stooping sister to the Spire, perhaps. It could majestically sweep across the Liffey, joining north and south together. Utopian architecture in the Fair City: just imagine it.
The Tale of Tomorrow is published by Gestalten
Maria Johnston, Poetry Critic
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