A great place is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. It’s got that quality of making you want to slow down. It makes you want to sit, chat, look up at the buildings. Watch the other people. 

What do I mean by place, here? I mean a place in the city. A street, neighbourhood, a square or a corner.

What is it about Shop Street in Galway, or the diamond in Westport, or South Anne Street in Dublin? Yes, they’re all old. But it can’t just be that. Old places can be ugly too.

It’s something about the scale, the height of the buildings, the width of the streets, the speed of the traffic, the width of the facades. Something about these places attracts people. It’s hard to define, like trying to define the view from a mountaintop. But it’s real all the same. 

What’s dispiriting is that, of the great places in this country, very few have been built in the last 50 years. Our new buildings are functional. But people don’t particularly like them, and don’t spend any more time hanging around them than they have to. The same goes for new neighbourhoods.

A new building in New York. Though it could be anywhere.

The urbanist Jan Gehl is someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about how to make great places. He studied people as they go about their lives in the city. He observed how people behave in front of two different types of building: one a blank façade with few doors or windows; another a varied facade with many doors and openings, and windows.

He found that in front of buildings with blank façades, pedestrians are much less likely to stop, turn their head, or engage with their surroundings. They walk more quickly.

It’s a trite point really: people don’t like flat featureless buildings. They hurry past them. What Gehl quantified is the obvious truth that people like crinkly broken up walls, with nooks and crannies, doors and windows to peer into. They like a feeling of enclosure. People naturally congregate in these “fine grained” places. Bars and restaurants appear there. 

Crinkly South Anne St.

Obvious as the point may be, most new buildings have long blank walls, glass slabs, and are surrounded by empty voids. Renders for new buildings always show them in gauzy evening sunlight, with crowds of people inexplicably gathered around outside having a good time. Then the building shows up in reality — a slab of grey glass and concrete against the cloudy sky. Not a picnicker in sight.

Facebook headquarters on Hibernian Road in the south docklands: move along, nothing to see here.

It’s a problem in newer parts of the city centre, where people don’t tend to slow down and hang out. And it’s true of the suburbs too. People pay a premium for Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian streets over similarly situated modern streets.  

The 2018 National Survey of Irish Housing Experiences, Attitudes and Aspirations asked people what they liked about their neighbourhood. Of the 13 qualities assessed, the attractiveness of the buildings got the second-lowest score. Just 47 per cent strongly agreed that the buildings in their neighbourhood were attractive. 

Surely it’s not beyond the wit of man to make new places that people like. Why do so few new developments get it right? 

The design disconnect

There are deep structural reasons why our cities have turned out like this. I’ll come to them later. But partially, it’s a matter of taste. Architects like different things to the rest of us.

A 1987 study asked a group of students to rank pictures of buildings, and people, in terms of attractiveness. Some of the participants were architects, some weren’t. And while there was no difference between architects and non architects over which people they found attractive, the architects’ idea of a beautiful building was the polar opposite of that of a non-architects. The least popular building among non-architects was the most popular among architects. And the longer the architecture students had been marinating in the architecture world, the more strongly they disagreed with the other students. The finding was replicated in a 2001 Canadian study, and a 2015 poll by MOBI.

Consider some of the recent winners of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Sterling prize. The following buildings are innovative, and have a certain sculptural beauty to them. But are they good places? Would you meet a friend there to split a bottle of wine? Will people cherish and maintain them, so that they look good in 40 years time?

The MAXXI Gallery in Rome
The Blavatnik school of Government at Oxford University
The Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, London

More prestigious than even the Sterling prize, the Pritzker prize is architecture’s highest award. If you scroll through a Google image search for Pritzker prize winners, you’ll see a procession of clean, interesting, sculptural buildings. But what you’ll rarely see in the photographs is a person. It’s as though these striking buildings actively repel people. 

Though the prizes hint at architecture’s priorities, there is of course more to this than the tastes of architects. People love fine-grained architecture – that is, many small buildings that vary within an overall pattern. But modern developments are just bigger. The buildings are bigger. That makes it harder (though of course, not impossible) to achieve fine-grained texture.

Second, our cities are designed around cars, and cars are anathema to great places. Where there’s fast-moving traffic, you won’t find people sitting around enjoying themselves. Where there’s wide streets and ample parking, you won’t get cosy residential neighbourhoods. And there’s nothing architects can do about that. 

Developers have a big part to play. They pay the piper, after all. When I spoke with IPUT’s Niall Gaffney, he was keen to impress that he understood his responsibility as a developer to contribute to the city, and create great places as well as great buildings: “it’s making sure you have a building and the spaces around that building and in between those buildings that attract people for the long term and make a place in a real sense.” What is notable is how few Irish office buildings currently live up to that goal. 

As for planning – that’s a whole other story. I’ll come back to that in a later column.

Fine-grained, human-scaled Roupell Street in London

Last week I wrote about the need to build lots of homes if we’re to solve the housing crisis. I even said “opponents of specific developments might reflect on whether their aesthetic or philosophical preferences are compatible with building enormous numbers of houses, year-in year-out.” Well here I am, laying out my own aesthetic preference.

I do accept that if we fail to build between 30,000 and 40,000 new homes every year, housing costs are going to stay high in Ireland. So we should be mindful about imposing fussy conditions on new building. Simply getting stuff built needs to be a big priority.

But having said that — it would be a shame if, in building a million new homes by 2050, we end up scarring the country with ugly new cities and neighbourhoods. Can’t we have both?