by Michael Smith
It’s 2020. We’re transitioning to a civilisation with a wiser sensibility. We’re defenestrating monuments that subvert our values. What’s the first erection we should remove?
On its twentieth anniversary, it’s Dublin’s spike, the ‘Spire of Dublin’, a tiger in metal.
Dublin lost the run of itself in a boom that started in the mid-1990s and found its monument in a lump of pointed pointless metal on its main street erected in 2003 after a battle, to celebrate the millennium.
It was non-functional, non-contextual and sterile, a searing icon of the times. It replaced Nelson’s Column, the tallest Doric column in Europe which afforded full public access, and complemented the classical architecture of the street perfectly. Nelson could have been pulverised and replaced by James Joyce, Ulick O’Connor, Mannix Flynn, Maeve Binchy or Maureen Potter atop the statuesque and visitor-friendly pillar. No. In 1966 the whole column went up!
The spire of Dublin was selected by Dublin City Council in March 1999 by 34 votes to 14. It was designed by the London-based firm Ian Ritchie Architects. It is a 120m high cone that is three metres wide at the base and tapers to 150mm at the top.
At the time, I wrote a submission, on behalf of An Taisce, decrying the proposal. I conspired with Mícheál O Nualláin, a wry artist and ex-school-inspector, to challenge the scheme for want of an Environmental Impact Statement. He was the perfect person to do this as he was Flann O’Brien’s sibling, figuring in the great surrealist writer’s works as “the brother”. Na Gopaleen had an acute sense of Dublin and would have murdered this ridiculous self-conscious symbol.
“The vainglorious spire of Dublin has had its day and should be chain-sawed“
The brother’s own design, one of the original 205 competition entries, had been rejected. As reported by Frank McDonald in the Irish Times, Ó Nuallain had proposed a ‘skypod’ mounted on a huge hexagonal column rising from a three-storey glazed box at street level, a ‘sculpted flying saucer’.
Ó Nualláin’s scheme was awful but he was justifiably miffed when the winner proposed something much bigger and aesthetically outside the bounds of what was envisaged in the architectural competition they had both entered – which had required that the monument relate to the scale of the buildings on O’Connell St.
If “relate” was to mean anything by reference to the quantitative phenomenon of height it must have meant “be similar to”. At 120m it clearly was dissimilar to the heights of all other buildings on the street and thus did not relate to their scale – though as regards the qualitative criterion of materials – “quality” it may indeed have “related”, though perhaps primarily through contrast!
Ó’Nualláin found a good vehicle for his case in the EIS Directive and a forceful advocate for it in the well-named Colm MacEochaidh, a young barrister and a friend of mine.
The case was never really treated seriously. Joan O’Connor, President of the Architects’ Institute, who thought the spire would be best “infinitely” high, claimed that the spire was the first time an EIS has been required for anything as “ephemeral as a slim and beautiful object”. As Chairwoman of the architectural-competition panel for the spike she might usefully have been aware that the last thing beauty (which aspires to transcendence) aims at is ephemerality (which means transience). In the Irish Times, Frank McDonald focused more on Ó’ Nualláin’s own entry than the breach of the competition’s rules or the need for an impact study. McDonald was a worshipper at the altar of the phosphorescent architecture of the Celtic Tiger and here championed its icon.
In July 1999, Judge TC Smyth ruled that an EIS had indeed been required before the spire could be built. Commentators then and now don’t realise that any urban development that “is likely to have a significant effect on the environment by virtue inter alia of its nature, size or location”, requires an EIS. The nature, size and location of the spire could not have been more important, even if it was ephemeral, beautiful and slim. Subsequently, a detailed EIS was compiled and submitted in June 2000 to the Minister for the Environment rather than to the City Council itself as would have been the case if the EIS had not been requisite.
Of the 121 submissions received on it, three-quarters were against the project. Nevertheless it was approved.
Progressives are looking for monuments to topple. The spire symbolises how a country lost the run of itself, sterilised its national genius, lost its sense of irony and came to respect quantity over quality, and money over values.
At the time I noted that the scheme was “reversible and could be erected somewhere else if its siting jars with a future generation”.
It should be chain-sawed at its base and removed, on the shoulders of the citizenry, to the Croppies’ Acre park where it can be interred next to its sister in folly, the floozie in the jacuzzi.
And then we can have a debate about what aspirations we want to see enshrined in a magnificent and democratic replacement.