As it currently exists, Barnardo Square is less than ten years old. It was formed as part of the development of an adjacent office building, both of which were designed by the Spanish architecture firm MBM. Upon completion in 2007, it was greeted with general disdain from the local architecture community. Paul Clerkin of archiseek called the new office block ‘Robocop on Dame Street’. Frank McDonald wrote in the Irish Times that, ‘It may even be the most detested new addition to the city.’ McDonald went on to quote the noble aspirations of the architects for the square: ‘It is, then, a building with almost no functional program; it is purely an urban design resource, architecture to formalise a space that needs to be a worthy representative of the city centre.’ Unfortunately, the square never blossomed into the successful space that the architects envisioned.
Instead, the urban landscape seems overly hard. McDonald worried that it was, ‘so hard that it is likely to set back ‘hard landscaping’ for years.’ The space is littered with fixed stone benches – miniature architectural follies that bring to mind the urbanist Jan Gehl’s critique that, ‘many designers and architects have a penchant for square stone benches placed decoratively in front of buildings. However, users do not share their affection for this type of uncomfortable city furniture.’
Gehl frequently stresses the importance of ‘staying activities’ in urban zones, but this is evidently lacking in Barnardo Square. Jane Jacobs writes that, ‘The sight of people attracts still other people,’ and it is easy to relate this to an overall lack of street life: if there is no staying power in the space, there is no snowball effect. Without a retail space, a café, a shop, or a restaurant on one of its bounding it edges, there are only the people passing by. This is always going to be a challenge for the square, lopsided on it’s northern edge with the heavy pedestrian flow along Dame Street, and a complete lack of diagonal foot traffic across it. In this way, it is easy to imagine a square that is doomed to under-use.
In truth, the provision of a ‘staying activity’ was never completely neglected. It was intended that the coffee shop located in City Hall would spill out onto the new square. However, with no visual link to connect the two, this never materialised. The relationship between inside and outside is extremely weak, while the street topography and bicycle parking further sever the building’s link to the civic space beyond.
City Hall was never designed to relate to such a substantial open space, and its weak relationship to the square is understandable. However, this is not true for the new office building. Here was an opportunity to create something that interacted with the square in a meaningful way. But it completely fails to do so. It is as blank and as hard as the surface of the plaza, like one of the benches, oversized and turned on its side. As McDonald aptly summarises: ‘the squat, bunker-like ground floor, with its cut-out entrance, resembles a security installation.’ These are formal and aesthetic concerns, but the argument is also functional. Designed together, the building has a responsibility to serve the square, but instead it retreats from it. Something as simple as a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop could have made a noticeable improvement to the the quality of this urban space.
All, perhaps, is not lost however. Dublinbikes and free wifi have appeared in the past few years, and the square is occasionally used for events such as outdoor painting workshops and art installations. These are great developments that improve the quality of our public realm, and should be encouraged. But they can’t change fundamental flaws. That is primarily the job of our architects and planners. To this end, an alternative future for the square has been proposed as part of the ‘Dubline’ tourist trail. The Dubline is a planned route between College Green and Kilmainham, and there are plans to establish an ‘Information Hub’ as part of a major redevelopment of Barnardo Square. This project recognises the square’s importance, ‘along the visitor journey, providing a place of orientation and information,’ whilst simultaneously noting that it currently, ‘fails to capitalise on its superb location.’ Hopefully those spearheading the Dubline proposal can help to rectify past mistakes, and provide the city with the public space that it deserves.