Cork has a second wind in its development sails, so it is perhaps salutary to look back to the last development surge, and the hopes and concerns just before the crash 12 years ago.
This was penned by Property Editor of the Irish Examiner Tommy Barker, in 2007, as a Forward for an image-driven publication called Emerging Cork.
You still have to squint and peer a bit to make out what’s best about Cork’s architectural pedigree, be it old, new or pending.
There is lots to admire, even to fall in love with, but it is not all an even picture. Like the many loving quality camera images seen here in these following pages, you have to bracket and frame a little and wait for good light too, to get see and appreciate the best bits.
Squint, even. You may have to go out of your way to get an advantageous vantage point (though the aerial images are, admittedly, harder to square up to) and you’ll have to learn to turn a blind eye to the bits and blots not even a mother/besotted citizen/architect or speculative builder could love.
Cork is an old city, with many of the faults and failings of age.
However, with age hopefully comes a measure of accumulated wisdom and riches, also a certain charm and character, along with the need for a measure of forgiveness for acquired eccentricities of which the city thankfully has many.
The city’s name, Corcaigh, comes from the Irish word for a marsh, so anyone starting out choosing a suitable spot upon which to build a city shouldn’t really have hit on this water-logged location at all; a bit like the joke about the guy seeking directions who gets told ”if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”
But, we are here.
Here, because of the need to start somewhere (and to continue on,) here because of eccentric perversity, perseverance, piling, bridge building, land reclamation, engineering ingenuity, architectural sleight-of-hand, graft and cussed doggedness, as well as a bit of tax-incentivised building dross.
Here we are, warts, wonders and all, an island-core city, two river channels, spires and roofscapes showing centuries of rootedness and aspiration, crumbling quays and not enough benches on them, surrounding hills making a backdrop that no building or street can quite match for impact, and a magnificent harbour beyond.
No wonder we are smug, we are immersed in natural beauty. If the built city were to be physically perfect as well, and architecturally acclaimed far-afield, well, we’d be truly insufferable.
Water is one of Cork’s wonders. We’re not quite the Venice of the North, no matter how shamelessly people might draw a comparison and hope for water taxis and even gondolas, but we are a long way from LA or Arizona too.
The city’s trade was built on water, on the trade routes it facilitated, but it is only in the very latter years that water took on an aesthetic life of its own, literally mirroring what was going on and up around it and along the River Lee, as the city and its quays moved on, in the recent frenetic era of a construction and property boom.
There can scarcely be as concentrated a period of physical building as Cork (or, indeed most of the rest of the country) has witnessed of late. It isn’t quite adolescent angst and growing pains,. Cork is too old for that, so think of the era as a second childhood, with the Docklands opportunities beckoning for a Cork, Phase 11.
Like the parroted political party slogan of the early 2000s, Cork has ‘a Lot Done, More to Do.’ The good news is that movement being witnessed on the ground and in its buildings risen and still rising above is in the right direction, even if it is sometimes a case of two-steps forward, one-back.
Those who can only decry the changes should re-examine their stance in the light of these quite revelatory pages, even allowing for the too-rare blue sky days when ‘Emerging Cork’s’ images were recorded.
Wide-scale dereliction, which was a legacy of past, poorer, decades, has been driven back, and there’s a better buzz and a bustle about the streets and the buildings.
Seeing people with high-vis jackets, construction hard hats and speaking in non-Cork accents grazing through shops at lunch-break surely is a sign of a city on the move.
Beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder, nor is banality, and there’s some unarguable ugliness too. Uniformity isn’t necessarily a virtue, though.
Cork has always, for better or worse, been a higgledy-piggledy built-city of little and large, fits and starts, ups and downs, sandstone and limestone, and increasingly now architectural cladding and glass.
It has been traditionally cautious, though when benefactors come to the fore it can incline to the classical, but of its nature Cork is usually cheap as paint or as the lack of it can be, but then by turns is surprisingly cheerful, sometimes inspirational, responding like any other place on earth to the wealth, spirit and demands of its times, with a Cork accent.
Cork has its architectural gems of its past, hidden or scattered rather than concentrated on one glitzy ring or quarter, and some new gems have surely been added, so take a bow, all concerned.
Paste jewellery too, has been allowed through of course, but so what? Look at the broader picture, and don’t necessarily rush to judgement…though there’s an obvious temptation and satisfaction in such pronouncements.
That which looks awkward now may well ameliorate when future buildings cosy up alongside and change the current brash newcomer’s impact.
Equally, those which stand out today as paragons of design may be a passing fad, losing shine as maintenance falters, as design flaws get exposed and bits fall off. One or two buildings may be indeed exposed as emperors without clothing, or cladding.
Every superb, uplifting building or interior added to the city’s streets, college campuses or quaysides in the past few years makes it harder for ensuing buildings, for tomorrow’s builders and developers, for a maturing generation indeed, to allow what comes next be too far off the new pace and the ratcheted, higher standard. The bar is being raised.
Nothing stays the same, not for too long anyway. The truly cheap can be pulled down again, and the cherishable saved and savoured.
Insular outlooks have been shrugged off, architects now living in Cork have, begod, lived abroad and bought us back notions, cantilevered out beyond our old expectations.
In food, tripe and black puddings are being fashioned into tapas, and boardwalks are replacing bars. Not everything new is good, not everything old is bad, or vice versa.
There will always be debate and discussion and division about buildings, as there is about sport and politics and love and life.
Look on these loving, lavish and occasionally luscious images, and linger about town, look up and compare the reality with the image. Mind the potholes, and enjoy the arguments.