ROLLING through Douglas St recently yours truly sailed past Nano Nagle Place — closed, sadly, in lockdown like so many other places.
The fly-by reminded me, though, to get in touch with Shane Clarke, its CEO. Why?
The name Nano Nagle Place comes across as deliberately neutral, not pointing you towards an interpretative centre or a museum, but at something a lot more dynamic.
This came through in our conversation. Clarke arrived in Cork at the end of the summer of 2016.
He, his wife, Deirdre, and their kids were coming from London, where Clarke had worked for 20 years (“managing Leicester Square, commissioning projects, working with Brixton schools”).
His plan had originally been to set up a consultancy on urban design.
He says: “We always had a hankering to come home, which would mean Dublin originally for me, but we wanted to try something different, so we came to Cork. We stayed in the Montenotte when we came and fell in love with the place.
“Working in Nano Nagle Place . . . it’s turned out to be an incredible opportunity, and now it looks like we’re here for the long haul.”
We’ll come back to Nano Nagle Place, but what does Clarke mean by urban design? And what does that mean in a Cork context?
Urban design is all things to all people in many ways.
"It’s not architecture, for instance, but it involves architecture, though on a larger scale.
"More excitingly, it brings in areas like democracy, nature, sociology, culture — so there’s no one right answer in theory, and certainly not in practice, when you come to a new place.
“For instance, when I was in London I liked the intense civic debate, but those were rarely about London itself, because it’s so big — they were usually focused on neighbourhoods, because London is much too big for those conversations to cover the entire city.
“What happens in Cork is that you have a culture that’s garrulous and boisterous and argumentative — organisations from Mad About Cork to Save Cork City, the likes of yourself offering opinions, city council — and that bodes very well for a city.
“A lot of my job involves meeting cultural and community groups, and I feel it also bodes well for Cork that so many of them care so much about the city.
“When those people speak at meetings or use their Twitter trumpets about matters that concern them, that focus can often be narrow, but I think a lot of towns and cities around Ireland and the world would love to have the disagreements Cork has.
“That was another find. When we came to Cork, not only did we find the city to have an astounding topography and natural environment, we’d also happened on a city that people seriously loved.
Cork is big enough and small enough to have those conversations.
You couldn’t have those in Dublin because it’s too big, but Cork is the perfect size.”
The Nano Nagle Centre is an ideal location for those conversations: alongside the shop, heritage centre and cafe it’s a focus for activities like the work done by Steve Grainger and the Cork Migrant Centre.
“Our job is to make sure it comes alive,” says Clarke.
“Something like Stevie and the Migrant Centre is a good example of a wider definition of urban design, because it’s about how you occupy a place and make it accessible and open, and how you use it.
“One of the reasons I applied for the job was that I knew the school of architecture was secured, so it could become a centre for education and social justice with those students — because they’re the folks who’ll be building the city and the country in the future.
"And building it with a wider horizon than just the architecture they’re trained for.
“I felt we could be the catalyst for debate about what a city can be — a sustainable city, a just city. And we’ve done some work on that in what we’ve hosted and done.
“The South Parish is possibly the oldest part of the city, a stunning place, and we’re a little townscape within that.
"All cities are layered and Cork is the same — all the layers respect those that have gone before them, and we — the board and I — have been trying to figure out what we are.
“We’re an institution for the good of Cork. We debate Cork, welcome Cork in, welcome newcomers in, celebrate the city’s architecture. So maybe we’re a picture of the city, just on a smaller scale.”
Someone who’s put down a couple of decades in one of the biggest cities in the world surely has some other views on Cork.
“Well, I live on Wellington Rd, which isn’t inner city but is close enough that I can walk to work, and into the city.
"My take on the city is different, then, to those who live in the inner city or in Blackpool and, I would think, different to the decision-makers who don’t live in the city.
"They come in from the wealthier parts, and a lot of their Cork, I think, is being able to escape to the beauties of West Cork.
“Cork has an amazing history of urbanism, which goes back a very long way, and I feel that the city’s narrative with itself is finding the joy in that urbanism again.”
Clarke has some concrete examples: “Take the Marina being closed to traffic, which was effectively free. Since that was done people have been using it all the time — and why not?
People will always like hanging out with other people in nice spots.
“Then, a couple of years ago we had heavy snow and there was nobody driving in town — you came outside and there was silence. It was almost like an experiment.
“I walked into town and all I heard were European languages. There’s an older Irish population, a Cork population, in the city centre, but there’s also a big European population in the centre of the
“One other observation — traffic just dominates both the mentality of the city and the lived inexperience of the inner city.
“That might be easy for me to say when I can walk into town for work, but anything that can calm traffic would be welcome. As would be winning back our waterfront.”
We could probably do with another couple of Nano Nagle Place-type venues.
One or two such premises, strategically located in key spots, would be a great boost not just in the immediate term, revitalising their areas, but they’d also raise the standard of discussion of urban matters — to everyone’s benefit.
Shane Clarke said Nano Nagle Place was keen to run more ‘town hall’ events, along the lines of a previous talk from the Copenhagen city architect, which went down well with those who made it.
“That’s of a piece with the culture we’re trying to get going in Nano Nagle,” he added.
“At times the debate is almost more important than the conclusion.”
True enough. And the more places we can have that debate, the better it is all round.