Adamstown – An Unfinished Artefact

Aerial view of Adamstown, from http://www.photographyireland.ie

Train seems like the most natural way to get to Adamstown. It is, after all, how most people see it; a punctuation on the Cork-Dublin line, a sudden burst of incongruously contemporary buildings and two national schools. Designed to be accessible by public transport, Adamstown is just €3.40 and fifteen minutes from Heuston Station. Although it’s on the Dublin Bus route, the train from Heuston creates a feeling of distance from the city centre; we’re on a national train line. Going somewhere other. Heuston whips you away from Dublin and then you arrive.

There’s a basic-but-pleasant train station, fifteen minutes walk from the centre of the town. It’s a Sunday and it’s deserted; not even a ticket-seller lifts the sense of abandonment. You emerge onto an empty road. No cars, rows of bicycle stands with a lone bicycle attached. To the left, a black hoarding carries signs promising living, shopping, brightly-coloured lives. Posters for a future that never happened.

Station Road

This place, you feel, is empty. A vacant monument to hubris.

It’s a slightly misleading first impression. It couldn’t be anything else. Were Adamstown really an abandoned folly, it would have become the most powerful symbol of the housing bubble available to media. The photograph of Adamstown’s planning application – O’Donnell and Tuomey, Grafton Architects et al queuing outside Fingal, with file boxes of drawings to be lodged – now seems an ironic relic from an illusory age. Everyone was fully behind this. Politicians queued up to praise it; planners created a Strategic Development Zone to accommodate it; the best architects in the country designed it. Its plan won awards. To the uninitiated, it seemed to be following in the inglorious line of Crumlin, Finglas and Ballymun – edge-of-city towns drummed up from scratch – but we were assured it would be different this time.

Had you picked a fate for it, ten years in the future, it wouldn’t be this. Adamstown is forgotten. A curiosity, the urban equivalent of the five-minute celebrities now only ever discussed in sentences beginning with “Hey, d’you remember…?”

So no-one has ever really told us whether it was different this time, after all. Why no newspaper-portraits of this most political of schemes? Could it be that it lies somewhere between success and failure? That it doesn’t fit any narrative at all?

Indeed. Adamstown is no glorified ghost estate. Station Road curves around to Adamstown Avenue, at the knuckle of the scheme, where a hairdresser and a pizzeria – both closed – sit alongside a Londis supermarket. Three-storey apartments, accessed straight from the pavement, give the impression of density at Adamstown’s core. Distinct, lower-density housing schemes float in clusters around this central area. This isn’t Crumlin; there’s a complexity to the layout that befits the town, but everywhere doesn’t look the same and you always know where you are.

The housing units themselves are uniformly well-designed, if conservative. Brick, render and pitched roofs rule the day, creating a sense of vaguely contemporary vernacular. It’s a touch off-the-shelf but probably a sensible decision, ensuring that nothing in this world shall yet be alienating. The site planning is skilful and even, at times, exciting; one floats from scheme to scheme by taking intuitive short-cuts through well-placed patches of greenery, and at one juncture the ground falls away from the footpath to a sunken area of parkland below. Three children play football as I watch; no more than nine years old, they’re unsupervised and happy. It’s a shame that this scene – a gloriously suburban moment, in the most positive sense of the word – takes place beneath the backdrop of an abandoned concrete frame, an apartment block that never happened. Other than the ever-pervasive hoarding, and the property office desperately touting its available units just down the road, it’s the only time that the area visibly shows the acid-burns from the bursting of the toxic housing bubble.

The edges of Adamstown

The property office, though, is busy. A stream of young-ish couples troupe to show apartments. There must be something to offer, then?

The answer to that lies in the overriding feeling of the place. It is safe. This is true socially – to a city-dweller it’s noticeable how children wander around without the hovering of dutiful hummingbird-parents, yet the way that houses overlook all green spaces leads to these areas feeling watched-over. Architecturally, no risk is taken and no real mistakes are made. The obvious response is that the creation of a new town was a risk in itself, but wandering around the tailored spaces, there’s a growing yearning for something that doesn’t fit, that dares to be unloved, that provides something more raw and jarring. This is the sort of thing that exists in every Irish town somewhere, and its absence is felt here.

Ah yes, “town.” Now the word has been used, it’s impossible to avoid confronting it any longer. The truth is that Adamstown isn’t a town, much though it tries to be one. It has a more urban layout than most Irish towns of comparable size; it tries to make active spaces, even providing – most notably – stone table-tennis tables with stainless steel nets in one particular green area, as are often seen in European cities. Lying empty, incongruous, they highlight what doesn’t work.

This is no more a town than a round of golf is a walk in the countryside. It doesn’t feel unoccupied, and yet it is eerily empty of public life; certainly there are people, but they are all hurrying to and from the shop. No-one meanders, no-one wanders. Tannoy announcements from the train station echo around so-quiet streets. There is no church and no pub, a more jarring absence than you might expect. It is comfortably and pleasingly multiracial – indeed, the sight of children of different colours and races playing unselfconsciously together is one of the more positive sights – but it’s far too uniformly middle-class to be called diverse.

It’s difficult to put one’s finger on, but Adamstown feels – there is no more delicate word to use – wrong. You walk, you look around, you think; what is this place? Where am I?

None of these problems are strictly architectural, of course. They are social and, in a broader sense, political. Perhaps this shows one of architecture’s limitations. Towns are not made of concrete and steel, they are made of politics. Houses are demolished as a city centre expands; factories open, factories close; shops appear, change, expand, contract, are knocked down; areas are claimed by cars, then reclaimed by humans or commerce. Our towns are not sculpted artefact but a layered manifestation of decisions, each one resoundingly and distinctly political.

But architecture is – so many would say – an apolitical craft; if it weren’t, we would have a hard time admiring Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa Del Fascio. And so Adamstown is that oddest of things, an apolitical town.

The walk along Castlegate Way, the main thoroughfare to Lock Road, probably makes this clear more than anywhere else. With three-storey apartments and traffic lights, it’s a busy-ish road that superficially resembles the main street of a town. And yet… everywhere is the same. Not just in look, but in function; a street of apartments. It’s not just that there’s no punctuation of shops, office, doctor’s surgeries, hairdressers – it’s that one can’t see any possible way that there ever can be. With the common ownership of shared apartment spaces, could anyone ever buy the ground floor apartments of two adjacent buildings and knock them together?

Outside the school playground

 

Towns change. We take this process for granted, so much so that only fifteen year-old photographs, accidentally discovered, remind us just how much our urban context has changed between then and then and now. There is so little scope for change here.

This is probably where the nub of Adamstown’s oddness lies. There is no deletion. A naturally-developing town would cluster around the train station in its smallest stages; then it would migrate outwards as the population increased. Houses nearer the train station would be demolished to make way for new roads, shops would be built and then changed to offices. This is alien to the way property is now viewed; it is built with an eye on perpetuity.

You walk around Adamstown. You remind yourself that it isn’t finished. But what town ever is? Where there should be urbanity, in its all success and failure, there are only spaces awaiting a future to fill them in.

Rather than the lonely walk back to the station, you decide to take the bus home. You go to buy a newspaper for the journey, and the woman in Londis nods in recognition as you come in; she remembers you from the morning.

“What are you doing out here?” she asks, gazing curiously at the camera around your neck.

“Just looking around,” you say. She smiles, baffled.

The bus journey home runs through the estates of Lucan before depositing you at Merrion Square, and it provides a dose of perspective. Bungalow follows bungalow, endless and unmarked, unnavigable except by car. OK, OK, you admit to yourself; Adamstown may seem odd, but it’s better than this.

Yet you know what this is; it’s the numbly contented depths of suburbia. Adamstown is not anything, yet. For all that’s present, it’s the absences that are felt most keenly. You think, idly, that you might come back in twenty years; that the future may have arrived by then.

About Mike Morris

A British / Irish architect who practiced in Ireland and Ontario, now working in the U.K.
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