The Pigeon House, an Urban Heritage… or too new to be conserved?

It is difficult to be entirely sure how to respond to the news reported in the Irish Times last month that:

PLANNERS IN Dublin City Council have rejected a proposal to preserve the Pigeon House chimneys at Poolbeg by adding them to the Record of Protected Structures (RPS), on the basis that they are not of sufficient architectural, social or historical value.

The 207m (680ft) candy-striped twin chimney stacks at the ESB’s Poolbeg generating station have been one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks for more than 30 years, but have never had protection from demolition.

The situation has a greater than usual urgency due to the fact that the Poolbeg power station is to close in 2010. It seems likely that the site they are located on will undergo a change of function.

The ESB said no decision had been made on the future of the stacks and it was unlikely that any decision would be taken until the plant closed.

The company has also yet to decide whether it will sell the 90-acre site on which the stacks stand. The site is likely to become prime development land in the coming years with plans to move much of Dublin port’s activities outside the city and proposals to turn the Poolbeg area into a high-density urban quarter.

But, the question has to be asked are the chimneys of sufficient architectural or other importance to be retained? And if so, who is to determine this?

According to the Dublin City Council Planners the answer is that:

…the stacks were currently of architectural interest due to their height, but their present prominence “will be diminished by upcoming developments in the docklands area”. They were of a “certain level of architectural, social and historical significance” but not to a sufficient level to satisfy the criteria under the planning acts for entry to the RPS.

This has also generated some political interest.

Last July Labour councillor Dermot Lacey proposed that the chimneys be added to the RPS on the grounds that they are an essential part of the city’s industrial heritage. Mr Lacey’s proposal was approved by his fellow councillors, and went forward for assessment to the council’s conservation offices.

Mr Lacey said yesterday that councillors were now examining all measures possible to protect the chimneys. Local Fianna Fáil TD Chris Andrews is also seeking protection for the chimneys and has called for an interim preservation order to be applied to ensure they are not disturbed without the council’s sanction.

“The council must ensure that they are not caught on the hop. A preservation order should be fast tracked ensuring that these important structures are protected and I intend to raise this matter in the Dáil.”

Certainly it makes perfect sense to evaluate their worth as a site of potential conservation, and one would hope that any movement would be cautious in coming to a final determination. In a way the rush to conserve is interesting. Industrial architecture is often difficult to conserve precisely because the functions of such sites are regarded as utilitarian. And yet, the following quote from Chris Andrews is telling.

The chimneys were an important part of Dublin’s social history, he said.

They certainly were an iconic, albeit somewhat uncelebrated, signifier of Dublin. Visible from aircraft landing at the city, or from ships approaching the port they have only recently been superseded by the Spire centered at the heart of the city. Indeed their very height while lending them visibility also made them largely unique in a city which has eschewed high rise development until the very recent past.

In 1989 the Workers’ Party used them as the backdrop for the imagery of the successful European Election campaign of Prionsias De Rossa. Eoghan Harris who advised on the campaign proposed, in interview with this author, that the Pigeon House was chosen because it combined the imagery of industry (electricity) with environmentalism (the chimneys emit water vapour). Whether such meanings were picked up by the electorate is an open question, but that it was sufficiently well-recognised to provide an immediate visual signifier of the city of Dublin is significant.

And it is that social history that Chris Andrews is perhaps referencing. One where the towers, typical of an urban infrastructure the world over, have somehow assumed a degree of familiarity that has made them a short-hand for the city itself.

The process of retention or demolition will be interesting to follow.

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