Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Slack space #2: 'Contemporary Ruin'

In the end, when the Celtic Tiger bubble burst - as bubbles always do - it left so much wreckage in its wake.

It left broken hearts, broken homes, broken lives, and God knows how many suicides. It also wrecked the physical fabric of the nation: all those homes and workplaces now closed down, bricked off or boarded up.

Small country towns seemed worst hit; in my Ghost Flight book I tried to touch on these surface appearances in one particular town, though not on what it must have felt like to live through those changes. Long-established shops, bars and other familiar town businesses, all gone for ever.

Huge stretches of village and town main streets were abandoned, derelict, and it was as though an entire generation had been kidnapped overnight. Meanwhile thousands of Irish grannies had learned the niceties Skype. How else were you going to talk to the vanished ones, your kids and grandkids as they reappeared on a screen from the other side of the planet, in Boston or Sydney or wherever?

In edge-of-town retail parks, many units lay empty - apart from Lidl and Aldi of course, who seem to thrive in such mayhem. And in the spaces in between the towns, bang in the middle of Nowheresville, were the unfinished and empty ghost estates.

The big cities had their troubles too, their empty shops and shuttered supermarkets, half-finished showrooms, deserted offices and factories and warehouses.

Often the new buildings were only half-built, or still stuck in their raw shell-and-core stage when the money ran out. Hardly started building sites were left to rot behind hoardings that once announced bouncy taglines of eternal bliss in the expanding bubble universe (typical example: "a vibrant & dynamic community")

In central Dublin on the North Wall Quay by the River Liffey, work stopped on one particular office block around 2008. For some seven years or more it remained like that, a huge empty shell. About the only sign of life was a satellite dish - a watchman's, perhaps - left standing on the first floor.

Some said bad cess, leave the shell as it is. Keep it unfinished, as a reminder, a monument to the madness, the folly.

And for a time the building did indeed become an icon of the Celtic Tiger's demise and of all the subsequent foreclosures, redundancies, bankruptcies and cuts. It came to symbolise an entire nation's debt and loss of sovereignty.

Irish artist Brian Maguire's 2010 acrylic painting Contemporary Ruin freezes that moment: the bare, seven-storey skeleton towering over the Liffey, with three red cranes hovering behind everything.

"Contemporary Ruin" (2010) by Brian Maguire
From the opposite bank of the river it almost looks as if it is walking on the water rather than being anchored to the ground. It was a building with no foundations, in the economic sense.

It was supposed to be the new HQ of what was then the Anglo Irish Bank. If you've lived through the austerity years, that one word "Anglo" is almost as toxic as the bank itself.

Then in November 2012 NAMA (the National Asset Management Agency) sold the shell of steel and concrete to the Central Bank for €7 million. You might call that ironic: a failed banking regulator buying the HQ of a failed bank for its own new HQ.

After the shell was left unfinished for so long, construction began again last year. The bank's 1,400 staff will move in soon. It estimates the total development cost of the new building to be around €140 million, from land acquisition costs to furniture fittings. The bank must be made of money.