Ballysuburbia

Jonny McKenna, Director (Dublin)

Suburb: Ballinteer, Dublin

I grew up in a suburb called Ballinteer. The edge of our estate was the beginning of the Dublin Mountains. There wasn’t a brick, or more fittingly, a pebbledashed-rendered

block beyond. I was raised during a period of significant migration to Dublin from the countryside. It seemed everyone who grew up on my estate had at least one parent with a rural background, perhaps lured to suburbia in part by its watered-down version of the garden city ideal that offered proximity to the urban centre and an echo of a familiar rural setting. In this way they differed from the inner suburbs of Crumlin and Finglas which were largely built to aid inner city slum clearance. This suburban population growth was not lost on the schoolyard wags who used to joke:

Why is Ireland’s capital the biggest city in the world?

Because the population keeps Dub-lin, and Dub-lin, and Dub-lin.

The punchline would ring truer if its subject had been the proliferation of suburbs, so critical were they to the accommodation of the city’s increasing numbers. Today, Ballinteer has been encircled by the M50 motorway. It is now considered an established community with newer estates beyond however the natural boundary of the mountains has, for now, halted Dublin’s southerly push, forcing suburbia to spread westward instead.

There are over a thousand houses on my estate. (I still claim some sort of ownership as my parents still live there). Most houses looked the same, a mix of three- or four-bedroom semi-detached homes typical of any suburban housing estate in Dublin. Mostly pebble dashed they represent an uncelebrated style in a period of transformative Irish homebuilding.
The striking uniformity of housing across Ballinteer and its sister estates has resulted in a demographic lacking diversity. It was mostly young families who flooded into the new neighbourhoods in the 70s and as children got old enough and left home their parents remained. For some years, an elderly population dominated the estates, before being replaced by new families again. As an architect this offered an early lesson on the need for a varied tenure mix to achieve sustainable communities and ensure vitality. How can we create new suburbs, or intensify existing ones, which respond to demographic and social need when the pressure often comes from maximising efficiency by generating easily repeatable forms which may not offer ideal accommodation for everyone?

My childhood experience seems to reflect wider trends towards the suburban in Dublin during the period. Fittingly, I went to a suburban university. University College Dublin unthinkably abandoned the city in the 1960s in favour of the leafy, if brutalist, Wejchert Architect designed sprawling campus. The idea of presenting an alternative version of suburbia was not really on anyone’s agenda during the late 90s and early 00s. The priority was to repair Dublin’s core (see Group 91’s work at temple Bar for example), which had been largely overlooked during the relentless drive outwards however twenty years on the focus has shifted. The generation who were raised in suburbia during the 1970s and 80s are now turning their attention to how a future suburbia might be for the next generation. Polycentric development and densification are on the agenda, but there is a lot of heads buried deeply in sand when it comes to acknowledging that making a success of increased residential density requires an integrated strategy for multi-modal transportation. We are still very wedded to the car which is inevitably the hot ticket item at most consultation events. If we expect new developments to have denser configurations with reduced car numbers this has to be balanced by improved, viable alternates to transportation (for example our work on the Sword’s expansion plan from a population of 40,000 to 100,000 largely hung of the delivery of Metro North).
Thinking about and delivering on these larger-scale issues is not easy, especially when it involves questioning what dominant forms of suburbia offer now and considering new kinds of suburbia for future Dubliners. This may mean disrupting current, entrenched methods of production. Challenges and opportunities presented by the suburban way of life is so taken for granted, that change is likely to take a long time to happen: years, decades and in some cases generations. We all (architects, developers, citizens and politicians) need to work, very hard, to collectively take on the difficult issues ensuring we create new, interesting and diverse suburban places while successfully reviving old ones.
In rising to this challenge, we must not lose sight of why we do this and what a suburb should be. Like many other Dublin suburbs (Ballyfermot, Ballbrigan, Balgriffin, Ballybrack, Ballymun), Ballinteer takes its name from the anglicised version of an Irish name: Baile an tSaoir.

In the Irish language Baile means “Home”

Jonny McKenna, joined Metropolitan Workshop in 2006, becoming Director of the Dublin studio in 2017.  As an architect and urban designer he has played a leading role in co-ordinating large-scale multidisciplinary teams to deliver masterplans in sensitive urban and suburban contexts such as the Dun Laoghaire Harbour Masterplan and the Swindon Town Delivery Plan.  He is currently working on town renewal plans for Kildare and Newbridge, residential led masterplanning schemes for Clonburris Strategic Development Zone and a housing scheme in Ranelagh.