Our disused buildings can change our communities

One of the most important but underrated festivals that populates our calendar here in the west is Architecture at the Edge. When it first came about, one friend said to me “oh good, another chance to see into people’s houses, to see how the other half lives, to see how the other half builds.”

Since then the prurient aspect of enjoying architecture when it is someone else’s house has been diluted somewhat by the Sunday night gorgefest when we see Dermot Bannon take someone’s rundown shack and turn it into a condo.

But architecture is much more than that — its role in our lives has not been just about putting four walls around us and a roof overhead. The Architecture at the Edge festival, in particular was conceived to help local citizens understand the many ways architecture impacts our lives.

And how topical it is — the central theme in this year’s festival stems from the debate that took place during the summer when Galway International Arts festival produced an impressive art gallery out of a disused postal building that few of us knew even existed just yards from the city’s main shopping street.

So surprised were we all by this revelation that a clamour began for its retention; that this building had to be bought and kept in use for events such as this. And that debate continues.

However the theme of Architecture at the Edge this year is that concept of Adaptive Reuse — and when you arm yourself with the intricacies of this, you see a concept that could help revitalise the cities, towns, and villages of the region.

Adaptive reuse architecture is the process of repurposing buildings or spaces that have outlived their original purposes for different uses or functions — so the postal building is no longer suitable for its original use, so its functionality is up for grabs. And the same goes for disused barns and industrial buildings that no longer need their location, their size. These are invariably buildings that time has passed by; that have been left obsolete by technology and progress.

Every town and village has them. My hometown of Ballinrobe was a wondrous place to grow up in because it had a multitude of old disused commercial and military buildings that were an excellent playground for the adventurous child. Move on a few decades, with the new technology of modern construction, and those buildings are suitable, with a bit of renovation, support and creativity, for a multitude of purposes.

What Architecture At The Edge will highlight this year is a light to be shed on the potential of buildings to offer more to their community. You send a drone up over Galway City Centre and see all the wasted space, the derelict or abandoned buildings that lie, mainly hidden in the city centre. Use the same drone for every town and village and see what lies there, relics of different eras. Many of these buildings do not serve any purpose anymore, apart from filling asset space on the ledgers of those who own them.

How fulfilling it would be if there was an audit of such buildings in each town; and meaningful debate to take place to allow these buildings to play a big part in our communities once again.

Renovations like those on view in Architecture on the Edge are both new and old, historic and forward-looking, generative and sustainable. Restorative adaptive reuse of abandoned structures can help rejuvenate places and communities and in turn promote further development.

The festival director Frank Monahan says we need only think of the potential in unlocking spaces such as the former telephone exchange building or as with Lenaboy Castle, the depilated condition of which was highlighted recently.

“And that really does also highlight the need to rethink how we utilise space in a much more considered and responsible way. Galway has such a desperate requirement for both proper cultural infrastructure and office space and there are many challenges in bringing an older building such as these into the 21st Century,” he said.

Over the next decade, the look and feel of Galway will change with supermodern developments at Bonham Quay, at Crown Square, at Nuns’ Island. Andf they are all welcome.

But there are older buildings that can offer us something else — character and community. Allow yourself the chance to see the possibility.

Let’s get thinking and get the built environment working for us.

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