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OSA Summer Review: "Conservation Without Frontiers" Summer School 2019

‘Conservation Without Frontiers’ is a joint venture between the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and the Irish Georgian Society, focused on highlighting the positive impact that conservation has on both vernacular architecture and local communities.

Bringing together students and enthusiasts, ‘Conservation Without Frontiers’ has been running for six years, with each Summer School focusing around two border counties in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In 2019, these were Cavan (Ireland) and Fermanagh (NI) – two relatively low-profile counties which both host a fascinating deep history spanning thousands of years.

The Summer School lasted for 3 days in June, during which a number of guest speakers presented their projects and views, along with a series of walking tours through towns and villages of interest. We started in Enniskillen, followed by a day in Cavan, and a third day at Kilmore.

Enniskillen Town Centre, showing store facades and a church

Talks focused on the architectural character of the area we were based in for the day, as well as recent, ongoing and future projects. These talks were varied and interesting, focusing on the specificity of the local area while relating to a wider set of issues and case studies to balance them out. For someone who had never visited Ireland before, I found it fascinating to learn about the vernacular and background of the places I was discovering for the first time.

A key point brought up during the Summer School was how to incentivise living in small towns – with a multi-disciplinary approach and collaborative work strongly favoured methods. The decline of rural town centres was identified as a systemic problem, with a need for more joined-up thinking, and a drive to make more cohesive planning policies. Dr Philip Crowe of interactive mapping platform Space Engagers led a discussion on incentives for adaptive re-use, bringing in case studies from Denmark, Scotland and France to demonstrate the shared challenges of small town centres facing decline.

One of the most thought-provoking talks on small towns was brought to us by Miriam Delaney, lecturer at Dublin School of Architecture. Delaney was co-curator of the Irish Pavilion for last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice: "FreeMarket".

FreeMarket, and the FreeSpace Manifesto investigate the question of whether traditional Market Houses can become a new driver of a rural town’s economy, and explore market infrastructure for the 21st Century. Using 10 case study towns from across Ireland, the FreeMarket team documented the feel and character of each town, from road layouts down to mosaic tiles on storefronts.

The FreeMarket exhibition in Venice proved a success, but the most important aspect of this exhibition was that it came home, back to the small towns that sparked its ideas. FreeMarket is on tour through Ireland this summer, with marketplace takeovers, discussion panels and vox pops (on-street interviews with the general public).

Cavan Town Centre, with traditional stone buildings along the street

Other discussions involved Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs) and their importance – rather than listing individual buildings, ACAs identify areas (such as streets, towns, and other small urban areas) of special architectural interest as a way to protect and enhance a location’s character. These ACAs, as well as protecting existing historic fabric, allow for the reinstatement of lost original features, and encourage sympathetic design for any additions or extensions in the area.

The key takeaway from a lot of these talks for me was the emphasis on actively involving the communities that make up these towns in discussions about their future – something many developers don’t seem to take into consideration, and yet is vital to the continued social cohesion of communities.

(to be continued... Part 2 here)

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