Living Canvas at Wilton Park presents the biggest outdoor screen for contemporary art in Europe on the banks of the Grand Canal. We talked Niall Gaffney, CEO of IPUT Real Estate, about its context and what makes a successful city.
“We don’t see ourselves as developers but as placemakers,” says IPUT’s CEO Niall Gaffney in the boardroom of their HQ overlooking St Stephen’s Green. Admittedly, one is predisposed to consider this a spiel and smart linguistics – let’s be honest, developers do not have a stellar reputation. However, over the following 90 minutes of our conversation, Gaffney disarms my initial scepticism with informed and passionate views about culture and its pivotal place in the city.
As the city’s leading commercial property investment company, IPUT has skin in the game. They’ve been around for 55 years and have been the real estate piece of the pie for the pension funds of many large organisations, such as Guinness and RTÉ.
Niall Gaffney, CEO of IPUT Real Estate
“I’m a big believer in an emotional reaction to buildings, and places can have personality if they are given one. We are very interested in how you make a successful city – what makes a good place?” says Gaffney, illustrating the win/win, self-fulfilling scenario for all concerned. The Living Canvas initiative at Wilton Park is just one of the amplifications of this. “Everything is interdependent – this idea that financial returns are mutually exclusive from being a good citizen or contributing to the environment, they are not, they’re interlinked. If you don’t get that, you’re short term,” referencing the adage about the person who knows “the price of everything but value of nothing.”
It is the development of the public realm and attractive neighbourhoods which informs IPUT’s drive to not just make a mark but leave a legacy. They have no qualms in acknowledging a vested interest but one which also informs bigger picture thinking.
“We are intruding for a period of time when we are developing so we can give something back,” he says. “Art transcends generations, it lives on.” To this extent IPUT is investing in the community and public realm. From the floating gardens outside their offices, to new granite pavements and trees outside No. 10 Molesworth Street, to gates which artist Charlie Tyrell is designing for a development on the quays, the visual elevation of our cityscape and its attendant experiences is foremost in their considerations.
“Everything is interdependent – this idea that financial returns are mutually exclusive from being a good citizen or contributing to the environment, they are not, they’re interlinked.”
With over 30,000 square feet of amenity space at Wilton Park surrounded by anchor tenant LinkedIn, IPUT’s ambitions are significant, with Living Canvas serving as the opening chapter. “We are putting in a not-for-profit bookshop which will celebrate the cultural heritage; we are going to name the square after Mary Lavin who lived on Lad Lane; we want to work with some up-and-coming food entrepreneurs.”
Alan Butler @ Living Canvas
As an example of Gaffney’s informed ease, he quickly picks up on a reference made to Colm Tóibín’s magical reading of one of Lavin’s short stories, In the Middle of the Fields, for the New Yorker podcast. The recently appointed laureate for Irish fiction has a city base around the corner on Pembroke Street.
“We have a curatorial committee for Living Canvas taking guidance from Patrick Murphy (RHA) who chairs it, Gemma Tipton who project manages it, Sheena Barrett from DCC Arts Office, Simon O’Connor from MOLI and Algorithm who are on the technical side…The idea of shared experiences, collaborations, sparks of imagination – that ultimately come from meetings in urban settings whether that’s interesting parks, museums, galleries, pubs or restaurants – that urban grain needs to be layered.
“The level of stimulation we are looking to provide here is what makes our economy great, our people great and what attracts people to come here and set up, whether in fintech, research and development or the arts – to base yourself in Dublin should be as attractive as any great city. We need to start thinking that way,” adds Gaffney.
When it comes to international examples which we could glean understandings from, he cites Regent Street in London which “benefits from single ownership”, in this instance the Crown Estate and the Norwegian state pension fund. “They have gone in with a strategy of how do we improve it and make it attractive to those walking it? It’s been paved with York stone and thoughtfully considered. There should be a single plan for Grafton street and we need to look at the great ones.”
“Great cities don’t come about by accident”
Elsewhere, Gaffney references an instance in Sydney where the government wanted a performing arts centre in a specific location and granted the developer extended commercial office space as a quid pro quo. “They (the authorities) said ‘fine, we’ll do that but we want the centre on ground floor, we want it this size and on a peppercorn rent forever. In return, we’ll give you a few extra floors.’ That’s joined up thinking with innovation.”
He feels that we “seem to have lost that ability to create a city that is attractive for people” but the secret to this is rather simple. “If you put people first in how you design, parks, buildings and neighbourhoods – you will have a successful and resilient development. That thing about resilience is overused and overwrought but it needs to be looked at. We are trying to hardwire in resilience with our placemaking. The city needs to be a stimulating place.”
To this extent Gaffney believes that one such solution could come in the form of a directly elected Mayor. “For a city of our size and complexity, having a directly elected mayor means you have to have a strategy and agenda. We have a development plan but political interference and point scoring limits the ability to perform where really good initiatives can be shot down. An elected Mayor would empower someone with vision to want this city to be on a par with some of our peer groups around the world.”
“Great cities don’t come about by accident,” concludes Gaffney and it’s evident that his input into the puzzle which makes up the bigger picture is a valuable one.