Our first issue contained an interview with one of the heads behind NAMAlab: here’s the whole transcript.
Firstly, I was going to ask you how NamaLAB was set up and how a whole year of DIT students were dragged into tracking how NAMA is affecting the city?
Well it was initiated by our year heads in the Dublin school of Architecture. This year we entered our final year and there was a debate on architecture, and its relevance, and how we engaged with architecture and our architectural ideas and their impact globally or nationally, or even just culturally in their own area. So for six weeks initially we spent that time researching architectural ideas and how we could forward our thoughts on architecture and then it was the lecturers who decided to use NAMA as a basis to explore our ideas.
So one of the lecturers and one of the students mapped the NAMA sites they could find out about at that time in October and November of 2010. So it was just Tranche 1 and Tranche 2 that it was possible to find information on the sites. These were mapped and then the students just looked at the different sites and how they were engaging with them. It was lecturer led but then the students really ran with with once we got the bit between the teeth.
You got an awful lot of media attention focusing on how you used social media and other online tools to track what properties were in NAMA. Can you give me some background on this? I thought this was all in the public domain? How did you eventually collate the information?
Yes, the process to map it is very interesting. There is a blog set up by a group of journalists which searches the internet and anything that is found in the Irish Times, or any other magazine, and said to be “NAMA bound” is put on to this blog. The blog is Namawinelake.ie. So you can go onto this blog, and you can download the spreadsheet and you can see all the different developers, all the different properties, which have been stated in the newspapers as being NAMA bound. But for you to actually contact NAMA, well when we initiated this process, there was no contact. They wouldn’t return our calls. They didn’t want to know about us.
So we took it upon ourselves to map these sites. Then because we got funding from the Department of the Environment to complete the project, to try and expand the worth of the project, the hit and the amount of people that would see it, we used all our contacts. One of the guys has a friend on RTE 1 Radio, so we got an interview there one evening. Then through magazines, like I know someone from Le Cool, we tried to keep it cultural, and we got on various radio stations. Frank McDonald of the Irish Times wrote a piece on it. It started garnering attention and we used Facebook and Tumblr and it really started picking up.
I remember when you published your map, you could look at it and sort of do a visual calculation in your head and go “wow – it looks like about 5% of the landmass of Dublin is in NAMA.” But ye were saying around that time that there was a resource problem to actually map all the properties that were in NAMA, and the map you published was incomplete?
Yeah when we initially started mapping NAMA, it was October and November 2010 – so it was only Tranche 1 and 2. NAMA hadn’t started dealing with property or assets below the value of 20 million. So it was only half of the NAMA properties that was being mapped. It was a very time consuming process. We realised how powerful, how striking, how controversial it could be so we wanted to get everything as accurate as we could. We went to the Land Registry, and we went through the development sites that were in contention – to find out what was exactly in NAMA. It was just a portion of it that we mapped.
Tracking the sites was just a portion of what NAMlab was trying to achieve…
Yeah, well the idea was that it would be mapped and then that would be used as a canvas for the students to map their own architectural projects on to these properties. You have to remember it was still a thesis year for these students, they had their own goals academically to achieve – so the final outcomes was to map them to give us a broad range of sites to base our projects on. Then a lot of students became very interested in what it meant socially and culturally.
When you see the map and the range and spectrum of sites, it became really over powering for a lot of students. That was what came out of it. Normally students are more interested in what their architecture is trying to do, what they want to do but because NAMA is so broad, students got really interested in what the possibility of a collective working on this could be. So it was the thesis year with their own projects – but we got funding to do a book, and an exhibition and so on, so we were able to take all this information and step back and look at the work the students had done and see what it meant politically as a collective idea.
The idea of the NAMAlab is not to solve NAMA, but its a means to stimulate debate in Ireland about what can be done. NAMA is only interested in the economic return, but they have still made allowances – like they have said one of the rules in the act is that NAMA will contribute to the social and economic development of the state. So, the idea was we would use the NAMAlab to look at these sites, stimulate debate and see what they could do.
When you were working collectively, what sort of consensus emerged about what NAMA represents in contemporary Ireland? Was there even a consensus about what NAMA represents among the students?
I feel, and a lot the students feel, that NAMA was a last ditch resort for the situation we were in. We think that it is an opportunity. There is a development fund with about 5 billion in it to develop sites and projects. That is a huge amount of money. The London Olympics was 6 billion, and they built a whole Olympic park. We own these sites, and they are significant sites in the city and across Ireland, and there is such a large development fund there we feel there is a chance to use NAMA to change things, thing we always wanted to change and to make a difference across the board in all different walks of life.
We feel that what it represents is just how bad things got, how crazy things got, the amount of greed that was in society. Its a physical representation of how bad things were. We see it as an opportunity and we don’t want it passed off behind closed doors. We want it to be a public debate on what could be done. We paid for them. It is ours and we should take charge of it. That’s what the students want to do and that’s why all the projects are so different.
Can you tell me about some of your favourite projects? My own was the suggestion to use the hoardings from the Anglo Irish building down in the dock lands to construct a new National gallery in the skeleton of the structure that is left?
Well that project was Paul O’Sullivan. So he was looking at the architecture of assembly, he was very interested in crafts and making and how architecture is the art of making things. There was a group of three students who master-planned that whole site. If you look at it there was 4 blocks around Mayor St, they are all completely brownfield now – they are empty. There was an idea of a park, like planting a seed in the city that would simulate growth around it as a park. And he looked then at the Anglo Irish building and how he could cheaply use materials to create space.
It fitted in well, because its a skeleton structure at the moment – his project was a really, cheap way to make the whole thing worth while. It’s so symbolic, the Anglo Irish head quarters and what they did, how badly run they were, to turn it into a public building was a really bold move. He wanted to take the art that all these banks bought and have in their reserves, that they have stored away, and put it on display in the building. He would use the hoarding that is all around these sites to make the spaces, and then he would slot them in all around the skeleton structure to provide a very stimulating experience to be up that high up. And it was so cheap.
He cost-ed it roughly at 2.5 million to do what he wanted to do – to just make the building watertight. There’s all this glass just sitting in Germany that was made for this building, and the cost of it, and erecting that was going to be 8 million. And Paul’s idea to make this a public building was 2.5 million. So that’s really powerful.
NAMAlab was described as a theoretical space, but have any of the ideas for how these properties could be used gained traction?
The projects were very hypothetical. I don’t think any student intended to see their project realised, they were undertaken as an exploration of the student’s idea and work from the start of the year. People have found things really interesting, like Paul’s project – everyone remarks on how powerful that is. Regards someone coming in and saying they’d like to do something with one of the projects, we haven’t seen that. But we just wanted to stimulate debate. Even if people started debating what we could do with the banks’ art , that would be really interesting. At the moment I think Bank of Ireland are selling off their art. AIB are 99% owned by the government, why are they selling off that art? We own that art.
I was friends with a few architects in UCD. I thought you were all studious, private types who squirrelled away working on things that would never see the light of day. Yet from talking to some of the NAMAlab heads on the walking tour, it was clear that making the project visible to the public was a huge concern. Why was this and what sort of reactions from the public did you get?
I think it’s a reaction against the type of buildings that were erected in the past few years. A lot of buildings that architects are blamed for, or given out to about – because there is some horrific buildings after being put up – a lot of these ones we were blamed for, we weren’t involved in at all. There is a lot of architecture that students don’t want to be involved in. We didn’t go through college all year to be come the whipping boy of some developer, just to do what ever they want or can – we weren’t happy with the state of things. We weren’t happy with what was being put up in 90% of cases.
So our idea is to change that. And the only to do that is through interaction and becoming the voice of the people, or to act on behalf of the people, to really act on a base level with what people want and desire. What we desire and what the public desires are the same things. Its how things worked that resulted in how things are now. Because developers are seen as…seen as….
Yeah exactly! We can change the way projects are done, so they become architect led rather than developer led. Its developer led projects that are being put up. We want to assume some of the original responsibility architects had and to do that we need to get involved with the public.
Am I wrong in saying, many of the NAMAlab events took place in NAMA properties themselves? How did you manage to get your hands on these prime pieces of realty, and were the original owners not a little miffed that you were using their property to mount a critique on the system of property development that brought the country’s economy to a grounding halt?
None of the buildings we used were in NAMA unfortunately, they were just vacant retail space that we managed to get a hold of through contacts again. The reason we tried so hard to get these spaces was a result of how important we felt it to be that the public could engage with the NAMAlab. And it really worked, over the course of the 2 weeks in Temple Bar we had over 400 people through the doors, interacting with us, and debating with us about what NAMA means for Ireland, and themselves.
Where next for NamaLAB?
We are also publishing a book. That will be published on the 1st of October, the 14th will be the launch. Our desire is people read it, and it causes even more of a reaction. We need to take charge of what is going on with NAMA. Thats our message. It needs to be us that decides.