County Architect Fionnuala May outlines Fingal County Council’s vision for Swords Cultural Quarter.
Throughout Europe, cultural heritage is steadily gaining importance as a vital asset in developing and strengthening a distinctive identity to attract visitors, engage citizens and promote enterprise. Cultural heritage is crucial to unlocking the opportunities afforded by the presence of a distinct sense of place. An identity built on cultural heritage is not only considered as being the key to attracting potential residents and enterprise, but is also seen as a tool for branding and marketing a town as a destination for visitors and a place for citizens to enjoy.
Fingal County Council identified the development of a ‘cultural quarter’ in the heart of the county town of Swords as a key project in the delivery of its vision to engage citizens, promote enterprise and attract visitors. Public participation, support, local knowledge and aspirations have been core to this development.
The vision for the Swords Cultural Quarter (SCQ) is based on an understanding that successful towns use their cultural heritage to strengthen their identity. The objective is to stimulate and achieve economic and social regeneration in the vicinity of Swords Castle, at the junction of Main Street, North Street and Seatown Road, by developing a new cultural quarter and destination in Swords’ historic centre.
This project consists of an ambition for a defined civic space, a new public landmark and a new destination that will reinforce Swords’ standing as the county town and will prove a vital asset in developing and strengthening a distinctive identity.
A cultural centre will be at the core of the Swords Cultural Quarter and will include a library space, performance venue and arts venue. It will also include a number of support facilities with the potential to be utilised for artistic, cultural and community needs.
The objective of the SCQ project is to energise this area of Swords in order to ensure a balanced town that provides buildings and spaces for both cultural and economic activity for all its citizens and to cultivate a new sense of place.
The areas identified to facilitate these activities are centred on Swords Castle and County Hall at the north end of the town. This primary zone extends into North Street and Main Street. It is intended that the area will have a balancing effect on the town, thereby promoting a greater footfall. It will achieve this by providing a new public realm and civic space, a new cultural centre encompassing a library venue, arts venue and performance venue and an SCQ Hub building, acting as a community focal point and encompassing a centre for creativity and innovation.
The objective is to create and stimulate an intense, varied and diverse urban life, through a new public space which is a unique, attractive place, supporting various cultural activities, providing a room for special events and day to day interactions.
The realisation of the SCQ largely derives from two major documents commissioned in 2014 and 2015, namely the Swords Castle Conservation Plan and Swords Castle Cultural Quarter Masterplan. The conservation plan detailed Swords Castle as the best surviving medieval episcopal manor in Ireland and is designated a National Monument. With a rich assembly of historic buildings of great antiquity, it is a complex site representing at least 500 years of development, redesign, alteration, re-use and adaptation. It reflects the changing fortunes and lives of Dublin’s archbishops and later owners, and the architectural fashions of their times. The curtain walls enclose over an acre of land that slopes down to the Ward River. This complex of buildings is made up of many phases of reuse and redesign reflecting its long history and changing fortunes.
Swords Castle is a landmark and maintains a strong, distinct visual and physical presence over the town of Swords sited as it is at the north end of the town’s main street. However, despite its physical presence, its historical significance and its importance in the development and the layout of Swords town, the site has lacked public recognition and has largely gone unnoticed in the consciousness of the people of Swords and the public at large.
The Masterplan study identified the area around the castle as the ideal location for Swords Cultural Quarter. It describes in detail the physical conditions and issues identified during the stakeholder and public consultation process, as the key challenges that should be considered. It defined the aspirations for the Swords Cultural Quarter as:
- creating a distinct urban identity for Swords and a destination for citizens and visitors by strengthening the attraction of the northern end of Main Street;
- strengthening the identity of Swords as the County Town of the fastest growing county in Ireland;
- exploring the potential for place-making and reinterpreting the historic market street;
- reinforcing the castle both as a focal point and a backdrop to the town;
- creating a defined civic space as a setting where day-to-day exchanges, as well as celebrations, can take place bringing the community together;
- redefining the relationship between the main civic and cultural components i.e, the castle, County Hall, the proposed Civic and Cultural Centre buildings, the Park and Main Street;
- establishing an urban quarter with a strong physical relationship between the main civic and cultural components; and
- addressing traffic issues by improving the connectivity and safety at the key intersection of Main Street, North Street and Seatown Road, giving priority to pedestrians, lessening the impact of the traffic, diverting traffic away, closing off the traffic for large events and creating shared surfaces.
The new proposed buildings and spaces will be of high architectural quality, bringing cohesion between the elements of the new quarter and the town. They will respect and enhance the legacy infrastructure, create a landmark and become a destination for local communities and visitors alike.
Swords Castle is the heart of this new Cultural Quarter. The castle has already begun to become a focal point for the town of Swords and a centre for public events. The Council has begun to address a range of issues regarding the preservation, conservation and presentation to the public of above and below ground elements of Swords Castle and the reintegration of the monument into the life of the town. There now exists public policies that reaffirm and protect the significance of the castle in its past, for us now in its present and for generations to come in its future.
The concept of Swords Cultural Quarter reinforces and adds to the significance of the castle and represents high aspirations for the re-energising of this part of the town of Swords.
Fionnuala May is County Architect with Fingal County Council.
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