A New Heart for an Old City

Architect, Niall Walsh, describes how new elements in the rich architectural fabric of Galway addresses contemporary needs without compromising cultural and environmental integrity.

Ireland: poster child for the EU, ranked 24th out of 137 nations in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index and addressing gender equality ahead of France, Denmark, Germany and the UK, the country is finally shaking off its image as a mystical rural outpost of Guinness-drinkers and recognised as a progressive, diverse young country and European headquarters for many large US pharmaceutical and tech firms.

Galway is leading this renaissance in the west of Ireland. Over centuries, its harbour saw traffic from Europe, the West Indies, and Newfoundland, fuelling the city’s expansion. Today it is firmly interconnected with global flows of materials, commerce, finance, culture, and people; whether through a growing presence of American software giants, a far-reaching tourism industry, or its designation in 2020 as a European Capital of Culture. With a population approaching 80,000 people, Galway is also experiencing the same challenge as many urban centres across the world: how to accommodate the contemporary needs of a growing population while upholding cultural, urban, and environmental integrity.

Galway Harbour Lands

“With a population approaching 80,000 people, Galway is also experiencing the same challenge as many urban centres across the world.”

Over the past decade BDP has sought to meet this challenge by turning attention back to the industrial harbour lands which once sustained Galway’s growth but now sit largely idle; a post-industrial landscape dotted with remnants of rail and maritime infrastructure, largely ignored by the adjacent historic urban core. The 114,000m2 Augustine Hill development transforms this area with the creation of 404 homes, 21 retail units, 19 café/restaurants, and a range of cultural amenities supported by 11 new streets and 4 public squares. It continues the city’s tradition as a complex melting pot for culture, living, and commerce, layering residential, commercial, cultural, and infrastructural uses across the vast site.

Augustine Hill, Galway, Ireland

In tandem, two of the four buildings have just completed at Bonham Quay, a 28,000m2 office-led mixed-use scheme directly adjacent to the Augustine Hill site. They are the first in Ireland to adhere to One Planet Living’s 10 principles of social, environmental, and economic sustainability and not only reflect Galway’s burgeoning status as a multicultural tech hub, but also serve as an important gateway, ushering the city’s expansion eastwards towards the industrial harbour. Both projects, together with our recently designed Coal Yard Hotel, will serve as vital benchmarks for development; increasing building height in the harbour area and enabling the city to accommodate the needs of an expanding population without resorting to urban sprawl.

Bonham Quay, Galway, Ireland

Galway’s urban expansion tells the story of a ubiquitous global trend. In the economies of many secondary harbour cities, we see a move away from the extraction and transport of materials, commodities, or manufactured goods towards a 21st century service economy of digital, financial, and commercial end-products. Left in the wake of this shift are post-industrial landscapes which once connected their cities to the outside world, but now offer fantastic opportunities for architects and urbanists to imagine contemporary urban realms grounded in local contexts.

While designers must look outwards, the retention, reactivation, and integration of historic industrial structures can celebrate a site’s former life, and at Augustine Hill and Bonham Quay the careful appraisal of materials and urban grain define Galway’s past and present. Moving from city to citizen scale, we are unlocking these former landscapes of raw industry as new places in the city, ripe for rediscovery.