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Dublin needs to build up maybe we should speak to this skyscraper wizard

Zhang can build a skyscraper in three weeks – a few of those might liven up our cityscape, writes Jonathan McCrea.

LET’S FACE IT: Dublin is ugly. It’s hard to write those words, but as disrespectful as they may sound to any proud Irish man or woman, there’s no denying that the city lacks the grace or grandeur of almost any other European capital.

The few pockets of Georgian architecture seem to barely satisfy the minimum requirements for a city and the rest is a hot, sprawling mess. Blocks of brown, grey and jade low-and-wides mope around the city looking depressed beside the odd glass elevator: shiny but average office blocks with unfulfilled aspirations.

This have-a-go hotchpotch spreads across an enormous carpet of concrete that disappears into the horizon for up to 50km in some directions. We need something to lift our spirits.

Last summer I flew to the ‘furnace city’ of Changsha in the Hunan province to visit a man who could literally transform our city overnight. Chairman Zhang of the Broad Group Corporation has revolutionised construction in China, a country that has had to meet population demands that make our own housing crisis seem positively trifling.

While the country’s population hasn’t increased dramatically, increased urbanisation, personal wealth and foreign investment has led to incredible changes in its landscape. Since the late 70s, China has developed 400 new cities. Not towns, cities. That’s a new Leeds or Lisbon every month for 40 years. According to Bill Gates, China has used more concrete in the past 3 years than in the US did in the entire 20th century.

Zhang, pictured below, is an intense and contradictory man. Despite being a property developer, he claims to be a zealous environmentalist. Walking around his compound, where employees work and sleep, his obsession with waste and green living is to be found everywhere.

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In the local canteen, made from recycled material, the tables are labelled with a mantra that reflects the dear leader’s frugality: Take what you need. Leave not a grain of rice on your plate’. The employee handbook encourages workers in their downtime to read a book instead of staring at their tablet and to relish the outdoors.

Broad Town – the name for the company’s expansive, eclectic headquarters is home to nearly 5000 employees. Sleeping quarters, a replica of the Palace of Versailles an organic farm and a 200m tall showroom skyscraper are all to be found on the perfectly manicured compound.

Workers all start work at the same time, in identical uniforms and to the opening bell of the company song during which the employees profess their love of the company and the planet. Love of another employee however, is forbidden, because of romance’s negative impact on productivity. It has been said that the Chinese define themselves by their usefulness to society and so this robotic devotion is probably not unusual in this part of the world, but to an outsider it seems like a sterile existence.

That’s not to say it doesn’t yield results. To meet national demand and to reduce the amount of waste that concrete construction creates, Zhang’s inspirational idea was to use steel prefabricated parts instead. Like Ikea flatpack furniture, his steel modules are connected on site with ducting and ventilation built into the design.

As a result, he can build at an extraordinary speed: 3 storeys a day. His landmark building J57 has 800 apartments and office space for 4,000 staff. It has 57 storeys and was built in a mind-boggling 19 days, not counting foundation work. / YouTube

According to Broad Group, Zhang’s skyscrapers create over 90% less waste, require no onsite water for concrete and, because they are made primarily from steel, are largely recyclable. Steel also allows for much more flexibility and as a result, J57 is capable of withstanding a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The air inside is 99% pure, a result of his hi-tech air-conditioning and purification business that began his rise to success.

The problem is that China is a country that is endlessly building structures that nobody needs. Changsha has been transformed in the past two decades, but as you travel into the city from the airport you pass large swathes of new developments intended for relocation that have failed to attract inhabitants. Loopholes, incentives, planning targets and a failure to address individual want has left thousands upon thousands of apartments empty.

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On the other side of the world, Ireland, and Dublin specifically, does need buildings. We have our fair share of empty shells in Ireland too, partly a result of the commodification of housing as Lorcan Sirr pointed out in last week’s Sunday Times, but even if these were made available, the city needs to grow and for the most part, it seems we’re going to be growing out, and not up.

The reasons for Ireland’s stunted height are manifold, and if the Dublin City Development Plan is anything to go by, everybody has an opinion on it. Hospitals, developers, heritage organisations and planners all have a different vision of our capital’s future, but it does seem that we will soon see taller buildings in some parts of the city. The Plan outlines Connolly, The Docklands and Heuston as likely development areas, we’ll never be home to skyscrapers no matter how easy, green or efficient they become.

No, tall buildings aren’t needed for high density. No, they wouldn’t solve all of the city’s problems. But they could provide a bit of inspiration and beauty in an otherwise dull cityscape. The Shard in London, Turning Torso in Malmo or the Cayan tower in Dubai serve as examples of humankind’s ingenuity and creativity. I look forward to the day that we unveil a building that instils the same sort of pride in our nation’s capital.

Jonathan McCrea visited Changsha as part of his new series, The Great Guide to the Future, going out on new Irish channel B3. The first episode – which airs tonight at 7pm – looks at solutions to the dwindling wildlife population, investigating a pioneering project at Yellowstone National Park in the US. / YouTube

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