In South Korea, where I live, many recent buildings — the new Seoul City Hall, Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza — have incorporated the century-upon-century old ruins discovered on their sites. This makes literally visible, often through clear glass floors, the “5,000 years of unbroken history” about which one often hears boasts in Korea. But nor is Europe historically impoverished, and there the window-onto-the-past architectural technique has been applied in even less likely places: a new Dublin location, for instance, of German chain discount supermarket Lidl.
“Architects discovered the remains of an 11th-century house during the development of the site on Aungier Street,” says the video from Irish broadcaster RTÉ above. “The sunken-floored structure has been preserved and is displayed beneath the glass.” Archaeological site director Paul Duffy described the discovery as potentially having “functioned as many things, as a house or an extra space for the family. It’s a domestic structure, so you have to imagine that there would have been a suburb here of Hiberno-Norse Dubliners, who were effectively the ancestors of the Vikings.”
We’re a long way indeed from James Joyce’s Dubliners of 900 years later. But the new Lidl has put more than one formerly buried era of the city’s past on display: “A second glass panel near the checkout tills allows shoppers to glimpse an 18th-century ‘pit trap’ from the stage of the old Aungier Street Theatre,” writes Irish Central’s Shane O’Brien, pit traps being devices “used to bring an actor on stage as if by magic. Another working area under the building preserves “the foundations of the medieval parish church of St. Peter, which served parishioners for more than 600 years between 1050 AD and 1650 AD.”
In the RTÉ video, Dublin City Archaeologist Ruth Johnson frames this as a challenge to the speed-oriented construction model — “put up a hoarding, excavate a site, and then put up a development” — prevalent during Ireland’s recent “Celtic Tiger” period of economic growth. That and other factors have made the built environment of Dublin, a city of many charms, less interesting than it could be. In his recent book Trans-Europe Express’ chapter on Dublin, critic Owen Hatherley writes that “contemporary Irish architecture is marked by a striking parsimony, a cheapness and carelessness in construction.” Looking to the past isn’t always the answer, of course, but in this case Lidl has done well to take it literally.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.