Waterford’s venerable gems rub shoulders with the future

For almost three decades, Rupert Maddock, Waterford’s former architect, has enhanced and reimagined the historic city’s Viking streets and the county’s towns and villages

Rupert Maddock, Waterford’s former city and county architect

Decluttering Ireland’s oldest city is no easy feat, but architect Rupert Maddock has devoted much of his career to doing just that. Take the Viking Triangle, the crowning glory in Waterford city’s core, with a trail of museums in buildings dating back to the 15th century. Some 20 years ago, many of these buildings lay empty and in a state of dereliction.

“If you look at Waterford, the street pattern is Viking, and that has lasted. In 2007, there was no real plan or marching direction for that part of the city which held over 1,000 years of Irish architecture,” said Maddock.

“People visiting it wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to read it. So, what we did was develop the area with a culturally-led and museum-led regeneration project, mixing history and culture and bringing it into the public realm.

“There’s quite a story behind it. We took the museum from where it was down on Hanover Street and we moved it to the Viking Triangle. Instead of one museum, we developed a whole series of museums and placed them in different buildings, like beads on a necklace along the medieval town wall, and in chronological order.

John Robert’s Square after its redevelopment in harmony with the city’s character
Reginald’s Tower, Ireland’s oldest inhabited building, gets space and recognition
Tourists enjoy Viking sculptures in the revamped Viking Quarter
The Bishop’s Palace, which is part of the revamped Museum Quarter of the city

“Architects love opportunity, and the less developed something is, the greater the opportunity. Waterford had so many possibilities when I started working there, but had so much of the past to be appreciated too. There was money and capital in the city and that was reflected in part of the built heritage, so that legacy of important heritage and buildings that spanned the ages just needed to be brought together, woven and stitched into something that was readable and explainable to visitors and yet integrated with redevelopment and new developments in a harmonious way.”

The Medieval Museum and neighbouring heritage buildings have been widely recognised with global awards and praise for the knitting of new designs with old treasures such as Ireland’s oldest inhabited building, Reginald’s Tower, built by the Anglo-Normans, and a civic space throughout its 800-year history.

“An interesting point is that our museums bring in over twice the city’s population in fee-paying visitors, a cultural boost to economic activity,” said Maddock. “This is very unusual in the national context where most other museums are free and not particularly seen as economic drivers.”

Maddock’s involvement is also recognised. Last November, the Dublin-born architect was awarded the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) Gandon Medal, a lifetime award, in recognition of “his exceptional achievement in public practice” and in revitalising towns and villages. Maddock led the Projects Team in the Economic Development and Planning Departments, providing award-winning in-house architectural services to the local authority. The mantle has now passed to Morris Conway, who was recently appointed City and County Senior Architect following Maddock’s retirement.

“What we’ve done is reduce clutter,” Maddock said. “We’ve taken out the curbs and generally made a very clean and consistent aesthetic. Waterford has Medieval Viking roots with a very small interwoven street pattern, and so the public realm needed to be clean and simple rather than more complicated. Those two things mean we have a nice minimalist public realm that’s consistent throughout the whole city.

“We don’t have a road that bisects the city. This has enabled the city to move from being car-centric, which it was around the year 2000. We have two photographs of Patrick Street taken from the same spot and one shows the whole street congested with vehicles and vans, but a couple of years later, another shows the same spot full of people.

“It’s allowed the city centre to transition to being more pedestrian friendly and the spinoff of that is Waterford is able to host very large events like Winterval, the Tall Ships, Spraoi and Harvest festivals. When you have thousands of people navigating your streets, it’s a very different thing from cars filling that space, and Covid really helped show this to the country, because we were easily able to allow shops to spill out onto the streets.

“Winterval is now the most successful event in the country. That’s what orientating a public realm in an urban area like Waterford allows you to do. Waterford has fully capitalised on that.”

Maddock is excited about new projects planned to further regenerate the city.

“There are bigger issues going on like rebalancing the north and south of the city, and one of the exciting future projects will be the South Quays,” he said.

“Another unique thing about the city is that we have this long aspect of the river – the Suir is the Hudson river of Ireland and it’s underutilised at the moment - but with all the work on the North Quays and a new sustainable transport bridge and pedestrian bridge across the river, and also the convergence of all of these greenways across the river, these will converge on the city.

“The South Quays could be a green, sustainable and linear park along the river. Using that as a theme could be the way it’s going to go.

“You see, what happened is the city turned its back on the river. It used to be a port and full of activity for hundreds of years. And then from about 40 years ago, the port moved downstream and the city essentially turned its back on the river with the development of car parking. So now, it’s the process of turning around 180 degrees and facing back onto the river and it’s going to take a bit of time but it will happen. The North Quays will make that happen.”

“The other thing about the public realm is that it’s very democratic. People from all walks of life come here to share, meet and mingle. Aligning people to creatively mix is the future. The future of our city centres is going to be about those chance meetings and that more creative side of human nature, and you have to create places for those meetings to happen.”