This article is an adapted extract of a case study from the book Jones, M. (2020). Transforming towns: Designing for smaller communities. London: RIBA Publishing.
The Bridge Street Project is part of a long-term collective re-imagining of the future of Upper Bridge Street in the medieval market town of Callan to the south of Kilkenny in Ireland. The project was developed through interdisciplinary collaboration to explore the role of the high street as a collective civic space.
Upper Bridge Street is a narrow street that was historically the town’s market street. Once bustling with pubs, groceries, drapers and bakeries, the increasing levels of traffic congestion during the twentieth century supressed this vibrancy. In the 1980s, businesses started to relocate until, by the late 1990s, the street had fallen into dereliction.
For some years, one-off arts events and residencies have been run in Callan, linked to a community festival of participation and inclusion. These events included a series of design and build summer schools to create temporary interventions in the public realm. The summer schools led to Callan's involvement in a project exploring how children navigated through the town, with Bridge Street closed for chalk games, food, live music and a children’s disco. Around the same time, a pop-up café was opened in a disused shop front to open a conversation with the community to explore the accessibility of Bridge Street, where local people shared their stories over a cup of tea, from which emerged the idea of developing a theatre script made up of local stories.
These events led to the Bridge Street Project, which combined a theatre production, Bridge Street Will Be, and an architectural intervention, Reflected Elevation.
The Reflected Elevation project aimed to address the regeneration of the outside spaces through bottom-up community workshops. Over 50 participants gave up their evenings to join workshops to paint the facades of the buildings in a paintscape representing the various lives of the street and capturing the many changes to its buildings. Closing the street for a few hours every day formed a new public realm, created chance meetings, and allowed local people to admire the beauty of the buildings. While the closures were the main source of disruption for the wider community, they led to the engagement of residents who may not otherwise have taken part.
The theatre production focused on performance-based civic participation and engagement with the internal spaces of the street. A local theatre-maker created a script woven from local legends and oral histories. A cast of over 80 community and professional actors unfolded stories using the street and its buildings as their stage in an immersive theatre production. The audience could wander freely in and out of buildings and through the street, rediscovering this overlooked part of the town.
These hands-on events brought people together to develop a shared vision for the renewable of Bridge Street and have fed into Callan’s Local Area Plan 2019. Bridge Street has been identified as a critical area needing rejuvenating and obtained funding as part of a pilot study to encourage more people to live in rural towns.
Through an innovative and collaborative approach to engaging with local people and small-scale intervention, the projects in Callan demonstrate the value architects and designers can bring to rethink public spaces in small settlements. Through hands-on performance and making, the sequence of projects has positively transformed the town and influenced long-term thinking about the town's future.
Architect: Studio Weave
Client: Trasna Productions
Civic Engagement Producers: Rosie Lynch, Etaoin Holahan
Commissioned by: Trasna Productions
Funders: Arts Council Kilkenny Leader Partnership
Theatre Company: Equinox Theatre Company Asylum Productions
Writer: John Morton
Photo 1: Bridge Street Will Be, performance. Photo: Neil O'Driscoll.
Photo 2: Bridge Street Will Be, performance. Photo: Brian Cregan.