Highlights of Recent Dublin Architecture circa 2002

Another feature I did for Cara magazine back in the day. This is the pre-publication, uncut version, with more recently sourced photographs:

One of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners paints a thoroughly bleak picture of the architecture of the city in the early twentieth century. ‘A Little Cloud’ concerns a clerk nicknamed Little Chandler.
He emerged from under the feudal arch of the King’s Inns, a neat modest figure, and walked swiftly down Henrietta Street... He picked his way deftly … under the shadow of the gaunt spectral mansions in which the old nobility of Dublin had roistered.
Standing today outside the James Gandon designed King’s Inns on conserved Henrietta Street it is easy to think that nothing much has changed in one hundred years. Indeed, in some parts of the city very little has. But in the last decade or so various additions to Dublin’s architecture have transformed other parts of the city utterly. The erection of the slouching International Financial Services Centre in 1990 and the setting up of Temple Bar Properties in 1991, on opposite banks of the Liffey, mark for some the start of a renaissance in architecture in Dublin, and for others mark the last days of a charming city – “dear, dirty Dublin” as it is called in Joyce’s story.

Following in the footsteps of Little Chandler from Henrietta Street down Capel Street towards the river, with Thomas Cooley’s recently restored neoclassical City Hall off in the distance, it’s still quite a while before you see signs of change. The charm of Capel Street today is a ramshackle, independent retailer one (“the sense of generations at work”, as Kevin Myers has described it).

… his soul revolted against the full inelegance of Capel Street. There was no doubt about it, if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin.
Many Irish architects felt that way about their capital city through the 70s and 80s, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that they were given any real chance to do something in Dublin. They had meanwhile worked in the UK, the USA, and later in Berlin and Barcelona. All those influences are now to be found competing for domination of Dublin’s skyline.

However, along Capel Street, it’s only when you reach the quays that any evidence of great architectural progress can be seen. I say ‘can be’ because you do have to look. Overall, Louis MacNeice’s description of Dublin in 1939 - “O greyness run to flower,/ Grey stone, grey water,/ And brick upon grey brick” - still rings true. It’s easy to traverse the city and notice only the great Georgian and Victorian legacies.

Little Chandler, again:
As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river towards the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the river-banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset...

The Bookend – Arthur Gibney & Partner

Renovation taking place on Grattan Bridge tells a different story. The City Council has planned a book market there, Seine-style, with permanent stalls in place for traders to display their wares. The book theme is then sustained in a building, two down from the wonderful, cleaned-up Sunlight Chambers, called The Bookend. It is the last building in the row along Essex Quay and the curving Exchange Street Lower to the rear. The client, Temple Bar Properties, wanted a ‘punctuation point’ where the building line ends looking west over a landscaped area and the embedded Viking boat sculpture.

In contrast to the houses pitied by Joyce’s character this is a bright, white building, picked out dramatically in the evening sun’s rays coming from over Phoenix Park. The front of the building on the quays is quite sparsely kitted-out in comparison to its neighbours, particularly towards that west end. This plainness emphasizes its terminal role, but is not very engaging to the eye.

The west facing elevation, with a café at ground level and apartments above, is, however, a treat. There aren’t many buildings in city centre Dublin that offer such an unobstructed viewing opportunity of one whole unattached side of a building, and the architects, Arthur Gibney & Partners have taken the opportunity to make a bold statement with it. The projecting walls appear almost detachable, the overall effect, perhaps, being of robust book shelving. At the same time, it’s a lookout; somehow boat like, with the screen wall creating decks and a sense that the building is moving up river. The design is strong, but there are, sad to say, already signs of wear and tear in the masonry.

The Wooden Building – de Blacam & Meagher Architects

The Bookend is one of over 15,000 apartment developments built since 1990 aimed at repopulating the city centre. Another, even more prominent example, on the far side of Dublin’s Viking Experience from the Bookend, is the Residential Tower or Wooden Building, situated on Upper Exchange Street in the west end of Temple Bar. The wood panelling brings us back, of course, to Viking times, and the way each floor steps out slightly from the one below is quite medieval, but the tower itself is very modern.

The building is actually two towers, one five storey block and another nine-storey block with the gap between serving as an entrance up to a raised courtyard and very busy crèche. Designed with two more storeys in mind, the architects, de Blacam & Meagher had to compromise, but still achieved a height nearly double the neighbouring buildings. This is a thrilling work to view, with a wonderful array of material on show: the central shaft of tropical hardwood, one wing of white render, and another of bronze-coloured brickwork, highlighted by white cement. Artisans were commissioned to add customised features, such as the six-panel oak doors, and the copper window casements. The building also offers an endless variety of lines and shapes to the eye, and yet still holds together beautifully. “It’s a complex composition,” said Shane de Blacam, “because it responds to all its neighbours.”

The problem trying to appreciate such interesting residential architecture is how difficult it is to access for the public, not just in terms of actually buying apartments in places like Temple Bar, but just getting a decent view of the outside. This is especially so with the award-winning Printworks building, designed by Derek Tynan Architects, further east in Temple Bar. Only one full elevation is visible to the public, and the entrance to the raised courtyard is closed off with a gate for security reasons. It’s unfortunate that things have to be so because judging from the published photographs this is another spectacular design, and this time without the obvious appeal of wood to help it along. The RIAI award citation observes that this mixed development is “a thoroughly considered ensemble of uses and volumes, consistently and thoughtfully detailed with a scale and orientation that make it an oasis in the midst of street-level urban activity.”

Hair Salon – de Paor Architects

Temple Bar Properties fostered a group of architects in the 90s to produce work of such very high standards in the context of carefully planned, State-sponsored urban renewal. Less easy to achieve is a high quality of once-off retail architecture as this necessitates a broadminded entrepreneur meeting up with and trusting an adventurous architect. Just such a match has resulted in a bizarre little “outlet” on South William Street. Dylan Bradshaw’s hair salon, once you notice it, will cause you to do a double take. The dark exterior is both discreet and conspicuous. It’s both proscenium arch, and camera obscura. Where you’d expect to see a sign, all you get is a blank box that looks like it has been slid into the existing 1950s building, lit at night by a hidden blue light. This is architecture as branding. The door is all stainless steel, so to see what you’re getting yourself in for you are forced to look through the window again, and the temptation there and then is to step into the frame and walk down the long hall that stretches before you through the window. “The inside and the outside are deeply interlinked,” says Tom de Paor.

de Paor Architects wanted to create a durable interior reacting against the prevalence of disposable shop interiors being constantly ripped out and replaced. The materials used – teak and various colours of marble - glisten, and shine, and reflect in the chorus of slim lights that dangle from the ceiling.

The low-ceiling space is divided down the middle so that there is no front of house/back of house, but two parallel sides-of-house and a triangular section at the end. This establishes separate spaces for the many and varied activities of a modern salon, from reception, to washing and cutting, to storage, to shiatsu massage, and even a private room for any customers who have business to see to between the cut and highlights. Such daring work is a much-needed criticism of the banal kitsch of the shopping centre opposite.

Leinster House 2000 – Architectural Services, Office of Public Works supported by Donnelly Turpin Architects/Paul Arnold Architects

The State, through the Office of Public Works, has been very successful as a restorer of our architectural heritage. The new parliamentary building, however, comprising office suites for 100 Oireachtas members and four parliamentary committee rooms, is a fine example, with some restoration work involved, of its capacity for modern in-fill projects. Adjacent to Leinster House, and adjoining the National Library and National Gallery, this design required sensitive integration into a highly irregular space. The result sinks deep into the site, increasing in height as it recedes from Leinster House, and is delightfully asymmetrical in all directions.

Externally clad in Irish limestone, and extensively glazed, the building, designed by the OPW supported by Donnelly Turpin Architects and Paul Arnold Architects, provides members with air-conditioned, oak-lined offices, around a series of sunken courts, a glass roofed multi-storey atrium, and a landscaped courtyard with water garden. Daylight streams in everywhere, despite the confined site.

Again, though, the problem for the public is access, and in this case only the upper floors are generally visible, and only from Leinster Lawn and Merrion Square. There was talk in the Dáil of plans to consider taking down the railings around Leinster House, and to open the gardens to the public, and even to provide a walkway linking Merrion Square and Kildare Street, but in these insecure times this seems unlikely, so we can only take the word of our public representatives about the success of Leinster House 2000. Will any of them refuse to stand for reelection?

Citibank - Scott Tallon Walker Architects

The new Citibank Dublin Headquarters on North Wall Quay in the IFSC extension is the largest individual office building in Dublin, comprising approximately 374,000 square feet over six floors and basement parking. The building had to accommodate up to 2,000 staff while complying with the Dublin Docklands Development Authority’s somewhat cowardly height restrictions for the area. Frank McDonald of the Irish Times says the result has a “crew cut appearance”.

The Citibank building is, of course, not open to the public, but its front elevation, best viewed from the south side quay opposite, is revealing enough to indicate the success of the building. You’ll see nine clear subdivisions, four of Wicklow granite, three of alternating glass and white aluminium, and two fully glazed sections where two massive atria rise up through the building. The west end is stepped back along an angle formed by the glazed main entrance, and this creates a broad fan of footpath in front, marked by Citibank with the replanting of a mature oak tree.
Once through the revolving doors, on the other side of the glass wall you enter a huge, thrilling atrium space: a calm, quiet interior courtyard contained by office windows. Ivy drapes from internal window boxes above. Sounds travel smoothly without any edgy echoing. This calm, light-filled atmosphere is retained right throughout the building, in massive open-plan offices, carefully laid out to prevent shadows being cast and feelings of isolation among staff. It’s a comfortable, attractive working environment.

On the far side of the reception and the glass-encased lift shaft is a landscaped garden, replete with tropical plants and small trees. There is another internal potted garden in the east atrium and a small landscaped courtyard between the two atria. Good architecture lets nature in, apparently, and this building was awarded the Westland Landscape Award in the interior-landscaping category in recognition of this. The icing on the cake for an instance of “corporate architecture at its international best”, as the RIAI award citation goes.

Liffey Boardwalk – McGarry NíEanaigh

Judging by the number of people who without hesitation opt to take the new boardwalk rather than the footpath along Ormond Quay between O’Connell Bridge and Grattan Bridge, this architectural project is a huge success. There was some resistance to it in conservation circles, with An Taisce worried that it would be gimmicky, and might become shabby. But Dublin City Council is very proud of it, delighted that their idea to reintroduce Dubliners to the river is working so well. As the City Architect says, “Its success will accelerate the public demand that the quality of the Liffey continues to improve.”

The parallel footpath had to be left untouched, so the McGarry NíÉanaigh design rests on a series of rock anchors drilled diagonally into the bedrock of the river. The deck and elbow rail are timber from a sustainable managed source. The south-facing location is not over-shadowed by buildings, so it has a lot going for it as a place to stroll or sit in the sun. There are small terraced cafés along the route, slightly curvaceous wooden benches, and overhanging lights that may be angular interpretations of the traditional streetlamps on the quays.

The boards feel great to walk on, bring you closer to the river, and offer a whole new outlook on the quays and city skyline. This was a fantastic idea, and like the Georgian squares in their day, provides essential release from and architectural perspective on the ever-increasing density of city life.

Later in life Joyce reconsidered his treatment of the city: “I have reproduced (in ‘Dubliners’ at least) none of the attractions of the city ... its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality.” Of course, he didn’t mention buildings, but with all these recent outstanding additions to the architectural repertoire of the city, maybe now he would. Let’s just hope the hospitality isn’t diminished.
Paul O’Connor wishes to thank John Dorman Architects for their advice.

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