Dundalk relights fire in former factory

 

The PJ Carroll factory in Dundalk wasn’t just an architectural icon – it was also the best place in town to work. Now Dundalk Institute of Technology is giving the landmark a new lease of life

LONG BEFORE the M1 motorway was even a gleam in an engineer’s eye, Dundalk got something that was way ahead of anything else in Ireland at the time – an ultra-modern cigarette factory with a cool glazed front and an eye-catching sculpture of stainless steel “sails” in a reflecting rectangular pool in the foreground.

The PJ Carroll factory became an icon (to use that much-abused term) of modern Ireland. Completed in 1970, it employed 1,750 people at the peak of production, making Carroll’s No 1, Major and Sweet Afton. All the employees got free health care – and free cigarettes.

“It was the best place in town to work,” says Michael O’Neill, building officer of Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT), who remembers when the factory was built. Some of the work involved collecting tobacco dust, which was then sent back to Customs and Excise to get valuable refunds on the hefty duty Carroll’s paid on imported leaf.

Now the former tobacco factory, designed more than four decades ago by Ronnie Tallon, has been given a new lease of life as a 21st century education hub – DKIT’s School of Informatics and Creative Arts, an odd marriage of mathematics, music, film production, games and software development, catering for up to 1,000 undergraduates.

It was inevitable that the task of converting the factory to its new use would be entrusted to Scott Tallon Walker. Not only had the firm (then Michael Scott and Partners) done the original building, but it was also responsible for four new buildings on the DKIT campus that cover up the stock remnants of its regional technical college days.

The fact that DKIT adjoined the 45-acre Carroll’s site, separated only by a stream, made it an ideal “fit”. Under a deal involving Bennett Construction, the factory and its extensive grounds were acquired in 2002 for more than €18 million – with part of the land ceded to Bennett’s, which developed the Crowne Plaza Hotel there.

This 13-storey tower unfortunately detracts from DKIT’s own landmark, a 60-metre-high wind turbine with 25-metre blades – the first in the world to be installed on a college campus, in 2005. It generates 1.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year and “charges” the banks of ice that help to air-condition the new building. Ronnie Tallon is on record as saying that the Carroll’s factory “may be the best building I have made”, which is why it featured on the cover of Scott Tallon Walker’s lavish book featuring 100 buildings and projects from 1960 to 2005. That image of it at dawn, captured by architectural photographer John Donat, is a classic.

“The one lesson you learn, really, over the years is that buildings do change. I think the day is gone where you make a building and it’s a complete entity, never to be touched again,” Tallon said. “Good buildings can accept change. If you have a simple structure, I believe it can take change without too much damage.”

The PJ Carroll factory was based on the repetition of a structural steel module, with a vast span of more than 20 metres, that was expanded three times over the years “and no one can tell where,” as he proudly told Shane O’Toole. But the latest work didn’t involve any expansion; instead, the building was to be carved up.

Open-plan spaces had to be subdivided to accommodate tiered lecture theatres, sound recording studios and film editing suites, as well as offices, recreation areas and computer labs. It also meant relocating the main entrance from the front to the side, to make it easier for students and staff to gain access to the main DKIT campus.

One is immediately struck by the extraordinary height and width of the corridors, but also by the relative absence of daylight. Fintan Valelly, lecturer in traditional music, complains that “in winter, you go in early in the morning when it’s still dark and emerge in the evening in darkness and you’ve had practically no natural light during the day”.

Staff offices are arranged in clusters around internal courts top-lit by rooflights. But since all of these offices have opaque glass for privacy, staff only get the benefit of “borrowed” daylight. Valelly believes that some of the external brick walls should have been replaced by windows, even though the building is a protected structure.

He also complains that consultations about the design were confined to commenting on plans after they had been drawn up. “I remember one meeting with the architects when we were shown the plans. I suggested that they should consider having some circular spaces, but Ronnie Tallon exploded.” There had to be respect for the grid.

Students are more enthusiastic. Martin Óg McAllister, a fourth-year music student, says it “has all the facilities we need, apart from instrument storage,” while Dean Maher, also in fourth year, recalls that with the previous premises in the centre of Dundalk, “I didn’t feel like I was in college, so it’s great to be part of the community”.

The central gathering space, under an expansive rooflight, has become known as “Jurassic Park” or “The Forest” because of its large, primeval-looking ferns; it was also supposed to have bamboo, but the plants didn’t survive. Both here and in the cafe (Starbucks, inevitably), the structural form of the Carroll’s factory is clearly visible.

So, too, is what survives of the company’s art collection, which Ronnie Tallon played a large part in assembling. Apart from Gerda Frömel’s exterior stainless steel mobile, it includes a Táintapestry by Louis le Brocquy, woven in Aubusson, and a new geometrical piece by Tallon himself, appropriately painted in tobacco-like brown.

With the official opening last Friday, one might have expected everything to be in working order. But the long rectangular pool in which Frömel’s sculpture sits was drained of water, depriving it of its most essential feature. Maintenance of ornamental pools is always a problem, but a DkIT spokesman said there’s a plan to restore it.

Extraordinarily, the original PJ Carroll offices remain largely untouched. They include a mezzanine floor with solid, timber-shuttered concrete balconies very similar to the RTÉ television studios in Donnybrook (an earlier building by Ronnie Tallon). A large section of the factory also remains to be renovated for future use by DKIT.

“I hope they fund the rest of it soon,” Tallon says. “It’s a shame to see so much done, if its not going to be finished.” Having spent over €38 million on the project so far (including site acquisition), money is a problem now – whatever about Brian Cowen hailing it as a symbol of “Ireland’s tranformation to a knowledge-based economy.”