Behind the scenes at the National Gallery of Ireland’s stunning renovation
Cutting-edge architects Heneghan Peng have deftly combined old and new
The long-awaited renovation of the National Gallery of Ireland, on Merrion Square in Dublin, has exposed elements of the building that most people have never seen, as well as windows that were blocked up for decades, with startling effect.
Who would ever have guessed that the sumptuous Shaw Room, in the original Dargan Wing, had four very large windows on its northern side? They date from the gallery’s foundation, in 1864, when this room was used as a sculpture court; they were lost because the gallery needed more hanging space for paintings.
Anyone familiar with the once deep-yellow Shaw Room will be amazed by how much it has changed when the historic building reopens to the public, on Thursday, June 15th.
Visitors will be even more stunned by the elongated courtyard between the Dargan Wing and the 1901 Milltown Wing, covered by a light-refracting glazed roof.
Few people apart from the gallery staff knew the space even existed. Rising to the full height of the building, it incorporates reinforced-concrete lift shafts at either end, a wall of white ceramic tiles that reflect light, the Dargan Wing’s stone cornice and even part of its drainpipe, as a little memory.
Overlooked by glazed balconies, the courtyard will serve as an orientation and circulation space, with solid bench seating done in terrazzo by Colm Ryan. Its glazed roof was designed by the Irish-born engineer Tom Gray, who’s based in Paris. (He is also working on a new roof for the old Central Bank of Ireland building, on Dame Street.)
The overall renovation has been deftly handled by Heneghan Peng Architects, a practice that is better known for its cutting-edge modernist designs, such as the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, in Co Antrim, the Palestinian Museum, in Ramallah, on the West Bank, and the Grand Egyptian Museum, in Giza.
The older parts of the gallery have been closed for six years. “The gallery had to repair the building and also deal with fire upgrading, environmental controls and accessibility issues,” says Róisín Heneghan.
“It was also a chance to think about how visitors move through the building, as previously they tended to get lost all the time, so we needed to create the space to allow them to do that, using buffer zones between the art galleries, all of which are ‘control spaces’ that need to be protected from direct daylight penetration.
“We adopted a system of redirected louvres – aluminium grilles between panes of glass in the roof lights that are passive rather than mechanical. These are enough to deflect it.”
The new system is most clearly visible in the Dargan Wing’s Grand Gallery, whose daylight quality has been maintained even after being effectively taken out. A new catwalk has also been installed here, between the inner and outer glazing; a similar double box is also used in the roof space of the Milltown Wing.
The mechanical and electrical plant required for the gallery is concealed under a new front lawn. This meant trees had to be felled, although new ones have been planted.
Granite setts ramp up to the entrance, so the old steps are gone. So are the original, ornate oak doors, replaced by a modern glazed entrance. Visitors must turn right through the new entrance box, which Heneghan says was necessary to deal with numbers.
All of the new elements are done in contemporary materials, to distinguish them from historical features, although Shih-Fu Peng, Heneghan’s partner and husband, insisted that grilles for the ventilation system should be copied from Victorian grilles found in the building.
The architects, who won the National Gallery of Ireland competition back in 2006, took opportunities to visit the renovated Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and the National Museum, in Stockholm, as well as attending a symposium in Dresden on the ideal museum, to inform themselves on the latest thinking about gallery design, especially in older buildings.
“The first thing we had to do was to understand what the National Gallery had and how it could be rethought, before we developed the master plan,” Heneghan says. “Then the crash came, in 2008, and the Office of Public Works decided to proceed with fabric-related issues to bring the historic wings up to scratch – basic things, like reroofing.”
The approach we took was not to homogenise it all by forcing a symmetrical perfection but to allow the different elements to be read
Complicating Heneghan Peng’s task was the fact that each of the three older buildings – the Dargan and Milltown wings and, from 1968, the Beit Wing – inevitably reflected the eras in which they were built. “The approach we took was not to homogenise it all by forcing a symmetrical perfection but to allow the different elements to be read,” she says.
So the elaborate oak door frames of the Milltown Wing’s enfilade – its memorable succession of galleries, almost all now painted blue – have been made even more prominent by stripping back to the original walls.
Room 21, at the end of the Dargan Wing, was remodelled in neoclassical style after “a lot of anguish” about how it should be treated. “We had an idea roughly what was there, but the precise detailing was gone, so we worked on that with Blackwood Associates,” Heneghan says, referring to a Dublin firm of conservation architects. There is also a dark room for stained glass, all backlit.
Regrettably, health-and-safety rules meant that steel handrails had to be installed on the elegant staircases leading from the Shaw Room to the Grand Gallery. Also, the modern staircase of the Beit Wing will have to be removed to realise Heneghan Peng’s master plan.
But its big move – creating the new route from Merrion Square to Trinity College Dublin – was not included in the renovation, which will probably end up costing no more than €30 million. Paul Byrne, the architect who is the clerk of works on the project for the OPW, says that John Paul Construction, the contractor, put in a tender of €25.6 million but that the final fee has yet to be agreed.
When one considers that we are investing €550m in a motorway in Co Galway, €30m is a remarkably small sum for such an extensive and complex renovation
When one considers that we are investing €550 million in a motorway between Gort and Tuam, in Co Galway, it’s a remarkably small sum for such an extensive and complex renovation.
Opened in 2002, Benson & Forsyth’s Millennium Wing certainly gave the gallery a wow factor, but its connection with the older buildings, through single doors on two landings, is less than satisfactory. And although the wing has provided much-needed facilities, such as a cafe and bookshop, this needs to be addressed, as does the dirty-looking facade around the corner from Merrion Square, on Clare Street.
Appropriately, the statue of the railway magnate William Dargan, who inspired plans for the National Gallery, has been turned around to look across Leinster Lawn to the companion Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, the bronze is blackened as a result of historic air pollution.