Dublin's lesser spotted architectural gems
THERE’S NOTHING truly hidden within Dublin’s public realm. If it’s on the street, it’s there to be seen, as long as we give ourselves the chance to look. Busy city streets contain a huge amount of visual information. We filter out details so that we’re not too distracted to get where we’re going.
When something interrupts the filtering, new things pop up on even the most familiar streets. Maybe it’s roadworks pushing you out further than usual so you can see the rooftops. Maybe it’s sunlight acting like a grand laser pointer. Maybe you’re a passenger, freed from the responsibility of paying attention to the road. Maybe it’s a tourist staring up at something for long enough that you follow their gaze.
Even in the parts of Dublin where there’s a certain amount of repetition, things rarely start out identical and never stay that way. Georgian terraces might seem uniform until you’re staring at a photograph trying to pick out a particular house and suddenly you see the differences in the fanlight design, the window heights, the brick colour and mortar style, or even that one house is taller than its neighbour.
Houses or flats built to a pattern gradually take on identities, as parts get replaced or patched up, or decorative finishes are added. At the very least, the doors might be painted a different colour.. These points of difference, whether they’re whole buildings or small details, give the city its texture and richness. There’s pleasure in seeing a beautiful thing (or even a beautifully ugly thing), pleasure in reading the city’s stories even without knowing the specifics of when or why each layer was added.
The detail isn’t just about enjoyment: it helps our sense of orientation, giving us dozens of ways of knowing where we are and feeling like we belong to a place.
Each of us will pick out different things – not noticing the old handball alley because there’s a really nice shopfront right beside it or missing the shopfront completely because there’s a weird chimney sticking out above it – and they add up to create our own internal maps of the city. Our personal maps are more memorable than names and signs and are infinitely more enjoyable.
1 RICHMOND SURGICAL HOSPITAL, North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7
On the edge of institution-dense Grangegorman, the Richmond Surgical Hospital was constructed in the 1890s to replace a former convent that had been in use since 1807 with a patchwork of modifications.
The Richmond was designed by the partnership of James Rawson Carroll and Frederick Batchelor, and it appears to have opened formally in 1901. In recent years, it was in use by the Courts Service, with the wards converted to courts by the Office of Public Works, but this is no longer the case.
The hospital plan was a wide “U”, with the wards in the side wings – each bed had a window above it, which you can see along the sides of the blocks. An Irish Times’ report on the opening in April 1901 lists many of the hospital’s modern features, and says it was “practically fireproof”, with “modern ventilation throughout and warmed filtered air for the theatres”, and that “the whole building is raised from the ground upon high arches”.
I’m drawn to it by the roofline, the copper roofs tapering to a stack of ornaments; the little finials on the gables of each wing; the curves of the ridge line on the pitched roofs, and the chimneys popping up throughout. The double loggias (covered galleries open to the air on one side) on the ward blocks offer a useful space for patients, outside without being outside, and the covered outdoor spaces are to be welcomed in this climate.
It’s a big, memorable building, and just far enough from the main cross-city routes that it comes as a surprise to people unfamiliar with the area.
2 TERRACOTTA FRUIT, FISH AND VEGETABLES, Mary’s Lane, Dublin 7
The big brick-clad market designed to house the Corporation Wholesale Markets opened on December 6th, 1892, designed by Parke Neville and carried out with modifications by Spencer Harty following Neville’s death. It’s still in use today, with wholesale produce and flowers on sale to trade buyers and, unofficially, to the public.
There’s been discussion of a scheme to turn it into a more retail-oriented market along the lines of Cork’s English Market, though we’ll see whether this is in limbo or in progress.
The facades are mostly in red brick, with yellow brick lining the arches and providing contrast in patterned blocks. Behind the screen of brick arches, the roof is supported by structural ironwork and rises in a series of pitches running east-west(ish), with glazed north-facing portions providing moderate light without glare. It’s an elegant structure, providing a good deal of character to the interior.
Around the outside of the building, between the arches, the terracotta fish, fruit and vegetables are some of the nicest details in the city. According to Christine Casey’s Dublin, they were “supplied by Henry Dennis of Ruabon, although the template has been attributed to CW Harrison”. They’re pretty great and merit a slow walk around the building. Gorgeous detail, surprisingly real-looking, and a good test to see whether you can name that many types of fish.
3 CRANE TRACKS, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin 2
There’s a stretch between the two quayside warehouses on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay that hasn’t been repaved and here there’s a hodge-podge of cobblestones cut through with crane tracks. The surface is appealingly patchy and you can trace the tracks around curves and crossings until they stop abruptly or appear to peter out. It’s quiet, bookended by the warehouses and away from steady traffic.
This area between the quay and the road on both sides of the Liffey is known as the campshires, a strip of land that would have been dominated by cranes unloading ships. Containerisation took over and the port moved down to the East Wall, leaving behind these traces of the site’s former purpose.
4 OUR LADY QUEEN OF HEAVEN CHURCH, Dublin Airport
The most beautiful part of Dublin Airport today also happens to be its best-kept secret. Our Lady Queen of Heaven church is not far from the busiest areas, tucked behind the Terminal One car park. Once you get inside its open-air atrium, you’re far removed from duty-free shopping and passenger announcements.
The airport church is a calm, slow place where nobody will bother you – a gift if you’re a nervous flyer. Also, some of Ireland’s most interesting and bold modern movement architecture can be seen in churches, not least because the clients were very committed. The desired result was something monumental and the brief to the architect was specific but also relatively simple compared to other building types: one large, beautiful space and a number of other rooms.
Our Lady Queen of Heaven was completed in 1964, designed by Andrew Devane of Robinson, Keeffe Devane. The church is built in brick and concrete, with flat roofs and a concrete bell tower rising above. The atrium buffers the church from the airport sound – a couple of steps takes you from traffic noise to near-silence – as well as being a quiet, contemplative space.
There’s a peristyle (a columned porch around an atrium) sheltering a generous walkway with benches projecting from the walls. In the centre of the atrium (pictured above), there’s Imogen Stuart’s sculpture Madonna Fountain (1969). The church interior is brick-lined, with a timber backdrop to the altar, and quite dimly lit but the bands of stained-glass fill it with lines of bright colour. The nave is raised above the side aisles and allows for strips of stained-glass between the two levels, subtly defining the traditional zones of the church.
5 BON APARTMENTS, Wellington Quay, Dublin 2
In photographs, the most distinctive thing about Bon’s facade is the grid of red brick with recessed black mortar joints, creating an unusual texture using a material that’s common in Dublin. It’s an infill building by De Paor Architects, completed in 2000, with six apartments reached by an exterior staircase within the block.
Approaching it as a pedestrian on Wellington Quay, you don’t get the wider view and the building announces itself by its name, cast into the deep concrete beam above the cedar gate. The letters are stark but not entirely crisp and the tactile lure of the rough edges makes me wish I could reach up that high. It’s made a bit less subtle by most of the beam now being hidden by a pink plastic board, turning the portion with letters into a small sign board instead of a detail within a larger surface, which is a pity.
Since the Bon entry went up on the Built Dublin blog, two wiser, punnier architects have pointed out the wordplay in the name: Bon Apart(ments), Wellington (Quay). Luckily, the building’s better than the joke.
Lisa Cassidy’s blog, Builtdublin.com, won best arts/culture blog in this year’s Irish Blog Awards