The cultural space that Dublin’s docklands need
A second chance to convert Stack A on Dublin’s George’s Dock into a contemporary art museum must not be missed
The Royal Hospital Kilmainham should be retained as a traditional museum
Stack A on George’s Dock in Dublin: only 20 per cent of its retail units are trading. Photograph: David Sleator / The Irish Times
An unparalleled opportunity exists for the creation of a contemporary art museum in the centre of Dublin, in the early 19th-century Stack A warehouse at the edge of George’s Dock. This is arguably the city’s most unsuccessful shopping mall, with only 20 per cent of the units still trading.
The irony is that the original 1986 masterplan for redeveloping the Custom House Docks earmarked Stack A for just such a cultural use. But in 1987, then taoiseach Charles J Haughey decreed that the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) should go to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.
He was prompted by his artistic adviser, writer Anthony Cronin, who had seen the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, installed in a 17th-century building. So why, Cronin reasoned, shouldn’t the same be done with our most important 17th-century building?
But the Royal Hospital was inherently unsuitable for showing contemporary art, quite apart from being relatively remote from the city centre. Its only large spaces, the great hall and the chapel, are not available to Imma as they’re leased for a variety of functions.
And so, in December 1990, the tranquillity of the Royal Hospital’s courtyard was disrupted by the dissonant noise of jackhammers, as the old soldiers’ quarters were remade to fit their new use – after a full restoration less than 10 years earlier, costing IR£20 million.
Original doors along the first-floor corridors in all three ranges were removed and blocked up. Internal windows, so characteristic of these corridors, were taken out and the brickwork underneath demolished to make new doorways. Some 40 fireplaces were also blocked up.
Three of the soldiers’ rooms were destroyed in their entirety to create a glazed double-height entrance to Imma, complete with a transparent staircase – a transverse installation that defied the 17th-century geometry. Two original oak staircases then became mere fire exits.
One might argue, as award-winning architect Shay Cleary did, that such compromises were necessary in order to make the Royal Hospital functional as an art gallery. But it was a bold and controversial intervention, with the imprimatur of Haughey and Padraig O’hUiginn, then secretary general of the taoiseach’s department.
They had simply discounted the potential of Stack A, with its wrought-iron trusses, cast-iron columns and cavernous brick-vaulted basement. That it had been famously used for a huge banquet to celebrate British victory in the Crimean War in 1856 may not have endeared it to Haughey.
Either way, the loss of Imma to the partially gutted Royal Hospital left the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) in a quandary. What was it to do with Stack A, which had long been subject to a preservation order? Eventually, it opted to turn the warehouse over to retailing, even though an uncannily similar shopping mall in London’s Docklands – also involving a Grade 1 listed warehouse, dating from the same period as Stack A – had failed abysmally years earlier.
Tobacco Dock, in Wapping, was renovated in 1990 at a cost of £47 million (€55 million), and was intended to be “the Covent Garden of the East End”. Within a few years, it had become a ghost shopping mall and, by 2003, English Heritage had added the warehouse to its buildings-at-risk register. It was used last summer to billet 2,500 British soldiers on guard duty for the London Olympics. “We see Tobacco Dock as one of the most important buildings in London and, if brought back into use, it would reinvigorate the whole area,” English Heritage said.
The same is true of Stack A. With an overall floor area of 13,749sq m (148,000sq ft), it needs to have a public use that would attract visitors from all over Dublin – such as a science museum, a covered market along the lines of the Boqueria in Barcelona, or an art museum.