Dermot Bannon’s new show has a lot of room to improve

Review: The architect’s latest programme, The Big Build, has lots of storeys but little drama

Dermot Bannon and construction manager Carol Smillie. The former gushes, while the latter refuses to provide the show with panic

Dermot Bannon and construction manager Carol Smillie. The former gushes, while the latter refuses to provide the show with panic

 

Architecture is drama. When one architect says of her sculpted spiral staircases, intended to rise in seemingly free-floating strands within the enormous project of the new Royal College of Surgeons Building on Dublin’s York Street, that they will “perform in the space” she sounds as much like a dramaturg as a designer. She might have lent her wisdom to Dermot Bannon’s The Big Build (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.30pm), a lengthy and somehow not exhaustive documentary on the 2 ½ year, €80 million construction.

“Sometimes size does matter, and big builds are back,” begins the prepossessing presenter, explaining that before Room to Improve, he was all about large-scale projects. Here, then, was Bannon getting back to his foundations. 

The programme, though, belongs to Peter McGovern, the architect, and Carol Smillie, the construction manager. Bannon introduces them to us in gushy terms: “the most successful female builder in the country”, and “one of the busiest architects in Ireland”, as though pitching the heroes of an aspirational rom com. But the programme can’t quite design its own sustaining conflicts, expecting a chronological capture of the build, with Bannon’s occasional digressions, to be enough.

A view from the crane above the RCSI site
A view from the crane above the RCSI site

That’s not the most imaginative approaches to story, and so it proves. The plot, to begin, is all in the basement: to achieve 10 storeys within Dublin’s height restrictions, the project must dig down four storeys. Cue rushing water, concrete walls and a 14-week delay, while the immensely resourceful Smillie refuses to provide the show with panic.

Instead, Bannon embarks on a side mission, provocatively asking why we shouldn’t build Dublin skyscrapers, before forcefully deciding, just a few moments later, that we absolutely shouldn’t. “Nobody likes a show off,” he concludes, with open-arm hand gestures and a waggle of his eyebrows.

This detour really suggests that there is not much for Bannon to do, besides reassure McGovern when the architect is sullen by the appearance of his concrete pillars, that “they look great”, or jocosely describe Smillie as “screaming like a fishwife” when she has the temerity to tell a crane operator how to do his job. It’s a strangely tone-deaf joke, even among friends, suggesting its own room to improve.

Other tensions dissipate by their own accord: any sense of a race across the clock disappears when Smillie admits the college has increased its wish list and extended the deadline. And such is the politesse of professional discourse that the protagonists are, like calmly effective parents, never angry – just “disappointed”. 

The final reveal of the finished building is wonderful to watch, as director Luke McManus lets his cameras drifts around the edifice, gazing upwards like awestruck pedestrians. In the motion of the lens, you see the lines and angles revealed like an elegant, choreographed performance: forget that ancient undermining comment about music writing – here, finally, is dancing about architecture.

It’s a shame to realise at the conclusion, when Bannon spills his appreciative encomiums to “in-between spaces”, that the programme never gave us much idea about what McGovern was trying to achieve in the first place. More insight comes from the steelworker who says: “Most architects and engineers want to leave a monument to themselves, and this is a monument to everyone who worked here.”

There it stands. Take a bow. 

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