Wejchert's creative design ethos has firm foundations


Diversity of clients is keeping AD Wejchert Architects relatively busy in tough times, writes FRANK MCDONALD, Environment Editor

THREE MONTHS after Andrezj Wejchert’s untimely death, the practice he founded with his wife Danuta lives on and remains true to the principles he established – how the buildings he and his partners designed would work for people as well as relate to their settings, answering the issues of function and place.

Andrezj was a true gentleman, a Pole who found his place here after winning an international competition in 1964 – when he was not yet 30 – to design UCD’s Belfield campus; legendarily, he sketched his concept of laying out the new buildings along a pedestrian spine on the kitchen table of his mother’s flat in Warsaw.

AD Wejchert went on to design numerous buildings in Ireland and, latterly, Poland. “Whether large or small, his attention was always to detail, function, environment and how it would work,” says Danuta. “He wanted us to continue giving that attention, saying good design is the most important thing and never forget about that.”

Managing director Paddy Fletcher says the practice “never had a set style” and always designed a building in response to the site. “Most of our projects have a very strong concept, which is important to ending up with a better building. We’re always very conscious to learn from each project, but there’s no repetition in what we do.”

Senior partner David Lanigan says Andrezj Wejchert “always wanted to look forward, to be contemporary, and he surrounded himself with a team of creative people. In the office, we had a lot of debates, and there was always a variety of expression, with common threads, as well as addressing the particularity of each project.”

These vigorous debates continue, much like “crits” in schools of architecture. Does anyone say “that’s just rubbish?” Yes, says Lanigan, frequently. “There’s so many different factors in designing a building – fire safety, building regulations, technical and financial issues – that it’s very useful to have a discussion about architecture.

“Andrezj was always looking forward to doing things in different ways, never standing still. That was a very strong ethos, which is continuing with sustainability now a key driver,” he says. This is reflected in awards, such as a Green Good Design award for the Nurses’ Education Building at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

The latest was a Best Accessible Building award for a health centre in Irishtown, Dublin, which was designed as a community facility within the strictures of quite demanding Health Services Executive budgets. Lanigan describes it as “quite sober” and says such primary care centres are “the key to improving the health service here”. Irishtown is one of six health centres designed by AD Wejchert. Another on Mark’s Lane, off Lombard Street in Dublin city centre, is just being finished while yet another is under construction at the Cherry Orchard end of Ballyfermot. Similar facilities have been completed in Ballymun, Swords and Clonbrusk, near Athlone.

Other significant work in the health area includes a new accident and emergency unit at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, which will have additional floors above for coronary care, as well as a new psychiatric department at Sligo Regional Hospital and a children’s therapy centre at the Central Remedial Clinic, Waterford. At WIT, not only did the practice devise a new masterplan in 1999 for the Cork Road campus, but also designed the Luke Wadding Library, the Walton IT Building, Tourism and Leisure faculty building and the award-winning Nurses Education Building, which an RIAI awards jury said had a “deceptively easy and simple” lightness.

AD Wejchert has also designed several secondary schools, such as Youghal Community School in Co Cork, and is just finishing what Paddy Fletcher describes as “an intricate project in Ranelagh”, which involved refurbishing and extending Cullenswood House School on Oakley Road, where Michael Collins used to hide while “on the run”.

The practice is no stranger to commercial projects, having designed Blanchardstown Centre and the tall Quinn Direct headquarters overlooking the N3. More recent projects include Chartered Land’s Gaiety Centre on South King Street, Dublin, with its angular glazed façade, which houses Zara, HM, offices and apartments.

Rather surprisingly, given the current climate, preparatory work is proceeding on a scheme for Parkway Developments for an 80,000sq m (861,112sq ft) shopping centre (to be called Millfield) on the edge of Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

“This will be linked to the old village by a street, extending Balbriggan westwards,” says David Lanigan.

Work in Poland includes a 40,000sq m (430,556sq ft) semi-industrial building in Krakow, half of which will house television studios with offices and back-up facilities, and the other half, with a central atrium in between, will accommodate Onet.pl, Poland’s answer to Google. A golf clubhouse near Warsaw is at the design stage.

One Polish project that Andrezj Wejchert took a deep personal interest in was Sobanski Palace in Warsaw, where a glazed office block was added to an 18th century building; it won a diploma from the Polish culture ministry for the best modernisation of a historic complex and was even named as the best building in Warsaw in 1999.

The late architect also worked very closely with senior partner Hugh Maguire on the design of a new visitor centre at Glasnevin Cemetery. Respectful of its setting, it is being built behind the cemetery wall, near its main gate, curving towards the round tower over Daniel O’Connell’s tomb, and replaces an unsightly clutter of maintenance sheds.

One of AD Wejchert’s strengths is that it never got too big. Even at the height of the boom, there were no more than 50 working in its bright offices on Baggot Street – an unusual Georgian house, with a transverse staircase and taller rooms at the rear, off half-landings.

Even in this recession, the practice continues to employ 30.

What enables them to survive, according to Paddy Fletcher, is that their project profile is so diverse, with a good mix of public and private sector work here as well as the projects in Poland, where the crisis has had less impact. “We’ve been around a long time,” says Danuta Wejchert. “If there’s a slowdown in one area, we get work in another.”

She also believes now is a good time to build, because construction prices are relatively low. What’s important for architects, says David Lanigan, “is to concentrate on delivering excellence in design and giving a very good service to clients; if you do that, you will survive”. In the meantime, he predicts, “ostentation is going to be less seen”.