Cork's Elysian is a 'Mary Celeste' adrift in the recession

Sat, Oct 31, 2009, 00:00

PRESENT TENSE:It’s Ireland’s tallest building, but it’s almost empty – but the Elysian serves a useful function, writes SHANE HEGARTY

IN CORK, ONE building dominates the skyline as much as it dominates taxi drivers’ conversations. It is the Elysian, which at 17 storeys high is the tallest building in Ireland. By night, it is quite a sight, striking forth from the cityscape, bathed in soft light. Except, some lights are missing: the small squares that would otherwise light up the apartments. Most are dark. And a building that was supposed to represent the life of the city stands as lifeless as any abandoned office block.

Its nickname is The Idle Tower, after the pub The Idle Hour on the nearby quays. And if the property bubble could have been cast in concrete and glass, it would be the Elysian. Its name refers to a corner of Hades, where, according to Homer, “life is easiest for men”. Signs cover the ground-floor windows, promising luxury inside, an invite to join the dream. Its website proclaims the developer’s intent to “create spectacular homes where all manner of buyers will be proud to live”. It boasts of standing “like a beacon around the city”. If it is a beacon, however, it is one rooted on a promised land we have left.

At a cost of €150 million, it was officially opened in 2008. It was, according to its estate agent, not due to be finished until this year. Such excruciating timing meant it didn’t so much launch itself as have to chase buyers as they jumped off a cliff.

It attracted two Government Ministers – Micheál Martin and Batt O’Keeffe – to its launch party, but it has since struggled to woo buyers based on hyperbole.

There are 214 units. The one-bedroom apartments were originally on the market for €375,000. “Great value for money,” insisted an estate agent in January. Its penthouses were going for between €1.4 million and €2 million. Now, according to myhome.ie, the price will be given to you “on application”.

Six months after the launch, the developer said it had sold just 25 units. By the start of this year, only one person had taken up residence. A sole occupier, roaming the corridors of this 17-storey hulk, cycling the halls. How eerie would it be to live alone in Ireland’s tallest building? Although it is quite captivating, in a way, this monument to the immediate past; a looming reminder of all that has gone so wrong. You wouldn’t necessarily want it in your own city, mind you. Although, so many towns and cities have their Elysian now. They are not all so hubristic, perhaps. They don’t all dominate skylines. But they are there.

There are the half-finished ghost estates attached to the edges of towns; their concrete mixers stilled; shells occupied only by dust.

There are the skeleton buildings, such as the Anglo Irish Bank “headquarters”, a structure that is of no use right now but which fulfils a function of sorts, which is to sit forlorn on Dublin’s north quays and act as a physical manifestation of Anglo’s financial denudation.

It is surrounded by new buildings. Some of them are really gorgeous, and it is enjoyable to watch the emergence of the new convention centre, reclining back, casually testing its neon lights. But along Dublin’s quays, as in Cork’s sky, there is the sense of a place in stasis, mid-freefall. The whole country is in a strange, in-between zone. Which is why, when Richard Quirke stepped forward this week with plans for a mini-White House, casino, racetrack and all sorts of other things in Co Tipperary, he couldn’t have caused more baffled spluttering if he had said he was building a spaceport.

So here we are, on a half-built landscape which carries the fossilised remains of the boom. And what to do with it? It’s been a topic of interest of late, with a tour of them recently organised in Dublin. And the problem isn’t just Irish. In Sweden, for instance, empty offices and factories have been turned into schools.

There are plenty of options for our buildings, depending on how stricken developers might be and what value the properties might have in the Nama shake-up. But they already serve a function of sorts, reminding us of how we over-reached.

And if the Elysian, in particular, remains largely empty, it could act as a museum of the boom. Tourists could shuffle though it, marvel at its showrooms, frolic in the Japanese gardens. School tours could come along to gawp. They could treat it as a monumental Mary Celeste, adrift in the recession. A ghostly echo, silent but for the haunting jangle of an emptying wallet.