Decision on Liberty Hall demolition will shape city skyline

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

Dublin’s first skyscraper is either a modernist icon or no longer fit for purpose, depending on who you talk to

A SKETCH of Liberty Hall featured on the sidelines of a recent workshop on what should be done with the Central Bank. “What about me?” it asked rather plaintively.

Indeed, the fate of Dublin’s first “skyscraper” is now firmly in the hands of An Bord Pleanála.

Following a seven-day oral hearing, the arguments for and against its proposed demolition and replacement by a much larger building will certainly be clear to the board’s planning inspector, Mary Crowley. They also deserve a wider audience.

The passion is all on one side – those who want Liberty Hall to be retained as an “icon” of the emergence of modern Ireland.

On the other side is Siptu’s determination to dispense with a building it regards as no longer fit for purpose and erect a new tower on the site.

The new Liberty Hall, designed by the union’s architects, Gilroy McMahon, would rise to 93.65m (307ft) – more than half as tall again as the existing tower – and would also be 1.5 times wider. In other words, considerably higher and more bulky.

Dublin City Council approved the proposed replacement, having stated in its development plan that height limitations “may be set aside or relaxed” in considering plans for the redevelopment of Liberty Hall, given its “national, historic, social and cultural status” in Ireland.

The architects have made two stabs at it. Their first scheme was withdrawn in February 2011, after it failed to excite the city planners.

The latest proposal, which is even taller by six metres, was approved last February, despite substantial objections.

“The [existing] building doesn’t work . . . for many reasons. Some of these are minor and can be repaired. Some are incurable and cannot,” said Siptu’s architect, Des McMahon, referring to the “excessive” amount of space taken up by its service core (lifts, stairs, toilets, etc).

Using the 60m tower as a precedent, Siptu now wants to create a new “landmark” on the Dublin skyline.

Yet as objector Valerin O’Shea pointed out, three separate assessments of its visual impact commissioned by the union offered widely divergent conclusions.

It was also shown that Siptu needs less than half of the 6,800sq m (73,200sq ft) of office space in the new building. And despite claims that its height and bulk were driven by “design imperatives”, it is clear that the surplus space is for speculative letting or even sale.

The union is on record as saying that “the new building would contain additional office space, which would be available for sale or leasing, to generate revenue and offset costs”.

In effect, Siptu needs it only for the purpose of capitalising its value to raise funds for the scheme.

Planning consultants RPS described the rental income from surplus office space and revenue from admission tickets to the “Skydeck” and heritage centre as “vital components of the self-financing equation” that would “guarantee overall financial sustainability”.

O’Shea calculated that surplus space in the tower would account for at least 10 of its 17 floors of offices.

“Permission has been sought and given for a 22-storey building, 10 storeys of which are not required ,” she told the Bord Pleanála oral hearing.

“The reality is that the needs of Siptu could be accommodated in a building a small fraction of the size,” she said. “Even if the design were as magnificent as the Taj Mahal . . . it is simply vastly over-scaled for such a setting and its effect can be nothing but incongruous.”

But Des McMahon defended the need to make a strong architectural statement for “the last building terminating the northern Liffey Quays as they visually slam into the robust industrial Loop Line overhead railway bridge and the aggressive cross-flow traffic below”.

Liberty Hall itself is incongruous, particularly in relation to the Custom House. But as Docomomo, which is dedicated to conserving modern movement architecture, argued: “More than any other building of the modern era, Liberty Hall has embedded itself in the collective consciousness of the city, even the nation, and our sense of identity.”

The Irish branch of Docomomo had to withdraw its objection to the proposed demolition after it received a solicitor’s letter on behalf of conservation consultant David Slattery alleging gross defamation.

But the Docomomo submission – with the offending material removed – was included in an appeal made in a personal capacity by An Taisce heritage officer Ian Lumley, who argued that a taller building was unjustified as Siptu could meet its needs by refurbishing Liberty Hall.

“This impressively researched submission constitutes a significant argument in justifying the retention and refurbishment of the existing building and rebuttal of the arguments made by the applicants’ consultants,” he told the hearing.

Liberty Hall, designed by engineer-architect Desmond Rea O’Kelly, was commended in the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland Gold Medal awards for buildings of the period (1965-1967).

It shared this honour with Carroll’s, on Grand Parade – now a protected structure.

Rea O’Kelly, who died in February 2011, was delighted by Dublin’s first Open House weekend in 2006, when long queues formed for the first opportunity in years to visit the building, including its observation deck.

His main concern was that Siptu wouldn’t demolish it before he died.

Sadly, it is now a dilapidated building. After a car-bomb exploded on the street in December 1972, blowing out many of its windows, a reflective silver film was applied to the replacement glass; this had the unfortunate effect of removing the translucent quality it originally had.

Later, mosaic tiles on the edge beams of each floor were consolidated with mastic, making the tower look dreary and grey.

As O’Toole noted, however, both of these changes are reversible, if there was a will to refurbish Liberty Hall rather than demolish and replace it.

Lumley maintains that the building could be made more functional with open-plan floors, natural ventilation and a new glazing system to reduce solar gain.

Alternatively, if Siptu were to relocate elsewhere, it could be converted for residential use, with two flats per floor.

Dublin City Council’s former chief planning officer, Pat McDonnell, believes that An Bord Pleanála’s decision will “make or break” Dublin’s skyline.

And Valerin O’Shea says she would “throw in the towel” if the board grants permission because of the precedent this would set.