ESB headquarters rebuild must reflect time we live in
The best way to respect the Georgian streetscape is to insert a contemporary design
Inside the main building, a large part of the ground floor is an airport-size security area while labyrinthine corridors conceal multiple single-use offices and open-plan areas are overcrowded. The building has an embarrassing BER rating of F. The entire site is an introspective, warren of obsolescence.
On the positive side, the project will be a boost to the construction sector; the usable space will be doubled and sublet to a major corporate, providing office use for an additional 1,400 people. The rear at James’s Street East, an area with substantial original fabric and character that must be retained, will be regenerated with restaurants, shops and increased pedestrian footfall.
The surrounding Georgian patrimony is homage to Irish craftsmanship, local brick, sophisticated doorcases, elegant internal plasterwork, beautifully carved joinery and harmonious proportions. None of which will be evident in a replicated terrace.
With a trite nod towards conservation principles, the ESB comments that the “new design by . . . Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike Architects reinterprets but at the same time respects the surrounding architectural heritage . . . to deliver a building that is respectful to its history, sensitive to its surroundings and representative of its own time”.
The proposed frontage on to Fitzwilliam Street does not meet conservation principles in an area earmarked for World Heritage status. It can’t “respect the surrounding architectural heritage” by directly adjoining it with referential opes and red brick. The varying registers and diverse solid-to-void ratio disrupts the “Georgian” mile even more than the uniform register of the current building.
On Fitzwilliam Street, I believe the best way to respect the 18th century environment and create something of its own time is to set back the new work from the building line, create a break with the original fabric and not interrupt the historic vista from the National Maternity Hospital towards the Dublin mountains.
Ideally, a linear park should be planted at the street frontage, creating a modulated counterpoint between the tree-lined parks of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square. This green breathing space between street and headquarters would provide public and private access to James’s Street East and a human-scale interface between the street and the new architecture.
Ultimately the walls around us are a backdrop to the drama of our lives. We are lucky to be in a position to debate this proposal and to look forward to something refreshing that will work this time.
Let it reflect the energy and drive we need to move out of this awful, austere period and utilise the creativity that has brought international renown to award-winning Grafton Architects and OMP.
Don’t mock the block.
Deirdre Conroy is a historic buildings specialist