New twist on Georgian facade tries to solve architectural riddle
Comment: Frank McDonald
Computer-aided design view showing the ESB plans to redevelop their offices on Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. Photograph courtesy ESB
Somehow, given the involvement of Grafton Architects, one expected a brilliant modernist solution to resolve the problem of the ESB building on in Fitzwilliam Street – a cliff, perhaps, rather than the neo-Georgian scheme now being proposed.
Grafton won the World Building of the Year award in 2008 for its Bocconi University faculty building in Milan and won major commissions for university projects in Toulouse, Lima and Paris. O’Mahony Pike, its collaborators, designed some of Dublin’s better apartment blocks.
But the context of Fitzwilliam Street proved overwhelming. Just as the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street was designed to provide an appropriate end-piece for Dublin’s “Georgian Mile”, so the new ESB headquarters is intended to blend with the streetscape of the area.
The arrangement and proportion of windows is oddly similar to the 1934 Holles Street project, in that they do not necessarily follow the 18th-century pattern. Thus, the images we have seen show large windows at upper levels and new interpretations of doorways. It would look little different to motorists driving past at 50 km/h, if not to pedestrians or cyclists.
On closer examination, it is somewhat more sophisticated, drawing inspiration from the likes of Carlo Scarpa. The fact that there is some depth behind the wall – that it’s not merely a facade fronting offices with suspended ceilings and strip lighting – is a mitigating factor.
The only reason the ESB is on Fitzwilliam Street at all is because it started out in a drawingroom flat in No 28 way back in 1927, at the time of Ardnacrusha. But with the national grid’s control centre moved to Shelbourne Road, it no longer needs to be there.
Office workers bring life to the area, but Dublin’s southside Georgian core is dead after dark because hardly anyone lives in it. Yet the proposed scheme includes no residential element, even in the ESB-owned houses on Upper Mount Street.
There is a tenable view that the best way of atoning for the damage done to Fitzwilliam Street would be to reinstate the 16 Georgian houses demolished in the 1960s for residential use as a major contribution to regenerating the area.
Extraordinarily, however, the ESB never examined the feasibility of acquiring and refurbishing the former Bank of Ireland headquarters on Baggot Street, right behind its own offices, even though the complex could have been acquired for a fraction of its boomtime value.