Frank McDonald: Time for ESB to reinstate Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street?

‘Whereas some Fianna Fáil ministers seemed to regard Georgian Dublin as a legacy of the “800 years of oppression”, outraged conservationists likened what was planned as the equivalent of tearing up the Book of Kells’

An environmental impact statement (EIS) on the latest ESB plan for Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin,  is the subject of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála this week. Photograph courtesy of ESB An environmental impact statement on the latest ESB plan for Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, is the subject of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála this week. Photograph courtesy of ESB

An environmental impact statement (EIS) on the latest ESB plan for Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, is the subject of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála this week. Photograph courtesy of ESB An environmental impact statement on the latest ESB plan for Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, is the subject of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála this week. Photograph courtesy of ESB

 

Officials in Florence were charged with a “high cultural crime” for “damaging the national archaeological and artistic patrimony” when in the 1980s they replaced the Renaissance-era paving on the city’s main square, Piazza della Signoria, with smooth grey stone. They all got two-month suspended prison sentences, but the point was made.

In the 1960s the ESB demolished 16 Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street to make way for a modern office block that interposed itself into the longest surviving example of its kind in Europe, stretching for a full kilometre from the corner of Lower Mount Street to the corner of Lower Leeson Street. Not a crime here – but it evoked moral outrage.

Whereas some Fianna Fáil ministers seemed to regard Georgian Dublin as a legacy of the “800 years of oppression”, outraged conservationists likened what was planned as the equivalent of tearing up the Book of Kells or feeding the books in Trinity College’s library into the furnace of a power station.

An environmental impact statement (EIS) on the latest plan, which is the subject of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála this week, concedes that “it is generally accepted that these original demolitions should not have occurred” and, even with the passage of time, this issue remains “highly contentious . . . in certain quarters.”

Four decades later, the ESB is seeking to profit from its original action by aggrandising its property portfolio in Fitzwilliam Street, demolishing everything on the site and building a new office complex (with a neo-Georgian facade) that would be large enough to enable the board to lease much of the additional space to other organisations.

Office space proposed for demolition, including the controversial frontage building designed by Stephenson Gibney and Associates, amounts to 36,200 sq m, whereas its replacement would extend to 45,770 sq m, rising to a height of seven storeys at the rear, on James’s Street East, which Dublin City Council reduced by a single storey.

This was in response to submissions from objectors, including the Irish Georgian Society, which argued that it didn’t make sense to assess the visual impact of the proposed development from street level, but rather from the principal floor – piano nobile – of Georgian houses in the vicinity, from where the tallest elements would be more obtrusive.

The EIS concedes that the Fitzwilliam Street site “is an integral part of the urban landscape of Dublin’s South Georgian Core”. It also describes the Stephenson Gibney block as “new Brutalist” in style, saying it “fails to address its unique location in a mannerly and sensitive fashion”, as the architects themselves later admitted.

But architect, critic and architectural historian Shane O’Toole has described the block as being of “unique historical interest as the building around which the conservation movement in Irish architecture crystallised” and also of cultural interest as “one of the most discussed buildings in Dublin” since it was completed in 1970.

“The same tactics as were employed to undermine the heritage value of the houses . . . in order to facilitate their demolition [with Sir John Summerson dismissing them as “one damned house after another”] are being repeated today” to get rid of the Stephenson Gibney building, which O’Toole describes as early “contextual architecture”.

According to historic buildings consultant David Slattery, the design by Grafton Architects and OMP has “addressed” the Georgian character of the streetscape, while its elevational treatment and detail “empathises with the Georgian terraces and echoes the architectural vocabulary of these late 18th century houses in a contemporary fashion.”

Slattery’s report dismisses the idea that the 16 demolished houses could be reconstructed. “Insufficient information exists to allow for what should be a scholarly replication of the original houses,” it says, adding that “replication based on speculation or surmise” is not recommended by the Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines.

But there are those such as Alan Mee, director of UCD School of Architecture’s urban design programme, who has argued that the only way for the ESB to atone for its original action on Fitzwilliam Street would be to reinstate all 16 houses – for multiple residential use – and move out to a purpose-built office complex somewhere else in Dublin.

The ESB doesn’t really need to be in Fitzwilliam Street any more. Its control centre for the national grid is now located in Shelbourne Road, Ballsbridge, so it could relocate its headquarters almost anywhere. The last thing An Bord Pleanála should permit is an overscaled redevelopment scheme that pays no more than lip-service to its context.

Frank McDonald is former Environment Editor of The Irish Times and author of The Destruction of Dublin.

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