Architect building on tradition of ‘being a service to society’
Friday interview: president of the Royal Institute of the Architects in Ireland David Browne
There was little doubt David Browne would follow a road familiar to his ancestors and become an architect. Even as he started secondary school in Clongowes Wood College, Browne knew he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and his great grandfather to join the profession that was a defining part of his family throughout the 20th century.
“I was quite focused, I remember. Even at the start of secondary school, I knew where I was going and it’s been that way ever since,” he said sitting in the boardroom of RKD architects, a firm of which he is a director.
His great grandfather, John Loftus Robinson, was responsible for the town hall and the People’s Park in Dún Laoghaire as well as St Michael’s Hospital in the town.
His son, Johnny, founded RKD in 1913 and developed a practice of designing churches, including the Galway Cathedral, in addition to the existing commercial business. Browne’s father then married into the firm and was responsible for, among other things, the Carroll’s Building.
His own early experiences of architecture, when his father brought him along to building sites, instilled in him the “idea of us being a service to society”. It was those early experiences that gave him the bug and he recalls his excitement at “the whole business of creating”.
Perhaps surprisingly, Browne is the only one of a family of seven children who became an architect. “They were all too sensible,” he quips before noting his sister is a project manager for a Chicago construction company.
Browne himself spent time in the United States during his studies in University College Dublin. A predecessor to the Erasmus programme in the 1970s led him to the University of Virginia. He stayed in the US and worked in Savannah, Georgia, and in Washington DC where he got “great exposure to the beginnings of being an architect”.
One of his own children is now on a similar journey. Browne’s youngest son, Harry, is planning a return from his work in Manhattan, New York, where he works with a small firm involved in one off housing and social housing.
Back in Ireland, one of the early developments in which Browne was involved as a young architect was the Irish Life building on Abbey Street. For the most part, he has little regret about anything he’s built but, after some pushing, he admits to having a small issue with this one.
It was a “nice building in its time,” he says before flagging the thing that has niggled him. “We had to use Irish products in those days and the brick selection was rather limited so I always felt it is a bit darker looking than one would like.”
Browne is mostly appreciative of Irish architecture, even of some of the buildings that have courted their fair share of controversy, like the original Central Bank building. “I think it sits quite nicely,” he says of the building designed by Sam Stephenson in the 1970s which is now in the process of a €75 million makeover. “That building was out to make a statement. It came up with a novel construction system whereby they built the two cores and then hung the floors out of them.”
He’s not quite as complementary of the original ESB building on Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2, which involved tearing down a row of Georgian houses.
“It was a great shame to see the longest Georgian street in Europe being broken up by a building that, if it were located somewhere else, might be a reasonably okay piece of architecture,” Browne says before praising O’Mahony Pike and Grafton architects, the firm tasked with designing a new building to sit in its place.
On his own firm’s creations, he’s quite modest and doesn’t dwell on the successes, including the recently completed Microsoft building in Leopardstown, the Guinness Storehouse – something they’re now in the process of extending – and the Independent Newspapers print works on the Naas Road.
One design he seems particularly proud of, however, is the 50-storey twin towers development in Doha, Qatar. It was one of a number that were part of RKD’s push into the Middle East, a move that coincided with the beginning of the downturn in Ireland. Unfortunately, the Doha development never went to build phase, which he regrets.
“Back in 2006, I had sort of felt things were looking like they might turn so we did actually start travelling to the Middle East.”
The subsequent crash in Ireland did hurt the business. Browne and his colleagues had to cut the firm’s workforce in half. Bad though that was, Browne believes it wasn’t the worst outcome among firms in the industry.
The business had to bring in work from abroad to complement the work in the education sector it was involved in here. It also made a foray into the data centre market.
By 2013, RKD was the biggest architectural firm left in Ireland, something that gave it a competitive advantage with incoming commercial property companies like Kennedy Wilson.
Browne is conscious of the need to internationalise the business to protect against future shocks and the cyclical nature of Ireland’s construction industry.
“We are working in Africa to an extent and we’re now beginning to secure a foothold in Europe, with offices in Belgium and we’re currently working [on projects] in Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Sweden, ” he said.
The expansion into Europe is something Browne has had some experience of. In 1986, RKD decided to set up a London office, a base that Browne headed up until 1992 when the UK economy started to turn.
It was perhaps fortunate he came back to Ireland at that point because that was the beginning of an “incredibly busy period” both for RKD and Ireland’s construction industry.
Things have started to turn again for the company. In 2016, the most recent year for which accounts are available, turnover increased more than 31 per cent to €11.7 million. “We’re back up around 160 people now and it’s quite a nice size for a firm to be because you can pretty much know everyone in the company,” said Browne.
As success continues for RKD, so it does too for Browne himself who was recently appointed president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) for a two-year term.
He is keen to improve the position of the institute as leaders in the development of the construction industry in light of the Government’s recent pronouncements surrounding the national development plan.
Browne is confident architects have a place in redeveloping communities and he also sees a role for the institute in going some way to solving the ongoing housing crisis. He believes we will soon see development of social housing on a scale required to meet demand.
“The Government have quite considerable land banks and there is potential to use those land banks, either by selling them at a discount price or selling them with conditions that would fuel the building of social housing, which we have a huge deficit of. I think we’ll start seeing that beginning to happen,” he said.
He’s also acutely aware of the need for Ireland’s changing demographics to drive the right type of construction in Ireland.
“I think it would be great to try to encourage [elderly] people to come back to live in towns and villages. The house mightn’t disappear. It might be taken up by another family, but if they can get back into the villages and towns to live and make use of the amenities, that would be a very sensible thing to do.”
Browne uses his parents as an example of the way older people can become isolated in the absence of proper housing provision.
“My parents . . . they lived in Dalkey but they ended up being quite isolated even in Dalkey because they ended up in a single house on their own.”
Dalkey, he believes, is a nice exemplar of the kind of communities we should be building. As a child, he remembers, “it had everything from the people in council housing through to very rich people but in a very nice mixed way. It’s perhaps lost a little bit of that character although it’s still a very nice place.”
Speaking of raising the profile of the profession, what are his thoughts on the architect most Irish people would know – TV star Dermot Bannon. “He’s certainly raised our profile and he’s a good ambassador,” Browne says.
He does lament the portrayal of architects as professionals who throw money away with no regard for budgets but argues this is probably the work of producers seeking to insert a bit of drama into Bannon’s show.
“The reality for most architects is that they are very conscious of costs because they can’t deliver value if they don’t produce buildings that are economic . . . but also beautiful and lovely places to live.”
While Browne’s work doesn’t tend to bring him into the residential sphere too much, he has renovated his own home about four times. Does he clash with his wife, formerly a fashion designer, over their own home?
“No, funnily enough, we’ve fairly similar taste. Of course, naturally, you won’t agree on everything but our general thrust of what we wanted to do with that house has always been good and it remains a comfortable place to live in”.
It is a house that has seen the family rear their three children and I joke that he’s had more success than his father did in coaxing them into architecture and design. His daughter, Jennifer, works in RKD’s interior design business while his older son, Charlie, has just returned to Dublin to work with US developer Hines.
So, will the line of architects started by John Loftus Robinson continue? “I’m hoping so,” Browne says.
Though Ireland’s housing crisis trundles on, Browne thinks we’re starting to move in the right direction. “It’s been a very frustrating period since 2013 because it’s very hard to move the train any quicker because the planning, procurement and construction [phases]. They are natural periods.
“Hopefully in the middle of this year we’ll start to see improvements,” he concluded. One can only hope.
CV: David Browne.
Position: President of the Royal Institute of the Architects in Ireland and Director of RKD architects.
From: Dalkey, Dublin.
Lives: Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.
Family: Wife Barbara and three children: Charlie, Jennifer and Harry. Something you might expect: Browne is passionate about architects leading and innovating in the delivery of the best built environments for our cities, towns and villages to enhance the lives of everyone.
Something that might surprise: Browne’s architectural thesis in 1979 was about the design of stations for a proposed north-south, east-west underground railway system for Dublin, which he thought seemed imminent at the time. “It is a great pity for Dublin that, nearly 40 years later, we haven’t yet started on this,” he says.