Sky's the limit


ARCHITECTURE:The Pigeon House stacks, a recognisable feature of Dublin’s skyline, might soon come tumbling down. What else have we got to look up at in the wake of the boom? asks JONATHAN DEBURCA BUTLER

IN PART OF THE video for Phil Lynott’s Old Town, the singer is standing in a boat on the Liffey near where the East Link Bridge is today. To the left of shot, as Philo bobbles from side to side, narrating the story of a boy and a girl, a Guinness ships sits anchored beside a giant grey gasometer, while in the distance Liberty Hall stands tall but somewhat lonely and conspicuous against a skyline that is notable for its lack of buildings.

That was 1983. Were he to return now, he would probably be amazed.

Every economic boom leaves behind its self-proclaimed glory in its building. The Georgians, with their brilliant and ruthlessly efficient Wide Street Commission, left us James Gandon’s Custom House, House of Lords and Four Courts. Henrietta Street, Fitzwilliam Street and Merrion Square were the pinnacle of street planning and the envy of Europe.

Alas, when the carriages carrying the lords of Grattan’s parliament trundled out of Dublin in 1801, it was a funeral cortège for building and, for the best part of a century and a half, the capital, architecturally speaking at least, dozed off.

When she woke, Anna Livia found her skyline still dominated by the domes of the Custom House and Four Courts. A few industrial chimneys and church spires had been added, as well as Nelson’s Pillar, but money for the upkeep of the city hadn’t been regularly available and areas had started to rot.

Then, under Seán Lemass, the swinging 1960s saw swinging wrecking balls. Pockets of the city doffed their cap to modernism, with landmark buildings being erected here and there as signs of economic wealth.

On the northside, the ego of the unions saw the erection of Liberty Hall, then by far the highest building in the country. Busáras had been built some years before, amid much controversy, and the Irish Life Building sat coolly in between, like some stocky mafia hit man wearing shades.

On the south of the Liffey, Hawkins House and O’Connell Bridge House imposed themselves on the surrounding area, while the tail end of that economic era saw Sam Stephenson win admirers and critics in equal measure with the Central Bank in Temple Bar and the “bunkers” of the Dublin Corporation at Wood Quay.

Things had, in the words of Yeats, “changed utterly”. But many questioned if a terrible beauty had indeed been born, and these large, modern city buildings never seemed to settle properly into what was essentially still just a town.

The dust is now beginning to settle on this economic boom. And most agree that it will stay settled for quite some time. So what, at the end of it, will we have left behind on our city’s skyline?

Prof James Horan, head of architecture at Dublin Institute of Technology, says: “In general, much of the recent architecture in Dublin has been of a finer quality than some of the buildings of the previous 30 or so years. There’s a greater sense of architectural developed thinking, a clearer understanding of context, and appropriateness of scale and materials is more evident than it used to be.”

Prof Horan points out that there has also been significantly less demolition of the existing city fabric and believes that overall, there has been a greater sense of maturity in recent architectural work. “It is a product of its own time, without the need to create pastiche-type imitations from other periods of architectural history.”

The building mini-blitz of the 1960s and the 1970s never strayed far from O’Connell Street, a mile either side at most. But some 20 years ago developers began to look away from the old thoroughfares and beyond the Custom House.

“The IFSC was the start of a new approach to development in Dublin,” says Bryan Roe of Scott Tallon Walker architects. “The sudden awareness that there was a potential city to the east of the Custom House and kept separate by the elevated railway line at Butt Bridge enabled Dublin to create almost a new city, similar to expansions that occurred throughout Europe over the past half century.”

And what an expansion. Since the completion of the IFSC’s Western Block, which was occupied by AIB in 1990, just under 92 hectares of land have been built to the east of Gandon’s masterpiece.

But as Roe points out, the building has not been restricted to the Docklands.

“Overall, the city has matured into a larger entity that can regenerate itself, have a better critical mass, and enable communities to reoccupy its streets,” he says.

“If we look at it, we’ve got the newer penetrations, like the Spire on O’Connell Street, which I think is a shining new emblem of the city. And there are the more respectful forms, like Croke Park.”

Roe also highlights the improvements in connectivity and infrastructure such as the Luas and the several new bridges over the Liffey, which he feels were necessary to enable the city to operate as a cohesive entity.

Niall McCullough of McCullough Mulvin Architects sees the Docklands project as the inevitable closing chapter of Dublin’s long- running story.

“The changes are significant and the energy of construction is wonderful,” he says. “But the Docklands were ‘prefigured’ in the 18th-century city plan. Both quays, as far as the bay, were in place from the mid-18th century onwards. So, in the overall strategic sense, the infilling and construction of the Docklands can be seen as the last piece of the 18th-century plan rather than a totally new departure.”

McCullough is refreshingly open in his criticism of some of the rest of the city, suggesting that much of the rest of the piecemeal change in the capital has been less than impressive, with some poorly designed buildings and poor-quality finishes being allowed to proliferate.

“There is a dislocation of scale that was not there before,” he says. “Planning policy seems to have encouraged higher slab street buildings in many places which sit amidst lower, older ones, with little chance that the rest of the street will be redeveloped in line with it. And that’s leaving a broken and discordant increment.”

Not that he is afraid of height in itself. “Of the newer buildings that have gone up, I’m impressed by the Alto Vetro development,” he says. This is a new, tall and slender Pacific-green apartment complex that can be seen as you drive past Boland’s Mill and over McMahon Bridge on your way into the city centre from Ringsend.

At 16 storeys, this award-winning Shay Cleary design is a fine example of what can be achieved in such a small space, and will become part of a group of defining high buildings in the area when the even larger Monte Vetro development on Barrow Street is completed next year.

“Irish architects will, in the end, produce the most original buildings for Dublin rather than the second-rate branded international architecture of fly-in-fly-out architects we have been forced to consume,” says McCullough.

Alto Vetro is one of the many new pieces created by Irish architects in and around the Grand Canal Basin. Early in the development of Grand Canal Square, for instance, the team of Duffy Mitchell O’Donoghue created the chameleon glass block of No 1 Grand Canal Square, its glazing changing colour from cool blue to ochre orange as the day progresses, giving the sense the building is somehow alive.

Many international “starchitects” have been brought into the fold, too.

Among them is acclaimed American Daniel Libeskind, famous for his Jewish Museum in Berlin and ongoing work on the site of the Twin Towers in New York.

His contribution to Dublin, the 2,220-seat Grand Canal Theatre, is central to the aforementioned Grand Canal Square, itself designed by the Martha Schwartz studio of London.

Also impressive is the new hotel designed by Portuguese architect Manuel Aires Mateus. With its chequered, glass and white stone wall on top, and its wavy bottom, the architect wanted to create the impression the hotel has been “excavated from a seven-storey rock”.

Just across the Liffey on the northside’s Spencer Dock, American Kevin Roche’s Convention Centre, with its cylindrical steel atrium holding 475 panes of glass, is one of the most unusual additions to the skyline. On a recent trip, my own nephews, who live in New Zealand, were so impressed they shouted “cool” in tandem – quite an endorsement. But not everyone shares their excitement.

“I am less than enthusiastic about the geometries of the new conference centre,” says Prof Horan. “I don’t really think it adds much to the overall architecture of the quays.”

Far more impressive for Prof Horan is the harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which was shipped into the Liffey to much fanfare in May.

“It is by far the most significant and elegant addition to the city’s skyline,” he says. “In a light, elegant and dynamic manner, it interconnects the north and south sides of the river and provides an iconic outline, particularly when viewed from the other bridges both upstream and downstream of it.”

Loretta Lambkin, head of marketing at the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, acknowledges that things have slowed down a little. But she is still excited about the future.

“Next year is such a big year for us,” she says “The Luas extension and the Point village on the north docks, along with the new theatre in the Martha Schwartz Grand Canal Square, are going to see a huge increase in the amount of people coming into the area. Unfortunately, certain things like the watchtower at The Point village and the U2 Tower are on hold at the moment, but 2010 is still looking good.”

Lambkin says that due to financial restraints, the 46m “wire man” statue by Turner prize winner Antony Gormley, which was planned to stand in the Liffey beside the Seán O’Casey Bridge, has had to be put on the back-burner.

“There is an application with DCC for an observation wheel at the Point Village, however,” says Lambkin. “And we’d be delighted to see a wheel in the Docklands, as it would provide a popular tourist attraction in the area.”

Eugene Dunne of KMD architecture, which designed the pioneering Ulster Bank headquarters on George’s Quay, feels we are still a little conservative in Ireland.

“I think there’s been a missed opportunity in Dublin with the Docklands. Particularly the south quays, I think, offered the best opportunity to have higher . . . I’m not saying all buildings, but certainly some buildings of significant height. And when I say significant height, I’m saying 20-storeys plus.”

Dunne points out that from an orientation point of view, the big advantage of having tall buildings on the south quays is they would cast a shadow on the river rather than on residential areas on the northside.

“Our own project on George’s Quay would have benefited, in its massing, by being at least another eight storeys tall,” he says. “I think it would have taken it. There are a few too many restraints. Now I would, as a planner, be very concerned if some guy on an ego trip wanted to stick up a 64-storey building and obliterate any sort of sunlight for a whole afternoon for a residential area. But there are opportunities there but we don’t even look at them.”

Of the new buildings cropping up on the skyline, the new stadium at Lansdowne Road visibly excites Dunne. “Funny enough, it seems to have a bit more of an impact than even Croke Park. And I think that’s to do with the geometries of the roads around, allowing you to get longer views of it. It has become a very interesting thing.”

The Aviva Stadium, designed by Scott Tallon Walker in tandem with HOK Sport (now Populous), is set to be finished next summer. From Ringsend Bridge to Irishtown and over to the Shelbourne Road, this large glass bowl, with its roller-coaster roof, can be seen from many parts of the city and is set to be a source of pride for Dubliners. It already is for one of them.

“I am proud of the new stadium,” says Bryan Roe, chief architect of the project. “Everyone involved with the creation of the new stadium at Lansdowne Road should be proud of their contribution. We in Scott Tallon Walker are honoured to have been trusted by so many with the creation of our new stadium. The stadium is up there with the best.”

Things are visibly slowing down in construction now. As Prof Horan points out, the current state of the economy will significantly reduce the number of cranes on Dublin’s skyline, if not eliminate them entirely. He points out that at one stage during the height of the boom, a huge percentage of all of the construction cranes across Europe were located in Dublin.

“Their absence now may have a psychological impact on the population as these ‘creatures’ are generally associated with prosperity and good times,” he says.

“During the redevelopment of Berlin, following the removal of the Berlin Wall, Daniel Barenboim conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a concert in which the cranes of Berlin were linked to the music and provided an aerial choreography for the entertainment of the public. The lack of cranes in Dublin now means that a similar performance is unlikely. I don’t think the skyline itself will suffer as a result of a lack of cranes, but their absence will certainly evoke the feeling that the good times are over and the music has stopped.”

Stephen Nelson, architect with Nelson O’Neill architects, is a New Zealander who has been living in Ireland for the past 10 years and has seen the rise and fall of the economy. He is more optimistic. “Depending on the banks, the cranes will pop up again sooner than we think,” he says. “A lot of developments have been granted and are just awaiting a green light. Recessions are cyclical, as any pundit in a pub will tell you.”

If you stand on the East Link Bridge today and look towards town, the evidence of the boom years is right before you. Whatever the future, the Celtic Tiger has taken Phil Lynott’s Old Town and turned it into a city.