Trinity gets a new ivory tower

 

The Long Room Hub is a worthy newcomer to a campus that is famous for its groundbreaking architecture, writes  FRANK MCDONALD Environment Editor

TRINITY COLLEGE Dublin not only has an enviable reputation for maintaining Dublin’s most important collection of historic buildings, but also for commissioning contemporary architecture of the highest quality. Indeed, its brave decision in 1962 to proceed with a bold, brutalist design for the Berkeley Library was the forerunner of things to come.

The library, opened by Éamon de Valera in 1967, is arguably the finest modern building in Dublin. It has not been compromised by the more recent addition of the even larger Ussher Library, designed by McCullough Mulvin in association with KMD Architecture, and now it has an intriguing new companion, standing opposite it on Fellows Square.

McCullough Mulvin’s Long Room Hub, almost literally an ivory tower, has been hailed by the now venerable Paul Koralek – architect of the groundbreaking Berkeley Library – as “a building of quality both in design and execution and . . . a worthy representative of what has become a recognisably Irish strand of contemporary architecture”.

Historian Roy Foster has written that the challenge here was to design a building that would simultaneously address the early 18th century library, the “massive granite rear” of the Provost’s House and the octagonal 1937 Reading Room – as well as the Berkeley Library, which he regards as “the most distinguished Irish building of the 1960s”. As Foster observed, “The triumphantly successful outcome . . . presents a marvellous combination of function and form” as a post-doctoral research centre for the humanities “constructed for the purposes of bringing together international scholars in an environment combining intellectual resources, cultural stimulation and precious time”.

Best viewed from atop the Dining Hall steps, its asymmetrical elevation of Galician granite oversails the rather squat Reading Room and manages – with some flourish – to provide a new wall that finally encloses the college’s Front Square. From this vantage point, you can see clearly that there was something missing before its arrival.

Niall McCullough describes Front Square as “the most sensitive and particular urban space in the country”. It is surrounded entirely by protected structures, including Sir William Chambers’ wonderfully imposing neo-classical pair, the Chapel and Examination Hall. As he says, it is from the Dining Hall steps that one gets “that real Trinity view”.

All that stood on the Hub site were some trees in the Fellows Garden and the 1830s Magnetic Observatory, which Trinity gave to UCD, showing “friendship across the academic frontiers,” as Valerie Mulvin puts it.

And in designing the building that has replaced it, the architects were conscious of the need to respect and enhance the context.

There was no other obvious location: “It was the only site we could find,” McCullough says. But what architect wouldn’t want to build in such a prominent location, on the main pedestrian route from Nassau Street to Front Square, with some 20,000 people per day squeezing through a pinch-point of three metres (10 feet) between the l ibrary and Reading Room?

So the Hub’s design is a response to the “particular geometries” of Trinity, McCullough explains. The library’s Long Room represented an earlier idea of what a library should be – “an enormous mill” that also set up a series of spaces – while the Hub was trying to do something similar in the 21st century; “This is its little sister, in a sense,” he says.

It is relatively tall, slim and long with a footprint of around 300sq m (3,229sq ft). The long elevation of 34 metres (111 feet) rises above the Reading Room, while the narrow frontage of nine metres (29 feet) is equidistant from its older neighbour and the Arts Block – another building by Paul Koralek’s firm, ABK, sheer on Nassau Street and terraced facing the square.

The connection between the new Hub and the Arts Block (completed in 1978) could be firmer and more resolved; they seem to crash a little as things stand.

On the opposite side of this elevation, the building is cut away to form a main entrance, up a flight of steps to the first floor, beneath reinforced steel joists that support its stone cladding.

Biscuit-crisp in its lines, the Long Room Hub was meant to evoke “the weight and rude force of natural rock, hewn, fractured – a cliff split through with light holes through one, two or three floors . . . in an irregular seam of vertical spaces”, Valerie Mulvin writes in the beautifully illustrated volume that accompanied its recent opening.

Aesthete Raymund Ryan was clearly captivated. While the granite exterior “heralds modernity” with its “chiselled, even geological visage” of large stone panels, he writes, that the interior is “infused with light seeping in from all sides and down from the roof through cubic cuts that link the stacked floors in unexpected and diverse ways”.

Within its walnut-panelled rooms, as Mulvin says, “people make coffee, they talk, they do very secret private research, things happen out of the corner of an eye and an idea trickles up – a thought, an innovative move”.

The building was all about “casually waiting for that move to happen in a tiny world of very clever people”.

Trinity’s hope is that the Hub will attract some of the best and brightest in the world, “sparking off each other” and using Trinity’s vast collections as a resource.

There are 45 individual reading spaces and 10 meeting rooms, including the pièce de résistance; a top floor “livingroom” lit by box-like rooflights with distracting views over college.

The backbone of the building is a 34-metre industrial steel truss – literally a bridge – spanning its lift and staircase towers; thus, the stone elevations are merely masks, even if it does seem like a tower house (of ideas) viewed from Fellows Square.

Its asymmetrical clefts are what the building is about, the way natural light crashes into it. It is “not intended to be polite”, McCullough says. The concept, Mulvin adds, was to represent a “tumble of ideas coming out of it in a chaotic way . . . crashing down through the structure of thought”. Or a beehive, a honeycomb, with a network of spaces “facilitating communication and movement” so people might work together on a common project.

The dark wood inside was meant to be rich and warm, rather than just sombre. “It gives a sense of being in a book-lined study,” Mulvin says. But this rich glove comes off in places to reveal diagonal steel bracing and bolts against the walls: “A close-up view of brute strength and utilitas which tells the story of the bridge which is the building”.

For less than €5 million – peanuts in the context of mega-projects such as the M3 or Metro North – Trinity has acquired a remarkable new building “hooked onto the grid of college, sitting lightly astride the plinth of the sunken [Edmund Burke] lecture theatre.”

It adds to that accretion of architecture over time that is the essence of TCD.