Creative DNA at DCU


Costing €35 million, The Helix arts centre, on the Dublin City University campus, promises to be a superb facility. Ian Kilroy finds out how it will be funded, programmed and marketed

Quietly, away from the glare of public view and its multitude of opinions, a massive cultural complex is being built at Dublin City University. If you drive along Collins Avenue, in north Dublin city, you'll see its enormous bulk taking shape. Men with hard hats and fluorescent green singlets scramble through a building site and sparks fly from cut metal - the finishing touches are being put to The Helix, an ambitious new arts complex based at DCU.

"This is an arts facility of national significance," says Nick Reed, the recently appointed director of The Helix. A native of Birmingham, he has a track record of managing performance venues at the North Wales Theatre, where, prior to taking up his new position, he was general manager for seven years.

"We hope to attract artists of international standing - we'll be making some bold programming moves," he says.

Reed exudes confidence and enthusiasm when he talks about the centre. His is no PR spin; he is truly passionate about the building of which he is taking custody. And what a building . . .

A concert space designed to be acoustically perfect, with 1,260 seats at its greatest configuration; a 450-seat theatre performance space with a stage bigger than the Abbey's; a black-box studio space with retractable seating for 150, known as "The Wild Space". Then there's the gallery, restaurant, two bars, kitchens capable of serving up a silver service dinner to hundreds. But most impressive of all is the building that houses all this under the one roof.

Designed by architects A&D Wejchert, The Helix is entered through the conventional means of a front door, or through a covered tunnel leading from the 800-space car-park, a passage that shelters visitors from the rain. Once through the door, you are struck by the sheer scale of the space inside.

Three circular levels with a hollow centre rise before you. A kind of helix-shaped staircase climbs through the hollow centre, giving access to the upper floors. Windows and the use of mirrors create a vaulted, airy feeling of space in the substantial social area on each floor. Each level is viewable from the others, down through the hollowed-out centre.

While still something of a building site, it is easy to imagine the crowds flooding out into these areas at interval time, classical concert-goers mingling with the audience of the play or jazz being performed in the theatre space next door. While one part of the building plays host to the RTÉ Chamber Orchestra - which will be taking up residence at The Helix - in another part of the building The Manic Street Preachers could be in full swing.

"I would be as proud and enthusiastic," says Reed, "to present the Irish Chamber Orchestra as much as I would The Revs. We want to establish that. We do not see ourselves as a palace of high culture. The day when arts organisations were able to do that, and acquire the kind of public funding needed to sustain that, are long gone."

The philosophy here is pure free enterprise - well, almost.

Of the £28 million (€35.5 million) it is costing to build The Helix, £5 million (€6.35 million) came from the Department of Education and Science. The rest was raised privately by DCU from a funder in the US, from Tim Mahony, chairman of Toyota Ireland, and a number of other donors. It is likely that further funding will come from RTÉ, but this has not been finalised.

Marie Louise O'Donnell, lecturer in communications at DCU, was instrumental in bringing arts events on to campus in the first place and she is a prime mover behind the new centre. Her future role at The Helix will be to oversee and programme for The Wild Space. She says she also intends to have an input into the wider programming of the centre.

But who is The Helix for and what kinds of performances will fill it? Reed may be confident that it will "have the finest concert hall in Ireland", but who, apart from the staff and students of DCU, will make up the audience?

"The centre of gravity for performance in Dublin was for a long time focused in the city centre," says Reed. "You'll be aware that there has been a rash of venues in the last five to seven years, which have sprung up, broadly around the M50 ring. But there is clearly a centre of gravity on the northside which has been less well-served - that is part of the inspiration and logic why this project developed. But what we're doing is taking it beyond that."

Reed sees The Helix as a national facility. It is a place, he says, where students of DCU will graduate and where big summer conferences will take place. He also sees it as a place where Belfast people will come down to concerts. O'Donnell says that people will drive down from Cavan to events, that debates will be televised from the centre and that it will attract artists of international standing.

What, then, of running costs? At present it looks as if The Helix will not be receiving any Arts Council or further public funding, and it will be expensive to run. How does Reed hope to keep its doors open?

"We will be looking to do tight and commercial deals with everyone that comes here," he says. "There's a financial imperative. We need to earn our own income. I have been brought in because my experience is in making a broad and inclusive programme and operating a tight ship financially. We'll be looking to develop every income stream."

The Helix will be operated by UAC Management Ltd, which Reed describes as one of DCU's companies and a correctly constituted body. As director, Reed has a seven-year contract and is answerable to the board of directors of The Helix who appointed him. That board, however, is yet to be fully appointed; to date, only three members are in place of the 10-person board that is envisaged.

AS FOR turning a profit, Reed, whose role encompasses that of artistic director and general manager, says that responsibility rests with him or, as he puts it, "my butt is on the line". His confidence and enthusiasm are striking. When I suggest that there is a possibility that The Helix could be a vast empty space, a proverbial "white elephant" of 1,900 seats, he says emphatically: "It's got zero probability of being an empty space. With the energy, enthusiasm and creativity of the team we're going to have here - and the sheer excitement of the building and what it can do - it will never come to pass that it will be an empty space."

For the moment he is keeping the opening programme a secret. All he will say is that The Helix opens in October and that the programme details will be launched sometime in August. In the intervening period, Reed will be absorbed in such matters as the online booking system, the bar licences for the premises and the system that will allow visitors to book parking spaces with their tickets. Then there's the matter of finalising contracts and assembling staff, and the mammoth task of seeing the building finished.

"From the point of view of an arts entertainment professional, this is an opportunity that comes along very very rarely," says Reed. "It is a phenomenal challenge, but a huge opportunity to create a venue on the northside of Dublin of citywide and national significance. There's nothing like it within the island of Ireland at the moment."

With its various venues under one roof, there's no denying Reed's claim. Ballymun's Axis arts centre is a mere stone's throw away, but The Helix is aiming at a completely different market. While the arts establishment has been discussing and arguing over the entirely different project of an Irish Academy of Performing Arts for the DCU campus, The Helix has gestated quietly.

The hype will only start when the arts community sees for itself the truly impressive facility that has been built three miles from the city centre.