The long-planned redevelopment of the National Concert Hall (NCH) took a significant step forward on Thursday as Government support was announced for the largest ever revamp of a national cultural institution.
The Cór Linn teenage choir and a cast of prominent politcians were on hand in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2 as plans for works on more than 16,000sqm of buildings in the historic complex were set out.
The proposals include the expansion of stage and seating of the existing auditorium and the provision of a centre for learning and participation, new public areas and recital and rehearsal spaces, including dedicated rooms for the National Symphony Orchestra, which is now based at the NCH.
The news may sound familiar, given it was originally announced in April 2018 as part of Project Ireland 2040, with €78 million then earmarked for the project. At that point it was envisaged that the NCH would close in May 2021 for the works to begin and reopen in September 2023, but then the Covid-19 pandemic intervened.
But a public spending scrutiny process is now in train and an application for planning permission is to be made early in next year by the NCH and Office of Public Works, which is designing the project, funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
It is hoped that the project will go to tender in the second half of next year. A spokesman for the Minister for Arts Catherine Martin indicated an expected 36-month build from whenever construction begins. Options for relocating the NCH during this period are being explored.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Ms Martin and NCH chairwoman Maura McGrath all spoke at the event, with NCH chief executive Robert Read leading attendees on a tour of rarely seen parts of the complex.
Substantial buildings within the grounds have long been unused and are in disrepair. Originally the Exhibition Palace from 1865, it was the home of University Dublin for decades and became the National Concert Hall in 1981.
The Taoiseach said it was a “flagship project” in the National Cultural Institutions Investment Programme and that he was pleased to announce approval in principle for the redevelopment.
“I say ‘in principle’ because that’s from a Government memo - don’t mind about that! And I say that with Paschal sitting behind me,” he said.
Ms Martin said the redevelopment was “close to my heart” and a “once in a generation opportunity for our national cultural institutions, and for all those who love the National Concert Hall, and to recognise the central role that music plays in all our lives”.
“Not only will the project restore this unique heritage building, iconic in its own right, but it will also establish the National Concert Hall as a centre for music and performance to match any in the world,” she said.
The Minister also committed to restoring the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) to full strength.
Reading from the NCH programme, Mr Donohoe noted a NSO concert on February 10th and its promise “to ‘delve into the unfathomable realms of the head and heart with three mighty works peering into the darkest corner of the soul to emerge in enigmatic mystery, effusive lyricism and irresistible yearning’.
“What more could you want on a Friday night out in Dublin?” he said. “Initially I thought they were referring to our weekly Cabinet meetings, but when I saw the reference to the darkest corner of the soul, I knew it couldn’t possibly be.”
The NCH project will involve the expansion, refurbishment and remodelling of the main auditorium, increasing space by 40 per cent to 1,500sqm by adding balconies and an extension to the rear.
The main foyer will be opened up to create a multi-functional modern space including the historic marbled stairs and universal access.
The old medical library will be remodelled as a new rehearsal hall for the NSO, which currently rehearses in the main auditorium, limiting daytime performances. The 1865 block will be refurbished for new dressing rooms, offices, a canteen, a library and studios.
The derelict pathology building will become a new learning and participation centre and the North East and South East Butler wings will be remodelled for new musical recital facilities, new public areas and spaces for more music resource organisations to locate in NCH.