The cultural space that Dublin’s docklands need

A second chance to convert Stack A on Dublin’s George’s Dock into a contemporary art museum must not be missed

 

An unparalleled opportunity exists for the creation of a contemporary art museum in the centre of Dublin, in the early 19th-century Stack A warehouse at the edge of George’s Dock. This is arguably the city’s most unsuccessful shopping mall, with only 20 per cent of the units still trading.

The irony is that the original 1986 masterplan for redeveloping the Custom House Docks earmarked Stack A for just such a cultural use. But in 1987, then taoiseach Charles J Haughey decreed that the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) should go to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.

He was prompted by his artistic adviser, writer Anthony Cronin, who had seen the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, installed in a 17th-century building. So why, Cronin reasoned, shouldn’t the same be done with our most important 17th-century building?

But the Royal Hospital was inherently unsuitable for showing contemporary art, quite apart from being relatively remote from the city centre. Its only large spaces, the great hall and the chapel, are not available to Imma as they’re leased for a variety of functions.

And so, in December 1990, the tranquillity of the Royal Hospital’s courtyard was disrupted by the dissonant noise of jackhammers, as the old soldiers’ quarters were remade to fit their new use – after a full restoration less than 10 years earlier, costing IR£20 million.

Controversial intervention
Original doors along the first-floor corridors in all three ranges were removed and blocked up. Internal windows, so characteristic of these corridors, were taken out and the brickwork underneath demolished to make new doorways. Some 40 fireplaces were also blocked up.

Three of the soldiers’ rooms were destroyed in their entirety to create a glazed double-height entrance to Imma, complete with a transparent staircase – a transverse installation that defied the 17th-century geometry. Two original oak staircases then became mere fire exits.

One might argue, as award-winning architect Shay Cleary did, that such compromises were necessary in order to make the Royal Hospital functional as an art gallery. But it was a bold and controversial intervention, with the imprimatur of Haughey and Padraig O’hUiginn, then secretary general of the taoiseach’s department.

They had simply discounted the potential of Stack A, with its wrought-iron trusses, cast-iron columns and cavernous brick-vaulted basement. That it had been famously used for a huge banquet to celebrate British victory in the Crimean War in 1856 may not have endeared it to Haughey.

Either way, the loss of Imma to the partially gutted Royal Hospital left the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) in a quandary. What was it to do with Stack A, which had long been subject to a preservation order? Eventually, it opted to turn the warehouse over to retailing, even though an uncannily similar shopping mall in London’s Docklands – also involving a Grade 1 listed warehouse, dating from the same period as Stack A – had failed abysmally years earlier.

Tobacco Dock
Tobacco Dock, in Wapping, was renovated in 1990 at a cost of £47 million (€55 million), and was intended to be “the Covent Garden of the East End”. Within a few years, it had become a ghost shopping mall and, by 2003, English Heritage had added the warehouse to its buildings-at-risk register. It was used last summer to billet 2,500 British soldiers on guard duty for the London Olympics. “We see Tobacco Dock as one of the most important buildings in London and, if brought back into use, it would reinvigorate the whole area,” English Heritage said.

The same is true of Stack A. With an overall floor area of 13,749sq m (148,000sq ft), it needs to have a public use that would attract visitors from all over Dublin – such as a science museum, a covered market along the lines of the Boqueria in Barcelona, or an art museum.

After it was advertised for sale in February, with a guide price of €10 million – a fraction of the €45 million invested in its restoration – rival proposals submitted to the DDDA are believed to have envisaged turning it into a Riverdance extravaganza or the biggest nightclub in Ireland.

One of the most important aspects of this dismal saga is often forgotten – the fact that, from the outset, all office space in the International Financial Services Centre was subject to a levy of IR£1 (€1.27) per sq ft to subsidise the creation of a cultural facility there.

Rose Kevany, of the Discovery interactive science museum project, which would like to have been situated at Stack A, has pointed out that the levy would raise €1.5 million a year for 25 years, once a museum opened. That would be more than enough to keep it open.

Not a single cent of this levy has ever been collected, because the DDDA opted for a commercial use for the building. A people- pulling cultural use must be found for Stack A, and the financial institutions in the IFSC should be levied to fund it.

The DDDA is now being wound up, having burnt its boats on the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend.

So we shall never see its several proposed folies de grandeur, including an incredible plan to develop a high-rise cluster in the river Liffey – on stilts. It is now considering the fate of Stack A.

Dublin has a new city manager, Owen Keegan. Effectively, he controls the DDDA, as it’s now a subsidiary of the city council. As a lateral thinker, he must surely see that having Imma (or a science museum) in the Custom House Docks would be the best coda for this sorry tale.


IMMA’s lack of a big gallery means that much contemporary art is simply ruled out from the word go

The Royal Hospital Kilmainham poses significant challenges as a contemporary art venue. The nub of the problem is the lack of a big gallery.

Stringing exhibitions along corridors, weaving in and out of domestic-sized rooms, can suit some kinds of work. But as a permanent state of affairs it would defeat even the most ingenious curators and designers. And it means that much contemporary art is simply ruled out from the word go.

There is nothing new about the idea that IMMA needs a large-scale temporary exhibition space. Throughout his tenure as director in the first decade of the 21st century, for example, Enrique Juncosa repeatedly pointed this out.

Furthermore, he and his board actively looked to the development of a new purpose-built gallery on the Royal Hospital site. For various reasons, obviously including the economic crisis, these plans never came to fruition, and the prospect looks less likely than ever.

During this time, an alternative idea also emerged, that of a parallel IMMA East. That is, the development of the original alternative to Kilmainham, Stack A, as a gallery, with the Royal Hospital retained as museum for more traditional kinds of work.

The scale and location of Stack A make it ideal as a venue for exhibitions of national and international contemporary art, one with huge potential benefits for the city.

Aidan Dunne

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