Architecture: Not everything built in boom was rubbish

A new book showcases Dublin’s best buildings of the last 25 years

It was while wandering around Zürich in 2009 looking for interesting new buildings that Cork-born architect Seán Antóin Ó Muirí realised that there were “just as many high-quality contemporary projects in Dublin that deserved to be thoroughly documented in book form”.

The result is Dublin Architecture – 150+ Buildings since 1990, published last week by Gandon Editions. What it does, convincingly, is to give the lie to those who apparently believe that almost everything built during the boom years was rubbish, or nearly so.

As Ciarán Cuffe writes in an afterword, you can now arrive on a modern train at Heuston, walk out and board a new Luas tram, glide down to docklands and then “sit in a riverside café and gaze at a cityscape that has been transformed in the space of a generation”.

Incredibly, the last guide to contemporary architecture in the capital was Angela Brady and Robin Mallalieu's Dublin: A Guide to Recent Architecture, published in 1997. And it was quite different, focusing on not just fine buildings, but on some of the real horrors as well.


Ó Muirí’s book concentrates exclusively on the good stuff, in the city centre and in the suburbs, where the pickings are more sparse. Each of the featured projects is documented by photographs, drawings and text. There is also a note on how to get there by public transport.

Covering two decades of frenetic building activity, it features work “by some of the best architects this country has ever seen”, as the author writes – schools, community centres, galleries, stadiums, bridges, houses, apartments, office blocks, public buildings and urban spaces.

Context is provided by architect Dermot Boyd, although he must have written his essay some time ago because it refers to how “a deep recession has now hit . . . as we lick our wounds following our encounter with the Celtic Tiger [and] sift through the economic wreckage”.

“Often hidden away”

Things are looking up. “For this book, the author searched out [as you, the reader, will search out] the most interesting contemporary architecture in Dublin today. It is at times not obvious; it is often downplayed, often hidden away, but it is identifiably Irish.”

Modesty deters him from mentioning that four projects by his own practice, Boyd Cody, are included among the 196 featured in this book – houses in Dalkey, Monkstown and Rathmines (either new or rationalised) and the partly-realised Wolfe Tone Park on Jervis Street.

Temple Bar gets a good show, including all of the work done by Group 91 – described by Boyd as “an architectural collaboration of college friends, of returning émigrés, of fellow-teachers and of contemporary urban theory”, inspired by Gerry Cahill’s Dublin City Quays project.

Docklands gets shorter shrift – “arch conservatism” at the start, with too tight planning control on heights and “little urban generosity”, gave way to “rash speculation” during the bubble, with starchitects invited to “woo the public and massage the egos” of policymakers.

The Calatrava bridge, the Libeskind theatre and the Martha Schwartz red square are in the book. So is Shay Cleary’s Alto Vetro point block but not OMP’s overblown Monte Vetro, while Boyd rightly identifies the mixed Clarion Quay apartments by Urban Projects as exemplary.

Liam Carroll was the most prolific developer during the boom years, mostly churning out shoebox flats. His first architect-designed scheme, the Millennium Tower on Charlotte Quay, isn’t included – but the Gasworks (also by OMP) does make it, along with Hanover Quay.

Plasticised façade,

Inexplicably, one of Dublin’s most attractive new office buildings, DMOD’s No.1 Grand Canal Square, was omitted despite having the most sophisticated glazing system in the city – although excluding the nearby Marker Hotel, with its plasticised façade, was justified.

The book features a double-page aerial photograph of Bucholz McEvoy’s extraordinary Elm Park “green urban quarter” on Merrion Road, which Boyd describes as “sustainable, singular and ambitious in its vision” – driven by the developers’ hubris, just before the fall.

Notable absentees include Heneghan Peng, whose only major project in Dublin – the ill-starred Sport Hotel in Kilternan – became a major casualty to the downturn. A surreal sight, with cliff-like blocks almost engulfing a Victorian house, it screams out to be seen in any case.

Boyd makes the point that Heneghan Peng helped Irish architecture go global by winning an international competition in 2003 for the still-unbuilt Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo; Grafton Architects had paved the way by winning a 2002 competition for Milan’s Bocconi University.

He extols Grafton's Department of Finance building on Merrion Row as "probably the most accomplished office building to be constructed in the city centre in the past 20 years"; it is on the cover. A tour de force, certainly, though some staff hate their internalised offices.

Trinity College is in for deBlacam and Meagher's Beckett Theatre, Grafton's Department of Mechanical Engineering, McCullough Mulvin (and KMD)'s Ussher Library and Long Room Hub.

Boyd says though that ABK’s Berkeley Library (1967) is “still the best modern building in Dublin”.

Symmetrically, UCD also gets four entries – Scott Tallon Walker's O'Reilly Hall, Grafton's Urban Institute, McCullough Mulvin's Virus Reference Library and O'Donnell + Tuomey's CRID building. The latter's Ranelagh school and Timberyard housing in the Coombe are also in.

Sports arenas

So is Gilroy McMahon’s redevelopment of Croke Park and its more recent counterpoint in Landowne Road, designed by Scott Tallon Walker in collaboration with Populous – both vast and elemental sports arenas “embedded in dense, low-scale neighbourhoods”.

A lengthy essay by Shane O'Toole, From Free State to Millennium, tracing the emergence of modernism in Ireland, confirms him as our foremost architectural authority on the 20th century. Most people however will buy the book as a guide and discover the buildings themselves.

Dublin Architecture – 150+ Buildings Since 1990 is published by Gandon Editions, price €29 (hardback)