Did U2 really get the tower it was looking for?


Architectural CompetitionApart from The Spire, no major project in Dublin has generated as much heated debate in architectural circles as the U2 tower for Dublin's docklands, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

Few would disagree that the "twisting tower" which won the architectural competition for a landmark building in Dublin docklands has a dynamic quality. What's at issue is whether it really was head and shoulders above more than 500 other entries from around the world.

The fact that it was co-designed by Felim Dunne, a brother-in-law of U2's Paul McGuinness, raised eyebrows - and some hackles. Several of the dozens of e-mails to a discussion forum on the Irish architecture website, www.archeire.com, were so libellous that they had to be suppressed.

The Dublin Docklands Development Authority, which jointly sponsored the competition with U2, insisted that all of the entries had been judged anonymously, so one must conclude that the result was pure coincidence. But the DDDA has done itself no favours by shrouding the whole process in a veil of secrecy.

Unlike architectural competitions organised by the RIAI, we were not even told who was on the jury. All we knew officially was that U2's Bono would be represented by fellow band-member Adam Clayton. It was not until last Friday, in response to a request from The Irish Times, that the other names were released.

They included two former presidents of the RIAI, Arthur Gibney and Joan O'Connor, who is also a member of the DDDA's executive board, as well as Donal Curtin, one of her co-directors; the Dublin City Architect, Jim Barrett; the chief executive of the DDDA, Peter Coyne, and its planning director, Terry Durney.

It also took much longer to announce the result because of a problem with entries getting mixed up. Normally, what happens in architectural competitions is that each entry is registered and assigned a number. Only the numbered images and project descriptions are given to the jury, to be matched up later with the names.

It is likely that a substantial chunk of the €500,000-plus in entry fees raised by this competition went to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who were called in to carry out a "due diligence" exercise after some of the leading contenders could not be identified, including - incredibly - the one that the jury had picked as the winner.

As part of this exercise, all of the entrants were requested to submit digital versions of their schemes, to aid efforts to match drawings with names in the mountain of material that the competition generated. But even this stratagem did not resolve the issue because no entry form could be found for the one chosen by the jury.

To this day, nobody can say for certain who the original winner was - so some architect, somewhere in the world, has missed out on a prestige commission due to incompetence on the part of the organisers. And Dublin will never know what might have been erected at the end of Sir John Rogerson's Quay.

Thus, Felim Dunne's practice, Burdon Dunne Architects, together with Craig Henry Architects - both based in Blackrock, Co Dublin - emerged as the winners by default. Had the competition been left in the hands of the RIAI, which knows how to organise these things, we would be looking at a different result.

The institute's director, John Graby, pointed out that it was at least conducted in line with RIAI rules. And the fact that a Dublin firm won, hot on the heels of Heneghan Peng's victory in the Grand Egyptian Museum competition, showed that architects in Ireland "can compete on level basis with anyone in the world".

The involvement of U2 meant that the Docklands tower competition generated a lot of interest from nearly every corner of the globe - and provoked some very wacky responses. Zoomorphs (buildings that look like animals) cropped up quite a lot, as did Gehry and Libeskind impressions, cranes and even a dolmen.

Surprisingly, a sizeable number of entries were quite ordinary blocks redolent of commercial architecture anywhere. One recurrent was the slanting tower, jutting outwards towards the river. Or sail-like profiles similar to the unbuilt Dunloe Ewart tower designed by OMS Architects for the adjoining Hammond Lane site.

Though 100 of the 500-plus entries were shortlisted, commendations were awarded only to four: Simon Innes and Stephen Barton, architects, London; Thomas P Mont Alto, Mont Alto Architecture Inc, Ohio, USA; Hervé Tordjman, HTA Architecture, Paris; and Niall Scott, of Scott Tallon Walker Architects, Dublin.

According to Peter Coyne, the winning design "provides a unique and remarkable landmark for the city".

It also provides penthouse recording studios for U2, to replace their existing studios in a warehouse on Hanover Quay (interiors by Felim Dunne), which are to be demolished by the DDDA to open up the campshire.

The architects describe their scheme as a "dynamic twisted tower block, fully glazed with a double-skinned surface and sheathed with anti-glare louvres to the south and part of the east and west elevations, rising from a planar structure scaled subtly to the adjacent buildings and providing continuity to the platform office level".

The tower also includes a partly open-air auditorium as well as a bar, café or restaurant at ground level.

Its principal use would be residential, with a mix of apartments rotated around a pinwheel core to take maximum advantage of sunlight, with winter gardens on all sides enclosed by the double-skin glazing.

The U2 studios, inevitably, would have panoramic views over the whole Dublin area, and roof gardens on floating stepped platforms - though it remains to be seen how they will perform in the windy environment of the docklands. Car-parking would be at basement level at one end of the site with a nightclub at the other.

The parapet height of the tower is put at 60 metres, slightly higher than Liberty Hall, but its louvred screen and outer glass skin would rise to a height varying from 68 metres to 78 metres above ground level to enclose the steeped roof garden and also to comply with the 4:1 "slenderness ratio" requirement of the brief.

Some begrudgers didn't think there was anything particularly "unique" about the twisted form of the tower.

One e-mailer to www.archeire.com said it was the same "concept as the Turning Torso" in Malmo, Sweden. "It performs the same function and is situated on a similar site. And that building is a monstrosity."

The DDDA is now examining development options for the concept design and it is hoped that the tower would be developed during 2004/2005.

In the meantime, the winning scheme along with over 100 entries shortlisted by the judges will be on view at an exhibition somewhere in docklands at the end of September.