Mini urban plan will open Castle to the city

 

Anyone attending the Flood Tribunal in Dublin should know what the Office of Public Works means when it refers to the "unsavoury mess" that exists in the "no man's land" between the Stamping Building in Dublin Castle and the rear ends of Wicklow House and Castle House, on South Great George's Street. But now, in a fine example of public-private partnership, the OPW is collaborating with the owners of these two awful office blocks of early 1970s vintage on what it calls a "mini urban plan" for this quarter of the city. And the declared aim is to integrate the Castle with the surrounding urban fabric by creating an exciting new pedestrian route.

The idea of opening up Informer's Lane, as it used to be called, to provide a new entrance to the Castle on the axis of Exchequer Street was first mooted some years ago by Dick Gleeson, now Dublin Corporation's deputy chief planning officer. All it needed to be realised was a willingness by the OPW and the office block owners to get together.

Within the next few weeks, the corporation is expected to grant planning permission for a complete overhaul of the two aggressively horizontal office blocks, including much more sympathetic elevations to South Great George's Street and a two-storey arcade on Informer's Lane, leading to a new "civic courtyard" in the grounds of Dublin Castle.

Surprisingly, however, the opportunity is not being taken to redevelop the Stamping Branch building itself. Designed by Frank du Berry, then a senior OPW architect, and completed in 1973, its running balconies led Plan magazine to liken it to hotels on the Spanish costas. "Where is that Mediterranean sun and the bathing towels," an article asked.

The building's skewed angle to the established grid of the castle might suggest a forward extension to bring it into line. But David Byers, OPW assistant principal architect and one-time manager of the Castle, said it was so intensively used by the Revenue that the disruption to those working there would have been too great for a relatively small gain.

Some years ago, consideration was given to recladding it in brick more sympathetic to its setting, but nothing happened. Now there is a view that it is "quite an interesting example of its period, as Byers says, and one of the best-built buildings I've ever seen, with the plant-draped balconies providing sun screening in the absence of air conditioning.

Not a shred of merit can be attached to the two office blocks on George's Street. Designed by English architects Arthur Swift and Partners for Guardian Properties, they were plonked on the site of Pimms department store with no concession whatever in terms of colour, materials or proportions to the Victorian character of the area.

The advantage to their current owners of doing something to rectify this ghastly mistake is that they will get double the depth of the two buildings, gaining an extra 110,837 sq ft of office space separated by atriums from the existing streetfront blocks, while the city gains immeasurably from a remodelling of their facades.

And because this scheme, designed by John O'Keeffe and Associates, has been effectively amalgamated with the OPW's civic courtyard, the net effect is to reduce the developers plot ratio from 5.5:1 to 2.4:1. This seems to be quite a reasonable trade-off for the planning gain of a new east-west pedestrian route where one is sorely needed.

When it is completed, not only will the terrible pair of buildings have smart new fronts sympathetic to their surroundings, but the public will have access via a two-storey arcade to a sunlit circular courtyard to the rear, within the precincts of the castle, and onwards to the award-winning Chester Beatty Library and Little Ship Street gate.

The courtyard, with a diameter of 90 feet, will incorporate a circular ramp for disabled access to compensate for a three-metre drop in levels between George's Street and the Castle. It is to be clad in Penryn-type green slate and enclosed by a cylindrical curtain of stainless steel grillework, which will include a sliding security gate.

The circular form of the courtyard echoes the design of the Castle's Dubhlinn Garden, which doubles as a helicopter landing pad (the lighting is cleverly concealed in its spiral pathways). Though inspired by Stirling's Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, it will be less heavy, according to David Byers, and softened by trees and park benches for relaxation.

The Printworks building, with its curious undulating roof, which has housed the Flood Tribunal's public hearings for so long, is to get a new foyer overlooking the courtyard. And in deference to the idea of creating a new civic space, the rear elevations of the extended office blocks on George's Street are designed as if they were fronts.

The opening up of a two-storey arcaded entrance to Dublin Castle should offer a glimpse of the Bermingham Tower from Exchequer Street. But more than that - it will open up the Devil's half-acre, as Michael Collins once called it, to the rest of the city centre by puncturing the existing hard edge on George's Street to the southside retail zone.

The raggle-taggle of buildings that currently occupy the proposed courtyard will be swept away - but not, it should be emphasised, the rather more impressive group still occupied by the Garda. A new building is being planned for the southern side of the courtyard to re-house some of the facilities in those earmarked for demolition.

The pay-off for the Revenue is a new penthouse floor on the Stamping Branch, providing an additional 5,920 sq ft. This will be a lightweight steel structure, prefabricated and metal-clad, with terraces and a light overhanging roof. Of course, no attempt is being made to eliminate the clutter of cars in the Lower Castle Yard.

The new pedestrian route, which will be open to the public during all reasonable hours, is seen as one element of an integrated architectural sequence linking Dublin Castle with Leinster House. All that's missing is a name for the circular courtyard; the informal working title, incidentally, is Flood Court, in honour of Mr Justice Fergus Flood.