Ballsbridge: demolition debate set to run

Plans to demolish the former Texaco headquarters building on Pembroke Road and replace it has led to debate over its significance as an example of 20th-century architecture


The late David Keane would be quite chuffed that his distinctive “Texaco House” building in Ballsbridge – described by one contemporary critic as “the wittiest corner turning in Dublin” – is now the focus of a major planning battle, with An Taisce as one of its champions.

Plans to demolish the three-storey 1971 building and replace it with a five-storey office block designed by Shay Cleary Architects were approved by Dublin City Council’s planners, despite a strong recommendation for refusal by the council’s conservation officer, Nicola Matthews.

The decision also flew in the face of a 2003 refusal for the replacement of its structural pre-cast concrete facade, because this would “completely remove all its interest as one of the more interesting corporate headquarters of the 1970s in Dublin . . . [a building] of significant architectural quality”.

Valerin O’Shea of An Taisce has queried how, having held such a high opinion of the building in 2003, “the same council has granted permission for its demolition” just 10 years later – especially as it “makes a positive contribution to the character, appearance and quality of the streetscape”.

Inexplicably, as An Taisce says in its appeal to An Bord Pleanála, the planners gave “more credence” to a strongly pro-demolition report by David Slattery, conservation architect and historic buildings consultant, which was submitted on behalf of the developer, named as West Register (RoI) Property Ltd.

Planner Cáit Ryan, who dealt with the case, noted the conservation officer’s recommendation in her report, but gave “considerable mention” to the views expressed by Slattery, who argued that the building was not even of local importance.

Slattery’s extraordinarily dismissive report is hotly disputed by An Taisce and Docomomo Ireland, which acts as “a watchdog when important Irish modern movement buildings and sites are threatened”; it sought to perform this role in relation to Liberty Hall, but withdrew after Slattery issued libel proceedings.

His report on 83 Pembroke Road suggests that, while “it may invite comparison” with the nearby US embassy, “there is none” – and then makes repeated comparisons between the two, describing the latter as “one of the most important pieces of modern architecture of its period”. According to Slattery, “it would appear that the designers . . . noted the style and form of the American embassy, which had been constructed some years earlier”. In his view, which Docomomo disputes, the Texaco building’s “honeycomb panels” were derived from John MacL Johansen’s precast units on the US embassy.

But Docomomo’s Carole Pollard says Keane said his inspiration was Oscar Niemeyer’s work in Brasilia – particularly the concept of placing the structure on the outside, with recessed full-height windows “like TV screens . . . At the time, we were curious about that kind of thing.”

Keane used a similar structural system for Palmerston House, an office block at the rear of 11 and 12 Merrion Square. But Texaco is, by common consent, Keane’s finest building. Others included Phibsboro Tower, Apollo House in Tara Street and Merrion House, beside Booterstown Marsh – all horrors, by comparison.

According to Pollard, the structure of the Texaco building “can be considered to be of technical significance on account of the early use of load-bearing precast concrete perimeter units and glass curtain walling”. The 1971 letting brochure noted that the units were made from “natural exposed white stone aggregate”.

Developers David Lewis & Partners regarded 83 Pembroke Road as one of the most prestigious sites in the city and instructed Keane to design the best building possible. “Cost was not an issue and at the time of completion, [it] was the most expensive office building built in Dublin”, Docomomo has told An Bord Pleanála.

It says that 20th century buildings are “particularly vulnerable as they have not yet received widespread appreciation and recognition and therefore seldom appear on the Record of Protected Structures”.

However, Texaco was included in an inventory of 20th century buildings – commissioned by Dublin City Council.

Liberty Hall is dealt with in detail in this 200-strong inventory, which Nicola Matthews described as “an exemplary document based on a well-investigated methodology and scientific research”. Compiled by specialists including Ellen Rowley of the Royal Irish Academy, it should be published by the council as soon as possible.

An Bord Pleanála overturned the planners’ decision to approve the replacement of Liberty Hall with a much taller and bulkier 22-storey tower. In the Texaco case, it will have to make a purely aesthetic judgment about the merits of the building and its proposed replacement.

The developer’s planning consultant, Tom Phillipssays in his submission that the board granted permission for the earlier scheme turned down by the city planners, indicating that it “did not consider the conservation value of the building sufficient to warrant the retention of its facade”. This could be his trump card.

The building proposed to replace Texaco would have a load-bearing structural frame and twin-skin curtain wall, giving it an ordered architectural expression of “complexity and visual richness”, according to Shay Cleary Architects.

Cleary, best-known for his Alto Vetro tower in Grand Canal Dock, says the glazing would be recessed by 350mm – referencing the existing building – within a modulated steel frame clad in bronze-anodised aluminium panels. “This choice in material and colour will give the building a strong, but subtle presence in its context [and would] not adversely impact on the character or setting of adjoining structures or property in the vicinity,” says planning consultant Tom Phillips.

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