Planning horror of 1960s could now be demolished or revamped

One notable shortcoming in Dublin Corporation's otherwise all-encompassing integrated area plan for O'Connell Street was its …

One notable shortcoming in Dublin Corporation's otherwise all-encompassing integrated area plan for O'Connell Street was its failure to address what should happen to O'Connell Bridge House, apart from acknowledging that the coherence of D'Olier Street is "damaged" by its scale and character. The creation of D'Olier and Westmoreland streets between 1800 and 1810 was among the last major schemes carried out by the visionary Wide Streets Commissioners. Two grand end-pavilion buildings were built where these streets cornered on to the quays - and both of these were lost during more recent office booms.

At a time when regrettable demolitions were the order of the day, the Carlisle Building was demolished in 1962 to make way for O'Connell Bridge House and the old Ballast Office, which stood on the corner of Westmoreland Street and Aston Quay, was replaced in 1979 by a pastiche of itself concealing another office block.

O'Connell Bridge House was the earliest major property venture by John Byrne, the Kerry-born developer and close friend of Charles Haughey. He had bought the Carlisle Building in 1957 purely for its site value and enlisted architect Desmond FitzGerald, brother of former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, to design a high-rise office block. Mr Byrne is still actively involved in property development. O'Connell Bridge House, like most of his office blocks in the city centre, has been State-tenanted since its completion, most recently by the Department of the Environment. Yet it contains no car-parking space - a coup for the developer at a time when a building of its total area of office space would normally have required 90 car places.

The design of this 12-storey building is the epitome of its time, when new commercial schemes generally showed no regard for site or context. However, because of its scale and location, O'Connell Bridge House makes probably the single most brutal intrusion into Dublin's urban design - more serious, even, than Liberty Hall.


The termination of the State's lease this year provides a timely opportunity to replace the building with one which reinstates the Wide Streets Commissioners' composition. This would immediately give a coherent southern closure to O'Connell Street, restore the height line of the quay frontage, and breathe life into D'Olier Street.

While the criteria for tall buildings have been relaxed under the new city plan, a clear distinction must still be made between the type of development this plan would permit - probably in locations remote from the core of the city centre - and the unfortunate cluster of 1960s high-rise slab blocks in and around Poolbeg Street.

O'Connell Bridge House, in particular, is visible as a beacon marking the centre of Dublin to anyone entering the city from the west along the Liffey quays. Along with the even uglier Hawkins House, it has had a detrimental effect on the fortunes and the roofline of Burgh Quay, a potentially superb stretch of quay front if looked after.

Because O'Connell Bridge House towers over it and Hawkins House rises behind it, every sort of roof clutter has been allowed to accumulate along this quay; setback storeys, plant-rooms, fencing and oversized roofs. The view from Eden Quay of the Corn Exchange, flanked by Georgian houses "in Venetian proximity to the water", ought to enjoy an unimpeded skyline. Instead, several storeys of dross sit on top.

In recent times, the civic authorities have shown a strong will to overcome the years of inertia that affected implementation of important projects, but there is a parallel danger that we are being swept away by the glamour of too many new projects, with repair to the city's damaged design a lesser concern. Mile Atha Cliath's Millennium projects are a typical example of this dilemma; all seven projects are new additions of one sort or another - a couple of them, such as the spire for O'Connell Street, have proved controversial. But at the end of its programme, there are two recommendations that would constitute important repairs to the city's design.

These favour a slender replacement for the loop line railway bridge, which would effectively give the Custom House back to the city centre, and the restoration of the steeple of St George's Church, so important to the Dublin skyline, but which has farcically sat surrounded in scaffolding for more than a decade. There is no indication, however, that these projects will be carried out.

If replacing O'Connell Bridge House was to prove too costly, it could be reduced by about five storeys, and re-faced more sympathetically. Of course, Carlisle Trust would have to be compensated for the loss of space. But the virtual unlettability of an office building with no car-parking spaces would obviously reduce the sum involved.

However, given that the company has taken so much for so long by way of State rent, and the revenue generated by the huge beer advertisement, perhaps it would care to donate the building to the city, as some gesture of repayment to Dubliners for decades of visual injury, in order for the required urban surgery could be carried out. The most useful planning solutions are ones that offer answers to several problems at once. Thus, as well as the benefits already outlined, the removal of O'Connell Bridge House would provide a landmark site for an exciting contemporary building, in scale with its setting at the point where the city's two major spines meet.

Such an outcome for this crucial site would lend significant support to the corporation's commendable integrated area plan to rejuvenate the "Grand Civic Thoroughfare" between College Green and Parnell Square. If this does not happen, we will be left living with what is undoubtedly Dublin's quintessential 1960s planning horror.

Kevin Duff is a graduate of the DIT School of Photography, and is currently engaged in the Historic Heart of Dublin's architectural inventory project.