Why Wejchert's still a winner after 44 years

 

Andrzej Wejchert came to Ireland after winning a competition to design Belfield - and stayed to create some of modern Ireland's best-known buildings, writes Frank McDonaldEnvironment Editor

WHEN ANDRZEJ Wejchert first arrived in Dublin, after winning the open competition to design UCD's Belfield campus, all he had was a suitcase stuffed with his architecture books and the suit he was wearing; he had to leave behind a second suitcase of clothes because he couldn't afford to pay the excess baggage charge.

It was 1964, he was only 27 and had graduated just two years earlier from Warsaw University. His day job involved designing schools, and he spent much of his spare time entering international competitions; famously, he laid out Belfield — site unseen, inevitably — on the kitchen table of his mother's apartment in Warsaw.

Andrzej's success against 126 competitors from 46 countries, including many established firms, was a remarkable achievement, as Cathal O'Neill, former professor of architecture at UCD, writes in the introduction to a new book, A+D Wejchert and Partners, celebrating four decades of often remarkable work by A+D Wejchert and Partners (the D being his wife Danuta).

It was Belfield, with the great Andy Devane as his mentor, that made Wejchert's name here. Not only did he win the RIAI Gold Medal for it, but also commissions to design some of the buildings on campus - the Arts Block (1969) and Administration Building (1972). On the strength of this, Andrzej and Danuta set up in practice.

They were among the very few Poles in Dublin in the 1960s - only five of us that we knew of, Andrzej recalls. His English was technically proficient, though he didn't know the names of body parts or the word for sleeve, for example. But he's fluent now and says it's been a privilege to live through all the changes here since then.

Andrzej is the spokesman for the pair, talking softly with a distinctive Polish accent, as O'Neill writes. Danuta prefers to communicate through her drawings. They both have an attractive old-fashioned politeness, giving you their full attention, and would never dream of taking a phone call in your company. Indeed not.

Their philosophy, or work method, as they may prefer to call it, is primarily focused on what generates a building for the client's needs, the site and their own inspiration, drawn, one imagines, from natural forms, geometry and the discipline of materials. But though they're not fashionistas, they are clearly influenced by trends.

A+D Wejchert and Partners has produced an extraordinary range of buildings, from the colourful plastic of Ballincollig Community School - prefabricated by a boat-builder on the Isle of Wight (and since demolished) - to the Helix arts centre at DCU, with its trio of performance spaces grouped around a theatrical three-storey foyer.

Their office block in Lower Mount Street, where Georgian elements transmute into a much more contemporary form, is one of the very few post-modern buildings in Dublin - and probably the best. In every case, as Andrzej says, "we find a unique soul for every building, and think of its users as people, not as automated robots".

The Wejcherts designed their own house on Church Road, Killiney, in 1982, putting solar panels on its roof to make it more energy-efficient.

Their daughter Agnieszka is also an architect, practising with her Cornish-born husband Jonathan in Wales, while their son Michael is a structural engineer with Buro Happold; it runs in the family.

One of their current projects is a retail, office and residential building for Joe O'Reilly's Chartered Land beside the Gaiety Theatre in South King Street. The steel structure, to be clad in glass, is already obscuring a once-clear view from Merrion Row of the former Mercer's Hospital clocktower, even though upper floors are set back.

Geometry is one of Andrzej's pre-occupations, most clearly expressed by his sculptural concrete water tower in Belfield. It was designed to hold 150,000 gallons of water - 10 gallons for every student then - to supply the growing campus. The formal lake beside the Administration Block doubles as an emergency fire hydrant.

The architect is disappointed to this day that his original plan for Belfield "crumbled" over time.

He had envisaged that all of the buildings on the campus would be laid out on either side of a cranked spine - the canopied pedestrian walkway that he saw as the "road of life" - with each new block set in its own landscaped grounds.

"I don't want to appear to be critical, but none of that remains," he says. New buildings have appeared like random eruptions all over the place, disconnecting faculties and functions that could have been more integrated. "It would be good in Ireland if people heading large organisations learned about the value of continuity," he suggests.

It still pains him that Dublin City Council's planners dropped a couple of floors off his Smithfield Village scheme, giving a "hunchback" look to the angular towers on its Bow Street frontage, and then only a few years later they had no problem approving a much more massive development on the west side of the square, leaving it lopsided.

Naturally, the Wejcherts were delighted to be commissioned for projects in Poland after the fall of the old regime. The Media Business Centre in Warsaw is as big as the Arts and Adminstration blocks in UCD, while Cathal O'Neill hails their office block boldly-inserted in the Sobianski Palace courtyard as "the ultimate in glass architecture".

They're also doing a "very dense" shopping centre in Warsaw for Brian O'Farrell's Headland Properties; it will be anchored by a metro station at basement level. And in Krakow, the practice is designing new headquarters for a television company, TVN, and ONET, one of Poland's principal internet service providers. More such schemes are likely. Years ago, A+D Wejchert showed how to tread lightly on the earth with their Ailwee Caves visitor centre in the Burren. Now they are planning to give Glasnevin Cemetery "more nobility" by installing a two-storey administration and visitor facility just south of the gate lodge, in place of some 1960s-era sheds behind the high wall.

Geometrically, the new building will be orientated towards the round tower above Daniel O'Connell's tomb, curving out to greet it.

Above a ground-floor to be finished in black granite, full glazing under a cloud-like roof will give panoramic views over the cemetery where, as Andrezj says, "people go to see Irish history over the past 200 years".

There are only two things that annoy him about Dublin - "the inability of the city to accommodate growth in a sustainable way" and the way "a lot of cash has made some people not respect others. Apart from that, I absolutely adore the place."

The book shows what the Wejcherts have given back to their adopted country, and to Poland.

A+D Wejchert and Partners (Gandon Books, €39)