Demolition days at DCU


JCBs, dumpers and diggers are all part of the landcape at DublinCity University, where there seems to be no end to an ambitiousbuilding programme, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

Not even Dublin City University's buildings officer, Michael Kelly, could say for certain how many buildings there are on its 57-acre campus. Only after checking a layout map did he come up with a figure - 32. That's 27 more than just two decades ago.

"If I had seen this place then and arrived back now and walked through the gates, I wouldn't know what had hit me", Kelly says. The one-time Albert College, where UCD's agriculture faculty used to be located, that became a base for the National Institute of Higher Education-Dublin, has been transformed beyond recognition.

The first shock is DCU's new multi-storey car-park, extending for at least 160 metres along Collins Avenue. Fronted by a grey granite boundary wall with brick panels, behind a line of trees and a grassy bank, the car-park is curiously redolent of the Berlin Wall, with a pair of look-out towers from which one half-expects to spot the border guards.

Done by Group Design, the car-park gives DCU a fortress-like appearance, as if the university is defending itself against marauders from Ballymun to the north. In fact, the towers are fire escape stairs, while the severity of the wall will be softened by green creepers and other plants tumbling over its parapet and the red terracotta facing of the car decks.

Red terracotta panels have become quite trendy since they were used so extensively by Renzo Piano in the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz, once bisected by the Berlin Wall. Architect Jim Coady has also employed the same finish on a new innovation centre at the eastern end of DCU's frontage, but this is a much smaller building than the car-park.

With 820 spaces, the €14-million, five-level car-park replaces most of DCU's surface parking, thereby freeing up valuable land for yet more new buildings. Its entrance block has an elaborate curved granite screen wall - "it's got to be the poshest of any car-park in Dublin", says Kelly - terminating in a circular tower.

Two more granite-clad circular towers to the rear and lots more red terracotta facing complete the picture. Though the curved screen does not quite cover up the raw concrete ends of the car decks, it was obviously designed to relate to the circular brick box of Deirdre O'Connor's Larkin Theatre and the much larger Helix arts centre.

The Helix, currently under construction and due for completion this year, is enormous. Originally conceived as an Aula Maxima, to accommodate exams, degree conferrings and other university functions, it evolved over time into a much larger project to provide a 1,200-seat auditorium, a 400-seat theatre and a 150-seat studio, all arranged around a helical staircase.

Designed by A+D Wejchert and Partners, this dramatic €35.5-million building has a huge glazed foyer and sweeping elliptical walls clad in granite, with an outsized blue ice-cube perched on top to conceal the fly tower and a downward-sloping black basalt entrance, clad at an angle to emphasise its rake; what it resembles is a geological extrusion.

DCU has "a huge problem with exams", explains Kelly. They have been held in the sports complex, where the acoustics are poor, the ventilation inefficient and it's too cold for the purpose. On occasion, major sports competitions had to be postponed because it was needed for exams.

The Larkin lecture theatre is also too small for conferrings and its raked seating is too inflexible for other uses. "The main hall in the Helix is going to be a very different beast," Kelly says.

"It's a multi-purpose space with retractable seating so it can be used for exams, conferrings, conferences and performances - anything that needs a big venue."

But given that Ballymun has its new Axis arts centre just up the road, won't there be a clash? "Well, the scale of the Helix is much larger and we believe there will be a synergy between the two. Our director talks to their director on a regular basis, so we have already forged links so that they will complement rather than compete with each other."

The other major building nearing completion at DCU is a €23.8-million research and engineering block facing the new main entrance on Collins Avenue. Designed by Murray O'Laoire Architects, it has an asymmetrical modern portico, or canopied colonnade, with an elliptical pod over its entrance, projecting through the roof; this turns out to be a seminar room.

Part-funded by the EU research and technology programme, the new building's gable end is finished in crinkly tin to allow for future expansion. Funding for capital development comes from numerous sources, according to Eilis O'Brien, DCU's director of communications and marketing. For example, half the €28-million new library was subscribed by private sector donors, including Tony O'Reilly.

Because O'Reilly chipped in just over €3 million, he got the naming rights. So it's called after his parents who, as the plaque on a bronze bust of the pair just inside the entrance notes, "lived at 349 Griffith Avenue, a house from whose garden one can see the John and Aileen O'Reilly Library, with affection from their son, Sir Anthony O'Reilly".

The library, designed by Scott Tallon Walker, is at the eastern end of DCU's broad central mall. Completed last year, it has a pleasant coffee bar at basement level, with its own entrance and flight of steps, a Zen garden underneath the central staircase which rises to the full height of the building, and quiet spaces for studying on the upper levels.

MOST of the buildings in DCU flank the central mall, which has become the fundamental organising principle of the university's development. But it is rather lopsided, with three-storey arcaded academic buildings on its north side and two-storey buildings housing student residences, social and sports facilities to the south, all of which should be higher.

Arthur Gibney and Partners, with the late Deirdre O'Connor in charge, did the 1991 master plan and many of the brick buildings that grew out of it.

O'Connor was a formidable woman, with serious convictions about her work. "We'd often fight like cats and dogs and then it would be off to the pub for a few pints", Michael Kelly recalls.

The mall was intended to integrate DCU's various faculties so that the students would mix together more freely. And with the two great magnets of a university - the library and the restaurant building - located at either end, it is heavily used. It's also "a place for things to happen", as Kelly says, with "social activity spilling out on to it".

An odd pair of pagoda-like pavilions in the centre of the mall, one completed as recently as 1995, are earmarked for demolition because they are no longer seen to fit in. Also likely to be demolished, ironically, is the university's Buildings Office - to make way for the proposed Irish Academy for Performing Arts, assuming that project goes ahead.

The master plan is currently being refined by Anthony Reddy and Associates, which designed The Hub, a bright and colourful extension to the otherwise rather drab Students Centre. But it is unlikely that the mall will be completed on its southern side, other than by a retaining wall for bleacher seating at the university's last surviving soccer pitch.

The fact that so many different firms of architects are involved in realising the vision of former DCU President Danny O'Hare is no accident. It avoids sameness, monotony and repetition, but also "shares out the work more equitably," says Kelly, "giving everyone a chance to make a contribution" within the context of the master plan.

He insists that DCU hasn't grown like Topsy. "It's been planned development that's coming together very well. As new needs are identified and plugged into it, the master plan evolves and changes and what used to be abstract numbers on a block plan just a few years ago are becoming a reality - and there's more to come."

Next up will be a nursing school on the Collins Avenue frontage, east of the main entrance. Then the National Institute for Cellular Biology, a swimming-pool behind the sports complex, and 300 more student residential units, bringing them up to an even thousand. DCU also hopes that the promised Luas line to Ballymun will go ahead.

Is it all something of an architectural zoo? Possibly. But with 6,000 undergraduates and 1,500 post-graduate students on campus, plus 2,500 involved in distance education, as well as around 1,000 staff, more buildings are clearly required at DCU to enable it to fulfil its mission. And most of them are a credit to to this burgeoning campus.