ESB headquarters rebuild must reflect time we live in

The best way to respect the Georgian streetscape is to insert a contemporary design

Let’s take a step back.

Since its unveiling last week, the proposal for the new ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin has been creating a debate, even a polemic. And this is just the beginning: the board has not applied for planning yet.

Most relevant to Irish people is the question of cost. According to the ESB, the project will be self-financing, on top
of their €280 million cost-reduction target for 2015. It has promised the project will not affect our domestic energy costs – a pledge to that effect would be welcome in the next bill, while a reflection of their massive savings should also be passed on.

The cost to our cityscape may be far greater. While the intention is to maximise the potential of the site and improve facilities for ESB workers, why should our 18th century environment be compromised yet again?

Preserving seminal and vernacular architecture is a vital part of the duties of a civilised society in telling the story of who we are and what we value. The destruction in the 1960s of 16 Georgian townhouses provoked opposition. The buildings had been portrayed as derelict, dangerous relics of a colonial era.

Yet Dublin City Council eventually acknowledged the public uproar and blocked plans for demolition, only to have that decision overturned by then minister for local government Neil Blaney on the last day before new planning laws came into effect.

We are left with an office block, no longer fit for purpose, in an extremely sensitive location. Thankfully there is sufficient testament to the work of Stephenson Gibney elsewhere in Dublin to allow its replacement.

Those with a nostalgia for brutalist architecture argue for retaining the Stephenson Gibney facade as a modernist statement, a monument to what was seen as a new dawn in Ireland.

There is also resigned support for a fake “Georgian” terrace on the basis that it would be better than what is there.

Fake is a farce
As an architectural historian I find fake a farce and replicated Georgian unacceptable. Look at the anodyne example built by Green Property at the corner of Hume Street and St Stephen's Green. Heaping one mistake on another is not a good enough resolution.

The pink edifice is an affront to its historic surroundings, an inefficient workplace, expensive to maintain and a missed opportunity to capitalise a significant site.

To the rear, a large yard is concealed behind a long blank wall. To the north, the frontage at 55-61 Upper Mount Street is merely a facade with a disappointing interior of mean staircases and poky rooms. The precast concrete front has deteriorated and serial repairs have led to the murky pink paint job. The bronze windows are fondly admired by architects; no doubt the ESB will have a recycling plan for these. From the outset the demolition and redevelopment should be a model of sustainability.

Inside the main building, a large part of the ground floor is an airport-size security area while labyrinthine corridors conceal multiple single-use offices and open-plan areas are overcrowded. The building has an embarrassing BER rating of F. The entire site is an introspective, warren of obsolescence.

On the positive side, the project will be a boost to the construction sector; the usable space will be doubled and sublet to a major corporate, providing office use for an additional 1,400 people. The rear at James’s Street East, an area with substantial original fabric and character that must be retained, will be regenerated with restaurants, shops and increased pedestrian footfall.

The surrounding Georgian patrimony is homage to Irish craftsmanship, local brick, sophisticated doorcases, elegant internal plasterwork, beautifully carved joinery and harmonious proportions. None of which will be evident in a replicated terrace.

With a trite nod towards conservation principles, the ESB comments that the "new design by . . . Grafton Architects and O'Mahony Pike Architects reinterprets but at the same time respects the surrounding architectural heritage . . . to deliver a building that is respectful to its history, sensitive to its surroundings and representative of its own time".

The proposed frontage on to Fitzwilliam Street does not meet conservation principles in an area earmarked for World Heritage status. It can’t “respect the surrounding architectural heritage” by directly adjoining it with referential opes and red brick. The varying registers and diverse solid-to-void ratio disrupts the “Georgian” mile even more than the uniform register of the current building.

Linear park
On Fitzwilliam Street, I believe the best way to respect the 18th century environment and create something of its own time is to set back the new work from the building line, create a break with the original fabric and not interrupt the historic vista from the National Maternity Hospital towards the Dublin mountains.

Ideally, a linear park should be planted at the street frontage, creating a modulated counterpoint between the tree-lined parks of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square. This green breathing space between street and headquarters would provide public and private access to James’s Street East and a human-scale interface between the street and the new architecture.

Ultimately the walls around us are a backdrop to the drama of our lives. We are lucky to be in a position to debate this proposal and to look forward to something refreshing that will work this time.

Let it reflect the energy and drive we need to move out of this awful, austere period and utilise the creativity that has brought international renown to award-winning Grafton Architects and OMP.

Don’t mock the block.

Deirdre Conroy is a historic buildings specialist