It was never going to be easy for the ESB to redevelop its Fitzwilliam Street headquarters, just a stone’s throw from Merrion Square in Dublin. The existing building caused considerable controversy when it was planned in the 1960s, and there will be a good old row over the latest scheme.
The plan, announced last Friday, is to demolish the entire complex and replace it with a new office development with a neo-Georgian facade on the main frontage. A planning application is to be made early next year, if the ESB can achieve a change in the current city plan.
It is now widely acknowledged that the demolition of 16 houses, rupturing the continuity of Dublin’s “Georgian Mile” (the 1km stretch between Lower Mount Street and Lower Leeson Street), was a high cultural crime, even though many people didn’t recognise this at the time.
Writer Jack White summed up people’s antipathy to Georgian houses; they were seen to “stand for money and privilege and for the society that produced Sheridan and Oscar Wilde, the society that attended Castle levées and sent loyal addresses to the Sovereign”.
It was only later, after so much damage had been done, that people appreciated Georgian Dublin as a valuable legacy, without which the city would be visually impoverished. Even the ESB has recanted and is now seeking to have another stab at it with a scheme designed by Grafton Architects and O'Mahony Pike.
The architects say that what they are offering is a loose contemporary version of a Georgian streetscape, rather than the bogus, wafer-thin facsimile of missing house facades specified by city councillors in the current Dublin City Development Plan.
However, the scheme has already provoked opposition, with members of the late Sam Stephenson’s family, including his second wife, Caroline, arguing that the building he designed in partnership with the late Arthur Gibney is worthy of preservation as a fine example of its type.
The ESB would disagree, obviously. Pat Boyle, its property manager, pointed out that office layouts are cellular instead of open-plan and therefore highly inefficient. The building energy rating (Ber) is a poor “F” – not a good advertisement for the State electricity company.
Its carefully considered pre-cast concrete facade has also failed, with bits of it falling off due to a quite common “disease” among buildings of the period. As a result, it had to be consolidated with a resin cement and was then painted “Germolene pink”, as one critic acidly complained.
Boyle said the replacement building would, of course, have natural ventilation and a range of other “sustainability” measures; the “chimneys” would be vents, for example. But sustainability also includes being “sensitive to the Georgian context” of Fitzwilliam Street.
The street has been killed by the existing block, according to Grafton’s Yvonne Farrell. Stretching for 120 metres, with no railings, no steps, no basement areas and just one entrance, it is incongruous amidst all the repetition – and variation – of Dublin’s neo-classical architecture.
What's underrated, according to Farrell, is our "emotional response" to Georgian Dublin. Thus, the "wall"
they propose would be built in brick, with openings evocative of the 18th century as well
as the traditional arrangement of railings, steps and doorways.
Part of it would be a screen wall with a giraffe-sized entrance leading into a landscaped courtyard. There would be two other courtyards behind the Fitzwilliam Street facade and four at the rear, entered off James's Street East, where the blocks would rise to seven storeys.
The main entrance would be on the axis of Fitzwilliam Lane, which runs west towards Government Buildings, so in a sense people would be "invited" to explore the ESB's new public areas. The secondary courtyards might be used to provide discreet entrances for other firms.
These "trapped gardens" would not only be amenities for the 2,800 people who would be working in the
new building, but could also
be enjoyed by the public (at least during office hours). There would also be at least one through-route from Fitzwilliam Street to James's Street.
Farrell stressed that the Fitzwilliam Street frontage would be the equivalent of one-room deep – in other words, it would not be merely a facade. “We’ll be taking best of contemporary craftsmanship to reinterpret Georgian, using original materials like brick,” she said.
"The whole thing is a brick building. It's not skin-deep, but continues right through like the Jameson distillery in Smithfield," partner Shelley McNamara explained. Or,
as Farrell said, "it's not just about sticking on something at the front because we're building in Fitzwilliam Street".