The children's hospital proposed for the Mater site in Dublin fell at the final fence primarily because it was the wrong horse for that course. It was gargantuan, simply because the site available to accommodate it was so small. But this inherent defect does not apply to the latest scheme.
Although the brief hasn’t changed – it still calls for 118,000sq m (1.27 million sq ft) of floorspace, including 384 individual ward rooms for sick children – the parapet height of the main building, at 30m, is very significantly lower than the 74m once envisaged for Eccles Street.
The reason is that the site available at the western end of St James's Hospital is much larger, at 4.8 hectares (nearly 12 acres), thereby permitting an overall reduction in height, scale, mass and bulk – all cited by An Bord Pleanála when it refused permission for the Mater proposal.
So instead of a colossal 16-storey building that would have been 160m long, we are offered something that’s much more modest in scale, with three-storey buildings on the frontage oversailed by an elliptical ward block on an axis with the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, to the north.
Architects BDP, who recently completed the grass-roofed Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, and O'Connell Mahon, who masterminded the abortive Mater scheme, were conscious of the need to integrate their latest project into the "receiving environment".
As Seán Mahon said, “we’re not just plonking a building there, with no reference to how it relates to the environment.” And the western end of St James’s Hospital abuts an area of predominantly two-storey houses on Brookfield Road, South Circular Road and Mount Brown, Kilmainham.
The architect pointed out that none of these houses would be less than 45m from the proposed Children’s Hospital, although it would obviously make a major impact on the skyline. A lengthy series of photomontages has been produced to show how it would intervene in various views.
A splayed concourse would mark the entrance to the hospital, flanked by pavilion-style buildings, all clad in stone, that turn around to face the Tallaght Luas line, running right alongside. These would house non-acute outpatient facilities, including ambulatory day care and support services.
A playful glazed atrium would incorporate escalators, lifts and stairs serving all floors, including the children’s wards. Their rooms would have views out over the city or into an internal “floating garden”, measuring 45m in width and 120m in length – big enough for plenty of sunlight.
With a barrel-vaulted roof of profiled zinc and coloured “fins” projecting from its elliptical facade, the ward block would certainly become a distinctive element of Dublin’s skyline. It would be better, perhaps, if the fins were made from glass, with lighting used to give them colour.
In addition, the scheme includes a hostel for parents of sick children, with 54 rooms, planned for a site just inside the entrance, and a new research building of 30,000sq m on the James's Street frontage, as well as "satellite centres" in Tallaght Hospital and Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown.
The main building would occupy a site earmarked for the development of a "co-located" private hospital at St James's – a pet project of Mary Harney, former leader of the Progressive Democrats, when she was minister for health. Although planning permission was granted, it has since been scrapped.
Quite a few existing buildings, including the late 19th- century red-brick Catholic chapel in St James’s would have to be demolished to make way for the children’s hospital. Many of these buildings are being “decanted” at present while the chapel is to be replaced by a new “multi-faith centre”.
The proposed development fulfils the requirement of "co-locating" the National Children's Hospital with a major adult teaching hospital, allowing room for the expansion of both, as well as providing a 1.2-ha site for a maternity facility when the Coombe University Hospital relocates to St James's.
A double-basement car park would provide spaces for 1,000 cars, two-thirds of which would be allocated to parents of sick children, and there would also be a helicopter pad for emergencies on the roof of a four-storey building facing the Luas line. But there are still strong doubts about accessibility.
Tom Costello, the former Sisk's managing director who chairs the hospital development board, conceded that traffic and access were the "big challenge". But he maintained the new hospital would only add 5 per cent to peak-time traffic in the area.