High noon for urban high-rise: it's 37-storeys or none at all


ANALYSIS:Developer Seán Dunne is seeking to persuade An Bord Pleanála to approve his scheme for the 'rejuvenation' of Ballsbridge, writes Frank McDonald

AN BORD Pleanála is being given a clear choice - either to approve the controversial high-rise, high-density plan put forward for the Jurys-Berkeley Court hotel sites or to reject it in its entirety.

Reducing the overall scale or changing any of the building blocks is not seen by developer Seán Dunne as an option.

Architect Ulrik Raysse, leading designer of Danish firm Henning Larsen, told a rapt audience on the opening day of an oral hearing on 127 appeals both for and against the scheme that what he had produced was not a master plan, but rather "one design" in which each element related to the other.

The 37-storey triple-skin apartment tower, which he described as "the spice in the dish", was intended to relate to the city scale, providing a landmark for "the new Ballsbridge".

Its tapering, sculptural form would be difficult to change; if, say, 10 floors were to be omitted, the residual building would look like a stump.

According to Mr Raysse, its complex geometry and "diamond-cut" glazed façades related to the relatively "calm" brick-clad buildings that would occupy the rest of the seven-acre site. "It's like a book, with each building as a chapter. So you can't take out one chapter without losing the story", he told the hearing.

The Danish architect likened his creation to Rockefeller Center in New York, with an assembly of buildings arranged around public spaces. In Ballsbridge, these spaces would provide new pedestrian streets through the site, linking Pembroke, Lansdowne and Shelbourne roads, in the context of a "unique urban quarter".

He showed examples of Henning Larsen's work elsewhere, such as the new Opera House and Nordea office complex in Copenhagen.

But these buildings are much lower than anything being proposed for Ballsbridge and, as former Progressive Democrat leader Des O'Malley noted, they are located on open harbour sites.

Even the Spiegel headquarters in Hamburg, with façades like giant plasma TV screens, is only 15 storeys high and it also occupies a waterfront site, rather than one surrounded by other buildings, as in the case of Ballsbridge. Larsen's Concert and Congress Hall in Uppsala, Sweden, is also relatively modest in scale.

Ian Ritchie, architect of the Dublin Spire in O'Connell Street and member of the jury which selected the Larsen scheme for Ballsbridge, turned up to endorse it. According to him, it would "do much for the growing international reputation of Dublin", by marking Ballsbridge on the city skyline as "a place of change".

But this can only happen, as Paul Walsh of Pembroke Road put it, "by driving a coach and horses through the Dublin City Development Plan 2005-2011", which made no provision for high-rise schemes in the Ballsbridge area - least of all one with a landmark that he rather rudely likened to a "massive bent erection".

Although An Bord Pleanála has the power to override the city plan, Des O'Malley reminded presiding planning inspector Tom Rabbette that councillors had rejected a proposal to designate Ballsbridge as a "prime urban centre" and had also declined to approve a local area plan that would have permitted high-rise.

As he noted, neither Mr Raysse nor Mr Ritchie had mentioned the city plan in their architectural presentations. Yet the "huge overweening office and residential blocks proposed will completely dwarf Lansdowne and Shelbourne roads", he said, adding: "It will be a sad day for Dublin if this was to be allowed go ahead."

The 12 residents' associations objecting to the scheme will be calling former Dublin chief planning officer Pat McDonnell as a key witness, while billionaire financier Dermot Desmond will be calling George Ferguson, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to support his strong objection to what's proposed.

Forty-four of those who lodged appeals in favour of Seán Dunne's scheme, including Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan (cultural adviser for the project) and PR consultant Bill O'Herlihy, will not be appearing.

Instead, they are being represented by planning consultant Tom Phillips, which means they cannot be cross-examined.