ESB building ‘categorically’ not on council’s preservation list
Clare Hogan says architect Arthur Gibney did not think headquarters should be listed
The An Bord Pleanála debate over the ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, continued on Friday. File photograph: Cyril Byrne
The ESB headquarters in Georgian Dublin is “categorically” not on the city council’s inventory of late 20th-century buildings considered for preservation.
Conservation architect Clare Hogan said she had worked for 10 years with architect Arthur Gibney, who with Sam Stephenson designed the controversial block which replaced 16 Georgian townhouses on Fitzwilliam Street, demolished in the 1960s to a wave of public protest.
Ms Hogan, conservation officer with Dublin City Council, said Mr Gibney was of the view that the building should not be listed for preservation. “I can categorically state that it is not on the inventory,” she said.
Ms Hogan was speaking on the third and final day of An Bord Pleanála hearing on the €150 million proposed demolition of the building and redevelopment of the site. Five parties opposed the redevelopment and the ESB has appealed conditions imposed by the council that the height of the new design should be reduced.
The development faces four streets – Fitzwilliam Street, Mount Street, Baggot Street and James’s Street East, used as a laneway, where designers Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike want to create a new urban space.
Ms Hogan, responding to adjudicating inspector John Desmond on why the building was not worthy of retention, said that of its time it was a very good building and was the first to attempt to link the modern to the Georgian line of the streetscape.
But it was done in a “very clunky way. I think the former Bank of Ireland [on Baggot Street] succeeded better. It’s a much more refined and elegant building in the Georgian context.”
Architect Yvonne Farrell of lead designers Grafton Architects, defended the height of the new design against the city council’s conditions.
Ms Farrell said their design “does not increase the height but distributes it differently”. The Dublin City Development Plan allowed for new development in harmony with the historic nature of the area, and she said “the taller blocks do not register” on Fitzwilliam Street and “do not impede on people”.
‘Well mannered and considerate’
The design also sat very sensitively into the context on Baggot Street and fit very neatly with the former Bank of Ireland. Ms Farrell said their design was positive, “well mannered and considerate” and fit for the life cycle and intended use of the building.
James Street East, off Baggot Street is currently a non-memorable space, she said, which people use like a “rat run”. Their proposal would make it a genuine space.
Shelley McNamara, also of Grafton Architects, said she really worried that reducing the height there would result in a “flattening of the project”. They were trying to make a new street on James Street East.
Their design modulated change so that the block “becomes more open, moving from a closed space to three pavilions on an open plaza” on James’s Street. The taller buildings were recessed in the block and much lower than the adjacent building on the former Bank of Ireland.
She said that if “we lose the top floors it will feel more massive and will lose its elegance” and “there would be a complete loss of balance”. She said the tall block was 21 metres back from the street, which was also the width of the street.
But defending the city council’s decision for lower buildings, deputy city planner Mary Conway said they were still concerned that the height of block four, five and six of the development would “constitute a visually obtrusive and dominant feature”.
She added that the additional height “detracts from the setting of protected structures” and “ultimately does not respect or enhance the character of the area”.
Ms Conway said the council was not seeking to hide the upper floors of the proposed development to “create a pristine Georgian skyline but rather to ensure that any elements above the parapet level constitute a more deferential element and have more regard to the streetscape the setting of the protected structure”.
John Molloy, a third-party appellant who opposes the development, noted that the designers used Unesco conditions as a reason for not reinstating the original Georgian facade. Mr Molloy said Unesco allowed reinstatement in cases of destruction through warfare.
“There was war and the war was to change people’s attitudes to preserve their heritage,” he said. The use of that argument could be questioned.
Mr Molloy also said the minister who gave the order in 1964 for the demolition of the Georgian streetscape was Neil Blaney. He said he was considered the bete noir of the environmental lobby but that in fact he opposed the demolition of the 16 townhouses.
He said in his last briefing to Cabinet Mr Blaney recommended against demolition, said the ESB had exaggerated the damaged state of the buildings and that the best viable option was to repair the buildings. But he said then taoiseach Seán Lemass overruled him and Mr Blaney signed the order, but said nothing afterwards.
Professor of art history at UCD Kathleen James-Chakraborty told the hearing the ESB building was a “better than average building for the period but not outstanding”. It was not a “new Brutalist” building, she said. RTÉ is the foremost example of modern architecture and the Berkeley library in Trinity College Dublin is a “great example” of the Brutalist style.
Ian Lumley of An Taisce, a third-party appellant to the development, said they supported the general proposal and their appeal related to design issues and aspects of architectural development and specifically the “appropriateness of the elongated nature of the opening in the upper floors”, as well as the streetscape effect.
They rejected the view that the Stephenson Gibney building was of any social, cultural, architectural or historical value.
Architect Shane O’Toole opposed the demolition of the ESB building and said Mr Lumley’s opinion that the building was a “disastrous mistake” was “the view expressed by people who hate modern architecture”.
Mr O’Toole, an expert on 20th-century architecture said assessment of the building should have been done before the architecture competition for the redesign was completed and not afterwards.
Ruadhán MacEoin, a third-party appellant, said a condition of the planning should be that the ESB remain on the site for the next 50 years. He said there was precedent for this in the context of one-off rural houses. He said he had changed his view on the proposal, which he described as “a delicate yet definite statement” and an interesting, intelligent and nuanced design.