Renovated RHA building a real work of art

 

PATRICK MURPHY, director of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), remembers breaking into its gallery on Dublin's Ely Place in the early 1980s when the building was a concrete hulk "just to look at the spaces inside because they were so great".

Property tycoon Matt Gallagher had agreed to build a new gallery for the RHA before his untimely death in 1974, but his son, Patrick Gallagher, an even bigger tycoon until his empire collapsed in 1982, used it as a storage area for building equipment.

It wasn't until 1988 that the building - designed by Raymond McGrath, principal architect at the Office of Public Works - was finally opened as the RHA Gallagher Gallery, having been finished by Arthur Gibney, a leading member of the academy.

It never worked, however. The main entrance was at its southern end, which didn't make much sense due to its location on a cul-de-sac and the use of a forecourt for car parking, so a more convenient entrance was created on the street frontage.

As a result, the internal circulation was confused. The principal gallery on the first floor was punctured by the main staircase, there was no clear route through the secondary galleries, no disabled access and no studio space where artists could work.

Six years ago, the RHA set up a committee chaired by Ron Bolger, principal of Ely Capital, to consider options to improve the academy's premises, including the possibility of demolishing it and starting again. On Mr Bolger's initiative, architects Henry J Lyons Partners were engaged to flesh out ideas such as adding a second main gallery on top of the existing one, but this option was ruled out at it would have cost some €29 million.

The RHA decided to renovate the building at a cost of €7.8 million. Much of this had to be raised from private sponsors as the Department of Arts put up only €1.25 million.

Its dull, brick-clad frontage to Ely Place has been given a makeover in Portuguese limestone and a new sign, with the gallery's name in stone, is set in a horizontal slit against a strip of green glass.

The recessed ground floor has been brought out nearly flush with the facade to make room for an attractive cafe - to be operated by the nearby Unicorn restaurant - and a specialist art bookshop by Noble and Beggarman.

Inside, there is a generous foyer with a concrete-framed reception desk. The old staircase is gone, replaced by a new one in a double- height atrium at the rear, also faced in limestone with a glass balustrade and stainless steel rails. Apart from the close-up view of a grim office block occupied by the Office of Public Works, this is a very attractive space overlooked by an internal window from the much-needed studios and teaching spaces that have been added to the rear roof of the building.

In the top-lit main gallery, there is no sign of the old staircase opening in its vast timber floor because the "patch" is invisible. It leads to the lesser galleries at this level, which are air-conditioned, and back to the ground floor via a second staircase.

"Although in static terms the galleries have not changed, in dynamic terms, they work in an entirely different way," said architect Des McMahon, an academy member who designed the acclaimed Hugh Lane extension.

"It was a most bizarre building in which spaces bled into each other," said project architect Finghín Curraoin. "What you see here is surgery: taking out pieces of structure such as the old staircase and stitching elements together to make it all work better."

The RHA, whose 2009 exhibition opens next Monday, must still raise a further €2 million to pay for the project. "It's not the greatest of times to be looking for money, but we believe that we've already accomplished a great deal," Mr Murphy said.