Frank McDonald: Central Bank building should become a new library for Dublin

Plan to move Central Libary to former Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square misguided

Imagine the seven floors – all suspended from the roof, incidentally – as reading rooms, with panoramic views from the continuous runs of full-height windows, especially breathtaking from the upper levels. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh.

Imagine the seven floors – all suspended from the roof, incidentally – as reading rooms, with panoramic views from the continuous runs of full-height windows, especially breathtaking from the upper levels. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh.

 

There isn’t a better location in Dublin for the new Central Library than the soon to be former Central Bank on Dame Street, just metres from College Green. Not only would this place it right at the heart of the city, but it would also give Sam Stephenson’s tour de force a long-term public use.

Imagine the seven floors – all suspended from the roof, incidentally – as reading rooms, with panoramic views from the continuous runs of full-height windows, especially breathtaking from the upper levels. There would also be plenty of room to store books in the two-storey basement, used for car parking.

The bank is moving to new headquarters on North Wall Quay and will be selling its current premises by tender next month. Agent Lisney has valued the iconic tower at €65 million and a further €15 million for associated buildings, including the former Telecom Éireann block on Anglesea Street.

Given that the Central Bank’s move was flagged by former governor Patrick Honohan nearly four years ago, it is very regrettable that Dublin City Council never considered the possibility of acquiring the block for its Central Library, plumping instead for former Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square.

The idea was that it would become one of the anchors for a new “cultural quarter” in the area, along with the Hugh Lane gallery and the Dublin Writers Museum. But the city already has a designated “cultural quarter” in Temple Bar, albeit compromised by far too many noisy pubs and nightclubs.

In its midst stands the Central Bank, which really couldn’t be more central, whereas the northwest corner of Parnell Square is on the outer edge of the city centre. It is also “the most emphatic 20th century architectural presence on Dublin’s skyline,” according to architectural historian Christine Casey.

It is loved as well as loathed. In a 1999 Irish Times reader survey, it was the only building that appeared on people’s “best” and “worst” lists. Fans almost invariably referred to its unique form of construction, while detractors decried its domineering impact on Dame Street and the Liffey quays.

Dating from 1979, it required the demolition of a fine assembly of 18th and 19th century architecture, including the evocative courtyard of the Commercial Buildings, to make way for the tower and its plaza. Notoriously, the tower also turned out to be 29 ft (8.8m) higher than it should have been.

Sam Stephenson’s characteristic response to this discovery was to redefine a planning permission as “a licence to develop an architectural concept” – a very novel view. He declared that “apologetic self-effacement should be left to public lavatories, VD clinics and the other necessary minutiae of society”.

Centre stage

The outcome was that the bank’s roof trusses were clad in bronze and left exposed – a solution that clearly expressed its muscular, top-down structure. Sadly, the roof was enclosed in the early 1990s and the plaza in front later compromised by the addition of neo-Baroque railings around the main entrance.

In 2012, young architects called Res Publica held a public brainstorming session on the future of the Central Bank after it moved out of Dame Street, and the most popular idea to emerge was that it should become Dublin’s new Central Library; other ideas, more tongue-in-cheek, included a missile silo.

Hidden away in the Ilac shopping centre since 1986, the library would be thrust out centre-stage rather than built behind the Georgian terrace once occupied by Coláiste Mhuire, where it would have no visible presence. Yet Dublin City Council apparently remains committed to this ill-advised plan.

When it was announced in April 2013, US property investors Kennedy Wilson subscribed €2.5 million in “seed money” for the project and, since then, an architectural feasibility study has been carried out by Grafton Architects. But there is still no sign of where the €60 million capital cost will come from.

The library service says the new facility would attract 3,000 visitors a day. “It will inspire and excite, welcome and include with collections, connections, places, services and programmes for learners, readers, researchers, for children and families, for all citizens. It will be a place to learn, create and participate.”

All the more reason then to consider what would be the best possible place to locate it.

The Ambassador on the top of O’Connell Street was ruled out because it couldn’t take the load while the Bank of Ireland on College Green, with its top-lit banking hall, wasn’t available as we had no control over it.

Cultural boost

Dublin is now in danger of proceeding with a poor project on Parnell Square, rather than a great one in Dame Street. It would be a travesty for the city and for Temple Bar if the Central Bank was turned into a hotel with “additional retail uses” at street level – in other words, yet another super-pub.

Certainly, consideration should be given to bringing the building down to ground level, not least to reduce the problematic wind-tunnel effect of its existing undercroft. This could be done by infilling it by following the line of glazing to create glass-fronted exhibition areas opening onto the plaza.

The cluster of cultural institutions in Temple Bar needs to be reinforced, as several face an uncertain future due to funding cutbacks and longer term concerns about the cost of maintaining their buildings.

Giving the soon-to-be-former Central Bank a major public cultural use would be a boon.

As for the cost of a new Central Library, including acquisition of the bank’s tower, there’s plenty of money for some things that aren’t even needed – notably the €550 million we are spending on a grossly over-designed motorway between Gort and Tuam, in Co Galway, that will never reach its capacity.

The price-tag for a stunning new Central Library for Dublin is also a relative pittance in the context of the €13 billion that the European Commission says Apple owes Ireland in tax.

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