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Too big (and weird opes).

By Michael Smith.

In 2013 the ESB announced its  intention to demolish its Dublin headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street. The edifice had been designed in 1962 by then-fresh-faced young (subsequently Ansbacher-account-holding) architect-tyros Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney. The ebullient young pair won the competition to replace the street, which dates from 1792, after a report by eminent English architectural historian Sir John Summerson, who seems to have been an unworldly purist, denounced the historic buildings of Dublin’s Georgian (three-fifths of a) mile and their magnificent interiors as “by Georgian standards rubbish…a sloppy, uneven sequence…one damned building after another”.

There was much opposition to the demolition including, creditably from the City Council and its officials, but Stephenson said: “…Georgian buildings are not intended to last more than a lifetime”, and the Minister for the ESB, Erskine Childers, was unmoved. The President of MIT reportedly wept in the street as the ball and chain bore down.

As to the replacement, the ESB chairman said it proved that “…architects of the eighteenth century did not have a monopoly on talent, imagination and good taste”. Professor Christine Casey in her book, ‘Dublin’, is surely stretching it when she says that it is “a clever contextual design”. She particularly likes the “ground floor recessed, modestly and elegantly expressed as as alternating panels of brick and glass” and considers that “the counterpoint between the ground and upper floors is particularly effective”. In the end, however, she damns the buildings because “though the design endures, the coloured concrete is shabby”.

In any event, the ESB wants to replace this monster with a €150m development doubling the capacity of the existing offices. Architectural critic Shane O’Toole has actually lodged an appeal suggesting the buildings should be retained.

The current proposed scheme, designed by Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike, did not at first comply with the Dublin City Development Plan which required the Georgian facades of the original 16 buildings to be reinstated. So city councillors voted last March to change the development plan, replacing the requirement to replace facades with one to “reinstate the Georgian rhythm” by dividing the building into five blocks or “fingers” to suggest the width of historic house plots.

The proposal was for a scheme that would have been seven storeys high, far taller than the surrounding Georgian houses, but planning conditions reduced the height of two blocks by one floor, and floors linking some blocks were removed. That permission has now been appealed to An Bord Pleanála which will no doubt host an oral hearing on the matter in the summer.

Interestingly, subversive appeals have been lodged by Ruadhán MacEoin and Peter Sweetman, the twenty-first century inverse of Stephenson and Gibney, though not by the Irish Georgian Society, which led the 1960s opposition.

In its appeal An Taisce emphasised the significance of the site, noting that it forms part of a number of important settings – including for the modernist icon former Bank of Ireland building on Lower Baggot Street, for the Pepper Canister Church terminating Upper Mount Street and for the renowned ‘Georgian Mile’ with its long urban vista towards the Dublin mountains. Furthermore, the site has significant visibility from the adjacent Merrion Square, a prime Georgian city square. The site itself contains numerous protected structures and most of the surrounding streets are lined with protected structures.

The primary areas of the site have the Z8 conservation-oriented land-use zoning which is to “protect the existing architectural and civic design character, to allow only for limited expansion consistent with the conservation objective” while the inner part of the site has Z6 enterprise and employment creation zoning.

The An Taisce appeal, which is signed by Kevin Duff, considers that the proposed development is seriously at odds with the variation to the City Development Plan, which now governs the site, and which he quotes at length: “The proposed façade to Fitzwilliam Street, with its extensive use of unproportioned, full-height window opes up to the top floor, and double-height window and door opes at ground floor along the mid section of the façade, does not constitute ‘an exceptional urban design and architectural response’ and does not maintain the ‘character and composition of the Georgian streetscape in terms of the solid to void ratio, the rhythm of windows and doors [and] the proportion and scale of the ground floor storey to the upper storeys’ as required by the Variation  and having regard to the consistent, classical design of the area. It is essential that the rhythm of opes and proportions to the street as seen here – which is a particular Dublin characteristic deriving from buildings built in groups – is maintained in any redevelopment of the ESB section of the street. The current proposal fails to achieve this”.

An Taisce and other parties have expressed serious concern about the major scale and bulk of the proposed development to the rear of the Georgian streetscape. It states that the proposal steps up excessively to the rear, overdeveloping the highly sensitive Z8-fronted Georgian site and overwhelming the setting of the surrounding four-storey Georgian Protected Structures which dictate the scale and design of the area, and the Conservation Area.

It declares that the development as proposed would unbalance the very specific scale of Georgian Dublin, appearing to ‘pile up’ in the south-eastern corner of Merrion Square and in other views, and as such would be contrary to the “limited expansion” allowed for under the Z8 conservation zoning of the site. It is concerned about the overwhelmingly commercial nature of the proposed scheme and the applicant’s failure to meaningfully consider the Fitzwilliam Street frontage for residential use (or live/work use) in the face of the Dublin City Council document ‘The Future of the South Georgian Core’ (2012).

An Taisce claims that, following introduction of a levy exemption for residential conversion of Protected Structures, as recommended in the 2012 document, a significant increase has been seen in change of use applications (in part or whole) from office/non-residential use to residential use in the area.

Examples of such residential change-of-use permissions include 22-23 Fitzwilliam Square, 3 Harcourt Terrace, 61 Baggot Street Lower, 23 Earlsfort Terrace, 9 Ely Place, 17 Fitzwilliam Square, 48-49 Lower Leeson Street, 38 Fitzwilliam Place,18 Ely Place and 2 Fitzwilliam Street Upper.

In this context it would prefer a residential scheme on the Fitzwilliam Street frontage (comparable to Edinburgh where apartments in premium Georgian streets are highly sought after), with appropriate separation from commercial elements, would be in line with the current stated vision for the area. Such mixed-use development has been a central plank of the regeneration of the inner city over the past 25 years.

It is noted in the 2012 document that residential regeneration of Georgian Dublin has major benefits for local businesses and investment in the wider historic fabric of the area. •