18 Nov 2008

In the world of architecture, the Celtic Tiger arrived gradually. But on the other hand, you might equally say that it arrived with a bang.

The ‘gradual’ part was the slow improvement from those awful, awful days in the 1980s when if an architect friend won a commission to redesign a poster for Fossetts Circus you begrudged them their good fortune.

The ‘bang’ part was the night in 1996 when Bucholz McEvoy’s winning entry for the design of new the Fingal County Hall went on show at the offices of the RIAI on Merrion Square.

Irish born Karen McEvoy and her American partner Merritt Bucholz had just arrived in Dublin from the US when word filtered through that they’d won the plummest international design competition we’d seen in quite some time. Their proposal was far from the most accomplished work of architecture ever designed. But it wasn’t the beautiful (or otherwise) arrangement of spaces in BMcE’s scheme which captured our imagination. What made the winning design so significant was the enervating new message which the presentation drawings conveyed: they encapsulated a confident determination to revolutionise the way we in Ireland build our buildings. For the first time an Irish architectural practise stood up and announced to the world that they fearlessly intended to create a state-of-the-art energy efficient building. More than that, when Merritt Bucholz spoke before the assembled, his rhetoric was free of the jaded and provincial dogma which had marked the generation of architects who’d previously ruled the roost. With Fingal, not only did our ideas of how to build change overnight, so too did our perception of ourselves as a profession. We were no longer a French cigarette smoking, floppy haired bunch of eminences grises (usually the artier brothers of surgeons and barristers) threatening at any moment to barricade ourselves into some condemned Georgian building: suddenly we were the exciting new face of IT. Architecture was the profession of the New Millennium.

In the period of glowing optimism which followed in the wake of the Fingal County Hall competition, everything seemed possible. A new generation of highly skilled designers raced around the country bringing innovative building techniques and exotic materials to even the very smallest of projects. The building profession had been given a glimpse of the Irish future and, even if that glimpse turned out to be only half accurate, something really, really spectacular was about to happen.

With each passing month of the early years of the new decade, artfully taken photos of the latest batch of recently finished buildings jostled to seduce us in the pages of the property supplements. Many of these new award winning edifices were, like Fingal, County Council HQs – large, naturally ventilated, open plan office buildings wrapped up in hi-tech envelopes of glass, stainless steel and weathered-to-grey timber panels.

And then, at some point along the journey, the moment arrived when suddenly we’d seen one naturally ventilated council office too many. Questions began to be asked. If these energy efficient County Halls (and their near relations: the Corporate Headquarters and the Slick But Speculative Office Building) were so sustainable, how come they were almost always to be found in the middle of massive car parks? And, in the case of County Council headquarters, was the almost inevitable edge-of-town site the ideal location for a structure which, after all, was supposed to represent the seat of local democracy? And was it right that buildings with such an important civic function should end up looking so much more like the corporate headquarters of a Swiss insurance company? 

Questions weren’t just being asked about our larger buildings either. In that other building type so often seen in the colour supplements – the extension to the period house – the very first time an architect proposed to attach a glass box to the back of an overly restored D4 Victorian, it was interesting. By they time we’d seen the same project repeated for the eleventh time, the only question the reader was left to speculate on was: on the day the photographer visited, what type of fruit did the architect leave in the bowl placed (as if) casually on the counter top to add character to an otherwise characterless kitchen: apples? Or lemons?

Irish architecture had lost touch with the pioneering spirit of 1996.

Meanwhile, Bucholz McEvoy – the practise whose original design for Fingal had started the revolution – went from strength to strength. By far their largest commission was the design for Bernard McNamara’s mixed use venture at Elm Park, by some accounts the biggest commercial development ever attempted in this country: a million square feet of offices, apartments, hospitals, hotels, creches and sheltered accommodation. In the hope of discovering that one project which would put Irish architecture back on track, I paid a visit to Elm Park about a year ago just as it was nearing completion. In it, I found the most astonishing development – a series of very long, geometric, seven storey tall structures sitting like docked cruise liners in a landscaped park surrounded by two-up-two-down housing estates. At the time I felt compelled to write an article about it in which I declared myself ‘challenged’ by the architect’s ‘daring rejection of conventional urban forms’ and their ‘bold re-imagining of Corbusier’s long since ridiculed ideas for the ‘modern’ city’.

A year later, with the apartments largely unsold, the office spaces mostly vacant and the hotel guestless, a second visit to the site reveals another, possibly more accurate, reading of the Elm Park project: perhaps, at the end of the day, it may not amount to much more than be an obscene amount of bank borrowed money wrapped up in a seductive, energy efficient façade: a metaphor for an era which promised us a whole new world and then, somehow, forget it had made that promise.

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