Yes, in principle this is a welcome planning application, one that seeks to retain an important, prominent early building and regenerate a strategic site at the confluence of two major streets. Not to mention an embarrassing blight on the city for the past two decades.
However, there are a number of concerns. It should of course be noted that the original proposal put forward barely two years ago was to bulldoze the entire site back to Henry Place, including the Protected Structure of what is likely to be O’Connell Street’s oldest building, and all historic structures comprising this critically sensitive corner in the O’Connell Street ACA. In this context, the applicant’s effusive, buttery words referencing the "sensitive architectural heritage" and the "vital single entity Georgian building" they were forced to keep are just a little hard to swallow – a "vital" building that would now be a pile of rubble were it not for the intervention of informed, and one suspects begrudgingly supported, conservation professionals. Likewise, the design rationale by McCauley Daye O’Connell Architects, with a raft of pictures lazily pillaged from Archiseek, including my own without even a reference, puts forward a number of development options which are clearly predisposed to, at the very least, a partially cleared site.
There are welcome parts to this application. The superb conservation report, expertly and comprehensively compiled by Molloy & Associates Conservation Architects (with some Archiseek reference), proposes the ideal-case restoration of the c. 1750 corner building to its c. 1849 altered state, with exposed brickwork. The c. 1849 stucco surrounds are to be replicated where they have been replaced, while late Georgian sashes are to be reinstated throughout based on those surviving on Henry Street from the 1840s. The render is going to be tricky to remove, but is not beyond the bounds of possibility (we don’t know from the report if it is red or yellow brick). The type of pointing employed will be important – the facade was probably wigged rather than tuck pointed. If the brick is too badly damaged, the whole facade can be rendered in a warm, naturally toned lime render. An elegant, contemporary stone shopfront is also proposed that makes strong reference to the original 1740s centrally-positioned entrance on Sackville Mall. I feel a sultry, smokily painted timber front would work better, but hey. The interior is to be largely conserved, though one side of an early angled chimneystack will regrettably be lost for a major circulation staircase.
The new building on Henry Street is altogether another matter, which involves the demolition of two historic buildings. There is, nonetheless, scope for intervention here. Given the drastic alterations that have taken place to the interior of the central building proposed for removal, which probably dates to the 18th century, and its minimal streetscape value, to the extent that it has become unreadable in nearly every facet of its being, in addition to its relative un-viability as a standalone retail premises, there is justification I believe for its replacement with a high quality contemporary building that links into the O’Connell Street building as is proposed. This in turn makes the O’Connell Street premises more appropriate to catering for a modern function.
However, the demolition of the late Victorian building on the corner with Henry Place is as unacceptable as it is unimaginative. The architectural assessment has proved that, with some modification of floorplates, this can be successfully integrated into the overall ensemble. The reasoning given for not pursuing this option is that facadisim is not considered an appropriate conservation approach. While there is little doubting this, equally it does not mean that we must lose good street architecture just because interiors are unremarkable. Indeed, this corner building’s exterior is much better than its interior. How is total extraction of architectural heritage a better conservation approach than partial retention? This scheme calls for imagination, not an ego.
Nonetheless, the interior of the proposed new building does look impressive, dynamic and well designed. Finally, a purpose-designed retail building in Dublin that does justice to its function. Either way though, from the fuzzy renderings online the facade appears unduly fussy for this modest infill location, and utterly at odds in its decadent use of stone cladding. As is typical with many architects, the design cue is being selectively taken from wherever suits – in this instance O’Connell Street where "stone, metal and glass predominates". Yah – this is a bit of infill lads. On Henry Street. Brick, minimal stone dressings, timber. There’s your answer. Stop trying to make a silk purse. Subtlety, reticence and sophistication are themes that should define this project. Chipping in an elegant tuppence-worth like everyone else on the street.
As an aside, we just have to quote leading consultants Colliers International in their Retail Assessment of Henry Street. They cite amongst Weaknesses in their SWAT analysis of Henry Street:
“Many elderly, tired and inefficient buildings”
“Current lack of shopping experience” (what?)
“Too many small shops which attract lower order comparison uses”
In addition to this odd array of observations – with the exception of the occasional shop unit size, the very elements that make Henry Street a desirable place to be – they go on to state that the planning system needs to be “more flexible” to allow for “more efficient buildings” on Henry Street, which faces stiff competition from the future Northern Quarter and Dublin Central schemes hoovering up the best tenants. One can only deduce from this that a planning policy is being proposed that encourages the demolition of historic building stock, to counter pressures from new development whose very purpose is to accommodate larger floorplates within the city core while protecting more sensitive areas! You couldn’t make this stuff up. Of course there is a need for a gradual upping of unit size in specific locations, but this can be done sensitively and imaginatively, retaining the grain and character of the city core that makes it an attractive and unique shopping and leisure destination.
Of course ‘professional’ opinion across the board in this city is that all of Henry Street, including the rear of the GPO, be whacked, preferably extending to most of Grafton Street while you’re at it. In fact, the Dublin Chamber would level half the city if they got the chance. 'Ah sure tis good for d’towin and tis good for de buildin’. There is enormous potential to significantly adapt the handsome Edwardian stock of Henry Street if the will was there. Unfortunately, Dunnes were let away with precisely the same policy now being approached with the Henry Place building.