Re: Re: gaiety centre

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Well the newly revamped Gaiety Centre (is it even called that anymore?) has just opened, with Warehouse, Zara and H&M occupying the retail units at ground and first floor levels. It is clear that this structure marks a new departure in the history of building typologies in Dublin – namely the first large scale example of a building designed to be refaced and/or entirely disassembled as fashion dictates. Perhaps not consciously drafted as such, but certainly built with that longer term intention behind it all. It is difficult to imagine this building standing in its current form in 20 years time, never mind 200 years time. The trendy facade can be replaced at will and the substructure entirely dismantled like a giant jigsaw puzzle when required. Indeed, even the prospect of the flimsy highly polished shopfront trims surviving to the next recession is distinctly unlikely.

Nonetheless, this building (whose form cannot yet be properly assessed until expansive letting hoardings come down) does introduce a new concept to the capital – the idea of a shopfront on an intimate pedestrian scale. The shopfront heights are remarkably diminutive, and surprisingly effective in humbly bending a knee to the passerby. In this regard they are both sophisticated and respectful of a street that heretofore has not been a major retail destination, and thus offer to the potential for a happy coexistence of a number of uses on this street by not brashly dominating. They look especially well at night when an intimate and familiar connection with the public realm is always desirable.

Regarding the design of the building itself, it speaks volumes of the vacuousness of some trends in contemporary architecture, namely style before function, that a structure which has been entirely faced in glass is almost completely blacked out at first floor level to accommodate retail fitouts. It’s nothing short of preposterous. And this is starkly evident once you enter the building; one expects light-filled spacious floorplates yet everything is boxed in, and in most cases devoid of a connection with the outside world. Of course this is what retailers want, but it’s not what should be accepted by planners. The blanked out first floor with giant lettering referencing the store inside as a desperate exercise in damage limitation is as ridiculous as it is embarrassing.

While no fault of the building’s architects, the fitouts of the stores for what is a purpose-designed retail and commercial building are nothing short of dismal. I genuinely wonder where we have gone wrong since the early 20th century, and indeed since as recently as the 1960s, that retailing has on the one hand never had so much resources and effort poured into it, yet so spectacularly fails to articulate itself through either well chosen dramatic interiors of converted buildings, or in purpose designed architectural spaces.

Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect more of a speculative build, but I find it shameful that such a high profile structure in a prime infill site in the city can fail so miserably to confidently articulate itself in its interior design and its connection with the wider form of the building.

As any Zara whore can tell you, the company promotes some of the very best in retail design right across Europe. In many continental cities they occupy prestige premises in heritage buildings or host themselves in crisp and contemporary premises that conform to their wider image. I find it very difficult to believe that the outstanding opportunity to establish a purpose-designed flagship store just off a capital’s leading retail thoroughfare would be treated to such a dank, boxy, cramped, insular, poorly navigable fitout in Berlin or Barcelona or Prague, which in Dublin – like the one-off house in the countryside – is expressed through a paper thin veneer of fashionable shades of paint, luxurious material finishes and the random focal trinklet to guide attention resolutely away from the dismal lack of wider architectural expression. There isn’t even so much as a balcony, light well, mezzanine level, dramatic escalator shaft or even central displays to lend imagination to this supposed purpose-designed commercial building.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the finishes and wider decorative schemes employed to all the stores in this development are elegant and effective in their own right – especially Zara naturally – but the architect’s touch has been firmly kept outside the front door. Not so much as an opportunity lost, as a poor indictment of what we deem as being of importance when investing in our city.

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