One House at a Time - Making contemporary Architecture in Georgian Dublin The practice is working in No. 11 Parnell Square for a dynamic group of agencies (the Irish Heritage Trust, the Landmark Trust and Poetry Ireland) who have come together for the purpose of restoring and using the house in a new way - transforming it from a set of static offices into a public space for discussion, meeting, music, poetry and the spoken word. We were asked to work with them to conserve the existing fabric and make a series of strategic contemporary interventions which would allow it to function in line with their ambition.

Being interested in the city, being asked to make architecture in it, opens up a series of thoughts about the how and why of building, where the first move comes from in a very specific context like No. 11. How to navigate between contemporary life and the delirious exigencies of place and time. The city being described abstractly - central Dublin, the city between the canals - remains, in fact, despite its depletion, an 18th century Georgian city, built quickly and consistently over a few generations. From my perspective, it should be seen, not as a series of individual buildings and vistas but the most singular historic artefact on the island, certainly its most complex monument - and an inexhaustible resource of plans, corners, plots, rooms, histories, ways of building, flexibility, reservoirs of material character, potential ways of living, authenticity, even beauty. Its scale and its unexpected brilliance, its world relevance, its cultural messages, have always been too much for the Irish State to manage on a small island.

Loving history as a subject, considering it daily, I had always thought about practice which would include this city and its Georgian buildings in a situation where they would be regarded less as a monumental problem but re-imagined in this way as the best, most exciting available contemporary resource. A reservoir of history and culture, but also a geography of space and materials to work on - rooms, doors, windows, yards, roof spaces, the materiality of old brick and plaster walls, angles, corner fireplaces, essentially typological things which are nearly the same, but not quite - arranged in streets, squares and quarters of hazy order, offering a particularity of place in a homogenized world. This is less a regard for old things and a call for sustainable conservation than an idea about a contemporary life in a specific and authentic geography that includes form and memory. It is about making robust and flexible living spaces and a material context for contemporary architecture - either new buildings or a network of new/old interventive designs, using their material quality and odd inherited plans in new ways. 

This city of approximate brilliance is now well outside European norms in the way it is used. In 2019, buildings still rot, remain empty at upper floors, suffer poor conversions and restorations. The city suffers daily assaults on its authenticity. New generations interested in living in the city are barred by excessive and financially unsupportable regulation. Dublin goes without an articulate identity, or a consensus about what to do with it. It’s a huge failure of imagination. In the absence of a framework, you invent one - trying to think of ways that release potential, not least as a protest against inadequate planning, poor conservation, fire regulation, general sloth and the endless appeal to the new. One approach would be to state the idea of the Georgian city as Dublin’s most potent resource and to plan accordingly. Firstly, to make a proper framework for everything within the canals, for everything to be surveyed and given some level of protection - a nuanced listing with a hierarchy of value; important buildings and spaces would be maintained with limited changes, everything else would be protected with the corollary that there was open-ness to intelligent and considered interventive ideas - with an equivalent adjustment of regulation to allow their use. Brilliant new architecture would be built between and behind. The worn-out stand-off between conservationists and others withers; everybody moves together. By degrees, engaged approaches would help to open the city to be lived in and gradually release a specific place-based contemporary architecture. Clearly, the detail of this is more complex, but what’s missing is an idea.

Every project becomes a demonstration project. No. 11 Parnell Square is an important house, so the proposals are relatively modest. Our practice has worked on other buildings where the intervention has been more significant because the houses were simpler, for instance in the Dental Hospital, where five houses are interlinked with a library perched on the roof, or the IAF on Bachelors Walk, where the shell of a house contains a tiny theatre and a new staircase. Located on the East side of Parnell Square, No. 11 is quite different, a magnificent five bay, five story mansion built as one of a pair around 1755 and occupied in the 18th century by the Butler Earls of Ormonde. The plan has three reception rooms around a double-height staircase hall with a bow on the rere elevation and a mighty stone servant stairs to one side. The upper floors contain strange and interesting oval rooms. The garden is bare to the lane; the site of a palatial u-shaped mews has left only the mark of gables on surrounding walls. No. 11 is already a palimpsest; it was further adapted in 1901 as the Headquarters of Dublin County Council; a connection was made through one ground floor room to the garden and the rooms re-fashioned into offices and Council Chambers. The house is full of beauty and unexpected detail. The project should substantially be about bringing this out, not changing it, or making clever tinny interventions. 

The house has to be re-imagined within itself and in the context of the Square, now designated as the potential location for a new Cultural Quarter. How do the two marry? The idea of a series of discrete cultural activities in individual houses, their doors open to the street, people entering and leaving, fits comfortably within the typology of the city - this is the way the serial plot nature of Dublin could be used. The specific character of Parnell Square supports the idea. Many of the houses already have a public or semi-public use with strongly built-over gardens and yards. It’s a far cry from the private and bucolic character of, say, Fitzwilliam Square, and the idea of opening the doors and using the houses and backlots for cultural functions has some traction. But perhaps it’s the Square itself that has the greatest potential. It is in the right place to deliver the whole Georgian Northside into the wider city and it has a kind of awkward topographical and architectural brilliance – it was an evolutionary idea, only becoming a Square over time, and even then only a three-sided one. The sides are not parallel; it falls in all directions, angled like a huge tray down to the level of the Rotunda below, the houses appear and disappear in view. In the 18th century, the centre was a spectacular terraced public Pleasure Garden, now trammeled by hospital buildings, the top terrace occupied by the wooden joys of the Garden of Remembrance, its edges blurred by railing set-backs and gateways. One could imagine this garden like a dramatic amphitheatre again used for public amenity and entertainment. Clearly, the full realization of a Cultural Quarter depends on a resolution of its central garden space - without it being opened up, made public, the future of the Rotunda resolved, and hospital buildings removed, the scheme will remain a half-solution. 

The work on No. 11 fits into the Cultural Quarter concept. The aim of opening the front door, bringing people in - from public park to public space - is at the core of what its new occupants wish to do. The discussions turned about making No. 11 a model project. The brief generated a sectional strategy - an independent restaurant in the basement, with the two upper bedroom floors retained as offices - and the ground and first floors, as well as the garden turned over to public use. In functional terms, this huge section of space was to be flexible, open to many uses, but with a core focus around the spoken word – in meetings, music recitals and poetry carried out in different ways in different rooms. A new Seamus Heaney research library containing the poets own working library is located in one of the reception rooms at first floor level.

While most of the work is, in fact, straightforward conservation, and simple things like remaking the heavy screen at the front door to form a more open lobby, the brief implied forging a variety of spaces exploring different possibilities for music and the spoken word around the magnetic pole of Heaney’s mute but redolent library. The double-height staircase hall and the three reception rooms at ground and first floor were harnessed for use, overlaid by a series of interventions, circles, ovals and curves which derive in part from the muted Baroque of the existing plan, especially the oval bedrooms on the upper floors. Some things belong more to the architecture of the house, others to sound and the spoken word. A new universal access lift is contained within a brick bow on the rere elevation and opens directly into rooms - it is not ‘separated’ from the older fabric but woven into it; the rere elevation develops, becomes sinuous. A new building takes up the exact footprint of the former mews, with a central room on the site of its court. Externally, it does not seek to compete with No. 11, but contributes to the new contemporary vernacular of the city, with simple working roofs and a perforate brick façade responding in new ways to the Georgian house across the open garden.

Internally, the new buildings contain a curved room for speech, poetry and music like no other in the city. A raw brick space reflecting a fascination with the geometry and whispering grandeur of Roman ruins and rooms. This space - a circle within a square surrounded by deep embrasures modulating light and surfaces that can adjust from reflective to absorbent, looks back towards the house and the Seamus Heaney library - a deeply original and untapped resource in coming to understand the poet’s mind - a square in circle facing a circle in square. The library is designed as a series of concentric fields, walls lined in bookcases surrounding a circular timber structure containing further volumes. This structure has a hidden heart of woven wires, a small square room with a single desk under an open roof light, the rationality of creative writing at the centre of Nature.

Forging routes between these spaces - the new ones and the existing like the Council Chamber with its heavy tables and paneling - creates another rhythm. The first-floor spaces are more static, containing fixed objects. Those below are open for interpretation. All are considered in terms of different qualities they might offer for poetry and the spoken word. Thinking of ways to circulate through and around them quickly raises the ghost of place. Circulation has a history; the house was built around a formal family life and around recitals and receptions that sustained walking between rooms to see, meet and hear. The Square also houses two of the city’s most quietly magnetic structures – the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, which preserves a sequence of rentable 18th century card and dance rooms, and Charlemont House on Palace Row, built by Sir William Chambers for the Earl of Charlemont in 1763 - and now the Hugh Lane Gallery. This is only a fragment of a larger scheme which included a walled garden to the rere of the house with a library and other rooms along a top-lit corridor to display Charlemont’s treasures. Both are allusive in the context of the Cultural Quarter, and the work in No. 11.

This project is about dualities and layers - using old things in new ways, reading new things through a lens of existing geographies. Without extending analogies, it seeks to construct a world in space much as poetry constructs a sequence of words and silences, working to find a reductive and essential nature that can express clarity and emotional depth without overt representation.

—Niall McCullough

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