In 1965, despite significant protests, sixteen Georgian buildings were demolished in central Dublin to make way for the new Electricity Supply Board (ESB) Headquarters. The houses were part of the world’s longest Georgian streetscape, commonly known as Dublin’s Georgian Mile. Today, in place of the Georgian buildings, now stands an imposing brutalist office block by Irish architects Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney. The ESB have now decided to replace the building, which has become inefficient and excessively expensive to run.
There was for some time following the independence of the state, a feeling that Georgian infrastructure in the city represented the recently dissipated colonial era and therefore it commanded a certain level of contempt. It’s possible that this contempt influenced the decision to demolish the buildings. Many of the buildings had also fallen into a dire state of dereliction and demolition was seen as the only viable solution.
In 2010, ESB launched a competition to find a new design for their Headquarters. There were forty-four submissions from architecture firms worldwide and in October 2013 the winner was revealed as the proposal of a faux Georgian style design from Irish architects Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike (OMP) Architects.
It’s probable that the decision on the winning design was influenced by the policy of the Dublin City Council “to promote the reinstatement of the Georgian façade of the sixteen Georgian houses,” as outlined in the council's development plan. However, despite its imitation façade, the winning design still does not completely comply with the current development plan objective. It is now being discussed as to whether to remove this policy from the development plan and replace it with the objective to “promote an exceptional urban design and architectural response in relation to any proposed redevelopment of the ESB Headquarters."
The Georgian-influenced design in the Grafton/OMP proposal was in sharp contrast with another of the three shortlisted designs by Henry J Lyons and Gilroy McMahon, which was so contemporary it’s questionable whether there was any belief that the design could meet planning criteria.
Considering that taste is so subjective, there are always going to be mixed opinions about any proposals for new designs, especially those in as prominent a location as the ESB Headquarters building. Objections to the winning proposal are mainly over the fact that the design appears to be attempting to blend into the surrounding architecture by mimicking it, thus passing up the opportunity for innovative design on the site. Many argue that the best way to compliment the Georgian buildings would be to build something in line with twenty-first century thinking to showcase modern architecture alongside historical design.
The current plans to absorb the headquarters back into the surrounding infrastructure seem wasteful of such a prime location that could be used to showcase innovative architectural talent. It seems likely that the winning proposal was designed with the development plan's policy in mind.
With architecture as stunning as that seen around Georgian Dublin, there should be every attempt to ensure preservation, however, one must wonder if building replicas prevent interesting and contemporary designs the opportunity to shine?
Credits: Images by Rebecca Mullen. Data linked to sources.