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Not every streetscape is improved by a starkly modern addition

I am always a little hesitant about putting my toe into the shark-infested waters of architectural taste and style. All the more so when the precise subject on which I am writing is largely moot because the project is already underway. But here goes!

The ESB is currently building a new HQ on the site of its old office at Fitzwilliam Street. In the 1960s, the ESB had occupied a long terrace of Georgian buildings which formed part of the longest Georgian streetscapes in Dublin. Instead of vacating those buildings and constructing its HQ somewhere else, the ESB secured permission to knock down its Georgian houses and to replace them with a modern office block which, although it claimed to pay some lip-service to the proportions of its neighbouring buildings, was generally viewed as a disastrous error and a blot on the face of Georgian Dublin.

The architect, the late Sam Stephenson, justified the 1960s building on the basis that Georgian buildings had outlived their usefulness and that they were, in any event, designed to last only a lifetime. He was lucky that the then Minister for Local Government, Kevin Boland, who at that time discharged the role now played by An Bord Pleanála,  viewed Georgian Dublin as an unwanted relic of our colonial past and had more to do with “belted earls” than with the forward looking republic that he wished to build in a decade that included the 50th anniversary of 1916.

Ironically, the 1960s building lasted far less than a lifetime. It was demolished last year as part of a new 45,000 sq metre head office development by the ESB on the site between Fitzwilliam Street and James’s Place. The new development is designed by Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike Architects.

The Fitzwilliam St façade of the new ESB development is, arguably, much more or somewhat more in keeping with the Georgian streetscape than that designed by Sam Stephenson. But it is by no means a replica of that which was destroyed in the 1960s. It is taller and has modern proportions while incorporating some considerable Georgian references and motifs. Artist’s impressions suggest that it will be much more sympathetic to its Georgian context and will be a substantial improvement as far as the streetscape is concerned.

The matter of its design is, as I said, somewhat moot as the development is already well under way.

But the issues raised by the recent history of Fitzwilliam Street are not moot at all. There are echoes of the famous Hume Street saga to all of this.

Without being an old fogey in the Prince Charles mode, I do wonder whether I am completely on my own in querying whether the current architectural “establishment” has not bullied us into a phobia against what they term “pastiche” or façade-ism. There seems to be an absolute fixation with avoiding the label “pastiche”.

Why should that be? Why should we genuflect to the gods of functionalism and modernity in respect of all architectural matters? Why should a new extension to an old house or building trumpet its modernity or sharply contrast with the existing structure? Why is anything else considered a departure from “good design”? Why is it somehow “wrong” to replicate old design and old forms or to imitate them?

What exactly was “wrong” with Edwardian houses echoing Tudor or Elizabethan architecture? Why do we not value the genius and the instincts of Sir Edwin Lutyens to imitate forms of the architectural past?

On the corner of Fitzwilliam Square and Lower Pembroke Street there is, for instance, a substantial pastiche Georgian office building dating back to the 1960s. It isn’t all that bad and is probably more pleasing to the eye than an earlier infill office building on the opposite side of the street. While I entirely agree that we should seek to conserve rather than destroy Georgian and Victorian Dublin, there will be cases where in-fill sites need to be developed.

I simply don’t swallow the architectural “thought police” line that imitation or, to use their label, “pastiche” is always wrong. Pastiche can be cheap and tacky, but replication of traditional forms can be very well done and can be very beautiful. This is not an area, I argue, in which there is objective right or wrong.

I have, however, the strong impression that modern planners belong to an orthodox priesthood that regards anything other than harsh modernism as morally suspect.

Façade-ism is not always suspect. Most of us love the Bank of Ireland building or Old Parliament House on College Green.  But an aerial photograph of that building demonstrates that it is, in truth, quite a deceptive façade for the most part – and always was. Much of Dublin Castle was rebuilt but the modern 1970s office building backing onto South Great Georges Street is arguably out of place and less pleasing in its location that the other reconstructed components in the Dublin Castle complex.

None of this is to argue against high quality modern architectural design - far from it. I simply believe that there is no right or wrong where there is genuine quality in architecture.

Exposing your structural slabs,  joists and girders is only one way of doing things; concealing or decorating them is just as legitimate. Decoration is not wrong. Functionalism is not intrinsically right. There is no moral rule that requires architectural form and function to coincide with each other.

Imitating architectural styles from former periods or even adapting them is perfectly legitimate, especially when we have the techniques and the resources to do so to a high standard.

There is no reason at all why someone should not build a Strawberry Hill Gothic home if that is his or her fancy.

Yes, that can be described as derivative or derided as pastiche. But is it any the less slavish than dreary adherence to the canons of contemporary architectural style can be. Why, by the way, is “contemporary” such a good thing?

Creativity and innovation in an era of huge development in building raw materials is great. Doing what was never done before is sometimes exciting and uplifting; but it may not always be pleasing.

I venture to suggest that there is such a thing in architecture as slavishly un-slavish.

So while the ESB project in Fitzwilliam Street is being completed, let us reserve judgment. The real question is as to whether it will be seen as pleasing or whether it will be seen more as begging the question as to why the ESB were ever allowed to demolish the original streetscape in the first place.We can but hope.

There now! I’m glad I got that off my chest.

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