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Bright future planned for former Central Bank

A computer-generated aerial view by Model Works Media of the new-look Central Bank complex on Dame Street

One day in late March I got a phone call from Brian Moran, managing director in Ireland of Hines, the US investment company with a major stake in the Cherrywood development in south Dublin. “I need to talk to you about the Central Bank,” he said.

“Before you go any further, I assume that demolition is not on the agenda,” I ventured. “Certainly not!,” he insisted, saying that Hines — which, along with Peterson, had paid €65 million for the property — planned to renovate Sam Stephenson’s seriously “iconic” building.

As a trained architect who once represented Murray O’Laoire in Moscow, Moran couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. Whatever its detractors might think, he recognised the uniqueness of the Central Bank as the only building in Ireland with its floors suspended from the roof.

Even though it’s not a protected structure, which it surely deserved to be, he was determined to “do something that would be very respectful and re-interpret it in a different way” — while at the same time creating a profitable commercial development for Hines/Peterson, of course.

HJL Architects, now busier than any other practice in Dublin, were engaged to oversee the project, along with Paris-based Irish-born engineer Tom Grey, who specialises in innovative glazing; he was responsible for the glass roof in the National Gallery of Ireland’s new courtyard.

Their new vision for the building and surrounding area is for a mixed-use scheme, to be known as Central Plaza, incorporating retail, restaurants and café uses at street and basement levels, as well as the creation of a restaurant, bar and viewing area in the double-height roofspace.

The scheme also envisages expanding the existing plaza and with a “dynamic new streetscape” towards College Green and along Fownes Street and Cope Street, to create a new “stepping stone” between the key retail and tourist destinations of Grafton Street and Temple Bar.

An earlier version of the proposal would have given the former Central Bank a flat roof over vertical glazing, which would have significantly altered its appearance, as I pointed out. As a result, the treatment of this crucial aspect was changed to retain its characteristic hipped-roof profile.

What’s now planned is to remove the existing copper roof and replace it with clear glazing in a diamond pattern, inspired by IM Pei’s Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, while leaving the “trusses” (actually, clusters of steel rods) exposed within the proposed upmarket rooftop restaurant and bar.

When the building was under construction in the late 1970s, Dublin Corporation’s planners — who were housed next door to the site — discovered that it was exactly 29 feet (8.8 metres) taller than it was meant to be under the terms of the planning permission they granted.

Work had to stop, although Sam Stephenson gamely maintained that he regarded a planning permission as “a licence to develop an architectural concept” and said that “apologetic self-effacement should be left to public lavatories, VD clinics and the other necessary minutiae of society”.

The outcome was a compromise that involved leaving the roof “trusses” exposed, as if to underline the unusual nature of the structure. Later, however, Central Bank governor Maurice Doyle — who detested its skeletal appearance — ordered that a “proper roof” should be put on the building.

On a Hines tour of the attic in April, it was extraordinary to discover that it’s fully two storeys high — more than adequate to accommodate the proposed rooftop bar, restaurant and south-facing terrace, with kitchens, toilets and other ancillary facilities located at the lower level.

The new glazed roof would be marginally higher than the existing copper one and, lit up at night, it is bound to become a beacon for the city centre. Views out will be even more stunning than from the Guinness Storehouse Gravity Bar, which is at the edge rather than in the middle of town.

All of the railings would go, from those in a neo-Baroque style in front of the building to the more prosaic ones at the rear. These were all added in the 1990s just as the Central Bank was in the process of becoming little more than a Dublin outpost for the all-powerful ECB in Frankfurt.

Long a favourite gathering place for Goths, the plaza would undergo a major transformation. It is to be re-paved at the same level as footpaths around it and opened up, with a new set of steps leading down to the double-basement where Central Bank staff had 108 car parking spaces.

All but 20 of these spaces are to be eliminated, allowing the developers to create a restaurant and retail offer at that level, with a glazed external lift providing universal access on the Fownes Street edge, where there would also be an extra floor added at ground level beneath the undercroft.

This addition at street level should help to overcome one of the building’s most unappealing attributes — the wind tunnel effect. Even on a calm day, it’s windy around the old Central Bank, largely due to the fact that its undercroft is roughly the same height as older buildings around it.

On the east side, the pedestrian route linking the plaza to Crown Alley, with the bank directors’ bridge to their diningroom above it, is to be widened at the expense of losing the angled windows of the staff canteen beneath. A restaurant, perhaps in a vintage 1970s style, would replace it.

An outdoor terrace café, fringed by a box hedge, would the first-floor level beneath the undercroft on its west side. The projecting front doors of the building, effectively at first-floor level, and the glazing on either side are to be transparent, to make it “more welcoming”, as Moran says.

This entrance would serve the open-plan offices, gathered around the building’s twin service cores. These are to be comprehensively refurbished, with new toilets and high-speed lifts. A separate lift would carry rooftop bar and restaurant customers from a basement-level reception area.

All of the floor-to-ceiling windows are to be replaced with more energy-efficient glazing, but this would all be tinted in the same hue, which is crucial to maintaining its bands of black (or at least very dark brown) and white. The granite panels are to be cleaned to look as good as new.

Enabling works are well under way, as I can see every day from our roof terrace in Temple Bar. I imagine it might even change the tone of our neighbourhood — always depending on the social responsibility of bar, café and restaurant operators to recognise that people actually live next door.

All of the mechanical services currently housed in the roofspace are to be relocated to the basement, thereby freeing the top of the building for its new role as a “destination attraction”. And Brian Moran insists that this would be an “upscale offering” and not a “boom, boom” nightclub.

The Commercial Buildings, rebuilt in replica and rotated 90 degrees to face the plaza, will have its mansard replaced by a glazed penthouse. Like the former Central Bank, it will be largely for office use, with retail at ground-floor level fronted by clear-glass (rather than mullioned) windows.

The former Eircom building at the corner of Anglesea Street, which was also part of the bank complex, has already got planning permission for refurbishment. Its ground floor would also be remodelled for retail use, while the intervening building might accommodate another restaurant.

Moran foresees College Green, now slated to become a pedestrian plaza, turning into a Dublin version of Regent Street in London, with more “high-end” retail appealing to multiples and other stores needing 1,500 to 2,000 square metres of space, which can’t easily be found in Grafton Street.

Hines has been careful to consult a number of “stakeholders” about its plans for the Central Bank, including An Taisce, Temple Bar Residents and the Irish branch of DoCoMoMo, an international organisation dedicated to protecting modernist architecture, and Dublin City Council’s planners.

All of the construction work is being carried out by John Paul, which is just completing a thoroughgoing renovation of former Bank of Ireland headquarters on Baggot Street. So it can fairly be said that the renewal of Sam Stephenson’s Brutalist masterpiece is in good hands.

“I think we’ve struck a balance,” Moran says. “The essence of the architecture is totally being kept and we’re breathing new life into it by animating the ground plane and plaza with a large retail component.” And as for Eamon O’Doherty’s Crann an Óir, it’s being retained in situ.

The Central Bank, which commissioned it, may have departed to North Wall Quay, but its memory lingers on.

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