Thursday 8 December 2016

Wrecking ball: tearing down this eyesore a healthy start

Hawkins House won't be missed on Dublin skyline, but what happens next

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Death knell: Hawkins House is to be pulled down, but no time frame has been set.
Death knell: Hawkins House is to be pulled down, but no time frame has been set.
The art deco Theatre Royal, which stood on the site of Hawkins House
Going up: London's skyline his risen in the last decade while Dublin's George's Quay has scope for taller developments

The clue to our ailing health service is just around the corner. On Hawkins Street, Dublin 2, to be precise. The people behind the grindingly slow €14bn public health service are shored up in Dublin's Ugliest Building.

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At least there is some succour in its proximity to the best pint in Dublin. But workplace contentment aside, the good news is that Hawkins House is to be demolished. The bad news is that there is no definite timeframe. The sooner the Department of Health moves to a healthy building, the better they can resolve the creaking system.

The proposal to redevelop the site has been part of the Dublin City Council's 'George's Quay Local Area Plan' since 2012.

Within the 108 pages of missions, visions, objectives, maps and photos, lurks an ideal to transform this hideous pea-green block into a 'public realm' attractive to investors, visitors, a place where people can eat, drink and be merry, live and work in harmony.

The Office of Public Works is in charge of Hawkins House (designed by Sir Thomas P Bennett/Henry J Lyons 1965) and has 'held talks' since back in 2007 with neighbouring owners to come up with an action plan. Nama took over Apollo House, next door, from developer, Garrett Kelleher. With Nama involved, theoretically, two state bodies should be able to expedite these plans fairly smoothly. The City Council is ready to move.

But then there's the budget from the Minister of the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, a man who talks a lot about housing but spends most of his time treading Irish Water. The green light on this unloved section of the city would have multiple economic and community benefits, somebody might even be remembered for a worthy architectural/cultural legacy.

There has been no mention of an architectural competition which would spur great public interest with model presentations. Our architects are winning superb contracts abroad. Time now to revive the creativity here and just get on with it.

It is written in stone that Dublin is an intrinsically low-rise city. But eastwards from Liberty Hall (the second ugliest building in town), there is scope for multistorey development. George's Quay area is one of 13 zones that Dublin City Council has designated for taller buildings.

The one thing visitors don't come to Dublin for is endless office blocks devoid of any activity at ground floor, like the entire Docklands Area. Whatever is designed must have a mix of dining and retail at street level, otherwise we will end up with another nocturnal dead zone.

There is a gap in Dublin for venues that suit a mid-age range. Some of us don't want to queue at bars and be deafened, or be in the same venues as our children. Private members clubs are so 2010.

The youth and the retired are catered for. There's the Camden Quarter - a great mix of ethnic restaurants and live-music venues - and Temple Bar, of course, the first stop on stag and hen nights, replete with diddly-eye music. The Bord Gáis Theatre caters for big ticket musicals and family outings. The National Concert Hall has its fans but is stranded in an office zone. Leeson Street and Harcourt Street are still going strong with new super-clubs for young and earnest city workers. The Abbey, let's face it, no beauty, is stranded in a characterless area.

None of these entertainment zones provide that 'village in a city' where there is an open pedestrian space, with seating, cafés, trees, benches, wine bars, a world-renowned university, a Palladian building and - handy enough - a police station.

The block formed by Poolbeg, Hawkins, Tara and Townsend Street creates part of a grid of narrow one-way streets and has incredible potential, poised on the bend of the river. The Hawkins site, let's just call it Beckett Square for now, is the ­mid-town quarter for literary and music society.

I would earmark the former Bank of Ireland on College Green as a jazz, chamber music, Indie music (like Philip King's 'Other Voices' in Dingle) dance and fringe theatre venue. Music and drama are in the foundations: Paganini played in the first Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street. The works of Boucicault and Brindsley Sheridan were performed in the second Theatre Royal.

A piazza on College Green is strolling distance to Beckett Square and the many restaurants, wine bars, book shops that would open. Even better, a Luas (not fantasy) would take you home.

If that isn't helpful, there is Tara Street mainline station around the corner. For those not served by public transport, there must be a taxi rank.

The plan won't work unless Tara House is demolished too. There can be no ugly buildings in our new mid-town. By ugly, I mean what passes as 'Irish modernism'. Some of the waterfront is already laid out with trees and cycle paths. Opening up riverfront views into Beckett Square would make this area unique. We could go the whole Roman hog and pipe in some water for a fountain.

The only problem now is the view across the river. Liberty Hall is just wrong. One feels embarrassed for it, stubbornly resisting change. It should go gracefully and the site put to better use for the city community.

Further down the river we have a few more eyesores. There is AIB on Capel Street wrecking the views to the Victorian Fruit Market being restored in Smithfield.

River House on Chancery Street, is merely a shell for graffiti. There is a great opportunity for a spectacular eye-catcher here, terminating the view from the river past the side of the Four Courts.

Around the bend is the hideous vertical extension to the Four Courts on Church Street. The council needs to plant some trees to hide it.

The Hawkins site is an opportunity to revive the grand tradition of the Theatre Royal, to create a human scale, international, cultural, literary quarter and attract the mid-age back into the city at night. Now that we are climbing out of the gutter, the stars are getting brighter.

Deirdre Conroy is an urban and building conservation specialist

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