It's customary for architects to take a year out during their studies and go to some edgy city abroad, to work in an architectural practice.
New York, Barcelona, Shanghai and Aarhus are usually top of the list for Irish architectural students, and further down the list would always be London. So it seems odd that a British student would opt to come to Ireland, but that's exactly what architect Denis Gilbert did. It's even more unusual for a student to come to live in the city they studied in - however, for the last 30 years Denis has made Dublin his home. As might be guessed, a romance was behind that decision.
Then, last year, just as he was about to up sticks and head for warmer climes - he had even put his house on the market - another romance stopped him in his tracks. "Yes, after the 'for sale' sign went up, I got chatting to my neighbour, Jo, who's lived here for 30 years. I've been here since 1996, and, many cups of tea later, I took the sign down," the reserved yet affable Denis explains, with still a note of wonder in his voice that such a thing could happen.
Originally from Liverpool, Denis first studied as an architectural technician, and then he went on to study architecture itself at Liverpool Polytechnic, which he loved.
"I was always interested in design, and I drew a lot as a boy. I was attracted to architecture because I felt it was a way of establishing something in life; that you could make a mark, leave a monument," Denis muses.
He adds that during his student days at the Poly, there was a lot of controversy about the proposed demolition of the Liverpool Docks, and the college was active in the successful campaign to save them. "There was a lot of energy about, a great atmosphere," Denis notes, which he says added to the enjoyment of his college days.
When the time came to take a year out, Dublin began to hold a certain appeal for Denis. "It was the early 1980s; someone mentioned it would be a cool place to go," he says. "There were a few Irish people on the course and they encouraged me, so I headed off. I had an Irish friend from Bray, and I stayed with him while I looked for a job."
He was lucky to get a job in Dublin immediately, and enjoyed the year immensely. Then he spent some time studying in Glasgow, followed by periods working in New York and in London, where he was involved in the design of prestigious jobs - including the Liverpool Street development, especially the restaurant there, which was clad in green and black marble, and was considered something of a showpiece at the time.
However, he was keen to get back to Dublin as he had met an Irish woman during his year out and they had kept up the relationship, though they weren't always in the same country. He came back in 1988 and got work with Burke Kennedy Doyle architects. Though he and his then girlfriend are still friends, the relationship ended, but Denis decided to stay on in Ireland.
He went out on his own in 1992, and, over the years, he's had a varied career, including a stint working on airports. "I became involved with a company called IPM, Independent Project Management. The owner had somehow persuaded the people of Boryspil airport in Kiev, who were going to build a new terminal, that he could renovate the terminal, and it was renovated by an Irish contractor. I became involved in that project, and various other projects, going to different airports around eastern Europe trying to persuade them to do new terminals." He smiles at the memory.
Denis then opened an office in Fitzwilliam Place and built up a practice there for five years. The boom started, and he moved to a bigger premises in Rathmines, and employed two other architects.
Interesting projects came his way, including the design of top businessman Stephen Quinn's house in Howth. "We had a lot of good business; new clients coming in all the time; the market was very buoyant. We achieved something substantial during that time," Denis says.He adds that he had also done the design of a Super E house in Inistioge in Co Kilkenny in 2002, a forerunner of the passive-house system. His was one of seven firms selected to submit a design for Dun Laoghaire library - what is now dlr LexIcon - though he didn't win the commission.
When the crash hit in 2009, Denis had to downsize, but, unlike many other architectural practices, he managed to keep afloat.
"I was still busy, but the fees were getting lower and lower; it was really dog-eat-dog. But I had a good relationship with a building contractor, Jemi Construction - we must have done about 20 projects together, we kept it alive," he says. "Everyone was affected, even the big guys folded. Because I had been on my own since 1992, you spread your net wide, and so work comes to you from places you don't imagine."
Things picked up again in 2014, and in the last few years, Denis has been careful to sign on for courses all the time, updating his knowledge of new trends in building and design. However, he has found the Irish winters a bit harsh, and he decided to put his house on the market last summer, with a view to going to live in a warmer climate.
His house in Dublin 6 is a little gem. Denis bought it in 1996 and rebuilt it. "It was the first house that I looked at; the person I bought it from was a friend of a friend, which helped a lot," he says. "It was a probate sale."
Built in 1904, it's one of a series of tiny terraced houses united under the name Gulistan Cottages. "Gulistan is an Iranian word meaning 'rose garden' and where we are now was a villa on its own grounds called Gulistan House," Denis says, adding, "There isn't much information about it, who lived there or where they came from. The reason I know about the word Gulistan is when I was having some work done to the outside of the house, one of the guys was a Kazakhstan fellow, and he told me the village next to him was called Gulistan."
The house was small, and it wasn't in great shape, but it is situated at the end of a terrace, which is an advantage from the point of view of renovating. Denis spent 18 months renovating it; he used direct labour, and did much of the work himself.
"I had a big party when I bought it and everyone came around and trashed the place," he says with a laugh. "And then we started work on it. The only things that are really original are the gable wall, the front wall and the front part of the roof. Even the chimney is new."
The house originally comprised two bedrooms, a living area, a small kitchenette and an outside loo. All the ceilings, walls, floors are new. Denis changed all the rooms to include a bathroom and an open-plan kitchen/dining/living area. The house is only 650 square feet, but it feels bigger.
"The main thing I wanted to achieve was a sense of space, and even though the walls aren't very high, with an apex ceiling there's a great sense of space." he says, adding that he uses lots of Velux windows to bring light in.
He also added details like a courtyard, which includes a water feature.
Once the house was complete, he loved living there - until he decided last May that he didn't want to face another harsh winter here, and he toyed with moving to Spain.
That's when he had his fateful chat with Jo, his neighbour. "We always said hello. She's the kind of person who'd always say something nice to you, like admire your shoes. She's like that with everyone," says Denis.
Denis had always liked her, but hadn't taken it any further because he was in a relationship for a long time, and then he thought his and Jo's interests were too different.
"She had a big group of friends and was always off to the Listowel races and dancing. We always had a good rapport, but it wasn't my scene," he says. However, when he said he was selling, they got talking more and more, and they discovered they had a lot in common. Denis took the house off the market, and in a delightful twist, Jo is moving in, and Denis is designing a total rehaul of her home.
As for the Listowel races - how did they deal with that event? "We went to Valencia this year instead," Denis says.
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine