Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Civic Offices and their Uncivic Reception

The picture to the left was taken from the balcony of my dear old flat in Temple Bar that I vacated two years ago to move back to Paris; it is one of the few things I miss about living in Dublin, not least because it is about three times the size of my current domicile - which is very homely, all the same. Thankfully, as two friends of mine, including my former flatmate, still live there I get to crash whenever I land in town. The view, bathed in the fifteen minutes of daylight afforded by the gods to Dublin's old town in midwinter, features in the foreground the former penthouse of muppet comedian Brendan O'Carroll (Brendan is not, historically, an auspicious name for quality Irish stand-up comedy), and if you strain your eyes it looks a bit like the Wall of Death in the only Irish film of the 1980s, Eat the Peach (OK, there was Taffin as well). Beyond that is the familiar steeple of Christchurch and one of the Civic Offices' much-maligned bunkers, designed by Sam Stephenson and the subject of the greatest conservation drive in modern Irish history. The Wood Quay demonstrations in 1978 failed to prevent the construction of the two stubs (they really are like the truncated stubs of frighteningly gigantic towers) but they did manage to stop the projected third and fourth being put up, as it was claimed that the view of Christchurch from the quays would have been obstructed. Contrary to common opinion, I think that this was a decent settlement, for I have grown to love Stephenson's bunkers over the years, to the extent that seeing the tip of one of them from my living room every morning became a minor pleasure.

There are few in Ireland that agree with me (though I know one or two architects that do) because of the legacy of the Wood Quay protests (which were not entirely unreasonable) and the popular (or populist) prejudice against brutalist architecture (the term comes from béton brut - untreated or rough concrete - and not from 'brutal'). Alain de Botton's recent TV series and book The Architecture of Happiness feeds from this prejudice in typically slipshod, philistine fashion. The main architectural argument put forward at the time opposing the construction was that as well as being a blight on the cityscape, the bunkers would deface Christchurch by their proximity to it, an argument that greatly overestimates the architectural value of Christchurch, and which is ignorant of the horrendous eyesore that the cathedral was until its wholesale renovation in the late nineteenth century. St. Patrick's Cathedral is an architectural wonder; its neighbour at the top of Patrick Street is a minor ecclesiastical construction that happens to be big and very old.

I remember seeing on an Irish-language TV programme in the late eighties, Deko, the lead singer of Dublin punk legends Paranoid Visions, point at the Civic Offices and asking 'Cad é an monstrosity sin?' My Gaeltacht-born mother pointed at Deko's dayglo green coiffe and asked the very same question. Though I fully agreed with Deko's assessment at the time, I now find it amusing that an iconoclast that penned the classic 'F.O.A.D.' (Fuck off and die) about U2 should have been so conservative in his architectural taste. Stephenson's unloved blocks, as well as being wonderfully simple and possessed of a stern majesty similar to other blockhouses such as Soufflot's Pantheon or Louis Kahn's Capital Building in Dhaka, are also stylish, far more stylish than most Irish architecture of the past thirty years. If you don't believe me look at the drably unimaginative corporate and residential developments that scar Irish cities and towns these days. One might even say that the bunkers are the finest piece of Irish architecture of their time (though Michael Scott's Carroll's Cigarette Factory in Dundalk is also impressive) and they also bear an extra dignity earned through their years of ignominy. They were also years ahead of their time; their minimalist grey cubeness is now in vogue, in the form of buildings such as McCullough Mulvin's Ussher Library at Trinity College, albeit in a compromised, more user-friendly manner. The ever-so-tasteful newer Civic Offices building on Wood Quay, designed by Scott Tallon Walker in the mid-90s has its admirers but I have always found it an unnecessary apology, like that doled out by publicity-conscious celebrities after sex or drugs scandals. If ever a building has worn a scarlet letter it has been the original Civic Offices and it is unlikely to start picking up admirers soon but given the minimal stimulus architectural aesthetics have for most Irish people, I don't think this is that worrying.

Not that I had any great love for Stephenson himself, who passed away in November. His Central Bank building on Dame St is banal, kitsch and ugly in a way that the Civic Offices are not and his relationship with Charlie Haughey always seemed like a mutual massaging of deluded egos. He also popped up in recent years in the capacity as President of the James Joyce Museum boasting of having never read Ulysses, the latest to follow the current Irish fashion for kicking Joyce, promulgated by hacks such as Roddy Doyle. For a long time the Irish loved to praise Joyce wildly without ever having read him; now they condemn him as wildly overrated still without reading him. Books, who needs them? His architectural career was effectively ended by the Civic Offices farrago; afterwards he stuck to small commissions, though, to be honest, most architectural careers, even the most illustrious ones, have a very short public life. But the Civic Offices will outlast most of what has been built in Ireland since we started losing our way architecturally some time in the late 1960s.


Political Quote said...

I agree with you. Very few people here in Ireland like the Dublin Civic Offices.

They are horrible but architecture like art is in the eye of the beholder.

People hate the Civic Offices because of how they look and because they are representative of how progress destroyed priceless heritage.

They will always be a symbol of officaldom's triumph over the public will and the public good.

seanachie said...

Though I'm with you on your dislike of Irish officialdom (particularly on the planning side, which is, as ever, depressingly corrupt), I have to defend the Civic Offices from ignominy. They are an example of good architecture, as good as Christchurch, I would venture. Their unpopularity is due less to resentment at officialdom than due to aesthetic conservatism on the part of Irish people. The Civic Offices were the victim of a high-profile conservation campaign, which was not entirely unwarranted. There is a blind prejudice against a certain strain of modernist architecture, not just in Ireland. I have even heard Irish people call Michael Scott's wonderful Busaras an 'eyesore'. It is true that Dublin Corporation of the time did behave with outright arrogance but Stephenson's buildings should be judged on their architectural merit, which is considerable. The irony is that so few Irish people whinge about the awful cheaply-construced developments ('Third-World International style' as Tom Wolfe once called it) that have been defiling Irish urban landscapes over the past ten years but moan about the Civic Offices, less out of any architectural conviction than out of conforming to received opinion.