On Burlington Road, Councillors Opt to Protect a Modernist Masterpiece

Burlington Road is bright and unpopulated on a recent Tuesday morning as Dublin Bus drivers pull up outside the building at number 10, waiting for shifts to start.

The imposing red-brick and glass cube has just been cleared by Dublin City councillors to join the Record of Protected Structures.

It’s a surprising addition in some ways given the fate of much of the 1960s and 1970s architecture in the city, says Emma Gilleece, an architectural historian specialising in the modern period.

“These aren’t the sexy buildings, but once they’re gone people miss them,” she says.

Rarer and Rarer

Since the early 1970s, the building has been occupied by the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, but right now the street is quiet and the building’s doors are shut.

Its six storeys of red brick and glass rise out of an exposed concrete slab on the ground floor, supported by two thick concrete pillars.

“It looks like you’re walking up the steps of a floating building,” says Gilleece, the architectural historian.

Today, the early morning sun lights up its windows and blurs the building’s edges a little, where the glass wraps around it horizontally. To the right, two tall red-brick towers grip the outer edge of the building, and a set of heavy concrete stairs leads up to a recessed concrete entrance.

“The banding of the glass and brick and the painted horizontal concrete bands is very 1970s,” she says.

It’s the original quality that Liberty Hall was meant to have when all the blinds are up, she says. “To be able to nearly see through the building and see the sky.”

The building is designed in the high-modernist style – functional, rational and devoid of ornament. But its use of red brick makes it fit in comfortably with some of its Victorian neighbours.

Says Gilleece: “People think these newer buildings are more ubiquitous, but it’s getting harder and harder to find 1970s buildings in Ireland.”

Purpose built in 1971, the institute was designed by architect Sam Stephenson of Stephenson and Gibney.

Stephenson was known for the former Central Bank building in Temple Bar, and the ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street — the latter replaced what was the longest stretch of Georgian architecture in Europe at the time.

“A lot of people blamed him for the demolition of that stretch of Fitzwilliam Street,” says Gilleece, but the plan to knock it down predated Stephenson winning the ESB contract.

“But a lot of people still hold him personally accountable,” she says.

“His buildings and personality seem very bold.” says Gilleece. “People might hate it or love it, but I think it’s important that a building says something.”

At May’s full council meeting, city councillors agreed to amend the Register of Protected Structures from just “House” – i.e. the 19th-century house on site – to “19th century house, 1971 structure and historic boundaries”, in order to include Stephenson’s 1971 addition.

The record lists buildings which are deemed to have historical, artistic, technical or architectural importance, conserving their heritage and protecting it from unauthorised development.

The 19th century villa that it’s attached to housed the institute’s School of Celtic Studies.

The institute was originally in Merrion Square, where it was founded in 1940 by Éamon de Valera, who invited physicist Erwin Schrödinger to head up the School of Theoretical Physics after escaping Nazi-occupied Europe.

Not-so-sexy Buildings

The council’s decision to protect the building comes as a surprise to Gilleece. Other similar buildings from the 1960s were not so lucky, she says.

Robin Walker’s 1961 Bord Fáilte building on Baggot Street, and Emanuel Shoolheifer and Don Burley’s 1969 office block, Fitzwilton House, were both demolished two years ago. Both buildings had sizable public campaigns to try and save them, according to Gilleece.

“Those demolitions jaded people who put energy into starting campaigns to save the buildings,” Gilleece says.

It was seen as the beginning of the end, she says. “Like a siren to all the developers that they can come in and knock all the 1960s and 1970s buildings down in Dublin.”

Building materials started becoming cheaper since the 1960s, according to Gilleece, and “unfortunately, they (construction companies) cut corners with the quality of material and that’s why a lot of them don’t survive well to the present.”

But the Burlington Road structure was one of the few that was built to last before that happened. The decision to protect it is some sign of hope for its contemporaries.

“It’s a historical moment in time, that one building,” says Gilleece

“If I were someone in the 1970s I’d have been shocked – how is that building being supported? It’s huge but there are no corner columns. That was Stephenson showing off.”

Buildings as Art

Dominic Stevens, an architect at JFOC Architects in Dublin’s Liberties area, remembers one of his lecturers sending his class down to look at the building when he was a young architecture student in University College Dublin in the late 1980s.

“At the time that period of architecture was not in fashion. The death of modernism had been announced and everyone was talking about postmodernism and classicism,” he says.

“It was recognised at the time as a fine example of a certain period of architecture.” The building, he says, “has an immense kind of elegance” in the way that it floats.

More buildings like this should be protected, he says. “They’re misunderstood, and in any era of architecture there’s good buildings and not so good buildings.”

Most people think architects design what buildings look like, says Stevens, but in fact they design “what things are”, in terms of their function and historical moment.

“As the Institute of Advanced Studies, it’s trying to be super contemporary, and it’s showing that off through this clever structure that makes it float,” he says.

Everyone accepts that architecture sits on the ground, he says. “But this building doesn’t seem to sit on the ground.”

It’s not the simplest way to build a building. “There’s a certain bravado about it,” he says.

One of the building’s modernist hallmarks is that what you see is all there is to see, Stevens says. “It’s not referring to anything else. It’s referring to science and advancement.”

“You could look at it as a piece of minimalist art,” he says.

Historian Gilleece reckons people can find these buildings ugly and bulky.

But “for an architect to achieve that lightness is beautiful. It nearly brings me to tears,” she says.

“The building looks like it’s floating off the ground and you’re walking up the steps of a floating building,” she says. “I still don’t know how Stevenson did that.”

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Zuzia Whelan: Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

Reader responses

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Robert Lawson
at 27 May at 13:16

It might have been interesting to hear from parties opposed to this listing. Protecting structures makes it hard to improve their energy efficiency (or replace them entirely), and makes modifying them to suit new uses far more challenging or completely impossible. This one is not exactly attractive. Too often, "protection" is the first step towards letting nature slowly reclaim a building as it rots in to the ground, instead of replacing it with something more suitable. The desirable location of this building should prevent that, but it's a problem for a lot of town centres with derelict, falling in to the ground protected structures.

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