Dublin Journal: Big Name Architects Transform Gritty Docklands into Post-Modern Urban Center

by Ron Bernthal

The post-modern Grand Canal Square, designed by the American firm Martha Schwartz-Partners, is the centerpiece of Dublin's 1,300 acre Docklands development project (photo Docklands Development Authority)

I arrived in Dublin after driving through fog, sleet and snow on the motorway from Galway. The 252-room gibson hotel, spelled with lower case “g”, (www.thegibsonhotel.ie) is located on the north bank of the River Liffey, in the revitalized Docklands district, and the warm glow of lights within the hotel’s glass-cube façade was a welcome sight on a darkening winter afternoon. The gibson, with its innovative design features and hundreds of pieces of original Irish modern art in the rooms and public spaces, is just one of dozens of new designer-driven buildings that border both sides of the River Liffey, a former derelict part of east Dublin known as Docklands.

Once a ship-loading center for livestock, the site of a smelly fertilizer plant, and a dumping ground for city sewage, Docklands is now a stunning urban renewal project that includes the Kevin Roche-designed Convention Centre Dublin (www.theccd.ie); Daniel Libeskind’s post-modern Grand Canal Theatre (www.grandcanaltheatre.ie); and Santiago Calatrava’s graceful Samuel Beckett Bridge. The spectacular looking, curvilinear-shaped, Aviva Stadium (www.avivastadium.ie), officially in the nearby Donnybrook neighborhood, is so close to Docklands that spectators attending soccer games can easily walk there from Grand Canal Square.

Night view of River Liffey, with Convention Centre Dublin's glass façade and Santiago Calatrava's Samuel Beckett Bridge (photo Convention Centre Dublin)

Dublin is most often associated with such literary greats as Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, the musical group U2, and the lively pubs along Temple Bar, the city’s friendly but raucous two-block pedestrian street where Guinness is most likely the name that gets the most attention.

During the past decade, however, the city’s star attraction has been the collection of structures and streetscapes (public squares, office buildings, river bridges, mixed use residential and commercial warehouse conversions, riverside walkways) that form the Docklands district. The area began to take off during Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” period of the 1990’s, and crested in 2010 with the opening of Convention Centre Dublin, Grand Canal Theatre, Aviva Stadium, and the gibson hotel. These were the last properties to open before the bottom fell out of the Irish economy, and current construction projects on several buildings, including an almost completed five-star hotel next to the Grand Canal Theatre, have stalled.

The Docklands project, organized and run by The Docklands Development Authority (www.ddda.ie), has transformed the east end of Dublin from a lonely and forlorn industrial and shipping area into an interesting, post-modern downtown neighborhood where new cultural and sporting venues, hotels, a striking-looking convention center, and dozens of other dazzling structures compete with the city’s more traditional Georgian architecture.

On the south side of the River Liffey a spacious plaza, known as Grand Canal Square, designed by the American firm Martha Schwartz -Partners, has a cascading marble fountain and a series of tall, glowing light sticks that gives the site an amazing vibrancy. Located on the square is the sharply angled, stainless steel Grand Canal Theatre, designed by the noted architect Daniel Libeskind. The theatre, which opened in 2010, has an extensive glass façade which borders the square, and invites pedestrians to gaze into the brilliantly lit interior lobby on performance evenings.

During several days walking around Docklands, I felt that the entire project seems to be a wonderful example of a futuristic-looking, inner city environment that manages to meld Dublin’s cultural, business and residential interests into one cohesive neighborhood. Its proximity to gritty neighborhoods in north Dublin, and to the docks just beyond its eastern boundary, help Docklands avoid being called “sterile,” and provide a desired sense reality to the lovely looking but expensive residential apartments and glittering glass facades of the commercial spaces.

The O2 Arena is located at the far eastern end of Docklands, and attracts young Dubliners into the area on concert nights.

The Kevin Roche- designed Convention Centre Dublin appears on the river bank as a glass drum leaning against a concrete box, but the view from inside the building, of the delicate-looking Santiago Calatrava-designed Samuel Beckett bridge, and the city skyline beyond, puts everything into perspective. Kevin Roche, a Pritzker award-winning architect, was born in Dublin but moved to the United States in 1948, where his designs for the Oakland Museum in California, and the Ford Foundation building in New York City, moved him into the top tier of world architects. The CCD is the first carbon neutral convention centre in the world, and Roche’s first architectural commission in Ireland.

Staying at the gibson hotel, at the far end of North Wall Quay, an area known as The Point, I had ample opportunity to look at, and learn about, the O2 Arena (www.theO2.ie), which was just outside my hotel room window. While most new buildings in Docklands draw attention to themselves because of their architecture, the O2, named after the British telecommunications firm, is not only an interesting historic conversion, but the building’s history of tumultuous, and sometimes controversial, rock concerts add a sexy glamour to this part of the city.

Dublin Airport's Terminal 2 opened in 2010, providing arriving international passengers their first glimpse of the city's striking new architecture. (photo courtesy Dublin Airport)

In 1988 Irish entrepreneur Harry Crosbie, along with the company that would become Live Nation, converted an 1878 train station, known as Point Depot, into the Point Theatre. The Irish band U2 was the first group to play there, and Bono and his band opened the present O2 Arena on the same site in 2008, after Crosbie renovated the old theatre’s interior into a larger space. The exterior maintains the original 19th-century Edwardian rail depot façade, and a large, corrugated, translucent box on the roof lets the pulsating lights shine through during evening concerts. The hip and trendy O2 attracts a diverse, young crowd on concert nights.

Architecturally inspired international visitors flying into Dublin Airport (www.dublinairport.com) can get a sneak preview of one of the city’s newest building designs just by exiting the airport’s new Terminal 2. The British firm, Pascall+Watson created a striking glass and steel terminal building that will help put thousands of jet-lagged arriving passengers in a better mood. The terminal, with its large, blue-glass elevators, spacious baggage and check-in areas, and numerous passport and customs check-points, opened at the end of 2010.

Contact Information:
Dublin & Ireland tourism information (www.discoverireland.com)
the gibson hotel (Phone: 353 1 681 5000; www.thegibsonhotel.ie)
Dublin architectural tours (www.architecturefoundation.ie/openhouse)
Guide Book – Lonely Plant Dublin City Guide (www.lonelyplanet.com)


© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.

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