During the 1970s, David Keane & Partners specialised in the design of two main building types: the shopping mall – including Phibsborough, Dundalk and Rathmines – and the speculative office – most notably Texaco House in Ballsbridge (1971).
Palmerston House (1974) is perhaps a lesser known exploration in office design, clearly related to Texaco House and equally inspired by Oscar Niemeyer’s concrete structures in Brasilia of the preceding decade. Niemeyer’s plastic concrete forms were a welcome escape for young architects from the dogma of ostensibly functionalist forms, whilst still respecting the lineage of Corbusian modernism.
Palmerston’s quieter renown might be due in part to its position at a mews site to a Georgian building on Merrion Square, facing onto the junction of Fenian Street and Denzille Lane. Its modest scale liberates it from the controversy that dogged Stephenson Gibney’s ESB building or the towering Fitzwilton House (1961) by Ronald Lyon Estate Architects/Schoolheifer & Burley, both of which have precast concrete details.
This back-garden siting in the rear of a Georgian plot would become a favourite option for Dublin architects in the decades to come, following the fallout from the ESB controversy and its marked impact on the Georgian streetscape. Today, Denzille Lane has a varied collection of such interventions, with neighbouring buildings by Grafton Architects and Scott Tallon Walker.
The building consists of nine bays over four stories with a half bay at each end. Its facade is composed of interconnecting hexagonal white precast concrete units, now weathered to grey. The glazing line is set back from the concrete facade providing a lacework effect in the interconnecting concrete, similar to that of Texaco House. The glass used is tinted, which creates a contrast between the concrete and background.
Palmerston House connects to no. 11 and 12 Merrion Square via a raised carpark, disguised under vegetation. Its south-facing facade is identical to the north, with the addition of a brick circulation tower. Its gables are blank brick walls, eliminating any views into adjoining properties. The party walls and half-bay symmetry imply a concept that the structure might be repeated along the back row and make a new continuous street facade. New zoning laws put in place for the adjoining properties meant this never came close to a reality.
Arriving immediately after the 1973 oil crisis, upon completion the building was praised for its high quality mechanical and services design, heralding a change in emphasis in modern architecture. Its modesty in form and ambition when compared to Texaco House, and less prominent positioning in the city, have meant the building rarely features in the public memory.
While much of the public renounced the brutish quality of massive concrete edifices such as Phibsborough shopping centre or Apollo House, Palmerston House displays a restrained elegance and consciousness of craftmanship in the assembly of its precast elements.