• Tuesday , 19 September 2017

Garden Bank – The AIB Bankcentre

AIB Bankcentre, Ballsbridge - RKD, 1979. View of present day front entrance to Bank (Photo Credit: Brendan Spierin). AIB Bankcentre, Ballsbridge – RKD (1979).
View of present day front entrance to Bank (Photo Credit: Brendan Spierin).

The essence of good taste, discrete, neither imposing nor assertive, a fine example of the demanding art of orderly development. When the balconies are clothed in shrubs and plants we will have nothing less than the hanging gardens of Ballsbridge.

- Taoiseach Charles Haughey at the opening of the AIB Bankcentre Ballsbridge, 19 February 1980.1

As the Irish Banking system expanded in the 1970s and 80s, it expressed its growing confidence with grandiose architectural statements; such as Sam Stephenson’s looming central bank on Dame street or Ronald Tallon’s Bank of Ireland on Baggot Street.

While Tallon was paying tribute to Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram building in New York, with its plaza allowing visitors an opportunity to step back and admire the steel and glass structure, Andy Devane – of Robinson Keefe & Devane Architects – found less of an appeal in Manhattan Architecture. He wrote  in 1975:

‘In more ways than one, exterior space is the city dweller’s quotient of nature, his window of the seasons, yard-stick of the elements. As density increases and crushes space, nature recedes until, as in downtown New York, it virtually disappears, dominated and supplanted by structures and technology gone mad, and one commences to live in a sub-nature world.’2

This statement set up Devane’s ambition for the AIB Bankcentre, on a 15 acre site in Ballsbridge, which was completed in 1979. Its sensitivity towards the RDS complex across the road was praised, and it neatly fitted into the scale of its neighbourhood of Ballsbridge, a lush, red-brick Victorian suburb which was a choice location for modern offices in the later 20th century. While many of these developments were of poor quality, the area also hosted the prefabricated concrete icons of John Johansen’s American embassy (1964) and David Keane’s Texaco House (1972).

Arguably the most striking view of the Bankcentre is from the air. It consists of eight stacks of office blocks flowing over green space, stepping in height to a maximum of five storeys so as not to overshadow its residential surroundings or the RDS building. The scale of the campus was unprecedented in Ireland, with a total of six acres of office space.

The Bankcentre is often considered the third piece in an architectural trilogy by Andy Devane, alongside the Stephen Court Building on Stephens Green (1970) and the Irish Life Centre on Lower Abbey Street (1980). It resembles the Irish Life Centre in its decision to become a ‘groundscraper’, opting for lower height but greater site footprint than a skyscraper development. The application of shimmering bands of white mosaic is comparable to the bands of glass and mosaic in Desmond Rea O’Kelly’s Liberty Hall. On the elevations of the Bankcentre, hanging shrubs are given equal importance to the glass, concrete and mosaic.

The then CEO of AIB, Jim Fitzpatrick, was keen to point out that, ‘though you might not think so to look at it, the building was not built expensively’, costing approximately £20 Million. Devane’s experience in detailing large scale projects is clearly evident in his clever use of repeated modules of the same technical details across the site. A clear example of this is the carefully articulated junction of a prefabricated L-shaped concrete column/beam with the floor slabs.

AIB Bankcentre, Ballsbridge - RKD (1979). Detail of facade (Photo Credit: Brendan Spierin). AIB Bankcentre, Ballsbridge – RKD (1979).
Detail of facade (Photo Credit: Brendan Spierin).

RTÉ lauded the building as a ‘Bankers Paradise’. The project had much publicity about how it put employees at the centre of its design. In 1979 Ireland had a record high year of industrial disputes, with nationwide bus strikes, national post strikes, protests and general workers’ discontent making the headlines week after week. In total, disputes cost the economy 1,460,000 working days that year alone. In this context, employee satisfaction took on a new significance for Irish employers. Frank McDonald has noted in Destruction of Dublin however, that much of the staff amenities were merely empty promises for publicity purposes and were never in fact completed.3

With a new rear office extension and entrance to the original building (also designed by RKD and built in 2008), the AIB Bankcentre has undergone significant transformation since it was first constructed. As is the plight of much 20th century modern office architecture, many of the building’s spaces have failed to provide enough flexibility to adapt to changes in office requirements in the 21st century. While some of the offices were refurbished as part of RKD’s intervention, the front four blocks are now unoccupied and went on the market in May. Their future is in doubt as it is expected planning permission will be sought by its new owners for a new large scale development, greatly increasing their capacity and potential use.4

Whatever the future, one hopes Devane’s original vision for the building will survive. Through the immersion of architecture in a man-made natural environment, landscaping can give back to both its surroundings and its everyday users, and can be more than a mere ‘afterthought’ of leftover space.

 

[1] RTE Archives New HQ for AIB in Ballsbridge 1980 Dublin: RTE. Retrieved 15 November from http://www.rte.ie/archives/category/business/2015/0218/681106-aib-gets-new-hq/

[2] Devane, A. (1975) ‘Space about buildings’ in Delany, P. (1975). Dublin, a city in crisis : [report of the] Dublin Urban Study. Dublin: The Institute Distributed by O’Brien Press.

[3] McDonald, F. (1985). The Destruction of Dublin. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

[4] Fagan, J. (2015) ‘Part of Allied Irish Banks D4 headquarters for €50m’, in The Irish Times. Dublin: The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 November from http://www.irishtimes.com/business/commercial-property/part-of-allied-irish-banks-d4-headquarters-for-50m-1.2218395

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