The Dublin Port Centre bursts out of a lush greenscape, looming over an old stone wall on the border of the East Wall Road. A constructivist icon in an area besot with urban decay, its raised plinth suggests the significance of a temple surrounded by an unassuming, pragmatic architecture of the city’s docklands.
Scott Talon Walker’s headquarters for the Port and Docks Board was completed in 1980. The building marks the beginning of a transformation in Dublin’s urban character along Alexandria Road. Here, the recognisable urban fabric morphs into an industrial landscape of silos, chimneys, shipping containers and cranes. The result is a mix of two typological languages: a corporate one of a company headquarters and an industrial one of a working port.
An iconic presence is articulated by the exoskeleton concrete-frame structure that encases a glazed cuboid at its centre. The glazing is protected by the sun and elements with a recess of one and a half metres. The concrete skeleton evokes the exposed floor slabs of a building under construction, the same temporal association of steel trussed assemblies rusting in the port. However, while evoking this condition, its solidity of form and materiality allows the building a purposeful air of certainty and permanence.
The site was strategically chosen to survey the port, with the commanding position of a watch-tower. The centre’s section was determined by an experiment on site, when project architect Conor Dwyer was lifted in a crane to determine the 9.2 metre height the first-floor offices would need to be off ground level to attain views of the port beyond. The plant rooms were situated at the top of the building due to ground conditions with a blank concrete wall of three metres acting as a billboard opportunity to the street.
The building embraced advanced theories in adaptable office design emerging in the 1970s. Its external structure and central service core allow for increased flexibility of the internal layouts with internal loads carried solely by the service core and two columns. Compartmentalisation of the office space is partially but not completely avoided, with the use of open plans tempered with closed office space for executives and meeting rooms.
With the primary structure outside, the floor to ceiling is glazed to offer expansive views of the port and around to the city; though unfortunately interrupted by horizontal and vertical aluminium sections that support the double-glazing. By comparison, the exciting promise of the building’s exterior form is contrasted with lacklustre internal fittings and cluttered arrangements.
As an experiment in adaptable office space, the Dublin Port Centre is certainly pioneering in the context of Irish Architecture. However such theories were replicated in more dramatic fashion by its contemporary, the Central Bank. The Port Centre is an approximate square of 25 metres, and is closer to a Martello tower than the Central Bank’s spaceship proportions. With the service core taking up a large proportion of the floor plan, one is always within five to ten metres away from the glazing edge. Only so many iterations of office layout are achievable within the confines of this space.
Now approaching 35 years since it was constructed, the building has aged gracefully; the deep recesses of external concrete perhaps sheltering much of the facade from excessive exposure to the elements With questions of whether the city’s docks may need to relocate in the future, the Dublin Port Centre looks prepared to weather out the storm as a somewhat modest, yet innovative urban artefact.