Dublin’s Liberties has an unkempt character. Its streets are scattered with relics of industry, once the lifeblood of this district. Here artisan shops and boutiques coexist with social housing and homeless shelters. Everything is in plain sight, the ornate and the ugly knitted together with a rich historical fabric.
In this setting, the 18th century Meath hospital rises assuredly. A four storey classical structure, it distinguishes itself from low-rising brick surroundings through a combination of scale and grey limestone tones. In order to maintain a facade of proportions, its extensions have been built backward with a timber addition to the rear, now dilapidated. Behind the old building an industrial brick chimney rises. This looming obelisk, once connected to the hospital boilers, remains as an institutional presence.
On this site in the Liberties, the perplexing dilemma of juxtaposition between modernism and classicism (that occupied many Irish architects of the mid-twentieth century) is fossilised in one institution, with Andrew Devane’s 1955 hospital extension.
The 1950s addition makes little obvious effort to imitate the existing, consisting of a series of horizontal brick planes with ribbon windows and concrete cantilevers. Devane was fresh from returning from America, where he worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in his Taliesin school, and the influence of the Prairie Style nurtured by Wright can clearly be seen in the building’s form and materials.
A Dutch influence is also present, with comparisons possible to the work of W.M. Dudok (who in turn was inspired by Wright). In Dudok’s town hall in Hilversium, the architect created a symbolic building form which nonetheless functioned pragmatically and innovatively as an administrative building. Devane faced a similar challenge in creating an iconic modernist building that enhanced the functioning of the hospital.
With reforms being introduced in Ireland at this time in advanced medicine, and in particular in the treatment of TB, a growing awareness was arising of the positive effects architecture could have on health treatment. Many of the examples of early modernism in Ireland were in the construction of sanatoria and health buildings. The ‘machine architecture’ endorsed by the modernists became associated with a more efficient, hygienic approach to design.
In particular, Modernism offered light, air and sun – potential ingredients that could help in the treatment of diseases. The Meath Hospital building by Devane uses extensive glass on its South and North facades to maximise these opportunities. The windows are operable with ventilation control in mind. The vertical stair core, in a move typical of the Dutch, is extensively glazed to make generous light-filled circulation spaces. The façade becomes an expression of the interior functions, in contrast to the classical exterior composition of its neighbour.
Today the original steel windows are undergoing replacement. It is telling of the impermanence of architecture that the once cutting edge modernist building is now itself considered outdated. Such amendments are often accompanied by a sense of loss, and yet Devane himself urged us not to be precious in the face of pragmatism, writing ‘Age and infirmity will not justify universal euthanasia, still less a programme of massive civic embalmment.’1
1 Devane, A. (1975) p.74, Space About Buildings in Delany, P. (ed) Dublin: A City in Crisis. Dublin: RIAI Publishing.