• Saturday , 16 November 2019

Concrete Elephant – The Phibsboro Centre

View of Centre from Doyle's Corner. Photo: Cormac Murray. View of Phibsboro Centre from Doyle’s Corner. Photo: Cormac Murray.

As a tide of thousands of motorists sludges over Cross-Guns bridge every weekday morning, an imposing concrete tower announces their arrival at the city’s edge. Forty-seven years since its creation, the Phibsboro centre has lost its shock factor – it has become familiar, synonymous with the Victorian suburb it dominates.

Although not strictly a Brutalist building, it evokes a similar emotion to many of the Brutalist icons which were being constructed in Britain at the time –  such as Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger (1966) or the Tricorn Centre by the Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon (1966). The monotonous grey concrete material with a repetitive, unrelentive facade conspire to create a brooding atmosphere.

The building is a seven-storey concrete office tower on a plinth of single-storey retail units. The formal arrangement of tower and plinth recalls a motte and bailey fortification. This comparison is enhanced by both the segmented concrete staircase that clings to the  south-western side of the tower like a medieval turret and the first floor concrete annex that wraps around the corner of Connaught street like a battlement.

The facade is composed of 409 pre-cast panels in the office tower and a further 50 on the first floor. Accounts from the construction of the building tell how each panel had to be lifted in by crane, weighing over 3 tonnes [1]. This estimation would bring the overall weight of the panels alone to over 1,377 tonnes.

On closer inspection of the seemingly homogenous grey concrete, an interplay between contrasting textures is revealed: the coarse aggregate with Ballincollig stone and a finer aggregate with a glittering sand-like texture. The building was designed by McCormack Keane and Partners and shows David Keane’s fascination for pre-cast concrete building systems which he would explore further in smaller schemes such as Palmerston House (1974) and Texaco House (1971). The rigorous two-dimensional facade becomes more playful in three dimensions, with alternations between angular concave indentations on the office tower and convex on the first-floor annex.

View from rooftop carpark. Photo: Cormac Murray. View from the rooftop carpark. Photo: Cormac Murray.

Erasing a terrace of Victorian cottages that once lined the Phibsborough Road [2], the centre is of a completely alien character to its surroundings. There is a certain harmony however with the scale of the centre and the two former flour mills on the canal banks, the older stone building now converted to apartments with the larger concrete structure abandoned. The flour mill, which was originally an iron works, once boasted the tallest chimney in the city, demolished in 1947 [3]. Behind the centre, in Dalymount park, four steel talons reach to the sky – floodlights erected in 1962.

Black and white photographs of the building that opened in 1969 present a gutsy, slick, modern edifice that hoped to rejuvenate an area which, according to reports, was already traffic-dominated and in decline [4]. Today a fungus of antennae has grown on the rooftop, windows are rusted, glass faded, wires strewn on the facade like cobwebs. New signage and installations make little attempt to complement the existing building. This is symptomatic of a treatment of ‘active neglect’, where, through lack of maintenance and unsympathetic interventions, users accelerate the decline of much maligned buildings as a form of protest which they hope will eventually lead to demolition or relocation.

The Phibsboro centre is now in a limbo. Many of its contemporaries such as Fitzwilton House are set for demolition. The centre was sold earlier this year for €17 million. A convenient loop-hole for developers occurred when a lack of councillors were present to ratify the Local Area Plan, an amendment to which would have restricted the height of any development on the site to 8 storeys. With the LAP falling through, development at the site can go up to 12 storeys as dictated by the Dublin City Development Plan [5].

Rear Elevation, Junction with Dalymount. Photo: Cormac Murray. Rear Elevation, Junction with Dalymount. Photo: Cormac Murray.

While the local community group Phizzfest have little love for the Phibsboro centre, nicknaming it ‘the elephant in the village’, in a collaboration with the RIAI their re-imagining Phibsboro group proposed that the tower be retained and re-glazed to provide student accommodation [6]. The recent transformation of the Stephenson Gibney designed McInerney Block on Lower Grand Canal Street to a fashionable office location shows the potential to lend a new lease of life to drab 1970s concrete structures.

The environmental cost alone of demolishing such a huge mass of concrete would justify retaining and refurbishing the centre for many. The architectural critic Jonathan Meades gives another justification: 1960s and 70s concrete buildings were not intended to be pretty, apologetic or polite but aggressive, experimental and heroic. To demolish them completely from our cities is, in his words, a ‘censorship of the past’ [7].

[1] McManus, R. (2008), Crampton built. Dublin: G. & T. Crampton.

[2] Lamb, V. ed. (1969, November  01), ‘Example of Urban Renewal’, The Irish Times, p.1 7.

[3] Liddy, P. (1987, March 18), Phibsboro, The Irish Times, p.14.

[4] Lamb, V. ed. (1969, November  01), ‘Phibsboro re-invigorated’, The Irish Times, p.1 7.

[5] Fagan, J. & Kelly, O. (2016, March 02), ‘Tower on site of Phibsboro Shopping Centre may be 50m high’, The Irish Times, retrieved from http://www.irishtimes.com/business/commercial-property/tower-on-site-of-phibsboro-shopping-centre-may-be-50m-high-1.2555652 on 21/09/2016.

[6] McDonald, F. (2016, June 23), ‘Residents fighting to shape Phibsborough’s future’, The Irish Times, retrieved from http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/residents-fighting-to-shape-phibsborough-s-future-1.2693533 on 21/09/2016.

[7] Meades, J. (2014),  Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, BBC4. retrieved from https://vimeo.com/93116236 on 21/09/2016.

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