Recently I read a fascinating discussion on Twitter where people were debating some of the more controversial (shall we say) buildings in the city of Dublin. Hawkins House and the Central Bank naturally made an appearance in the discussion, but there was also reference to the O’Connell Bridge House beside (obviously enough) the O’Connell Bridge. I was unaware that the architect behind the project, Desmond Fitzgerald, had sketched two buildings in his original proposal for the site, and the Irish Architectural Archive posted a quick snap of his drawings. Architect Ciarán Ferrie put the image above together quickly to give us an idea just what it may have appeared like had Fitzgerald’s plans come to fruition.
Fitzgerald, who oversaw the construction of the contemporary building in the 1960s, was Professor of Architecture at University College Dublin since 1951, and had once remarked once that technology would have little relevance to architecture in Ireland, as “Ireland is a very backward country and most buildings that are required here can be built by a handyman, his son and a ladder.” Of his own work, his finest achievement was undoubtedly the 1937 airport terminal building at Dublin Airport, described by Archiseek as “the most important pre-war Irish building in the International Style.”
In his hugely important study The Destruction Of Dublin, Frank McDonald noted that O’Connell Bridge House, “twelve storeys high and bestriding the bridge like a colossus”, had a controversial beginning. The site on which the building stands today was purchased by Kerry-born property developer John Byrne, who would become one of the richest men in Ireland. Byrne purchased the Carlisle Building, which had stood at the site prior to the contemporary office block, for a relatively small sum, a total of just £53,000 spent by 1961 in acquiring one of the most prominent sites in the capital. Just how much did O’Connell Bridge House cost in material and financial terms? McDonald has written that the project
…consumed 500 tons of structural steel, 90 tons of steel-reinforcing bars and no less than 7,500 tons of concrete – not to mention the Portland stone cladding. It cost £1 million, kept more than fifty men at work for two whole years an, in the end, stood at 145 feet tall – eleven feet higher than Nelson Pillar. So much for that handyman, his son and ladder.
McDonald believed that “the most incredible fact about O’Connell Bridge house is that it was built at all.” The building contained 45,000 square feet of office space, but not a single car parking spot, despite the fact Dublin Corporation were adamant at the time that there be a carparking space for every 500 square feet of office space.
When O’Connell Bridge House opened to the public in the 1960s, contemporary newspaper reports noted that the office block included a rooftop restaurant offering views over the city. Evidently it was envisioned that the building would fulfill many roles, serving not merely as another office complex in the heart of the city. It is probably best known to Dubliners not for its ill-fated restaurant however but the hugely expensive advertising signage upon it. Having previously promoted both Guinness and Coca Cola, in recent years it has become synonymous with the Heineken advertising upon it. Not too long ago I heard two Dublin young lads standing at the traffic lights beside the building refer to it as “the Heineken building”, proof that advertising works.