Occasionally, projects come along in the life of a practice which open doors to building in solid form ideas already germinating in drawings and conversations; architects always carry unbuilt forms half - realised in their heads, elements unproven, awaiting material shape. The Dental Hospital project was of this nature, a very particular response to a specific urban situation, hollowing out a terrace of Georgian buildings in central Dublin to create a series of offices and meetings rooms, but its intent- and the ideas behind the work- were deeply rooted in the practice’s interests over time.
Cities consist of diverse realms. There are many Dublins, all in need of thought and the impact of architecture- in the nature of things, our projects have fallen into the historic centre of the city. Working there, and measuring the material world to set new things down in it, the physical reality of its honeycomb of Georgian and Victorian spaces is a phenomenon of form, interesting for its worn and textured fabric, old and asymmetric rooms, its walls, roofs, plans and sections, courts and gardens. It is an intense and particular geography for locating new work and – as in other European cities- should be of the greatest advantage as a context for architecture.
It is not that simple. In Dublin, this legacy suffers from public insouciance, poor planning, with new interventions of indifferent quality; much of it is derelict or substantially underused, poorly conserved. Physical dysfunction echoes social frailty; the city remains –relatively- empty of people, without an easy and original means of occupation; there is no comfort or richness in the use of old things - or the harmonious combination of new and old that characterizes other European cities, no ingenuity in the junction of social possibility and physical pleasure in these incremental, small-boned spaces.
Harnessing its potential in a radical way should be a priority for contemporary architects, working to use it as a means of social re-engagement, as a means of architectural exploration, as a way to unlock the real originality of its specific form through intervention and conservation. Such a task cannot be addressed by simplistic solutions, but by some degree of engagement with the complexity of place, distilling clarity from its layered reality rather than imposing an idealized order on it.
The Dental Hospital project a means to explore what might be done. Nora Barnacle worked in Finn’s Hotel in one of the houses, on the one hand of interest in that her daily routine echoes Joyce’s vision of a city of quotidian activity, on the other, literary allusion panders to the city’s overdependence on dead genius to support its appeal and distorts the clear and unsentimental truth about the houses- that they can stand on their own, that they represent beautiful and usable spaces with the patina of age that need simple but intelligent reconfiguration to make them work for another two centuries.
This context begs questions as to how to make new work in it, treating spaces and facades like a natural geography of planes and shapes to work on. In the Dental Hospital, the rooms were suspended above the shops below, a floating network of spaces over the city, something glimpsed across the street and through windows, reputed, not expressed- a delicate sense of how cities might endure. Like all work in existing buildings, there is the search for the right weight of intervention, a judgment on how the building might be left to breathe – and acquire additional meaning- through a lens of new construction, not least bringing better light, ventilation and circulation to old rooms, turning closed private spaces into linked communal ones.
In detail, this microsurgery involved a series of investigations, linked, not linked, linked in circuitous ways depending on the reality of the building structure - the careful conservation of materials and finishes, the opening of three levels of corridor across the spine walls (a promenade of levels and steps like a Corbusian street in the air, its size matching the pavement below, architecture extended by the curve and fold of the street), then five metal pods on the roof for a linked library which uses the geometry of spine walls to support their forms- architects free to decide on height and extent of overhang, then a series of lightwells between both that give light to the spaces and appear- light as structure- to keep the pods aloft. The Dental Hospital is small, but effective work can be intimate in scale and a city can be an aggregate of independent ideas; it is proposed at that level as a contribution to ways the city might be transformed.