The imposing complex of Government Buildings on Upper Merrion Street was undertaken by the British administration in Ireland. It was designed for two new government departments - the Local Government Board and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction - as well as the Royal College of Science, then housed in 51 St Stephen's Green.
Fortuitously, the complex was completed in March 1922, and was available immediately to be occupied by the new Irish Free State government. In more recent times, the building has been converted and entirely refurbished to form modern accommodation for a number of departments including the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Finance and the Office of the Attorney General.
Until the 1880s there were few research and job opportunities in Ireland, so student numbers were low. They remained low until closer involvement by the Royal College of Science and the Royal University led to a rise in numbers. In particular, the departments of engineering, physics and chemistry burgeoned. By 1897, the increased student body could no longer be contained in the St Stephen's Green premises. The authorities were forced to search for a suitable relocation.
The Upper Merrion Street site was decided upon after much debate. It was the only location capable of catering to the many and diverse demands which would be made on the proposed building complex. Prime among these was the desire to create in Dublin a block of prestigious cultural and educational buildings, similar to the cultural and scientific institutions of South Kensington.
Situated as it was next to the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Science and Art (now the National Museum), the Upper Merrion Street site was ideal from this point of view.
To justify expenditure the buildings would also have to accommodate a number of British government departments. It had already been decided to house the newly created Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in numbers 1-4 Upper Merrion Street. It was seen as common sense to have this department close to the College of Science. The Upper Merrion Street site would allow for incremental development over a number of years.
With this in mind, a quadrangle arrangement was envisaged. The college, and main part of the buildings, would be to the rear where sensitive laboratory instruments would be at a distance from the disruptive effects of noise and traffic. Government departments would take offices in the wings. These would be built later and would reach out to Merrion Street.
King Edward VII lays foundation stone
In 1903, the British parliament passed an Act sanctioning the project. King Edward VII laid the foundation in April 1904 shortly after the renowned London architect Aston Webb was appointed project architect. Thomas Manly Deane of Dublin, who had recently completed work at the National Gallery of Ireland, was appointed executant architect.
The news of Webb's appointment was received unhappily by the Irish architectural profession. The scheme was to cost £225,000 and members had been lobbying hard, since 1901, to have the commission given to an Irish architect.
Feelings were appeased, somewhat, when Deane was appointed joint architect. His input proved considerable. Since Webb's office was in London it was found easier to sort out design and other problems in Deane's office in nearby Molesworth Street.
Opened in 1911 by King George V
His involvement was such that, in 1911 when the main part of the building was opened by King George V, Deane was knighted on the site. Webb's design concept was of a building with a neoclassical facade cloaking an elegantly restrained interior with up-to-date concrete floors, electric power, elevators, central heating and ventilation fans. Today's refurbished building remains faithful to this notion.
The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and, while Webb got on with the business of designing the complex, concern began to be expressed about what Irish materials should be used in its construction. When the preliminary designs became available in 1905, it was obvious that a combination of granite and Portland stone, already in use on the facades of Admiralty Arch, would be employed.
Concern grew until the architects were obliged to give an undertaking that 80% of all building materials would be Irish. Portland stone would be used only in the decorative facings of the buildings. Granite for the rest was selected from the Ballyknocken quarries in Co Wicklow.
Webb's original plans for the College of Science complex were published in 1906. They were for a single block of offices with a central arch at ground level and a grandiose centerpiece surmounted by towers. Changes, including the arrangements for two blocks of offices, were made as building progressed.
Modern movement in architecture
The 1922 completed complex was an amalgam of Webb's original proposals and additions which included sculpted figures rather than domes above the parapet. Though in the classical tradition, building of the complex coincided with the development of the modern movement in architecture.
The building contractors were Messrs McLaughlin and Harvey. By January 1908, work had progressed to the point where tenders were sent out for the heating and ventilation systems.
The college, inaugurated by King George V in 1911, occupied the western half of the site where its lecture theatres and laboratories were furthest from the disruptive effects of street traffic. By July 1911, the college building, apart from some statuary still to be fitted, was completed and opened.
It was to take another five years, however, before the last of Albert Power's female figures would be hoisted onto the parapets of the colonnade. Building work was suspended for a year in 1911. In July 1912, McLaughlin and Harvey were given the contract for the second phase of development. Work this time did not go as smoothly to plan as before.
Delays in the demolition of the houses to the front of the site held up progress. So too did debate on the positioning of the principal staircase and on the room arrangements, and the departments which were to occupy the completed offices.
The balancing north and south wings, intended to house departments of the British administration, were completed in March 1922. To allow for the eventual building of these wings, the townhouses, which originally fronted the site, were acquired by compulsory purchase order.
The Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction and the Board of Works occupied the townhouses until 1913 when, building having at last progressed to this outer periphery, they were demolished. In all, 18 four-storey over-basement houses were pulled down to make way for the additional blocks. Ironically, Deane had offices in one of the houses which had to be demolished.
Science students move in
The first science students took their places in the laboratories and lecture rooms on 3 October, 1911.
By the time the complex was completed in 1922, civil unrest and the destruction of buildings meant that office space in the city was in short supply. The executive council of the new Irish Free State, along with several of its government departments, moved into the north wing immediately it was ready.
The Royal College of Science, which had merged with UCD in the 1920s, completed its transfer to the new campus facilities at Belfield in 1989.
'Edwardian baroque' buildings
The dramatically 'Edwardian baroque' buildings are arranged around a square quadrangle. Architecturally, it is the centerpiece of the composition, its colossal ionic portico and dome visible through the columnar screen on the street elevation.
Public opinion impelled the architects to give undertaking that 80% of all building materials would be of Irish origin, and Wicklow granite is employed externally, with superior Portland stone detailing.
Allegorical sculptural figures above the parapet and portal screen were executed by Power. The interior demonstrates the use of the latest advances in building technology. Steel and reinforced concrete were used in the construction, and electric power installed throughout, along with elevators, ventilation fans and turf-fired central heating.
Webb's completed design, then as now, was both architecturally dramatic and imposing. Beginning with the Colossal Ionic Order across the front entrance, this mood carried across the spacious quadrangle to the front of the building where finely wrought single bay pavilions flanked the colonnade. Standing on either side of the entrance were statues of the Irish scientists William Rowan Hamilton and Robert Boyle. Above them, set into a pediment, was a figure depicting science.
Modelled on Rodin's 'Thinker'
Designed by Oliver Sheppard and sculpted by Power, this was reputed to have been modelled on Rodin's 'Thinker'. On both wings the arch pavilions were finely detailed, with narrow strips of boldly worked fenestration applied to a background of channelled stonework. Over the arches there were elegantly carved sculptural devices as well as the royal monographs. Edward's was on the northern and George's on the southern arch.
Internally, Webb used the latest advances in building technology of the day. All of the corridors were paved with marble tiles. Rooms were ventilated by means of a carefully devised system of fans. The buildings were distinguished by an impressive structural integrity. Workmanship too, from the carving on Power's figures to stone work carried out by tradesmen, was of the highest quality.
Inside, the entrance hall is cool and bright. The walls are white and grey, the floors marble. Steps lead up to a set of glazed doors and through them to the inner hall.
Here the mood changes dramatically. Colours, from the subdued beechwood of the staircase to the vibrancy of the carpet and luminous stained glass window by Evie Hone are warm and glowing. The wide staircase is double returned and has three square cut-outs in each timber banister. It continues to the first floor principal offices.
The carpet covering this main staircase was designed by the artist Mary FitzGerald. The colours, at the base, blend with the beech floor but change to merge with the rich variety in Evie Hone's window. On each landing and on the length of the upper floor the colours have been deepened to make a rich background for an abstract design interpreting the window. Other carpets were woven by Munster Carpets Ltd, in Douglas, Co Cork.
‘My Four Green Fields’ window
Hone's glorious window is entitled ‘My Four Green Fields’. It dates from 1939 when it was commissioned by the Department of Industry and Commerce for the Irish government's pavilion at the New York World Trade Fair. It graced CIE's head office in O'Connell Street from 1960 to about 1983 when it was taken into storage by Abbey Glass in Kilmainham at the request of the Office of Public Works.
Before being fitted into its new position, it was completely renovated by Abbeyglass. This involved dismantling, the cleaning of each piece of glass individually and re-leading. It depicts the four provinces of Ireland and, though the composition is complex, emblems and symbols can be clearly distinguished.
Principal offices of the Taoiseach
On the first floor, there are the principal offices of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), his advisers, conference rooms and the government secretariat. The architectural intention here was to interpret the feeling of the strong external facades. Plastered panelled walls and coffered ceilings, panelled doors and heavy architraves and chair rails, have been used throughout. Paintings from the Office of Public Work Collection hang on the walls of rooms and corridors.
The ground and second floors have been subdivided into individual offices. Features of these floors include panelled doors and plastered ceiling cornices. Corridors on all floors offer fine vistas, with lights and columns adding visual detail. Particularly interesting is the small, domeless rotunda outside the Taoiseach's office.
A principal feature of the basement is the facilities for the press. Here an old lecture theatre was converted into a fully equipped press centre and a former students' canteen made into a workspace for visiting media personnel.
Furniture and materials used throughout the building are Irish and of Irish manufacture. The architects chose oakwood furniture for most rooms but other native woods, such as sycamore, ash and beech, have also been used.
The joinery work was carried out by the Gem Manufacturing Company Ltd, Co Longford. Dubliner Eric Pearce designed a series of superb tables for the buildings. His approach - uncluttered and understated - matches that taken with the interiors as a whole.
Pearce is also responsible for the oval tables in two of the conference rooms. The first, is made of timber from Doneraile, Co Cork - sycamore, bleached and inlaid with Fota Island yew. The network of supports have been similarly bleached, as have two complementary sideboards and small tables made of the same timbers.
The State Harp
The second conference room table is similarly shaped but is made of solid West Cork ash. Its single decorative feature is an inlaid central image of the State Harp, in photo etched brass. In this room too there are simple, and effective, matching sideboards.
In the Taoiseach's office, walls are panelled with oak from the ancient forests of Coolattin, Co Wicklow. A Bossi fireplace, originally in the north wing, has been relocated here. For a side room to this office, Pearce designed a table in solid oak and two accompanying side tables in the same timber. He also designed an ornate circular dining table with a circular inset centre piece of goldleaf, palladium and acrylic by the artist Patrick Scott.
The original Cabinet Room (known as the Council Chamber from the days of the executive council of the Irish Free State) was refurbished to provide for modern needs. A series of portrait drawings of Irish historical figures were commissioned. This refurbishing of the Cabinet Room provides for a continuity of government within its walls. New cabinet room furniture was commissioned by the Office of Public Works in 2004 to incorporate the latest technology for e-cabinet.
Design of cabinet table
The new cabinet table was designed by Michael Bell Design, Co Laois, and made by Fitzgerald Furniture of Kells, Co Meath. It is made of Irish burr walnut (centre panel and dark band around edge), European walnut (the lighter wood) with ebony stringing, brass inlay with a patinated bronze track discretely housing the technology outlets. The innovative shape of the table is designed to maximise sight lines and seating capacity within the room.
The chairs, also designed by Michael Bell, are handmade by craftsman Michael Smith of Fitzgerald Furniture. The design is a unique and particularly complex one incorporating virtually no straight lines - making them a significant challenge for the craftsman. Each chair incorporates 88 pieces of individually hand-worked walnut. The chairs are high backed, with a burr walnut back panel and upholstered in black hide leather.
The lectern, used for making presentations to the cabinet, was designed by Michael Bell, crafted by Verena Meyer and is finished in rubbed lacquered Irish burr walnut. The side cabinets were designed by Michael Bell and crafted by Fitzgerald Furniture.
In the final phase of the development a conference/dining room in Italian style was provided. In both the room and corridor leading to it, the contrast with the decor in the rest of building is startling and effective. Vivid colours take over from the muted tones of the rest of the building. An ornate, tiled table was made in Dublin by Tileworks, a small Dublin firm specialising in sculptural and hand painted tiles.
Refurbishment project 1990
Commencing in 1989, and with a sensitivity of design and respect for the building's historic inheritance, the OPW converted the former laboratories and lecture theatres into offices suitable for the transaction of government business at the highest level, with state-of-the-art environmental conditioning, electronics, information technology and communications.
The project was completed in 1990 and occupied by the Department of the Taoiseach.
Using techniques perfected at the Custom House project, the external stonework was meticulously cleaned, revealing attractive bands of darker stone under the parapet. The courtyard was given a simple treatment with salvaged tram-setts used to form the peripheral carriageway and car-parking bays, and the central area divided into four grassed lawns.
A low-level water feature, in scale with the surroundings is positioned at the intersection of the granite paths, and lime trees were planted to soften the landscape. The entrance steps were reshaped and carried forward, to create a more dignified entrance and a podium for receiving guests.
The cool, bright entrance hall has been visually extended by breaking through the wall of the former principal lecture theatre beyond, and strengthening the floor to accommodate a ceremonial stairway. The focus of this inner hall is Hone’s stained glass window, 'My four Green Fields'.
The remaining two storeys accommodate cellular offices. A principal feature of the basement is the specially created press centre, fully equipped with sound enhancement, recording facilities, television broadcasting, simultaneous interpretation, autocue, and slide projection.
RIAI Silver Medal award
Government Buildings has won a number of awards commending the refurbishment project and its improved access for the disabled, including the RIAI Silver Medal for conservation for the period 1987-92. The citation commented that “the reuse of this existing building of acknowledged quality of this new, and entirely fitting, purpose, has created a special identity of government, and has contributed considerably to Dublin's status as a European capital”.
The job to restore one of Dublin's great buildings began with an initial assessment which revealed obvious problems. Structural analysis determined the adequacy of the building to cope with the proposed change of use and consequently revised loading conditions. Even the very nature of the structure itself with filler joist floors and roofs which spanned onto brick support walls presented problems.
Because the main load bearing elements varied between exposed steel, brick encased steel or brickwork, engineers had to be extremely vigilant. Asbestos lagged central heating pipes needed to be disposed of for both environmental and health reasons.
The principal structural changes involved the ceremonial stairs and the rooftop helicopter pad. To provide for the first, the main lecture theatre was demolished to accommodate the new stairs. The helicopter pad was placed on a platform built at parapet level.
Other areas of major structural work included the fitting of two lift shafts and large openings in floors and walls to facilitate the upgrading of services. A building management system - to allow for the remote monitoring, control and maintenance of the mechanical systems throughout the buildings - was installed.
Outside, diluted chemicals and poulticing, a combination which had already been successfully used on the city's Custom House, was used to clean the stonework. A low, circular, continually filtered fountain was fitted at the intersection of the granite paths. Lime trees, planted around the edge, soften the effect of the stone.
The main building contractor for the refurbishment work was Pierse Contracting Limited and as many as 350 people worked on the project.
The job was completed within budget in December 1990 at a total cost of £17.4 million. The formal opening was performed by the then taoiseach, Charles J Haughey, on 24 January, 1991.