The ESB’s New Clothes

Colum O'Riordan

In 1965 sixteen late-eighteenth-century houses on the east side of Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin were demolished. They had served as headquarters of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and in their place was to be a new company HQ, a 1961 competition-winning scheme by the partnership of Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney. The houses had been dismissed by Sir John Summerson as Georgian rubbish, ‘simply one dammed house after another’, and almost none of the competition entrants had proposed their retention (in part at least for the expedient reason that the client had made it obvious it did not want them retained). Nonetheless, their removal was highly contentious and vociferously opposed. The interruption of the continuous Georgian terrace, stretching for nearly a mile from Merrion Square East to Fitzwilliam Place, was regarded by many as a blatant act of architectural vandalism.

Completed in 1970, Stephenson Gibney’s ESB HQ was in fact a considered, contextually sensitive building in the rhythm of whose facade it was possible to see the ghosts of the demolished houses. However, it could never escape the circumstances of its birth. Despite (or maybe even because of) its restraint, it was for nearly five decades either underappreciated or actively disliked. Now it too is gone. A third ESB HQ stands on the site, the recently completed 2010 competition-winning scheme by Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike. The delivery of the latest building was complicated by Dublin City Council’s demand that the facades of the lost eighteenth-century houses be reinstated. This was later softened to a requirement that the new building respect the character of its context. And so it does, with a brilliantly inventive, twenty-first century riff on a Georgian Dublin streetscape. But the Grafton/O’Mahony Pike solution was not the first time serious consideration had been given to re-establishing a Georgian sensibility on the site.

In the latest, and last, tranche of the archives of Sam Stephenson – recently acquired by the Irish Architectural Archive – is a series of beautifully executed elevations of the east side of Fitzwilliam Street Lower. Dating from 1992, when Stephenson was in partnership with Michael Reddy, the first shows the complete east side of Fitzwilliam Street Lower prior to demolition, including the four houses (two at each end) which survived and indeed survive still. A second shows the Stephenson Gibney ESB HQ as completed in 1970. With these is a series of four proposals for recladding the Stephenson Gibney building in Georgian camouflage.

Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Georgian buildings, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.
Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Final Scheme, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.

All four proposals share a level parapet, and in all four the recessed elements of the top floor are left undisguised. Scheme A comes closest to a reinstatement of the demolished facades. However, instead of sixteen two- and three-bay, four-storey, red-brick ‘houses’, there are fifteen. From right to left, the doors, windows, balconies and railings of eleven houses are more-or-less faithfully reproduced. At this point, a five-bay facade is inserted into the two- and three-bay run and this ‘house’ is given prominence through a distinct architectural treatment. A broad, central door, panelled and topped by a rectangular fanlight, is set in a rusticated ground floor above which six engaged Corinthian columns rise through two storeys to support a plain entablature at third-floor sill level. The terrace is completed by three further two-and three-bay ‘houses’. The asymmetrical placement of a significant house in a terrace is not unknown in Dublin. Witness for example the nearby 45 Merrion Square (home of the Irish Architectural Archive), taller, wider and deeper than its neighbours but placed not quite centrally on Merrion Square East. However, the use of embellishment to add emphasis to particular houses in a terrace (usually the centre or terminations in Britain or Europe) is not a typical feature of Georgian Dublin. Why is it being proposed here? Simply because this is where the main entrance to the Stephenson Gibney building is located. Separate architectural treatment of the entrance is another common element to all four proposals.

Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Scheme A, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.
Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Scheme B, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.
Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Scheme C, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.
Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Scheme D, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.

Scheme B presents a fourteen-part division of the facade, directly referencing the fourteen-part division of the Stephenson Gibney building underneath. The entrance, again panelled and fan-lit, is marked here by a portico, semi-circular in plan and topped by an ornate balcony. Other doors are eschewed, replaced by windows in a rusticated stone or rendered ground floor. The three upper floors are of brick and each division consists of three bays. There is a repeating pattern. A division with round-headed ground-floor windows, and a wide central first-floor window, is followed by two with more standard square-headed fenestration. The placement of pairs of iron balconies on either side of the wider first-floor windows reinforces this not-very-Dublin symmetry.

Scheme C is the least interventionist. The idea of the rusticated ground floor of Scheme B is retained, punctured here by pairs of small, voussoir-topped windows separated by niches. A two-storey glazed entrance sits behind a distyle portico-in-antis in the centre of a five-to-six bay quoined and rendered block which fronts three of the fourteen divisions. Otherwise, the Stephenson Gibney facade is left exposed. Finally, in Scheme D the entrance is in the centre of an eleven-bay block, quoined at its ends, and is demarcated by a three-bay, columned and pedimented stone or rendered section containing the panelled, voussoir-topped, fan-lit door. The rest of the facade divisions vary from two to three to four bays. Two of them are also quoined, including the right-hand end block, while the left-hand end block has quoins on its left side. The facade is bookended by bays with Wyatt windows on the first, second and third floor while, across the full facade, floor-to-ceiling ground-floor windows are evenly set in stone surrounds and surmounted by a key-stone motif.

Why were these drawings produced? It seems the years of criticism had taken their toll on the ESB. The repair of the ‘damage’ caused in 1965 was mooted internally in the early 1990s as a reputation-restoring act of atonement and a way to mark the coming Millennium. The four alternatives here hint at the very wide range of possible solutions to the perceived problem, but also suggest quite strongly why this was an idea best left undeveloped. Any resulting hodgepodge of po-mo and pastiche would hardly have convinced. The proposal was quietly dropped. Perhaps this was Sam Stephenson’s intention all along? Bizarre as it was, the exercise was not entirely wasted. In the elevations of the sixteen demolished houses and of the Stephenson Gibney ESB HQ, the Irish Architectural Archive now holds among the best surviving records of these vanished Fitzwilliam Streets.

Sam Stephenson (1933–2006), Final Scheme (detail), Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1992. Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.