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The Wonders of Modernist Dublin

Updated on March 28, 2020

Modern Dublin

Modern walkway along the River Liffey
Modern walkway along the River Liffey

Modernist Dublin

By any standards, Dublin is an ancient city, officially dated to 900 AD. Beginning as a small settlement on the River Liffey, it has grown into a city of over one million inhabitants, in addition to being a significant metropolis. Throughout this eleven hundred years, it has acquired buildings that reflect political history and changing social conditions. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Ireland's considerable wealth of architectural talent provided Dublin with a number of modernistic buildings, that reflect these changing times.

Dublin Airport

....the old terminal!
....the old terminal!

Dublin Airport

The trip through modernist Dublin begins on arrival at its one, main airport. Five miles north of the city centre, Dublin Airport opened in 1940 to replace an earlier airfield at Baldonnel. Architect Desmond Fitzgerald designed the main airport building to resemble a luxury liner. This use of building references to refer to another type of vessel is characteristic of the International Style, a style that arose in the earlier twentieth century, supposedly devoid of all cultural references.

At this time, increased road traffic and the new past time of flying created a world-wide demand for a particular type of building, the transport terminal. Requirements were to accommodate large numbers of people for longer and shorter duration, which meant wide entrance doors and walkways, spacious seating areas, and retail and bathroom facilities. Ideally, such buildings bore features that demonstrated an awareness of their particular function, for example, glass panels overlooking departure and arrival esplanades.

The new – old! - Dublin Airport building bore all of these characteristics. Since then, the airport has expanded to accommodate the vast increase in air travel numbers. But the attractive, original terminal is still in place. Through-travelling passengers can still see the original decorative wooden paneling, characteristic of new buildings of that era.

Bus Aras, Store Street

In addition to air travel, the early twentieth century saw an increase in road passengers. The internal combustion engine had won out over the old, locomotive train and anyone not in possession of a private car often made an inter-city journey by bus. Bus Aras or the bus terminal is another fine example of the International Style. One characteristic of the style was that the building references elided all traditional and nationalist references, for example, "international" buildings are devoid of classical pillars or Mediterranean balconies.

Because of such apparent design rootlessness, the style often aroused public hostility – and the people of Dublin were no exception when architect Michael Scott presented the designs. Eventually, between 1945 and 1953, Bus Aras was built. Standing in front of the Store Street entrance today, it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about, since many buildings now feature similar entrances. But this rather pedestrian facade gives way to a stunning pavilion that overlooks Abbey Street. One of Scott’s innovations was the use of unorthodox materials, for example, the copper canopy roof and the mosaic walls of this aspect. One, curious feature of the building was the locating of the Eblana Theatre in its basement, which remained open between 1959 and 1995.

The Gas Company

The Gas Company, D'Olier Street

In addition to transport, the twentieth century saw several innovations in the use of smokeless fuels. The Dublin Gas Company stepped forward to provide domestic households with this “clean” form of fuel and in 1928, built its headquarters on D’Olier Street, in the centre of Dublin. Architects Robinson and O’Keefe designed the building and even today, the polished grey and black marble planes that highlight the entrance door and showcase windows present a fine example of art deco architecture.

Art deco is not unrelated to the International Style. However, as the name suggests, it is much more decorative, with references from worldwide cultures convening on building interiors and exteriors to create eye-catching patterns. Inside the Gas Company building, original columns and ceiling features are still in place. Even though the Irish Gas Board sold the building to Trinity College Dublin in 2002, the “Gas” sign still illuminates at night.

The Savoy Cinema, O'Connell Street

In addition to these utilitarian buildings, the 1920’s and 1930’s gave rise to a new type of entertainment, namely, the cinema. In cities all over the world, glittering picture palaces opened their ornate and welcoming interiors to the public. Art deco was ready and waiting for anyone on that special night out, and the Savoy Cinema on Dublin’s O’Connell Street was no exception. Built by Meagher and Hayes in 1929 to accommodate nearly 3000 patrons in its large auditorium, it has gone through many alterations to reach its current configuration of nine screens. But the foyer, with its chandelier, deep red carpets and gold leaf decorating the walls, still retains its aura of old-time glamour.

Dublin Convention Centre


The Dublin Convention Centre

In the twenty-first century, Dublin architecture is still moving with the times. Visitors to Ireland’s capital who avail of the Dublin Bus service to the airport – one bus service being touchingly numbered “747” - are treated to a magnificent view of the Dublin Convention Centre. As the bus whizzes along Spencer Dock, the last outpost of the city centre, the sparkling waters of the Liffey that lie along the other side of the road enhance the paneling of the Convention building – or is it the other way around?

Whatever, the glass cylinder perched upon its pair of concrete bastions is not only a technical feat, a symbol of the new century and a metaphor of economic progress, it is rapidly becoming an icon for Dublin itself. Its credentials are too numerous to mention. Built from plans put forward by Irish-American architects in the late 1990’s, the building is the first carbon-neutral convention centre anywhere in the world. Its 22 meeting spaces include a 2000-seat auditorium, and a 4,500-square metre exhibition space.

Impressive by day, it becomes a thing of beauty by night as its numerous coloured lights illuminate the waterfront. Ancient or modern, Dublin architecture will continue responding to changing times.

The End of the Beginning

And this is only the beginning. No doubt, Dublin will continue to grow, and its raft of ultra-modern buildings increase with it. Watch this space.


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