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Saturday02 August 2014

De Paor Architects creates development aid showroom in Dublin

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Tom De Paor has remodelled a Dublin shop to serve as an information centre on Irish overseas development assistance. It’s an experiment in transparency both for client and architect, says Ellis Woodman

In 2008, Ireland is expected to spend €914 million (£680 million) on overseas development assistance, and has recently agreed to increase that annual contribution to 0.7% of its gross national product by 2012. In support of this commitment, the Irish government also allocated funds for the construction of a Dublin-based facility to inform the Irish public about where its money was going and to serve as a point of recruitment for foreign aid volunteers.

Completed last month to designs by Tom de Paor, the Irish Aid Centre occupies the ground floor of a sixties office block on O’Connell Street, the city centre’s principal thoroughfare. While it offers a prominent address, the host building is a pretty joyless affair and de Paor has ripped out as much of the ground floor fabric as he could — the previous tenant was a phone shop — leaving just the in-situ concrete frame. The columns’ spasmodic variations in size and spacing remain a source of mystery even to de Paor but broadly speaking, their layout establishes a closely spaced grid of fixed orientation. The new walls are expressed as something quite other: structurally independent elements, never engaging the columns directly, and adopting a markedly different geometry in plan from that of the grid.

The distinction between the two systems is further communicated by the fact that the columns have been shot-blasted but are otherwise left exposed, while the internal walls are in painted plasterboard and the external ones in full-height glass.

The building holds the corner of its block so the glass frontage wraps around two facades. It cranks back and forth along the way, creating a series of covered areas set back from the pavement. This move invests the boundary between inside and out with a calculated ambiguity — an effect that has been compounded by extending both the interior’s suspended ceiling and the granite paving which forms the principal internal floor finish beyond the line of the glass. And yet, exploited as a surface on which to project images and throwing back fragmented reflections of the passing traffic, the glazing is far from invisible.

To compare what is essentially a fit-out with the parti of a building like Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse is perhaps to risk bathos, but as a free-form shape berthed beneath the columns of a structurally regimented slab, it is that archetypal modernist model that the centre brings to mind.

The public part of the interior is dominated by two freestanding meeting rooms which will be used to brief the many school groups that will visit the centre. They will also be offered to local non-governmental organisations free of charge. The larger volume occupies the very centre of the plan, forcing the exhibition space to encircle it. The two entrances — the principal one on O’Connell Street and the schools’ entrance around the corner — feed into this circuit tangentially, lending the whole plan a pinwheel-like dynamism.

The meeting room ceilings are particularly sculptural, a series of crystalline facets

Digital imagery, shown on monitors and also projected onto the walls and glazing, forms the core of the exhibition — a strategy that allows the content to evolve. By the time the centre was opened last week by taoiseach Bertie Ahern, footage of his visit to Tanzania and South Africa, taken only a week earlier, had already been integrated into the display. The projection angles of the eight ceiling-mounted digital projectors have been a key generator of the plan’s complex triangular geometry. The section is no less elaborate. Although the space extends over a single storey, the architect had to take plan cuts at five different heights in order to describe the continually modulating interplay of plinths and soffits. The suspended ceilings of the two meeting rooms are particularly sculptural, comprising a series of crystalline facets which serve to conceal the bass bins mounted behind. The surface is cut back around the columns, baldly revealing their junction with the first floor slab and again asserting the lining’s independence from the structure.

As with a project like Witherford Watson Mann’s Amnesty International headquarters in east London, the nature of the brief begs the question of how to provide an environment that fires visitors’ imaginations without being perceived as profligate. These moments where the raw, existing fabric is revealed prove crucial to getting that balance right.

De Paor describes the project as an “inverted embassy” in the sense that it serves to represent the world to Ireland rather than Ireland to the world. The project’s means are limited but it goes a long way towards fulfiling that evocative billing.

For de Paor, the scheme also marks a further exploration of the geometric complexity he began to investigate in the house at Dalkey which he built two years ago (Works July 14, 2006).

The prospect of him investigating these themes in a major public building in enticing. On the basis of this magical little project, it won’t be long before he finds the opportunity.

Project team

Architect Office of Public Works and De Paor Architects, Structural engineer Casey O’Rourke Associates, Main contractor Errigal Contracting, Quantity surveyor O’Byrne Jenkins, Services consultant Derham McPhillips & Partners, Multimedia installation Martello Media

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