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Tuesday22 August 2017

Building Study

How it all stacks up for O’Donnell & Tuomey’s Timberyard

The two buildings frame a narrow entrance to the yard on Cork Street.
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O’Donnell & Tuomey’s Timberyard development hits upon a remarkable urban housing typology that goes some way to redress Dublin’s use of an ill-considered planning formula

Dublin was hollowed out and progressively abandoned by its population for much of the 20th century. The tradition of living in town was interrupted. Eighty years ago, when it was a compact sort of place, nearly two-thirds of Dubliners lived in the inner city. By 1990, the figure was fewer than one in 12. The heart of Dublin was almost stripped bare of the population that once sustained it.

The city did regain a resident population during the boom years, but most of the housing models were flawed and of poor quality, with architecture largely reduced to providing a modicum of marketing variety through the fanciful packaging of banal, regulation-driven solutions.

Now, with the sudden demise of the Celtic Tiger and the evidence before our eyes of O’Donnell & Tuomey’s recently completed Timberyard in the historic heart of the city, one can only grieve for what might have been.

Incredibly, the Timberyard is O’Donnell & Tuomey’s first city centre building in over a decade, since the practice made its name with acclaimed projects for Temple Bar and the Ranelagh interdenominational school. And it is only the firm’s second social housing scheme, after an 11-house extension to the small planned village of Galbally in County Limerick, completed in 2002.

“We would love to be doing more social housing,” says John Tuomey, “because you can set this type of project up to be generic. We’d love to build a whole street of this, or a square.”

Cork Street and its extension, St Luke’s Avenue (formerly The Coombe bypass), are the sad legacy of crude highway engineering plans that splintered tightly woven city blocks into fragments, severing connections between communities, promoting dereliction and facilitating plot accumulation by developers.

A cacophony of hastily considered buildings has sprung up along the edge of the dual carriageway in recent years, responding to a simplistic “planners’ formula” calling for a polished stone-clad base of shops with stacked apartments overhead, balconies to the road, a set-back attic storey and a “statement building” on every corner. Materials have been scattered across facades like so much confetti. The resulting lack of urban coherence confirms the stinging criticism of Dublin made 35 years ago by the Architectural Review in a special issue devoted to the city, that “discontinuity is the chief mark of modern intervention in Dublin”.

Site Plan

Site Plan

“This was a great part of the city, situated on a low ridge that falls towards Blackpitts and the Liffey,” says Tuomey. “The wrong type of development was encouraged. The streets of great cities, like Paris and Venice, just keep rolling along but Cork Street doesn’t give you that, so we set out to be defiantly antagonistic to the type of highway redevelopment that has disfigured Dublin. We wanted to bandage the wound and build back into the morphology of the Liberties. We were fortunate to have a beautiful part of Dublin and a wonderful skyline behind us.”

The Timberyard grew out of a feasibility study commissioned by the Dublin city architect for a larger site that included a protected Georgian house around the corner in Ardee Street. The authorities were looking for ideas for a use for the building. O’Donnell & Tuomey did the city a great service and itself no favour at all by recommending for protection two other plain houses it identified as early Georgian structures with rare corner chimneys.

Faced with the prospect of restoring three historic buildings instead of one, the council subdivided the site and sold off the corner lot to a private developer which engaged other architects. It was a loss for the city.

O’Donnell & Tuomey intend all of the practice’s buildings to remind a place of its own identity, of its character. “We begin by thinking like archaeologists might do, metaphorically prodding the ground, searching for traces of what made it the way it is, and sifting it to unearth clues to inspire its further transformation,” says Tuomey. “Our ambition is to build something completely new that feels like it was already there before we started, as if we had discovered the scheme rather than designed it. In this way, the modern can feel archaic, both familiar and strange. It can belong.”

Research unearthed the forgotten track of an ancient laneway across the site. Rocque’s map of Dublin dated 1756 shows timber stacked on the site.

“So we called it that,” says Tuomey. “Our first thought was to floor it in timber. Thank goodness we didn’t. The brick comes out of the ground. But it was always a space, always permeable. That’s the point, the memory game. You should be able to hold a retinal image of the scheme. Close your eyes and recall the feeling of the building. It should feel like Dublin.”

Dublin is a city of rhythmic houses built of brick. Tall, gaunt and scuffing syncopations on the sidewalk and against the sky, the Timberyard looks like a child’s drawing of the city. With its mysterious, deep openings, it is both familiar and strange, as the architect dreamt. It claims local allies, taking cues from an industrial brick tower across the road and, on its eastern edge, giving shelter to a Marian grotto that previously stood outside the site. The Madonna is a surprise but she contributes graciously to the short pedestrian passage that is her new home. Locals have taken to placing a vase of cut flowers at her feet.

The L-shaped block is in the foreground, with the monopitched one to the rear.

Credit: Dennis Gilbert/View

The L-shaped block is in the foreground, with the monopitched one to the rear.

The 47 apartments of the Timberyard are arranged in two blocks to create a wedge-shaped square or yard. The long, monopitch roof on the west side pitches sharply to admit sunlight to the cottages behind. The second, longer, L-shaped block faces two streets and the yard, deftly negotiating different scales and challenges on each front.

The neck of the yard is squeezed tight to face the road, frame a local view and minimise traffic noise in the yard. The platform of the new space, capping a basement car park, opens to a panoramic skyline of spires and towers, while in the foreground rows of Victorian terraces recede towards the river. Tuomey likens them to “the waves of the old city lapping towards our new harbour”.

The scheme is a rare critique of the pernicious perimeter block favoured for so many of the introverted apartment developments of recent times. The social problem with these grim, double-loaded corridor schemes is that people overlooking the garden have no authority over the external space, and those on the street have only a single point of access. There is no threshold, no meeting point, no chance of community.

In contrast, the Timberyard, a type new to Dublin, is a neighbourhood-in-waiting, with all the apartments straining to overlook the communal space, anticipating the life that will spill from the buildings into the yard. Every apartment has some threshold condition to the outdoor urban room. The lower apartments have deep, recessed porches, each equipped with a polished terrazzo bench and a planter. The screened access stairs to the upper levels project deep into the yard, as do their winter gardens. Balconies are punched deep into the wall.

It may all appear somewhat operatic — as if the scheme was awaiting occupation by a choral society of tenants — but it fosters the strong impression that the yard will surely nurture a lively, gregarious community.

The aim is that visitors may pass through the yard, on sufferance, as in a Venetian campo, on their way across the city but the route is currently gated at its northern end while city officials negotiate with adjoining residents who, fearful of increasing antisocial behaviour, want to retain their inner city culs-de-sac to keep strangers out.

If that hurdle has not yet been overcome, other orthodoxies have been challenged and significant battles won. Perhaps the hardest-fought was to have apartments entered directly off the street, as in former times. The economic downturn surely helped persuade planners that there is a limit to the amount of sustainable local shopping that the city can absorb.

O’Donnell & Tuomey’s low-budget design starts with a perfectly orderly, repetitious, four-storey urban form, comprising a pair of stacked maisonettes. Every apartment is dual aspect and has either a garden or a roof terrace — or both if the terrace does not overlook the public realm.

Section looking south

Section looking south

Unusually for a Dublin development, every kitchen has a window, even if it is only a narrow one. As a general rule, windows are centrally placed in rooms. There are no clip-on balconies because they don’t provide the pocket of privacy that a porch does. The recessed balconies are double height. The facade is continuous to front and rear, cloaking the entirety in a thick skin of brick.

“With that equipment, you go out and meet the world,” says Tuomey. “You can turn corners and work on irregular sites. The design finds its own rhythm as soon as there’s a chance. It is not additive in the familiar manner of Georgian Dublin houses, because each double-height balcony bites a hole out of the floor plan above, setting up a diagonal game. This is meant to be read as a single building that by its rhythm implies multiple occupancy,” he adds.

The complex layouts are made to look easy, yet many of the apartment windows have been tweaked to focus on specific landmarks across the spectacular city vista. A few quibbles remain: the private gardens at ground level feel as if they belong to some other project; the “crane driver” winter garden cabins, although suitably provisional, seem to come from another hand; and the timber-clad setback on Cork Street lacks the power of the rest.

Irish fire regulations, which prohibit means of fire escape from a bedroom past a kitchen or living room, also took their toll. “The regulations exert a terribly negative control over homecoming,” says Tuomey. “It’s all backwards. You arrive in a dark corridor. Contrast that with the apartments we all know from Frasier or Friends, where they walk in, throw their keys on the table and announce they’re home. There’s got to be a better solution.”

Yet the Timberyard remains a remarkable achievement by any account. It does more than set new standards: it offers architects a model. With this new language, you could lay out a district. More is the pity that there’ll be precious few opportunities in Dublin to build on this for the foreseeable future.

Original print headline - How it all stacks up

Project Team

Architect O’Donnell & Tuomey Architects, Client Dublin City Council, Structural engineer Downes Associates, QS Cyril Sweett, Services engineer Buro Happold, Main Contractor Townlink Construction

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Readers' comments (3)

  • shane o toole, right on the mark as usual. Planners in Dublin and Ireland as a whole have shown their overwhelming ineptness when it comes to what has been built. I have even had a number of them to admit that what they desire to see is "pastiche" or essentially "lego-land" style houses. What we have now is thousands of ugly little bungalows dotted across the rural landscape and facelss city aprartments that go no way to better-ing the georgian buildings that fell so that they could be built.

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  • Planners in Ireland are not talented enough or trained sufficiently to have a keen sense of what is appropriate. They should take their lead from talented Architects like O Donnell Toumey. Well done.

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  • Brilliant, Remarkable, Stimulating, Inventive, Beautiful, Sensitive, Inspirational!

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