Keith Williams Architects has given Athlone a striking new civic centre as part of of an Ireland-wide programme of local government improvement.
New civic centres have been springing up around Ireland as canny local councils cash in on the country’s economic boom to provide themselves — and the public — with modern facilities.
Its not just about bureaucratic aggrandisement. One of the key driving forces has been the idea of providing a “one-stop shop” for all council services, in line with the republic’s Better Local Government programme as well as upgrading a lot of the older offices which were little better than ramshackle. Projects by ABK, Bucholz McEvoy, Heneghan Peng, McCullough Mulvin and Scott Tallon Walker have already picked up awards.
The latest addition to the list is Athlone Civic Centre, by Keith Williams Architects. The E13.2 million (£9 million) project was conceived in late-2000, at the height of the so-called Celtic Tiger boom, when it seemed as if there was unlimited money available for everything.
The site of the new Civic Centre, behind St Mary’s Anglican church on Dublingate Street, was previously occupied by Athlone Town Council’s old offices in a crudely extended arts-and-crafts house at a lower level beside the Prince of Wales Hotel, now rebuilt in a late post-modern style.
London-based Keith Williams Architects won the design commission after an open call and interview process which produced a shortlist also including Brady Mallalieu, and two Dublin practices Grafton Architects and Shay Cleary Architects, (which were both involved in the design for Temple Bar, Dublin’s cultural quarter).
As Williams explains, he wanted to create a building that would have something of the heavy masonry quality of the town’s iconic St Peter and Paul’s Roman Catholic church, the Shannon bridge and Athlone Castle, but done in a completely contemporary way with all of its openings appearing to be scooped out of a solid block of stone.
The building is raised on a podium to bring it up to street level and the entire area in front is paved in white concrete slabs dressed in local sandstone. Seating is provided by teak-topped concrete benches. And there’s a hope that the church’s awful concrete boundary wall will be replaced by railings.
At its edge, the piazza — as Williams calls it — is punctured by the remains of one of Athlone’s old bastions. A missing piece is to be replicated in stainless steel, in line with the current practice of making interventions obvious to all.
Williams was very clear from the start that the building should have a dramatic entrance, so there would be no doubt which was the way in. He has managed to achieve this, with full-height glazing recessed in the white Techcrete frame and a single set of revolving doors.
To the left of the atrium is a double-height public library with offices above. To the right, across a terrazzo floor, is the “one-stop shop” for services provided by Athlone Town Council and Westmeath County Council, with the council chamber directly above it, accessed by a wide ceremonial staircase.
The front elevation, which faces south, had to be provided with brise-soleil to reduce glare on what seems in Ireland to be rare days when the sun shines strongly. They are not the usual clip-on units, but instead are formed of triangular sections of pre-cast Techcrete so they, too, appear like slits in a concrete wall.
“We made a full-size model of the louvres in our office to see how they would work,” Williams explains. “What was interesting is that we found shaving the underside seems to bring more light in, but less sunlight. I’m not sure this actually has any physics attached to it, but it was a perceptive judgment.”
Inside, the atrium is three storeys high. The side walls are finished in a light pre-patinated plaster and the rear wall in shuttering plywood, painted a deep brown colour. Its most curious feature is an off-centre balcony at first-floor level with a glazed balustrade and thick sliding steel fire-door at the rear.
What might this balcony be used for? Williams says election results might be announced by a returning officer from this elevated position. Perhaps. One also wonders how often the windows of the council chamber will be rolled back for local politicians to address the populace in the piazza below.
As in the atrium and library, the ceiling of the chamber features exposed concrete beams with the addition here of a large oculus over the circular arrangement of seating for members of the town council, overlooked by a walnut-fronted public gallery. A press box has also been provided.
Offices are naturally ventilated, since there is no need for air conditioning in Ireland, whatever estate agents might say. Staff members can open a window if they want more air. Though mostly open-plan, there are more compartmented offices than originally planned.
The library has a special room at lower ground level to house the remarkable Aidan Heavey Collection, consisting of some 10,000 volumes, donated by an Athlone-born businessman. Also at this level is a creche, with an enclosed outdoor area and rubberised flooring in all the colours of the rainbow.
Flashes of colour are also used in the public areas, notably in the red and purple armchairs. The reception desk is made of pre-cast concrete with a walnut working surface. And though the concrete work throughout is very fine, the desk was chipped during transit and will need to be repaired during snagging.
“When you say you’re going to make a building out of concrete, everyone looks aghast, but you can actually make concrete look like marble,” Williams says. From a distance, especially in sunlight, the Athlone Civic Centre looks as if it is made from Portland stone or its Portuguese equivalent.
John Walsh, the town clerk, is delighted with it, not least because it projects a more modern image for the council. It has also prompted Westmeath County Council to build a new headquarters for itself in Mullingar, the county town.
It has certainly made its mark in Athlone, a town which until recently had no real scale, apart from its landmark buildings. Apartment blocks and other buildings, such as the shocking pink Radisson Hotel, are raising the scale of its river front. And a much larger scheme by Dublin and Limerick-based architects Murray O’Laoire is planned right beside the civic centre.
The Gallico development, currently going through planning, would provide a 150-bedroom hotel, apartments, ground-floor retail units arranged around a glazed internal plaza and underground parking for 1,150 cars.
The agenda behind this scheme — vast by Athlone standards — is commercial, of course. What drove the Civic Centre was a civic agenda, which gave primacy to the architecture and has now produced a startlingly bright contemporary building which sets a new benchmark for quality in the development of Athlone.
Frank McDonald is environment editor of the Irish Times.
Architect Keith Williams Architects
Client Athlone Town Council and Westmeath County Council
Structural engineer Arup Consulting Engineers
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon TKS
Lighting Sutton Vane Associates
Contractor John Sisk & Sons