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1993 January: The Irish Film Centre by O'Donnell and Tuomey

[ARCHIVE] In Dublin, a seventeenth-century Quaker meeting house has been remodelled as the Irish Film Centre

The completion of the Irish Film Centre in Dublin’s Temple Bar, has acted as a standard bearer for the area’s renaissances. A seventeenth-century Quaker meeting house has been inventively remodelled to create a building that draws inspiration from its dense urban setting and a lively cultural agenda.

Although not actually part of the proposals for Dublin’s Temple Bar. the Irish Film Centre (IFC) is the first new building to be completed in the area since the Group 91 framework was adopted and has acted, to some extent, as an indirect standard bearer for Temple Bar’s urban renaissance. The new building has a strong affinity with the approach advocated by Group 91 - patient, invisible mending, as opposed to brute cauterisation of the existing urban fabric. The outcome bodes well for the future of Dublin’s soi-disant left bank.

Cinema-going is a quintessentially urban distraction and fits perfectly into Temple Bar’s synthesis of culture and commerce as a means of stimulating interest and activity in the area. In 1986, the Irish Film Institute acquired the former Quaker assembly rooms in Eustace Street, one of the narrow cobbled arteries that runs down from Dame Street to the edge of the Liffey. The brief for the new building encompassed a nougat-like mixture of volumes - two cinemas, archive film storage (the first facility of its kind in Ireland), restaurant, bar and bookshop, surrounded by smaller ancillary office and administration spaces.

The Quakers’ presence on the site dates from 1690 and over the centuries the society had accumulated a disparate collection of buildings for meetings and other activities. Inevitably, the complex geometry generated by this piecemeal acquisition had a potentially restrictive effect on the form and character of any new building. O’Donnell and Tuomey slowly rationalised the tangled assemblage, discarding some of the less distinguished elements, until a fertile symbiosis between old and new was achieved. The subtle, yet physically distinctive new interventions continue the historical pattern of organic’ evolution on the site, reflecting a process of gradual growth and change.

The new Film Centre is organised around a pivotal central space, created by enlarging a natural courtyard within the Chinese puzzle of existing buildings. It is literally a secret urban room, a space within a space that extrudes through to the surrounding streets, registering as a series of understated gestures. On the Eustace Street side, a neon corona hovers over the entrance to a tunnel-like corridor. Visitors burrow through this narrow conduit to emerge blinking into the new light-filled courtyard beyond. From Dame Street to the south, a glass door of Scandinavian understatement marks the point where a dingy sliver of alleyway slices into the flank of the restaurant. The most obvious expression of the IFC’s presence is manifested on the west side of the block, where the narrow frontage of the rectilinear red brick archives building extrudes into Sycamore Street, its crisply chiselled detailing echoing the stark firmitas of the surrounding warehouses.

The archives block and the rear of the larger of the two cinemas enclose an external courtyard raised slightly above street, due to the difference in level across the site. The volume below the courtyard is used as the archive store and workshop, providing the Irish Film Institute with an urgently needed resource.

The courtyard purposefully breaks the established street rhythm, creating an un expected gap in the continuous warehouse wall that draws attention to the new buildings beyond. The severity of the blank gable end is enlivened by the gravity-defying projection suite clamped on to the upper part of the wall. The limestone-clad rectangular volume is punctuated by a glazed, slit-like insertion and a tiny square window. When films are shown after dark, an eerie light flickers tantalisingly through these cryptic apertures, hinting at the building’s function to passers by.

To dwell on the IFC’s external form is perhaps slightly disingenuous, since the building is conceived as a collection of nimbly crafted internal interventions rather than a monolithic civic statement. But it still has an undeniable urban presence. The matrix of tentacle-like entrance routes draw visitors in from the surrounding streets to converge in an airy, skylit courtyard. Within the courtyard, an expressive dialogue between the old and new is immediately established. The weathered brick facades of the Quakers’ meeting halls - now converted into cinemas and spreading a celluloid gospel - are juxtaposed with the seductive ochre patina of a three storey-high wall.

This orthogonally perforated screen eases through the courtyard in a fluid curve, dissipating the boxed-in quality of the space. It also acts as the principal organising element, containing and defining the busy bar, sales kiosk and bookshop at ground level. The linear deck of the piano nobile, with its elevated panorama of the courtyard, is occupied by the restaurant. Above this are suites of offices.

The use of raw materials - brick, limestone, naturally pigmented plaster and mild steel - reflects an intrinsically urban character and extends the robust language of the existing buildings. The embedded courtyard retains the feel of an external space, with its concentric rings of grey Ballinasloe limestone set in black polished concrete, and can be used as a diverting public short cut through the block from Eustace Street to Sycamore Street. From the deck of the restaurant the radiating limestone segments, inlaid with strips of steel, suggest an abstract film can with its contents spooling out along the tunnel to the main Eustace Street entrance. The floor of the tunnel is inlaid with a line of glowing neon tubes that look like landing lights on a runway, guiding Dublin’s film buffs to the haven of cinematic delights beyond.

Architect O’Donnell and Tuomey
Client The Irish Film Centre
Quantity surveyor Boyd and Creed
Structural engineer Fearon O’Neill Rooney

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