Sad ruin stands in place of seemingly successful scheme
Joseph Gandy famously imagined Soane’s Bank of England in ruins, presumably in the expectation of the building outliving them both. For many architects, ruins release the imagination, dissolve the conventional fixtures of building and allow them to dream of interconnected space and time. Stripped of function but harbouring fragments of lives lived, decaying structure is ripe for poetic unpicking. This is, however, to suppose that decrepit architecture is always layered with life, has supported successive inhabitation, is old. What, then, of new buildings, buildings that have not yet known completion or occupation but find themselves under threat of demise? How might we value these?
McCullough Mulvin’s new Mortuary for Dublin and Offices for the Irish State Pathologist is a project concerned with the life of death. Located to the north of the city, the scheme replaces with efficient grace the temporary buildings currently housing these functions. In the proposal, the unpredictable grief associated with identifying the remains of a loved one is carefully accommodated with the clinical investigations of the forensic pathologist and the precise recording of the archivist in a series of carefully tuned suites, each separately accessed and all relieved by release into a walled garden. Behind a composed, two-storey facade, back and front of house are honourably combined. The heavy, complex technical and servicing requirements of post-mortem examination discretely support the bereaved relative as well as those for whom the building is a workplace. The walled garden in which the building sits is an abstracted version of the facade, attending equally to the various users. For those emotionally attuned to the allusion, its paving slabs softly evoke the grave, its recessed planting a sinking into earth, while to the worker in need of relief it offers light, air and a green view. The ground floor is punctured by a tree, a strong sign of life deep in the plan.
As well as providing its function and order, however, death shadows this project in a troubling way. After the contractor went into receivership in 2010, work on the site ceased. A prominent victim of the economy’s dwindling resources, the nascent building’s funding has been withdrawn, and its concrete skeleton, considerably advanced, lies quarantined behind a protective fence.
Despite a quarter of the budget having been spent and the soundness of the scheme, there is unfortunately talk of demolition in favour of retrofitting other accommodation nearby.
The abandonment or postponement of construction projects in Ireland due to lack of finance is by now old news. Many of these are developments whose sustainability might in retrospect be questionable. Ill-conceived housing estates, hotels and retail parks with poor connection to their hinterland and for which there is often little real demand have attracted untenable loans and have contributed to the corrosion of the Irish financial system. Their environmental, social and cultural cost is also problematic. With resources so tight and investment so hard won, however, ought not the buildings that survive to reflect the principles of economy, value and sustainability by which we now seek to define ourselves?
McCullough Mulvin’s project is integrated into its landscape, environmentally considered, carefully judged in terms of space, material and adjacency; it has value. It fulfils a function for which there is a sustained and demonstrable need. Documents have been prepared for re-tender. Culturally and socially it is defensible and, most critically, it is already half built. It makes no sense to offer up this building on the altar of false economy.
Ruin is, of course, a synonym for financial insolvency. McCullough Mulvin’s project is sited in former parkland, once the demesne of James Caulfield, the first Earl of Charlemont. As the fortunes of the Irish Ascendancy waned, so too did the integrity of the earl’s estate. A Victorian school was followed by a 1920s garden suburb and a fire brigade training centre until all that remained was a small ingeniously designed garden pavilion, the Casino, near which the morgue project is sensitively placed. Ravaged by years of neglect, the Casino was eventually recognised as the finest Neo-Classical building in Ireland, taken into state ownership and, in a time of widespread hardship, restored. Though we again live in an age when the image of Gandy’s ruined Bank of England is uncomfortably prescient, we can still hope that the value of McCullough Mulvin’s scheme will ensure its longevity.