In the always excellent Dublin Inquirer newspaper this week I was delighted to read a report on how Dublin City Council (DCC) is (at last) trying to find a new use for both the beautiful old 1700s Pigeon House Hotel near Ringsend, and for the huge derelict Poolbeg power station next door.
Both buildings stand on the same, largely abandoned 7-acre plot of land, beside Dublin’s Great South Wall as the River Liffey empties into Dublin Bay. The council has issued a call for proposals, from potential future users of the site. This piece tries to express some ideas and reactions to that initiative.
Most Dubliners know the two buildings well. It’s safe to say that the old hotel, the former Pigeon Hotel, which dates back to the 1700s (it was named after its first proprietor, John Pigeon) needs refurbishment, but is still substantially intact. The huge Poolbeg Power Station next door is a very different story. Although it was built far later (in the early 1900s) it’s now basically a ruin.
It’s also, however, a stunning structure, a magnificent beast of a building in red brick, with vast internal spaces for former power generation. Think of the former Turbine Hall, at London’s Tate Modern, and you won’t be far wrong.
I’ve been looking at this building for years, thinking why is it not re-roofed and refurbished and turned into some sort of amenity, sports arena or museum? I’ll tell you why I think this type of use (and public access in particular) is so important in a moment. It isn’t just about having another nice location to site another museum.
DCC have said they wish to see the buildings used in a way that provides community or artistic use with public access. That’s very heartening. It’s vital in fact. But it begs another question. How exactly is this laudable “public use” to be achieved?
When you look at the detail in the article, councilors are merely floating the area out for proposals. They speak in this article, in fairly vague terms of “public use” and “public access”, perhaps use by artists, or community use. So, as things stand, they’ve no intention – and specifically say they do not have the funds – to do any conversions or refurbishment themselves. Essentially, they are hoping somebody else will do it.
How realistic is that? Well, put it this way, if they were flogging it off to private speculative developers, we could all stand there and watch both the old buildings get repaired (if that were a firm planning requirement) and then re-purposed for new commercial use, either expensive apartments or (even more likely) offices. No doubt any private developer would also get permission to build dozens of new additional modern buildings surrounding the two old structures. In this scenario the whole project would happen fairly rapidly and efficiently, most likely in double-quick time.
But that’s not public, creative or community use, is it? DCC say they want some sort of creative use and some sort of public amenity. They are hoping that somebody with deep pockets will come along to save, fix and convert the buildings, and add some beautiful new amenity to our city and yet provide free public access to a place with artistic or community uses. But if they aren’t putting any money in, who is going to pay for this expensive work?
There has been, it’s true, one consortium who have proposed building new film studios in this general area. That, I suppose, is artistic and creative use. But it would certainly not be public or community use space. Nor would it provide public access. Film studios and production companies do not, as a rule, let members of the public wander around their studio floors or film sets.
Apart from that idea – and the consortium have in any case rejected this particular site (as too small) – it’s hard to see any other group of artists or community groups who might have access to the substantial funds required to repair the buildings and re-purpose the site.
Both buildings require significant investment. The power station in fact requires huge, multi-million investment just to make the (fabulous) building safe and usable again. It’s a superb building and could provide a spectacular space. So it’s well worth doing. But it’s certainly not going to be cheap.
DCC must know this. So what are they up to? Perhaps they think it’s worth “flying a kite” like this (i.e. issuing this call for proposals) simply to see who, or what ideas, might be out there. Perhaps that’s true. However when the chips are down, I suspect if neither DCC nor the State are providing any meaningful funding, then ultimately it’s most unlikely they’ll receive any realistic proposals. Not from genuine artistic, creative or community users.
Will DCC at that point shrug their shoulders and say “Look, we tried” and then sell the site off to private sector developers? Is that, in fact, the whole point of the exercise? Is it a cynical exercise where DCC get to be seen to be “trying”? Without offering any suggestions, plans or any vision, or any money at all. Let’s hope not.
Perhaps this is instead a genuine, albeit misguided attempt to find some mysterious group of arts and/or community groups who happen to have tens of millions of available funds lying around, with experience and expertise in regeneration and infrastructure, who are just straining at the leash to take on a huge project like this.
There are, of course, no such people. But no harm done either perhaps, except some time wasted. But it will still leave the outstanding issue unresolved. What to do with this unique site and these two old buildings?
This really matters. Not only because these are two, very fine, historically significant buildings (although that in itself should be good enough a reason) – but also because there is even more at stake. Because if it is handled correctly, with vision, joined up thinking, determination and proper funding, this little 7-acre site has the potential to change the shape of Dublin and how we and our visitors experience the city. That’s because, although the two buildings are currently somewhat isolated, they nevertheless occupy a hugely significant and strategic position at the extreme east end of the Liffey mouth as it opens out into Dublin Bay. Remember that Dublin is its river, its bay and its port. That is its origin, its essence, its raison d’etre.
From the 9th to the 18th centuries, Dubliners were daily confronted with ships and wharves and trade and all the biustle of the port. Because with smaller ships, witha shallower “draught” the port used to come right into Dublin City centre.
There is some strange, intangible, benefit, I can’t help feeling, when we experience the sea, but also the full, commercial life of the city all around us. Certainly the sea is good for us, and a sense of geography, of connection to space and to place.
I lived in Barcelona for 4 years as a young man, both for a year before and a year after the Olympics there. Historically the Catalan capital was, despite its glorious trading and maritime past, still – in urban design terms – a city that “lived with its back to the sea”. With the huge infrastructure changes brought about by the 1992 Olympics, that all changed forever. As the city re-orientated itself to at last “face” the sea, it experienced multiple, untold benefits as a result.
In Dublin terms, the South Bull Wall and Pigeon House area is the first thing people see as they arrive in the capital by sea. The last thing they see when they leave.
The site is right beside the sea and has its own harbour. My own vision would be for a large, ambitious new museum, with its own harbour and dedicated water shuttle back and forth from the Customs House, running every 20 minutes.
Tourists, visitors, and families will jump at the chance to go on a boat ride, with a cultural destination at the end. A destination with a world-class museum, housed in the old Power Station, with breathtaking views of Dublin bay, the river and across the whole city from the top.
The surrounding area will be repaired and landscaped into a first-class park with different areas – grass for Frisbee and sunbathing, a play ground for small kids, including a grassy hill to roll and run on, a skate park for teenagers, benches, coffee tables, table tennis tables and chess tables for the rest of us to enjoy the sun. A couple of small cafes would service our endless need for caffeine. On occasional summer evenings some or all of the park could be hired out to concert promoters for concerts. It would be a spectacular setting.
Inside the museum, in the re-purposed old Power Station, visitors are blown away by the turbine hall. But what sort of museum is it? I have three ideas to suggest
One, an Art gallery. Across Europe, the Americas, Japan and elsewhere, the art experience has become almost the default regeneration project and regeneration area anchor tenant. One could ask the National Gallery to open an annex in a refurbished Power Station. After all, even after their stunning, multi-million euro refurbishment and reopening, they always have far more art than they can possibly display in Merrion Square. Could this be the answer?
If the National Gallery don’t bite, and they may well prefer to keep all their facilities on one site, in the historic centre, then a Modern / Contemporary Art Gallery could be the more realistic proposition. Could IMMA be encouraged and funded to open an annex here? (“IMMA-EAST?”) Their current premises is only 100 yards from the Liffey close to Heuston Station. Perhaps a shuttle boat could run from IMMA West to IMMA East (staffed of course by performance artists, or screening projections of art films).
Or could a big international player, like the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, be solicited to open one of their superb museums in Dublin, if given this prime site? We all know what they achieved in Bilbao.
Two: A Museum of Dublin. Paris, London, and dozens of other capitals have their own, dedicated museum of the city, focused on civic life through the ages, everything from the changing streets to transport, public health, entertainment and so on. We already have Dublinia, and very good it is too. But it is dedicated to the Viking and Medieval periods. I mean a museum dedicated to how all of the city works, in all its aspects, across the ages from prehistory to the present day. Also a museum that takes a more modern and more holistic approach (teaching visitors about everything from Dublin’s hydrology and topography to its demographics and the economy). All using the latest, most high-tech, immersive techniques in exhibition and museum design.
Three: a Science Museum. Yes, true, we already have a science museum. That’s a good thing. It means there’s existing expertise running a first-class science museum in Dublin. Could in fact the Trinity Science Museum either be tempted either simply to move downstream from the city centre to a superb, much larger set-piece building on the bay – or to open a huge new annex here with new displays on view?
Or better, let’s think bigger: could a new huge Dublin Science Museum (the DSM) be a collaboration between all of the various science, engineering and computing departments of ALL four of our main third-level institutions based here in Dublin (UCD, TCD, DIT and DCU)? Think of what they could achieve together. Again, using the latest, most high-tech, immersive techniques in exhibition and museum design. Such a museum could include a planetarium, as good as if not better than the one in London, as well as sections on biology, physics, chemistry, maths, and various areas of engineering and computing.
This is my favoured option and for several reasons. The government are constantly telling us how vital it is to attract more school students to do science, maths, computing and engineering at Leaving Certificate and Third level. It’s vital to our economy. And that’s all very true. Well, consider the boost a museum would give that endeavour. The way it would assist secondary and primary science education, how it would help and support the teachers, through excursions, talks and lectures, demonstrations and open days, and at the same time inform and inspire the students.
There would be other benefits. Such a museum could provide an amazing advertisement for Irish science, bio-sciences, engineering and tech. Marketed correctly, to the right “stake- holders”, think of the buy-in (and sponsorship) it might attract. Not least from our locally-based tech giants.
Getting back to that symbiotic relationship between the buildings, the site, the wider city and the visitors, the museum would provide the all-important destination point for the new boat shuttle service, plying the new route from the Customs House to Pigeon House. It also provides the all-important “anchor tenant” for the whole area, including the hotel and the new park. The original Pigeon House Hotel should be restored for use as a hotel again, preferably a really, really good one. A great hotel with a destination restaurant, provides part of the magnet to draw people to the site generally. The park surrounding the hotel and museum, with its skate park, cafes, concerts, Frisbee lawns and sea views, performs a similar function, drawing people in. I would hope that, in time, cycle paths will lead here from the city centre, from both Sandymount and Ringsend. Hopefully one day “See you at the Pigeon House Saturday” could become almost as common as “see you at College Green” or even “..under the clock at Clery’s” !
The point to all this, of course, is to expand the reach of the city as a whole, stretching it eastward out along the South Wall area onto this promontory into the sea and Dublin Bay. Just as the Ballast Board and the Wide Streets Commissioners opened up Dublin east in the 18th century; as the redbrick middle class suburbs of Rathmines, Ranelagh, Clontarf etc then stretched the city further in the 19th century, and the great housing schemes did so again in the 20th century, we should engineer one last, great push into Dublin Bay. Such a move would offer a completely new dimension to the city, and Dublin Bay, getting boats along the river, offering education, visitor attraction, real public amenity and quality of life and – last but not least – opening up our river and our bay. Don’t let’s live anymore “with our back to the sea”.
Arran Henderson, 21 May, 2018.