Friday 10 September 2010

Open at last: the Cube with the Tube

The Convention Centre Dublin opens today, marking the end of a 13-year journey to its place on the North Wall - but is it as striking inside as out?

KEVIN ROCHE, the renowned Dublin-born architect, hoped he would live to see the convention centre he designed for his native city up and running. And now, at the ripe old age of 88, he will. Because the Convention Centre Dublin is being officially opened today by the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen.

For Roche, who is based in Connecticut, it has been a long haul. He was just 75 when Johnny Ronan of Treasury Holdings invited him to design the facility in 1997. The last thing he would have expected at the time was that it would take so long to realise his vision of what has been dubbed the Cube with the Tube. Roche found the planning process incomprehensibly labyrinthine and frustrating. “I wish I knew how it works. There are people here who have made a profession at guiding you through it, for a consideration. Because you definitely need a guide,” he said in 2006. His views on the process would be “unprintable”.

Better known for his corporate work, primarily in the US, Roche wanted to give Dublin a significant public building – and probably thought the red carpet would be rolled out for him. But the endless contests and complexities of procurement, with the Government contributing not a single cent upfront, turned it into a long-running saga.

Dermod Dwyer, the convention centre’s executive chairman, who has been intimately involved in the project for 13 years, recalls that it was “a very lonely station at times. But I always had confidence that it would happen, and I would keep the spirits of the entire team up, including Kevin, by saying: ‘It may take a little longer, but we’re going to make this happen’ ”.

Now, almost miraculously, there it is, standing on North Wall Quay, a rectangular box bisected on its front by a tilted glazed drum, and set back from the line of the quay, with angular glazed canopies in the foreground. And the finished building looks almost exactly like the computer-generated images we’d seen of it over the years.

The granite cladding on the front and (rather blank) sides came from Spain, where Roche had used it on his headquarters for Banco Santander, on the outskirts of Madrid. It is certainly quite foreign to Dublin, with a peculiar pink hue; traditional Portland or Portuguese limestone might have been more appropriate in the context.

The west elevation, with its strips of windows, was always going to be problematic in its relationship with Spencer Dock and the linear park that was meant to be laid out on either side of it. But the winning scheme for the park, by the French landscape-architecture firm Agence Ter, hasn’t materialised, and the derelict site there is a disgrace to Dublin Docklands Development Authority.

At the rear, along Mayor Street, the centre’s developers have provided a pocket park, which will open during daylight hours. At night art will be projected from a roof opposite on to the towering, entirely blank pink-rendered wall. This was to be the site of a 35-storey hotel, but An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission.

There are views of the convention centre from many angles, some quite far away. The most disturbing is from Mayor Street, leading towards the Samuel Beckett Bridge, where only one side of the front can be seen. But that’s typical of Dublin; even City Hall is off the axis of Dame Street. And, in any case, Spencer Dock was in the way.

Inside, the foyer is vast. Above it, escalators scissor up through the glazed atrium. The floor is flagged in speckled brown granite, which had to be honed several times to get a relatively matt finish, and the walls are clad in smooth pale cream stone. Even the toilets are lavishly done in marble and stone.

Inevitably, with all that south-facing glass (470 panes in total) there is solar gain, and the foyer seemed hotter on my visit in sunshine last Thursday than it was outside – because the air conditioning was off, I was told. Clearly, a lot of energy will have to be used to dispel the solar gain, casting doubt on claims that this is a carbon-neutral scheme.

At the upper levels, from the escalators and concourses, with their burgundy carpeting, you get panoramic views stretching from the Phoenix Park to Dublin Bay. It was always the architect’s intention that this would be a two-way street when the building was lit up at night; everyone passing by would also be able to see some of the activity inside.

Roche has used a particularly attractive steamed beech throughout the building, for acoustic panels in the main auditorium and meeting rooms and for the walls and partitions, where the square pattern is interspersed with glass, both mirrored and frosted, in the concourse areas, and concealed doors that open up to reveal the bars.

The stunning main auditorium seems even larger than that of the Grand Canal Theatre (it is marginally smaller, in fact). All of its walls are beech-clad, as are the ceilings, balcony and stair rails. Acoustically, it should be superb. The green seats are bigger than standard, and each comes with a pop-up desk, laptop socket and internet access.

It has already been used for the Dublin heat of The X Factor, even winning plaudits from Simon Cowell. Depending on the size of an event or conference, the upper part of the auditorium can be blacked out, leaving 900 seats at the lower level to provide a more intimate setting. Using hydraulics, the forestage can be turned into an orchestra pit.

The main space on the ground floor, the Forum, is so vast that you could get lost in it at a banquet. But, with extremely generous eight-metre-high ceilings, it is not oppressive – unlike, for example, the baggage hall at Dublin airport. It can also be divided for smaller functions.

Compared to other public buildings on the Liffey Quays – the Custom House, the Four Courts and even the Civic Offices – it is rather blank, apart from its show-stopping tilted glass drum; the interior is more impressive. But whatever others may think of this new “box in the docks”, Kevin Roche is entitled to feel chuffed that it’s there at all.

Measuring up

Convention Centre Dublin (CCD) rises to a height of 55 metres to the top of its tilted glass drum.

The drum has 470 panes of curved glass , no two exactly the same size

The rectangular box contains 45,522 sq m of floorspace, which makes it as big as Sydney Opera House.

It has a full stage with a 24-metre flytower

The main ground-floor space, called The Forum , is big enough to accommodate up to 3,000 at a conference or 2,000 at a banquet.

The Liffey Suite, which will be mainly used for banquets, can be divided into two separate rooms by dropping a partition from the ceiling in three minutes .

The other 19 principal spaces consist of a range of air-conditioned and fully-wired halls, boardrooms and breakout rooms for groups

Irish Times

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