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Boomtime beauties: 6 Celtic Tiger buildings that deserve more appreciation, according to architects

Plus one that continues to divide opinion.

THE CELTIC TIGER era has a bad reputation for building. 

A lack of enforcement of building and planning regulations, during a period of intense construction activity, led to a lot of poor decisions (and even some dangerous ones). 

But while some housing built during the boom years was a disaster, not all building of that era was bad. Public money was flowing and some of that cash got invested in high-quality buildings, designed by exceptional architects.

According to Michael Hayes, architect and editor of Architecture Ireland, there was brave and ambitious architecture and design during the period. “Towards the end of the boom there were housing projects that were really quite innovative and daring,” he says.

Emma Gilleece, an architectural historian, agrees. “The Celtic Tiger era produced some impressive and innovative buildings which should not be tainted by their association with the Celtic Tiger.”

Here are some of their picks.

1. The Tourism & Hospitality Building at Cork Institute of Technology

Designed by De Blacam & Meagher, to the untrained eye the design of the building appears to be based on a castle or fortress. It is made of red clay brickwork with aluminium framed windows and has oak panelled doors.

Gilleece loves it. “It is a superb group of brick buildings breathtakingly conceived and detailed,” she says. The building has ” a beautiful sense of space created internally and externally and is an example of restrained elegance.”

2. The Lewis Glucksman Gallery at UCC

This gallery, designed by O’Donnell & Tuomey, is a cultural and educational institution that promotes the creation and exploration of the visual arts. Hayes says it is an excellent example of modern architecture and  “still renowned as one of the best buildings of the decade.”

Prior to the Celtic Tiger boom, there was a shortage of theatre and art spaces across the country, he says. “Ireland just did not have the network of art centres that it has today – they were all built in the 90s and noughties,” he says.

So, in that sense, the boom was transformative for the arts in Ireland – especially outside of the main cities, he says.

Several smaller towns got a new designated arts building during the boom era – another great example is The VISUAL in Carlow he says, “which is a stunning space.” 

3. Kildare County Council buildings in Naas

This building has “quite a dramatic form, the walls slant to make it look more dynamic in shape,” says Hayes.

Its designers Heneghan Peng are internationally renowned Irish architects, he says. “A lot of these projects were taken by Irish architects that would have a very good reputation,” he adds. 

While there were serious issues with building standards in some privately built developments, the publicly funded projects didn’t come under the same financial pressure to turn the buildings around quickly, he explains.

Mostly, the public bodies were building offices for themselves, so the pressure wasn’t the same and there was a bit of freedom too. “So they could be a little bit more personal,” he says. “This was the age of iconic architecture.”

During the Celtic Tiger era, lots of councils got new buildings and many of them were high-quality designs.  “They are quite flashy compared to architecture today, in terms of style,” says Hayes. 

Also check out the Donegal County Council buildings in Letterkenny which are designed to integrate with the rural landscape, if not with the other buildings in the town. Many of the County Council buildings stand out quite a lot as they don’t tend to emulate the style of other buildings in the towns they lead, he says. 

4. Limerick County Council Headquarters, Dooradoyle, Limerick.

Gilleece admires the council building in her native Limerick, designed by Bucholz McEvoy. The headquarters is located “in the suburban wasteland of Limerick that is Dooradoyle,” she says.

“With its delicate timber brise-soleil this building is a visual delight and relief next to the monster that is the Crescent Shopping Centre,” she says. “The front facade curves upwards, reaching out to the sky.” 

5. Elmpark Green, Dublin 4 

This massive award-winning development, also designed by Bucholz McEvoy, is made up of three buildings: an office complex, an apartment complex and a commercial building. “There was clearly a level of ambition to deliver something better than what was there before,” says Hayes.

The stylish design of Elmpark also caught the eye of, Gilleece. It sits in “contrast to the brash commercial blocks we associate with the Celtic Tiger,” she says. “These are not only sustainable and dense but elegant glazed fingers that somehow sit neatly on the landscape.”

There were a lot of good quality, publicly funded buildings at the time, says Hayes, but Elmpark demonstrates that there were exceptional private sector projects too.  “That sense of confidence and ambition doesn’t seem to be driving what we are building at the moment.”

6. The Millennium Wing, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The award-winning extension to the National Gallery, designed by Benson & Forsyth, has an observation deck on the roof, a sculpture court and a façade of Portland stone. “To me, it’s one of the finest examples of the integration of the new with the old in Dublin,” says Gilleece.“I adore how the new entrance addresses Clare Street.

“Its modest exterior contains, as Shane O’Toole puts it, ‘the Grand Canyon of Irish interiors’.” 

7. The Convention Centre, North Wall, Dublin 

The Convention Centre stands out as one of the landmark buildings of modern Dublin. It was designed in 1998 so it is ‘of’ the Celtic Tiger era – mind you, it was only completed in 2010 after numerous delays in planning and construction.

The award-winning building designed by Kevin Roche is regarded as iconic for a number of architectural innovations, including the curved glass frontage. It is generally regarded as a fine example of modern architecture. 

Many of the offices in the Docklands are high-quality designs, says Hayes, but unfortunately in his view, the Convention Centre is just not one of them.”That building is a bad neighbour,” he says. “It only has one façade you can use – and every other side is just a blank wall of stone.”

“I think it’s one of the ugliest buildings in the entire city centre,” says the editor of Architecture Ireland. “It hurts my eyes, its aesthetically terrible and its prominence on the Quays is unwelcome.”


Michael Hayes (@Michael_K_Hayes) is an architect and editor of Architecture Ireland (@archireland).

Emma Gilleece (@Gileece) is an architectural historian, a committee member of An Taisce Limerick and a committee member of DoCoMoMo a voluntary organisation committed to preserving modern architecture in Ireland.

More: An insider’s tour of Dublin in 6 much-maligned modern buildings>

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