For a start, it is nine storeys high – double the height of the neighbouring residential blocks. Second, as its nickname implies, the central tower is clad in sumptuous tropical hardwood, rather than the facing brickwork and render used on the surrounding blocks. Third, although unquestionably a modern building, it is built in a rich mix of traditional, mainly natural materials in a chunky arts-and-craftsy manner that is the antithesis of the current neo-Miesian vogue for insubstantial lamina-like walls and floors.
When it was submitted for planning approval, this design "brought all hell down on us", says Shane de Blacam, partner in de Blacam and Meagher, Ireland's most internationally acclaimed non-commercial practice, and the firm responsible for the outrage. "The National Trust took us to appeal. In the end, John Martin, the deputy city planner, said the proposals were reasonable, and we eventually got planning permission – after we had taken the top two storeys off. I still feel it could easily stand another two storeys." The commission was the result of a competition held by Temple Bar Properties, the district's state-owned development corporation, which divided two urban blocks among five architects. However, de Blacam had little truck with the masterplan, which envisaged four- or five-storey blocks enclosing two courtyards, and which he describes as "pastiche traditional".
"We proposed a tall, modern tower that would rise above its surroundings," he recalls. "It would set up a dialogue with Dublin Castle and the city hall on top of the slope up from the river, and speak nicely to the surrounding buildings in all directions." In its final nine-storey form, the building is just about tall enough to appear as a tower rather than a building that steps up slightly from its neighbours. The vertical emphasis of the tower has been increased by sandwiching the narrow central timber-clad shaft between slightly lower wings finished in white render on one side and brindled bronze-coloured brickwork on the other.
At its top, the central shaft finishes with a flourish of brickwork, patinated copper roofing and two wide-projecting timber brises-soleil, which de Blacam likens to the peaks of a cap.
The tower manages to bring off the arrogance of rising above its neighbours by enriching the surrounding cityscape, which is itself far from homogeneous and precious. That said, the modelling of the penthouse and roof garden is too scrappy to be admired as a landmark from across the city.
Approaching the building down the cobbled alley of Exchange Street Upper, the visitor is struck by the downright medieval character of its condensed mix of forms and materials. The composition is irregular and asymmetric, in contrast to de Blacam and Meagher's similarly timber-faced Beckett Theatre in the neoclassical Trinity College. As well as the iroko cladding on the upper floors of the central shaft, there is European oak joinery on the ground floor and bronze brickwork, white render and rough-hewn oatmeal-coloured granite on the wings. "It is a complex composition because it responds to all its neighbours," says de Blacam.
The materials are used in a robust, chunky, highly crafted manner, emphasising their massiveness and solidity. In the brick wing, for instance, the windows are deeply recessed, but in the rendered wing, the windows project but are enclosed in hefty hardwood subframes. "This is not just cheap, old sheeting," says de Blacam. "It is first-class construction, and we want to show it off." Even more medieval is the arrangement of each timber-clad floor to jetty or step out 100 mm beyond the one below. And to cap it all, there is the narrowest of passageways up from the street to the communal garden, raised above a car-parking podium at the rear.
Yet, if the Wooden Building is medieval in spirit, it does not mimic 500-year-old forms and detailing. Although built in a highly crafted style, the forms and details have been designed with a modern sensibility and construction logic. The slight jettying of the storeys, for instance, provides air gaps to ventilate the cavity behind the timber cladding panels and protects the panels below from the elements.
What inspirations there are for this design come from the alternative modern tradition of massive architecture – which E E includes Louis Kahn's Indian Institute of Management, Le Corbusier's Ronchamps Chapel and Maison Jaoul, and even the most recent Sir Michael Hopkins buildings. In particular, de Blacam admires the work of the early 20th-century Swedish architect, Sigurd Lewerentz, whose monumental brick buildings are made to appear all the more massive by the use of thick mortar joints.
At the Wooden Building, mortar joints have been accentuated by their 20 mm thickness and their specification of white cement and white sand. The deep-set windows also express massiveness. "We want a wall to feel like a wall, with weight and mass and depth, not like a manufacturer's sample," says de Blacam.
Where the Wooden Building really parts company from medieval architecture is in the windows. These are large, modern picture windows in plate glass with not a glazing bar or astragal in sight, and they channel as much daylight and views as possible into the building's interior.
The opening-up effect of the large windows is continued inside, where sliding partitions between rooms can be moved back to create open-plan flats stretching from front to back walls. In the single-bedroom flats in the brick wing, where sliding partitions would be impractical, wide pivot doors can be left open to allow space to flow from front to back. Finally, the large picture windows to the main living rooms overlooking the communal garden have been raised to project above the floor levels of the flats above, creating the impression of double-height rooms. This was made possible by a stepped section that created a structural concrete bench below each window.
All this intensively crafted building is a far cry from lean, Egan-inspired construction. Needless to say, it did not come cheap.
On the other hand, it is self-evidently a solid, hand-crafted product. "It is not corporate in inspiration or spirit," says de Blacam. "We aspire to architectural value – wellbeing, durability and permanence." This verdict was seconded by homebuyers, who paid nearly double the starting price when all the 17 flats were sold at auction last summer. The penthouse went for £860 000.
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client Temple Bar Properties architect de Blacam and Meagher structural engineer O'Connor Sutton Cronin services engineer Homan & O'Brien quantity surveyor Mulcahy McDonagh & Partners executive architect Anthony Reddy Associates fire consultant John McCarthy timber consultant TRADA main contractor Rohcon