DIT Cathal Brugha Street
Architects: Robinson Keefe
Now entering its second decade as Ireland’s largest architectural festival, Open House Dublin 2016 will open the doors of over 90 residential, commercial, civic and cultural buildings from Friday 14th until Sunday 16th October.
This year, the theme of Open House Dublin is “The Presence of the Past” and the programme reveals how the built environment reflects the social, economic and political influences that have shaped the city over time. This also leads us to look at the present under the same lens, questioning the influences that impact how we build today.
One of the most extensive urban renewals the city has ever undergone was in the aftermath of the Civil War following the destruction of upper O’Connell Street and the surrounding area. From the rubble of Marlborough Street, Cathal Brugha Street emerged when the St. George’s and St. Thomas’ Church was rebuilt in 1932. It was on this street that Robinson Keefe were commissioned to design St. Mary’s College of Domestic Science in 1939, now known as DIT Cathal Brugha Street.
The building was commissioned by the Irish Free State Government as the new home of Domestic Science and Household Management. It was built in the Art Deco style as a monolithic structure with a flat roof. There are chamfered corners on the east and west facing sides of the building with pedestals for sculptures, of which only the west side ever fulfilled its function. The hardwood windows are traditional in style, set into a façade of machine cut red brick with a granite plinth. The entrance hall of the building has been extremely well preserved and reveals a terrazzo floor and octagonal pillars made of Connemara marble with Kilkenny limestone bases and caps.
What is fascinating about the building is how much it reveals about the cultural and social priorities of the Irish Free State Government at the time. During these formative years of the new Irish state, the government were faced with the hard, post-colonial task of both establishing Ireland as self-sufficient modern country but also to re-establish Gaelic and Catholic culture in Irish society. While unarguably, one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in the area, in comparison to the Dublin Gas Company on D’Olier Street which was built over ten years before DIT Cathal Brugha Street by the same architects, the wooden framed windows of the college align it somewhat closer to tradition. The use of red brick for the façade of the college strongly links it to St. George’s and St. Thomas’ Church across the road. So much so, it is impossible to walk down the street without assuming that the correlation between the two buildings symbolises the importance of Catholicism in Irish domestic life in the mid 20th century.
One of the most iconic aspects of the building is the sculpture, The Three Graces by Gabriel Hayes, commissioned by Robinson & Keefe in 1943. Today the knowledge that the college was originally intended to train women to be perfect homemakers seems patriarchal and oppressive and the image of three women cleaning and sewing does little to dispel that assumption. However, considering that allegedly the sculpture was the first in Ireland to depict women working in contemporary dress rather than depicted as mythological goddesses, and that it was executed by a female sculptor, suggests that Ireland in the 1930s was caught between resurrecting the past and establishing its future.
DIT will soon vacate Cathal Brugha Street to move to the newly designed DIT Grangegorman Campus by Taylor Architects. Both campuses will be open as part of Open House Dublin, along with the Military Barracks at Cathal Brugha Barracks, the headquarters of both Facebook and Airbnb and many, many more buildings around the city.
Words: Laura Wolfe
Laura Wolfe is the Open House Dublin Coordinator. For more about Open House Dublin 2016 you can visit architecturefoundation.ie, while October’s issue of Totally Dublin will feature a 4-page pull-out map of the entire programme.