The stretch of road from my Kilmainham flat to the city centre introduces me to an assortment of buildings, each with their own personality. My dual interests in housing design and identity construction has created an addiction to probing how buildings shape, and are shaped by, those who experience them on an everyday basis. I have spent much time in these moments of pedestrian introspection affixing personalities to inanimate floors of brick, glass, steel and concrete. Property façades along James Street and Thomas Street are familiar neighbours and a steady constant in a city where so much else is changing. And, on these walks, my attention always returns to one building whose character stands out above the rest – the Guinness Power House.
It was built between 1946 and 1948 to provide power to the Guinness Brewery and sits halfway between St. James’s Hospital and Christ Church Cathedral. The red brick aesthetic is typical of the style found throughout Guinness’s sprawling D8 estate. Its two octagonal red brick towers flank the site while an orange windsock invites the possibility of an unexpected helicopter landing, though its squeezed-in location makes this seem improbable.
From the pavement, six different roof heights obscure the full extent of the building’s industrial beauty. The upper levels best showcase the architects’ vision for detailed brick work and cornering that adds a touch of decadence to an otherwise functional design. Its long rectangular windows help exaggerate its size and, during December, the Guinness Christmas tree is decorated outside, adding to the building’s conspicuous charm.
On first impressions, the Guinness Power House is an unmistakably confident building. However, closer scrutiny of its architectural history complicates this identity and exposes a building that lacks the overstatement of other comparable postwar power stations. English architect FRM Woodhouse designed the building, with credit also attributed to Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners. The Power House was part of a post-war modernisation project across the Guinness estate, with the building intended to provide energy from oil and gas. The design evoked the work of Giles Gilbert Scott, the English architect behind London’s Bankside and Battersea power stations. The London Power Company invited Scott to provide designs that improved the external look of the Battersea power station ahead of its opening in 1933. Scott then designed the Guinness Brewery at Park Royal, in northwest London, between 1933 and 1935 and consulted on the Bankside power station in 1947.
Whereas the Battersea Power Station became the famous backdrop for Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals and Bankside became the home of Tate Modern in 2000, the Guinness Power House has remained an unassuming presence on St. James’s Gate. The building is less monumental in size and its jumbled arrangement of sections fails to replicate the symmetrical elegance of its London contemporaries. The building’s Art Deco aesthetic, reminiscent of the 1920s or 1930s, also arrived in Dublin a generation too late and seemed nostalgic before even opening, compared to bolder styles such as Brutalism.
Yet, these shortcomings oddly warm me to the Guinness Power House: its projection of bold industrial bravado and high chimneys seem less confident when one learns more about ‘better’ examples of this building form and its tardy arrival to Ireland’s architectural scene. As an example of forward looking modernity, the Guinness Power House brought little innovation to how people thought about architecture. But as a building, in the context of James and Thomas Street, it works well and adds to the area’s list of notable characters.
Guinness Power House, St. James’s Gate, D8 – Architect(s): FRM Woodhouse, Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners
Kevin Guyan (@kevin_guyan) is a Dublin-based researcher exploring men’s experiences of housing design in England in the decades after World War II.
Words & Photos: Kevin Guyan