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Building of the Month - November 2012

Department of Industry and Commerce, 23-28 Kildare Street, Dublin

Department of Industry and Commerce, Dublin 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of the Department of Industry and Commerce in Kildare Street, Dublin, now the headquarters of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.  Completed to a competition-winning design by James Rupert Edward Boyd Barrett (c.1904-76) of Cork, the austere Classicism is offset by Art Deco-like features such as the elongated arched windows and sculptural relief panels.  Photograph from Wikipedia

One of Dublin's most interesting twentieth-century architectural gems is the Department of Industry and Commerce in Kildare Street, now the headquarters of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (fig. 1).

The building officially occupies 23-28 Kildare Street and was formerly the site of Maples Hotel, mentioned in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

After Independence (1922), and throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Department of Industry and Commerce occupied various buildings in a number of locations across the city.  By 1935, however, the idea of a centralised office for the Department had been accepted and, in February of that year, a Supplementary Estimate was introduced in Dáil Éireann by the Parliamentary Secretary [Minister of State] for 'the building of new offices for the Department of Industry and Commerce on the vacant site of Maples Hotel'.

A public competition for the design of the new building was won by James Rupert Edward Boyd Barrett (c.1904-76) of Cork.  Construction, which was carried out by John Sisk and Sons, took place between 1939 and 1942, being greatly delayed by the difficulty of obtaining materials, particularly steel, owing to the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-45).

Commenting on the project in an OPW booklet celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the building in 1992 the architect Raymund Ryan commended that 'the politicians should at that time erect such a large and costly edifice was an act of admirable determination.  Unlike sibling republics such as Czechoslovakia and Catalonia, post-independence Ireland was not particularly interested in forwarding architecture of urban design as emblems of its new found freedoms'.

Viewed from Kildare Street, boldly rusticated and sheer expanses of Ballyedmonduff granite divide the façade into the "traditional" hierarchy of base, middle and capping parapet.  The entablature aligns with the adjoining Georgian townhouses while the projecting cornice above, sculpted from Ballinasloe limestone, tends to screen and minimise the visual impact of the uppermost floor.

In describing the front of the building Ryan commented that 'Detail is modestly stylised and reduced towards the kind of "truthful" minimalism spreading in from the Bauhaus'.  Elsewhere, the building has been described as displaying an unusually successful blend of Classical and contemporary Art Deco characteristics and, overall, the cleanly-defined articulation and bold stylisation are reminiscent of New York's interwar architecture.

Once again looking at the Kildare Street front the eye is drawn particularly towards the north-eastern corner at the junction with Schoolhouse Lane.  Here are multi-storey bands of steel-framed glazing with keystone busts depicting Eire and Saint Brendan the Navigator along with chevron and zigzag patterns in the interstitial panels.  These can be seen to great effect when the building is illuminated at night.

The long vertical window surmounts a square doorcase which has a lintel relief depicting Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, releasing a flight of aeroplanes (fig. 2).  This was designed to showcase the Department's responsibility for the fledgling aviation sector.  The door itself consists of two massive bronze gates weighing one and a half tons, supplied by J. and C. McLouglin of Pearse Street and, owing to wartime constraints, cast in single pours.

Department of Industry and Commerce, Dublin 02 - Lugh Department of Industry and Commerce, Dublin 03 - Industry

Figure 2-3: Two of the reliefs executed by Gabriel Hayes (1909-78) of Cork.  Over the entrance a depiction of the Celtic God Lugh releasing a flight of aeroplanes reflects the Department's responsibility for the aviation sector.  Smaller panels illustrate Ireland's proud history of industry and commerce

The reliefs on the balcony outside the Ministerial suite represent the groundbreaking Shannon Scheme as well as the burgeoning cement industry.  Those on the smaller panels depict other indigenous manufacturing sectors such as pottery, shoemaking, spinning and tobacco growing (fig. 3).

The winning designs for the various friezes – personally inspected by then Minister, Seán Lemass – were submitted, and subsequently executed by Gabriel Hayes (1909-78) of Cork: the fact that she was a female artist caused great press interest at the time.  Interestingly, the model for the figure of Eire is reputed to have been the mother of a subsequent Minister, Peter Barry.

Inside, the plant room in the rear basement has been compared to the sets of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) with its many dials, switches and pumps.  The basement along Kildare Street became, as an apocalyptic token of its era, an air-conditioned bomb shelter for Government officials: one must bear in mind that, at that time, Lemass was not just Minister for Industry and Commerce but also headed-up the vital “Emergency” Department of Supplies.

Having worked in the building for almost forty years I can attest that this historic subterranean space is, today, home to nothing more threatening than neat arrays of civil servants' bicycles!

Brian McCabe

FURTHER READING

Rolfe, Angela and Ryan, Raymund, The Department of Industry and Commerce, Kildare Street, Dublin (Dublin: Stationary Office, 1992)

A version of this article previously appeared in History Ireland

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