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Redesign of Cork Hill demands highest level of design consideration

ASKING the average Dubliner for directions to Cork Hill typically elicits a bout of head-scratching, followed by vague suggestions of the route out by The Coombe or a hasty deferral to any other unfortunate who happens to stand nearby. Yet, ask for the entrance to Dublin Castle, and the iconic sweep of road setts and steep gradient approaching the complex’s Victorian entrance gates immediately springs to mind.

Cork Hill, Dublin’s most intangible and yet equally well-known location, extending from the junction of Dame Street and Parliament Street to the respective entrances of Lord Edward Street and Castle Street, is set for a partial redesign under proposals recently suggested by Dublin City Council and likely involving the input of the National Transport Authority (NTA). While shining a much needed spotlight on this remarkably important location is to be welcomed, it must be approached with the highest level of design sensitivity and ingenuity. Nothing less will do.

Cork Hill is important to Dublin on so many levels. It is the very embodiment of the historic city, an assemblage of virtually unparalleled architectural excellence in Ireland, comprising major civic and state buildings, a largely intact historic street surface treatment, and nearly every material that lends Dublin its identity – Portland stone, granite, diorite, brick and cast-iron. Above all, however, it is an iconic repository of generations of occasions in civic life and state ceremonial, encompassing the ancient cavalry and coach processions of the Viceregal court, to the motorcades of modern Presidential inaugurations.

Left: Rose Barton's atmospheric watercolour, Arriving at the Leveé, 1897. 


Significance

Captured evocatively for centuries on canvas, paper, copper engraving and photographic plate by Malton, Petrie, Brocas, Shaw, Barton and French, Cork Hill encapsulates everything that Dublin streetscape should aspire to be, and as such demands every conceivable ounce of thoughtful, intelligent design consideration that we expect to reflect our pride as a capital city. 

Cork Hill in the early nineteenth century.

Cork Hill is a distinctive urban ‘room’. Its form is principally dictated by two massive flank walls, hewn as if from natural cliffs of Portland stone: the western portico of Thomas Cooley’s masterpiece, the former Royal Exchange (1769-1779) and now City Hall, and the astonishingly ambitious former private Newcomen Bank (1781), a masterful exercise in restraint by Thomas Ivory, and now the Rates Office, having been modified in the mid-nineteenth century for the Hibernian Bank. The third ‘wall’ to the north is a modest red brick commercial terrace of the early 1900s that serves to reinforce the civic grandeur of the public buildings opposite, while the forth enclosure comprises the somewhat underwhelming Victorian entrance to Dublin Castle, composed of panelled Portland stone gate piers and flanking sweeps of cast-iron railings. The composition here is saved by the charming vista towards Arthur Jones Nevill’s Bedford Tower (1753-1761) overlooking the Castle’s Upper Yard, and the brooding silhouette of the monumental Justice entrance gate looming in the distance. The pedimented facade of the red brick Guard House by Joseph Jarratt provides further enclosure and visual interest.

 

Pictured above in the late nineteenth century, Cork Hill features a steep incline in the road surface, dramatically accentuated by the broad sweep around from Dame Street originally planned for carriage movements before the opening of Lord Edward Street in 1886. The double step on the right-hand side is one of the iconic features of the space, the origin of which likely dates to the 1780s. The road surface is comprised of stone setts, while gas lamp standards punctuate the kerblines. The absence of 'street clutter' is starkly apparent.

Left: Aerial view of Cork Hill from the Upper Yard of Dublin Castle.  


Proposals 

Cork Hill is urban theatre at its best. Any intervention into such a complex scene requires immensely careful consideration.

Dublin City Council recently issued a public statement following from the ‘concrete carbuncle’ controversy over the insertion of a temporary concrete barrier with attendant flagpoles at the bottom of Cork Hill. In it, it advertised a major public consultation, to take place on Friday 15th March in the Wood Quay venue, over proposed permanent interventions on Cork Hill as part of a major Part 8 planning application. The various issues to be dealt with include providing a safer pedestrian crossing from City Hall across to Lord Edward Street, creating additional universal access to City Hall and entirely new universal access to the Rates Office, and various other experiential interventions to create a fitting ‘ante-room’ to Dublin Castle.

Dublin Civic Trust broadly welcomes this focus on Cork Hill, whose presentation has been sliding in recent years and could benefit from judicious design intervention. However, we strongly put forward that it is fine-tuning required here, not wholesale redesign, nor intervention for intervention’s sake. Cork Hill is an immensely sensitive environment that demands a thorough understanding of the materiality of historic Dublin streetscape, street furniture and street surfaces, and the strong and proud tradition in this field which has almost been wiped out in recent decades, particularly in how all of these elements interact with each other in the creation of coherent and pleasant street environments. Under no circumstances are contemporary design interventions appropriate in this context - only subtle, harmonious design solutions executed in the idiom, spirit and tradition of Dublin street design of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While the materials recently deployed on Palace Street are appropriate in character to their location, the design approach is entirely at variance with the historic importance of Cork Hill and this should not be used as a design cue for this critical ceremonial space.

We make a number of observations below.


Surfacing Materials

The road surface of Cork Hill needs to be entirely overhauled. The setts here have been disintegrating for many years due to subsurface subsidence and the loosening of hard mortars between the joints. The setts themselves are also mismatched, varying from diorite to a hard granite, and this requires unification.

Disintegrating mismatched surface on Cork Hill compared with pristine Foster Place.

We suggest that the entire road surface requires excavation and comprehensive relaying, based on a uniform, sea green diorite sett laid in a densely knitted fashion as per Foster Place off College Green – one of the last intact surfaces in the city. No cement or poured tar should be used in this process. This sett treatment should not only be applied to Cork Hill, but should extend the full length of Castle Street as part of a wider public realm improvement – indeed, many setts still exist beneath tar and asphalt on Castle Street. If this is not achievable as part of the initial phase of works, then the setted area of Cork Hill should at least be extended beyond the current crude line with Castle Street to encompass the entire setting of the Rates Office fronting Castle Street.

Current sharp junction of setts and tarmac at the entrance to Castle Street.

The tradition of street surfacing in Dublin requires close attention as part of this process. Where pedestrian crossing areas are required within the setted surface, strong consideration should be given to using smooth paviours of diorite (pictured opposite) as was commonly used at street junctions, rather than additional granite paving slabs which would confuse the hierarchy of road and pavement surfaces.  This is particularly important at the entrance from Dame Street, where a granite pavement laid across the wide junction would create an undesirable visual break in the roadway.

A possible alternative to diorite panels is slabs of basalt or other matching dark stone, as successfully deployed on Essex Street West (pictured). However diorite is by far the preferable option and every effort should be made to source this material.

Left: Beautiful sea-green diorite setts contrasted with a crossing of black paviours on Essex Street West in Temple Bar.

Linear diorite panels should also be laid as gutters along pavements, as pictured in Temple Bar. Setts should not abut kerbstones as this creates a crude junction while also acting as a litter trap. Consideration could also be given to laying diorite tracks for cyclists within the setted surface.

Right: Example of Cork Hill setts crudely abutting the kerbline compared with elegant diorite slabs on Fownes Street.  

Any interventions into existing paving also require careful consideration. The current cement pointing should be raked out of the antique granite paving outside City Hall and the Rates Office and replaced with subtle lines of lime pointing. Any repairs or insertions should use salvaged or very close-matching granite, both in texture and colour. Every effort must be made to protect the now exceptionally rare 'fans' of paving outside the Rates Office, particularly as part of universal access interventions which must not interfere with these important features. Similarly, the iconic double step outside the Rates Office must be vigorously guarded.

Golden-hued granite outside City Hall (left) and a rare 'fan' of paviours outside the Rates Office (right).   


Traffic Flow

The crossing from City Hall to Lord Edward Street is undoubtedly problematic as currently arranged, with a broad span intersected by traffic sweeping around from Parliament Street. Equally, however, Castle Street is largely used as a rat-run by delivery vehicles and taxis – the primary culprits of pedestrian conflict at this junction – and consideration should be given to making Castle Street access-only, including the possibility of reversing its traffic flow from westbound to eastbound from Werburgh Street, effectively eliminating its role as a through-street.

Possible redirection of traffic flow 


Realignments

The curved pavements flanking each side of the main Cork Hill junction are too important to be realigned or added to. Any intervention here must be subservient to the dominant visual role of the existing sweeps, where it should be the role of the road surface, not the pavement surface, to accommodate safety considerations. As such, a flush diorite or basalt pathway should be created across the junction meeting gentle dishes at each pavement end. These dishes currently exist, but are crudely formed, and require expert relaying in a traditional manner.

As for ‘narrowing’ the junction, this should also be carried out within the tradition of Dublin street furnishing. There are currently a number of precedents in the city – an excellent one even designed by Dublin Corporation in the 1920s outside Dublin City Gallery - The Hugh Lane on Parnell Square (pictured). Here, elegant tapered granite bollards topped by iron finials and linked with chains provide dignity to the setting for Charlement House, while similar granite bollards dating to a century earlier – c.1816 – still line the entire perimeter of St. Stephen’s Green, even if the chains were unfortunately recently removed. These are both excellent precedents for ‘narrowing’ the entrance to Cork Hill. Demands for a plethora of associated traffic calming signage should be vigorously resisted.


Universal Access

The ramps to the two major public buildings here are understandable concerns, but we would question the need for a second wheelchair ramp into City Hall given the exemplary intervention made with its lift access from the lower ground floor level facing Barnardo Square. Surely the equality and dignity of access provision of Part M of the building code is sufficiently served in this instance? A further major intervention on the Cork Hill elevation to City Hall would be enormously costly and visually problematic given the sharp change of levels up into the interior. It would also be a curious development in the context that the very street itself – Cork Hill – does not comply with the shallow gradient specified for wheelchair ramps. We are also extremely concerned about the possible need for a visually obtrusive wheelchair ‘landing’ in the road itself as part of these works – again something that can be comfortably accommodated on Barnardo Square.

Universal access to the Rates Office is more understandable, where a newly ramped surface from Castle Street could be reasonably made. This also affords the opportunity to reopen the original Georgian entrance door on Castle Street to the public and admit access to the original vaulted entrance hall. Very careful interventions are required outside, however, and all should be carried out in a traditional idiom.

Left: The original Castle Street entrance to the Rates Office on its southern elevation. Behind the fanlighted door is a handsome vaulted hall, currently used for storage.   


Lighting

The street lighting of Cork Hill needs to be carefully considered. Of particular significance is the single swan-neck lamppost, sited charmingly on the curve from Dame Street outside City Hall. To our knowledge, this is the oldest lamppost left surviving in its original location on any of Dublin’s main streets, having stood here remarkably untouched since 1892. This pillar, with fluted pedestal base, is the last remnant of the 78 pillars erected as part of first major street electrification scheme in Dublin, installed throughout the city centre in 1892. The original globe head was replaced c.1903 with the current elegant swan-neck - itself part of a city-wide overhaul of lighting carried out under the Pigeon House scheme. This post requires careful protection in situ as part of any works.

A further question to consider is whether the larger Scotch Standards outside City Hall, a relatively modern addition to Cork Hill, are a little overbearing for the streetscape. Replete with their floodlights for illuminating the Rates Office, do they compete too much with the facade of City Hall? Does their substantial bulk sit well on the slope leading up to the Castle? Would a more pedestrian-scale Dublin lantern post, as once proliferated along Castle Street (pictured opposite in the 1920s), be more subservient to these major public buildings and contribute better to the theatre of this location?

Left: 1920s view of Castle Street featuring a gas lamp standard of c.1870. 

The floodlighting of City Hall – currently distinguished white floods concealed behind the bases of the columns – should also be applied to the Rates Office in a unified manner. Options include illumination of the facade from the roof of its porch, and/or washing from across the street from the commercial terrace opposite. Under no circumstances should luminaries be applied to the immaculate Portland ashlar of its facade, nor should thematically coloured LEDs be used. The 'mood' of Cork Hill after dark needs to be considered as important as its daytime presentation. See one of our previous articles on reinstating historic street lighting in Germany - an initiative showcased to Dublin City Council officials in 2012.

And speaking of street furniture, with the possible addition of bollards at the entrance from Dame Street and other traffic calming measures, the bollards sited along the City Hall pavement should be removed, and all other signage clutter should be rationalised.


Conclusion

We believe Cork Hill should be treated as a delicate artwork or theatre set, where every element within the streetscape, whether a traffic sign or interpretive panel, must contribute to and take account of the nationally significant scenography of this location.

Dublin Civic Trust looks forward to taking part in the public workshop on Friday March 15th.

Comment! 

We'd love to hear your opinions and suggestions on the above. Follow the Twitter and Facebook links at the top of the article.  

Above: One of the earliest depictions of Cork Hill by Henry Brocas Jr. (after Samuel Brocas) from c.1820. Note the original Georgian railings at the entrance to the Castle and the array of 'globe-iron' lamps atop the railings of the Royal Exchange (City Hall) to the left. The double step in front of the Newcomen Bank is in place at this early point.

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