Completed in 1974, the former Braun factory, which still welcomes visitors to Carlow, brought modernist design and initiated a major demographic disruption in the town, as it gave a generation of working-class Carlow women confidence through industrial labour and a paycheque.
Braun (Gillette) AG is a German consumer products company founded in 1921. The company is particularly well known for its industrial product design from the mid-twentieth century, which included electric shavers, slide projectors, and record players. In 1935, the Braun brand was introduced, and the original incarnation of the logotype with the raised 'A' was born, whose shadow is still on the Carlow building today. Similar to this distinctive raised ‘A’, the concrete stack that bears this logo rises as a bold rectangle, its proportions and its unusual texture of vertical ribs giving the impression of a much younger building than one now in its late forties.
The Industrial Development Agency (IDA) identified Rathnapish on the north-eastern edge of Carlow town for the new Braun (Ireland) Ltd factory, as part of its investment strategy into regional towns, aligning with Carlow Regional Technology College (now Carlow IT) to nurture a young, educated workforce. The vast factory on a 29-acre site was built by Sisk and completed in 1974 and soon became the town’s largest employer with 1,400 workers, mostly women, manufacturing small personal appliances and, later, electric toothbrushes. This was more than the other main employers combined, namely Läpple (closed 2007), Thompsons (Structural Steel Fabricators), and the Sugar Factory (closed 2006) with a combined workforce of about 1,000, predominantly men.
The complex was completed in two phases: the low-level section in 1974 and its extension and high-bay storage warehouse in 1985. Appropriately for a factory with a female workforce the architect of phase 1 was a woman, Angela Jupe (1944 – 2021). She was head of the design team at IDA and was the lead architect on the Braun factory, with input from Braun‘s professional team in Frankfurt on the operational and organisational strategies. She later went on to join the IDA's International Services team and to work in private practice in Dublin before embarking on a whole new career in landscape design and conservation. This period of in-house design for the IDA lasted about a decade at a time when most industrial estates were designed by large architectural practices, such as the Läpple factory across from Braun, designed by RKD Architects and also opened in 1974.
The factory’s tactile character is provided by the 150mm precast ribbed panels and full height bronze anodised windows. Inside a vast factory floor, with industrial roof girders, metal pillars, smooth concrete floor. The aggregate concrete panels on the exterior have a brown tint and are of a high quality. This design was unique in Ireland for the time and, as noted, still looks fresh.
Phase 2 executed in 1985 added 8,000 sqm to the existing floor area and was designed by Newenham Mulligan & Associates and constructed by Duggan Bros. This phase comprised of an additional production area, gas filling rooms, a new staff canteen and kitchens in addition to the distinctive, ribbed concrete, five-storey warehouse housing giant storage racks and racks , part of an automated dispatch system. The design team, headed by Michael Byron and Aidan Kavanagh, were respectful of Jupe's original design, sourcing wall panels to match the existing precast panels but with more closely spaced ribs.
Local Barry McKinley, who was at one time a draughtsman in Thompsons, remembers the social change this employer brought between the sexes. 'There was a growing number of unemployed men walking around town with prams and bags of shopping! My girlfriend fled the country the moment her mother said, "I’m putting your name down for a job with the Germans"’.
The momentum ebbed and Braun eventually closed in 2010, a significant loss to the town. The former factory was bought by Procter & Gamble and then, in 2015, by Clyde Real Estate, set up by former Presidential candidate Seán Gallagher and the telecoms entrepreneur Colm Piercy, who initially planned to turn it into a business park. However, the vacant factory was temporarily brought back to life last year by the exhibition 'Woman in the Machine', co-created by the town's two major arts organisations, Carlow Arts Festival and VISUAL, presented as part of Brightening Air (Coiscéim Coiligh), and funded by the Arts Council. Accompanying this exhibition was the Braun Archive which collected oral histories and photographs from former employees alongside the Braun Project undertaken by the DSA Bachelor of Architecture fourth year students, Roisin Feeney, Finbarr Duerden, Shona Quigly and Clara Quinn, under the supervision of Emma Geoghegan, School of Architecture at TU Dublin. In September 2021, the Braun site was sold to the property developer Glenveagh Properties to be used as a timber production facility.
Hopefully, the factory buildings, not yet recorded on Carlow’s Record of Protected Structures, will be retained. This vast, late modernist complex is uniquely elegant and contemporary in style; it is one of very few buildings, in Ireland and elsewhere, designed by an in-house female architect; and it stands as a monument to the labour history of Carlow women and the influence they had upon the recent history of the town.
Pics: Susan Reid, Aisling McCoy