The Irish Life Centre on Lower Abbey Street is bold, full of corporate confidence, but also respects its surroundings in scale and material and steps back from the street to open a public plaza. It is a unique building within the city of Dublin, yet easily falls into the background as we hurry around the back of the Custom House toward Busáras, Connolly Station, and beyond.
A New Irish Life
In early 1973, Irish Life Assurance Company Ltd announced its headquarters would move to new premises in Lower Abbey Street, having previously moved in 1962 from O'Connell Street to Pelican House on Mespil Road designed by Downes Meehan and Robson (demolished in 2001). The Irish Life Centre was the largest and, perhaps, most significant commercial development scheme undertaken in Dublin at the opening of its first phase in 1977 (complex completed in 1985). The first development included office blocks, accommodation, a shopping mall, leisure facilities, and an underground carpark.
Irish Life Centre is located on a site of over four acres between Talbot Street and Lower Abbey Street. Lower Gardiner Street and Beresford Lane run along the eastern boundary, while the development is bounded on the west by Northumberland Square. The eight-block complex was built between 1974 and 1977 at a cost of £20 million. A brochure for its launch an 'intricate miniature city within a city’ combining all the commercial, residential, recreational and traffic facilities appropriate to its scale. The use of the same materials unifies this ‘miniature city’, although there are subsequent varied additions and alterations.
Irish Life Assurance (now part of the Canadian multinational Great-West Lifeco) occupies two blocks, only one-third of the accommodation. The main building is a square tower, which rises ten storeys above the entrance plaza. Behind it, a second block, three-storeys less in height, connects to the tower, the two buildings together forming one corner of the interior garden.
The main public entrance to the Irish Life Chief Office Building is off the entrance plaza. At ground level, we find the reception area, along with waiting and interview facilities, a conference room, and staff restaurant. The upper levels have a central core providing facilities such as toilets, lifts, stairs, etc. to service the open plan office. At the time of its opening, it was state of the art in office interior design, with individuals grouped according to functions. No partition walls disturb this visual harmony. Carpeted (golden brown in colour, varying from floor to floor) travertine marble was used extensively in all lift lobbies and in the reception area. Acoustic ceilings are provided throughout, as is conditioning. Recent advances in the design of air conditioning and the use of solar reflecting glass make it possible to provide reliable standards of atmospheric control in the office areas. Also on the site there are four other blocks providing lettable office accommodation, residential accommodation, and a recreation centre including a 20-metre swimming pool, squash courts, club rooms and meeting hall all for Irish Life staff.
Brick, Granite and Gold Glass
The main structure is of reinforced concrete with brick-facing, which is given a silver-grey granite finish where exposed on columns, arches, and parapets. The walls are clad in alternate panels of dark brown brickwork and gold solar-reflecting glass in bronze aluminium frames. Entrance doors and screens are also in bronze-anodised aluminium.
The characteristic white concrete arches were constructed in-situ and contain crushed granite from the Dublin mountains. Their textured finish is achieved by bush hammering the concrete. The arcades to shelter staff from the rain and the curved corners of the blocks give a sense of luxury while the copper roofs is a nod the dome of the Custom House and Liberty Hall.
Integrating green space
The public are free to walk through the public plaza and up a flight of steps to reveal the interior Abbey Court garden with a pool (currently empty), fountain, sculpture, and landscaping by landscape architects Brady Shipman Martin. Abbey Court Apartments is a block of fifty flats grouped around two sides of the garden court, many with private balconies which overlook the garden.
Similarly, staff of the many other companies that have their HQs here – Comreg, the Irish Communications Regulator; the Valuation Office of Ireland; Safefood; the National Lottery; and Irish Progressive Services International – can look out over and take their breaks in this city centre garden.
One finds several public artworks across the site. The 14-foot copper-bronze sculpture, Chariots of Life, by Oisín Kelly (1915 – 1981), greets staff and visitors at the entrance plaza. Although completed in 1978, the sculpture was not unveiled formally until 1982.
It was at first directly in front of the Irish Life HQ building but was later moved in 2016 to be closer to, and more visible from, Abbey Street, and a water feature was added. The plaza features a dry moat, with retractable walkways which can be drawn up at night. Other works by Kelly include Children of Lir (1964) in the Garden of Remembrance and Jim Larkin on O’Connell St (1977).
In an article on the work of Kelly for Architecture Ireland online in November 2016, Paddy Cahill wrote:
‘Kelly said the idea was drawn from the Chariot of Fire image used by William Blake among others. He had been asked by Irish Life to do anything on the subject of life. During the crucial plastering stage Kelly suffered a heart attack. Although he made a recovery and was able to get the piece to the foundry in Italy, he did not live to see his largest work unveiled at the Irish Life Centre’.
Moving towards the back of the plaza to the left located on a wall is the ceramic work The Harpy (1982) by artist Desmond Kinney (1934 – 2014). Harpies are found in Greek and Roman mythology. Having the bodies of vultures and the heads of young women, they would serve the gods as instruments of judgement and retribution.
This work faces the full-height windows of the staff restaurant and if one peers through the window the mosaic wall at full ceiling height by Desmond Kinney can be seen. The mosaic depicts a tale from the old Irish Scealta Fineachta about the King of Erin, his sons, and the Golden Bird.
Inside the reception area, there are sculptures in anodised aluminium by Polish-Irish sculptor Alexandra Wejchert (1921 – 1995), commissioned for Irish Life in 1971, again on the theme of life. Wejchert’s triptych comprises a spiral development on a central column flanked by two wall panels and relies on reflection of light from the anodised surface for its vitality. The effect is striking in this large open area offset by the veined marble floor and panelling.
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Inside the Abbey Court Garden there was once a large colourful mosaic, Sweeney Astray (1987), again by Desmond Kinney. The glass mosaic was comprised of twelve panels narrating Sweeney’s wanderings through forests and hills, from prose and poems dating back to the 1600s and updated by Seamus Heaney in the early 1980s.
The mosaic was removed in 2013 by the management company due to deterioration of the panels. At the time it was reported that the mosaic materials would be stored by the company which is in dialogue with the National College of Art and Design on how best to use them.
The practice behind the design of the Irish Life Centre was RKD Architects and its lead architect was Limerick-born Andy Devane (1917 – 2000) with the main contractor John Sisk & Son. The brickwork, use of white aggregate for the arches, and tinted glazing are similar to Devane's Stephen Court building on St Stephen's Green. A graduate of UCD School of Architecture in 1946, Devane was awarded the Taliesin Fellowship and left Ireland for the United States to study under Frank Lloyd Wright until 1948. The influence of these two years under the American master can be seen throughout Devane’s career.
Devane also designed many buildings in Dublin including the AIB Bank Centre, the church and residential halls of DCU in Drumcondra, St Fintan’s Church in Sutton and Our Lady Queen of Peace Church at Dublin Airport. For the Irish Life Centre, his brief was to design a scheme to act as a stimulus to urban renewal in the area, be aesthically admirable within a tight cost and time budget. The hand of Devane can be seen in his integrated planters at ground level and corners at first-storey level of entrance plaza to provide greenery at every opportunity.
To complete the complex was Talbot Mall (formerly known as Irish Life Mall and later Irish Life Shopping Mall prior to a 2013 rebranding) which opened in 1979 with fifteen shops. Interestingly, Irish Life were the original developers, and later also part-owners of the first full-scale city centre shopping centre, the Ilac Centre on Henry Street. A small shopping arcade that was accessed via Talbot Street (where Lidl is today) formed a public passage between Talbot and Abbey Streets. After years of operating with only a few trading units it closed around the time of outbreak of covid-19.
I cannot write an account of the architectural story of the Irish Life Centre without mentioning the replacement of the gold solar-reflecting glass on the block to the left of the Chariots of Life sculpture with clear glass. This might seem like a minor point but the wonder of seeing the sunlight reflected on the wall of glass, as if from a Greek tale, is lost; lost but retrievable with the instalment of the correct glass in keeping with the artistic intent of this complex.
It might seem that bespoke corporate buildings with perks for employees, such as a gym and swimming pool, are a twenty-first-century phenomenon with the likes of Facebook, AirBnB, Google and LinkedIn, but here on Lower Abbey Street is an example of a mixed-use headquarters that also provides rental accommodation on site, expands and integrates public space across its site, and gives original artworks and a garden back to its city.