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National Gallery of Ireland has reopened – but for how long?

Shane O’Toole

Heneghan Peng’s subtle but transformative interventions have allowed the long neglected National Gallery of Ireland to reopen to a rapturous reception. But important parts of the redevelopment masterplan are yet to be approved

The National Gallery of Ireland.
The National Gallery of Ireland. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny

The National Gallery of Ireland occupies a dogleg site near the north-east corner of the most laden city block in Dublin. The block, which extends southwards from Trinity College to St Stephen’s Green, is shaped like an hourglass, with Leinster House (originally the palace of the Dukes of Leinster but now Oireachtas Éireann, the national parliament) at its centre. The west-facing front court of Leinster House is flanked by the National Library and National Museum, while Leinster Lawn, to the rear, overlooks Merrion Square and is framed by the gallery and its architectural twin, the Natural History Museum.

The idea for the gallery goes back to 1853, when the railway magnate and philanthropist William Dargan staged the Great Dublin Exhibition on Leinster Lawn. The painting and sculpture hall became the event’s most popular attraction, and the idea of a permanent gallery took hold.

Designed by Captain Francis Fowke RE, the gallery opened in 1864, its exterior a mirror of the Natural History Museum, built on the south side of the lawn in 1857. A long narrow structure, it incorporated two large exhibition spaces – the Sculpture Hall (now the Shaw Room) on the ground floor and Queen’s Gallery (now Grand Gallery) overhead – and, behind a bifurcated staircase, small galleries for cabinet pictures. Today it is known as the Dargan Wing. The gallery quadrupled in size over the next century with the addition of Thomas Manly Deane’s Milltown Wing and portico in 1903 and the Beit Wing, designed by Frank du Berry of the Office of Public Works in 1968. The form of each is an enfilade leading more or less to a dead end. Laid out in parallel, cross connections are made difficult by different floor levels. 

Grand Gallery
Grand Gallery Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny

Ireland’s most popular free attraction was a decorated cave, a dark old maze, confusing and disorientating, even for those just passing through, taking a shortcut from Merrion Square to Clare Street around the corner. Visitors were always getting lost. Benson + Forsyth’s Millennium Wing, built at right angles to the other wings in 2002, couldn’t solve these problems, but it did provide a vital secondary entrance to the gallery, which meant it could remain operational while the recent works were under way.

Serious problems were identified as long ago as 1988. Former director Raymond Keaveney says ‘It was a tinderbox’. Decades of chronic neglect and temperature and humidity fluctuations were damaging the collection. Not until it was on the verge of closure did the government take action, finally acknowledging the need for a development masterplan to equip the gallery for the 21st century. Following a call for proposals at the end of 2005, Heneghan Peng and conservation consultants Blackwood Associates were appointed in late 2006. The practice has completed major projects such as the University of Greenwich architecture building and the Palestinian Museum in Nablus, but there are far fewer in its home city.

  • Shaw Room.
    Shaw Room. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny
  • Grand Gallery, looking east.
    Grand Gallery, looking east. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny
  • Grand Gallery.
    Grand Gallery. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny
  • Shaw Room.
    Shaw Room. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny

The brief was to repair the building fabric and services, ensure acceptable ultraviolet light levels for exhibits, enable better art handling and storage, provide spaces for conservation and education as well as additional hanging space, and open the largest art library in Ireland to the public. Proposals were benchmarked against other institutions in Europe undergoing similar overhauls, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Stockholm’s National Museum and the Semper Galerie in Dresden.

The project almost died during the economic crisis in 2008, when the gallery’s annual grant was slashed by 40%. Work limped on, thanks only to essential repairs for the roof of the Dargan Wing. The Dargan and Milltown Wings were finally forced to close in 2011 and more extensive works were approved the next year. Much of the refurbishment budget of over €25 million has been spent on necessary but largely invisible work. In a modern gallery 30% of the space is taken up by technical equipment. Here it couldn’t go on roof because the upper galleries are top lit, so the Merrion Square forecourt was dug out to install an energy centre 9mbelow ground. Indoors, most of the new technology has been concealed within existing spaces.

The changes are subtle but transformative. A gently ramped granite forecourt provides access for fire tenders and eliminates the old entrance steps. Inside, several delights had been hidden from view. Detective work uncovered a long-forgotten service yard between the two wings. Now brilliantly lit by a glass roof designed by Tom Gray of Paris-based T/E/S/S, the courtyard’s white-tiled wall originally reflected side light into the Sculpture Gallery through windows that were blocked up generations ago to provide additional hanging space. Amazingly, the window frames were still in place. Fire engineer FLN recommended high-pressure deluge protection of the courtyard escape route from barely visible sprinkler heads outside each window. 

  • Entrance foyer.
    Entrance foyer. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny
  • A new, light-filled sculpture court.
    A new, light-filled sculpture court. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny
  • Shaw Room, Dargan Wing, with newly re-opened windows.
    Shaw Room, Dargan Wing, with newly re-opened windows. Credit: Marie-Louise Halpenny
  • Diagram of plan showing organisation of spaces. Conservation, Beit Wing, Orientation and New Wing comprise the suite of expansion works that have yet to be approved by the Government.
    Diagram of plan showing organisation of spaces. Conservation, Beit Wing, Orientation and New Wing comprise the suite of expansion works that have yet to be approved by the Government.
  • Section in diagram form showing space use when the proposed redevelopment is completed (scheduled for 2023, if the final phase is approved to start early next year).
    Section in diagram form showing space use when the proposed redevelopment is completed (scheduled for 2023, if the final phase is approved to start early next year).

‘We pushed daylight a lot, to help with orientation and the visitors’ experience,’ says Roisin Heneghan. Calculations for gallery UV levels were annualised, permitting occasional levels higher than the recommended maximum of 200 lux. Fixed aluminium micro-louvres with a UV transmittance of less than 1%, set within the roof lights, deflect direct light without flattening it out. Partly inspired by the example of the Rijksmuseum, the curators agreed to reduce hanging space to permit the opening of new windows in the octagonal ground floor galleries of the Milltown Wing.

The response to the reopening in June was rapturous. Although that ought to augur well for the completion of the final phase of the redevelopment, it may, paradoxically, prove extremely problematical. There is a widespread popular impression that the gallery is back again for good after being closed for six years. But the major parts of the redevelopment – which would increase its floor area from 12,500m2 to more than 19,000m2 with works in and on either side of the Beit Wing – have not yet been approved. If detailed design begins next year, completion should be by the end of 2023. Despite all the good press and an economy that is once more growing rapidly, the government may be inclined to sit back, as it has so often before. All that has really been finished to date are the stabilising and enabling works. The architecture of the National Gallery of the 21st century awaits us yet. One suspects the wait will be an anxious one.

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