Subscriber OnlyCulture

Why does Dublin Airport want to demolish North Terminal, an icon of Irish modernist architecture?

Leo Carroll’s building, with its ‘elegant spiral staircases, delicate balustrading and bold terrazzo flooring’, would be razed

DAA’s controversial plans to expand Dublin Airport so that it could cater for up to 40 million passengers a year include little-noticed proposals to demolish some of its earlier buildings, including two original hangars dating from 1940 and the North Terminal, opened in 1959.

The original terminal building at Collinstown Airport (as it was known), with its curved form and tiered floors evocative of an ocean liner, is not affected by the latest plans. Although sidelined and even overlooked by developments at the airport in recent decades, it still stands as a reminder of the romantic era of air travel. Hailed by the architectural historian Paul Larmour as “an enduring monument to the spirit of Irish modernism in the 1930s”, the building was designed by a talented team of architects in their 20s led by Desmond FitzGerald – elder brother of the late taoiseach Garret FitzGerald – and completed in December 1939.

Less well known is the North Terminal, which was built alongside it to cope with growing demand, first for transatlantic and European flights and later as an arrivals area for all passengers, with the original terminal used for departures until the airport’s grimly functional Terminal 1 opened, in 1972. Thereafter the North Terminal catered for VIP arrivals and departures, including by visiting heads of state and for trips abroad by presidents of Ireland, as well as for Irish troops serving on United Nations missions overseas. More recently it was pressed into service as a DAA training facility and airport Garda station.

Designed by Leo Carroll, then principal architect at the department of transport and power, the building has been described by Angela Rolfe as “a rare example of modernist infrastructural architecture derived from a sensitivity to context, massing and materiality … embodying the ideals of a progressive and innovative Ireland”.

Rag-out of an article on page 5 of The Irish Times of Tuesday June 9, 1959, showing the new North Terminal at Dublin Airport, with the headline "Air transport important to economy, says Mr Lemass"

Rolfe, a former senior architect at the Office of Public Works, made a submission to Fingal County Council on Dublin Airport’s expansion plans, drawing attention to the “cultural heritage” that would be in danger of being lost if DAA were permitted to demolish the North Terminal and the airport’s original hangars. Of the North Terminal, she noted that it was “well-considered to include a sculptured and rhythmical folded roof profile and large expanses of curtain glazing”. And despite subdivision, its interior still contained “notable design elements such as the elegant spiral staircases, delicate balustrading and bold terrazzo flooring”.

Among those engaged with 20th-century built heritage, Rolfe wrote, the North Terminal is seen as being of “architectural, social and cultural significance, at the vanguard of modern design”, comparable with the airport’s original terminal building and other modernist icons, such as Michael Scott’s Busáras, on Store Street. “The North Terminal building forms a significant and integral part of the original airport complex and, like its close neighbour, it represents the pioneering years of air travel,” she wrote. Even DAA’s heritage impact assessment acknowledges that it was deliberately designed to have a “visual relationship with its older sister”.

Rolfe noted that the two large hangars at either end of the original terminal building were designed under the direction of TJ Byrne, principal architect at the OPW – who had overseen renovation of the GPO, the Custom House and the Four Courts in the 1920s – and, like the North Terminal, these were also integral to its setting. “The absence of a conservation management plan for buildings that represent the pioneering years of air travel, and a forward-looking modern Ireland internationally, is indicative of the lack of consideration and care given to this unique example of 20th-century cultural heritage in Ireland.”

Rolfe strongly recommended that permission be refused for the demolition of all three buildings and that a “sympathetic proposal” be prepared by DAA for the repair, refurbishment and reuse of the North Terminal, especially as it lies within the curtilage of a protected structure, the original 1939 terminal building.

In its 80-point request for additional information on the airport’s expansion plan, Fingal County Council called on DAA to omit demolition of the North Terminal – describing it as a building of national significance – or provide further justification along with detailed consideration of alternatives, including its “sensitive alteration”.