Sam Stephenson was a barbarian in an Ireland where the barbarian was a hero.
He was a thug who brutalised our cityscapes and a fraud who seduced our policy-makers in an age when any sharp-talking charlatan could schmooze his way into a lucrative public contract.
But the one thing Sam Stephenson was not is an architect.
Leave aside the fact that he had no qualifications.
Leave aside the fact that he had no talent.
Instead, focus on the fact that he had no soul.
This is the sort of man lionised by the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s. The neo-thug who embodied a vision of a new, modern Ireland unencumbered by notions of heritage, continuity or tradition. Sam Stephenson, untrained self-titled architect was the perfect poster-boy for the Ireland that wished to cast off its old traditional image and replace itself with a new, flashy concrete-and-plastic pastiche.
In a painful, if unconscious, echo of Ireland a century before him, an Ireland that saw its Irish-speaking tradition as somehow emblematic of a shameful and outdated identity, Stephenson cast off the architectural language that had brought Dublin to the pinnacle of Georgian perfection and replaced that language with his own crude, unlettered gutter-speak.
Stephenson shouted down the measured Georgian architectural language of 18th century Dublin with two brutal and ignorant expletives in the form of the ESB offices at Fitzwilliam Street and the Dublin Corporation headquarters at Wood Quay. By designing these two buildings, he leaned in and cursed at tradition in the most drunken spit-flecked way imaginable. He destroyed a mile-long Georgian street to provide the ESB with their shabby pre-cast office block and he tore up Viking Dublin to build the bunkers in which the Corporation wished to hide from the public it served.
Never mind his later facile justification that he didn’t have a chance to complete his vision on Wood Quay. The reality is that his vision was crass, illiterate and overbearing. This man had no business dictating the shape of any city, much less the capital of our country with official support and considerable financial reward.
He was, and remains, a charlatan.
Now. What are we to make of Fitzwilliam Street in 2015?
The ESB wishes to reconstruct its headquarters, having vandalised the finest Georgian street in existence.
Should they be forced to reinstate the original facades?
I don’t think so, since the interiors were torn out and destroyed by the barbarian thugs acting on Stephenson’s orders, in pursuit of his ignorant unlettered vision for a new Dublin. Pastiche doesn’t work, as the ridiculous Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street demonstrates, so what should we have instead?
In my opinion, we should accept that Fitzwilliam Street was irrevocably vandalised by the ESB and by Sam Stephenson, thus depriving us forever of an architectural treasure. And we should move on.
We should demand that the ESB produce a design of internationally-acclaimed merit, no matter how much it costs them to make good their crime, but we should not insist that they reproduce the original Georgian streetscape.
Because it wouldn’t be the original Georgian streetscape and it would therefore be meaningless. Instead, they need to address the street and its surroundings in a meaningful way, with sensitivity, which would make an interesting contrast with Georgian times when nobody cared how brutally or suddenly the streetscape changed.
Let us preserve all that remains of our Georgian heritage. Let us lament what we have stupidly destroyed. But let’s not sink to idiocy and try to recreate what we cannot.
We should get rid of the abomination inflicted on us by Sam Stephenson and embrace thoughtful, sensitive replacements even if they don’t happen to be slavish reproductions of 18th-century Dublin.
It’s all about showing respect to our heritage, something not always evident in Ireland over the last century.