Archive for February, 2011

Desmond Rea O’Kelly Obituary – Irish Times

Architect and engineer designed Dublin’s Liberty Hall

Desmond Rea O’Kelly: IT WAS Desmond Rea O’Kelly’s wish that Dublin’s Liberty Hall – the building he will be forever associated with – would not be demolished before he died. Not only is it still standing, but a planning application by Siptu to replace it with a much taller tower was withdrawn a day after he passed away, ironically.

Deirdre Doddy, a niece of his late wife, Breda, arranged for a laminated copy of The Irish Times report on Siptu’s latest move to be placed in his coffin “to let him know”.

Rea O’Kelly was an engineer, rather than an architect. He graduated from UCD with a BE in civil engineering in 1945. Much later, in 1977, he was admitted to membership of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and was elected a fellow in 2002. He was also elected to fellowship at the Institution of Engineers of Ireland in 1985.

“Sad to say, Des was never fully part of the architectural scene – I suspect he always felt he was an outsider,” architect and critic Shane O’Toole recalled.

“I remember a vague grumbling from my parents’ generation in the 1960s that he wasn’t really an architect. Jealousy over Liberty Hall was the cause.

“Rather than qualifying as an architect, he became an architect. This was not unusual in the history of 20th century architecture: Le Corbusier was a qualified engineer, not an architect, while Frank Lloyd Wright (Des’s hero and inspiration for Liberty Hall via Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin) was apprenticed and not academically qualified.

“Michael Scott had no formal academic qualification, nor did Sam Stephenson, although they both received honorary degrees/ diplomas subsequently, one from NUI, the other from DIT. It appears that Des was admitted to RIAI membership in 1977 as part of a ‘special entry system’ operated in the context of a proposed registration scheme.”

This was on the strength of Liberty Hall, which won a commendation in the RIAI Triennial Gold Medal award for the period 1962- 1964. The winner that time was Ronnie Tallon for the GEC factory (later Ecco) in Dundalk. Another commendation went to the Carroll’s Building (now Irish Nationwide) on Grand Parade by PJ Robinson of RKD.

In later years, he was commissioned by Dublin Tourism to carry out work on Malahide Castle, ingeniously strengthening its Georgian staircase in a way that could not be seen.

He also worked on the Dublin Writers Museum in Parnell Square, where he managed to save plasterwork that had become saturated from the activities of thieves and vandals.

Liberty Hall though was his magnum opus, and Dubliners loved it – even though most of them could not name its architect.

Uniquely, it gave people an unparalleled opportunity to view their city from a great height. High-speed lifts took visitors to an observation deck on the top floor and this quickly became one of the city’s main attractions.

With the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the observation deck had to be closed for security reasons. Then, in December 1972, a bomb went off outside the building, shattering most of the windows. In the subsequent repairs, the original clear glass gave way to dull reflective glass and Liberty Hall lost its transparent quality.

Mosaic cladding on the edge beams of each floor began peeling off and was consolidated with grey mastic and the building is now in a dilapidated state

Although it stands 60 metres tall, much of the space inside is occupied by the service core; that was one of the principal reasons why Siptu decided to replace it with a new tower.

Des Rea O’Kelly was delighted by Dublin’s first Open House weekend in 2006, when queues formed for the first opportunity in years to visit the building, including its observation deck. “His main concern was that they didn’t knock it before he died,” said Antoinette O’Neill, who once worked for him.

“Otherwise, he was quite complacent about its fate.”

He took part in a 2009 television documentary on Liberty Hall, directed by Paddy Cahill, who is passionate about its preservation. So too is the Irish branch of DoCoMoMo, the international organisation dedicated to document and conserve modern movement buildings. They may well succeed.

Des Rea O’Kelly was more passionate about golf and served as secretary and president of the Golfing Union of Ireland, which was strongly represented at his funeral. His wife pre-deceased him. They had no children.

Desmond Rea O’Kelly: born November 7th, 1923; died February 18th, 2011.