An 'Ugly' UCD Building Explained: Science North

Sinéad Mohan talks us through the intricacies of the North Science Block.

The original science block on the UCD campus was designed by former Professor of Architecture, Joseph Downes, in 1961 and opened to students in 1964. The style of the original science block is akin to other architecture produced in Ireland at this time.

The layout of the North science block follows a rigid three-metre grid. This gridded concrete structure was strongly influenced by the Bauhaus style seen during this period. The concrete column structure is simple but strongly expressed throughout, lining the north and south façade as well as inhabiting a row along the central floor area. Formality throughout the plan emulates the pursuit of functionality seen in Bauhaus architecture. The concrete fabric of the building is primarily structural, and the circulation of the building expresses this formality once again. The repetitive layout follows a simplistic East-to-West movement along a singular central hallway. Vertical circulation is mainly concentrated in the central internal space with the exposed concrete staircase and the lift core.

The materiality of the interior space also suggests that inspiration was drawn from the contemporary architecture of the time. The Bauhaus style draws on the American Arts and Crafts movement which promotes craftsmanship. The interior of buildings inspired by this movement tend to see furniture and fixtures as part of the overall architecture. The original mahogany panelling in circulation spaces is reminiscent of the idea of handcrafted internal space becoming one with the overall structure. This is particularly prevalent in certain labs which still incorporate the handcrafted mahogany benches and cabinets that date back to the building’s origins.

Simplicity best describes the North Block’s façade. Much like the form of the plan, the face of the building produces a harmoniously balanced grid. The structural columns are externally expressed, fronted with mosaic tiles, and lend themselves to separating the building into bays. Aluminium framework supports the single glazed windows and opaque panels within these bays. The expressed nature of the building’s structure is suggestive of the work of Mies van der Rohe – a large influence in Bauhaus architecture.

While the building adheres to the artistic integrity of its time, the block has since become outdated within its context. The contrast seen between this building and the East block highlights the progress made in the design of educational institutes. The design is an example of an influential architectural style, although in this instance it has not aged well. The internal panelling is dark and uninviting when showcased in such a large space. Further to this, the rigid functionality of the plan does not allow for informal meeting spaces within the building as seen in the other science block buildings. A passer-by views this ‘old fashioned’ building alongside the pristine design of East block and deems it ‘ugly’. The intent of the original design is beautiful, the architectural integrity of the existing design is not lost, but it does not compare to the vitality of space created for students in newer buildings seen on Belfield campus.