An 'Ugly' UCD building explained - The Restaurant

Image Credit: Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell

Sophia Finucane tells us why Walker’s 1969 Restaurant Building is worth a second look.

The UCD restaurant building, completed in 1969 by architect Ronnie Walker of Scott Tallon Walker, was awarded the RIAI Gold Medal for 1968-1970. 

Officially named the Gerard Manley Hopkins building, the Restaurant building is often seen as ugly converse to the stark white and silver curves found in newer campus buildings. Its exposed grey concrete is often described as ‘oppressive,’ and geometric shapes perceived as dated. Despite comments that it is ‘nothing special’ or even a little depressing, it has a fascinating history and an understated beauty both inside and out. 

the idealism behind the design… was meant to give students freedom to interact and share ideas

In the documentary Talking to My Father, Walker’s son Simon, an architect himself teaching in the UCD School of Architecture, explains how the restaurant building “originally had a completely open floor plan,” and that “the idealism behind the design… was meant to give students freedom to interact and share ideas”. At a squint, the original skeleton with its large, surrounding windows and wall-less chamber is still visible. Being split into private franchises has completely eradicated this feeling, but also the political sentiment behind it of community and collaboration. Now, garishly coloured signs compete for students’ commerce and distract from the structure underneath. Notably, the recent ownership of these franchises by the controversial Aramark, and now Gather & Gather fosters the sense of dislike towards the restaurant as a ‘place’, and seems to be the nail in the coffin of Walker’s vision.

Those less in love with brutalism than its remaining fans like Simon Walker, a supporter of DOCOMOMO (International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement), may argue that the building was never beautiful, even pre-franchise, but a consideration of why it is successful architecture may sway some. The building was built to function, and that is so clear in its structure. The exposed concrete bears no façade. This in itself speaks to a certain mindset those in university may possess: a desire not to waste materials in such a wasteful world, or a desire for a blank canvas for which to place ideas on. Frankly, there is no paint to strip off in the Irish climate and require labour to fix. Outside, large overhangs protect students from rain to move freely around the vast campus. The inner structure creates a magnificent uninterrupted space, which accommodates eating, working space and also has the potential to be turned into a makeshift lecture theatre at a moment’s notice. Beautifully crafted sliding screens were originally installed to allow the space to adapt easily, which have since been removed. Surely there is little more a university needs.

The restaurant building in UCD was built for a modern, politically-forward university campus in a quickly developing independent and equal Ireland. The beauty lies therein, and the architectural style would no doubt suit a new building required for a similar function today.