Holding court for all its new admirers

The district courthouse extension on Anglesea Street is a limestone beauty and a welcome addition to Cork city, says Tommy Barker
Holding court for all its new admirers

THE architecturally muscular block that is Cork city’s new suite of court rooms, cells, and services, off Anglesea Street, was created to look “like a single element of limestone was extruded from the earth, and hewn to a design to accommodate the complexities of the court,” say its designers.

Yet, the many thousands of tonnes of pale, limestone cladding, so fastidiously brought together in the building (it goes into service in April) originated in the Lecarrow quarry, in Roscommon.

They then made their patient way to Fatima, in Portugal, via Lisbon port, in 220 shipping containers, for laser-precision, computer-guided cutting by the company that bought out the Roscommon quarry in 2015. And then they made the return journey, home to Cork.

Civic buildings in Cork city have, for centuries, used pale Cork limestone, including the 1830s courthouse on Washington Street, and, a century later, City Hall, stone-facedly looking across the Lee to the as-elegant 97 South Mall, and 1 Lapps Quay, both former banks.

Now, this limestone-skinned complex is the new kid on the block and on the Cork city skyline: it’s quite the monolith, containing six courtrooms and an array of support services, with much of its quality out of sight from the streets. It’s built behind Union Quay, Anglesea Street, and Copley Street.

It’s up to six storeys at the back, and stepping up and back, away from the more delicate and brick facades of the 1860s former Cork District Model School, which itself had been pressed into a new use as a district court, after an OPW-overseen restoration, back in the mid-1990s.

That decorative, 19th century ex-school building was no longer fit for courts purpose, with its poor cells, unsuitable movement of prisoners through public areas, as well as lack of privacy for family law courts.

Now, there’s a generational shift in store for this essential building of State. It’s one of seven, new regional court facilities being provided in a €135m public-private partnership, in varying states of delivery, via BAM/PGGM.

The seven are Cork (involving a six-court, 10,300 sq metre new-build and restoration of the old 1,800 sq m District Model School for Courts Services back-office use); Limerick, with six courts in a new-build by Limerick Prison, at Mulgrave Street; Letterkenny, Waterford, Wexford, and Mullingar, and one already completed at Drogheda.

Initiated by the Courts Services, with outline designs briefs by architects, Henry J Lyons, the contract went to tender in 2015, and was won by BAM, who’ll maintain and operate the courts on a 27-year PPP deal, which “will set a new standard for justice facilities in Ireland, operating with a flexibility and security which provides security and accommodation for all court users,” says the Courts Service.

The €135m Courts Bundle investment is the largest single investment in regional court structures in the history of the State, and “will create a future that promises a great change in the axis of activity in several cities’ and towns’ legal worlds,” it adds.

Involved with BAM in detailing and delivery of both Limerick and Cork’s new courthouses were Wilson Architecture, and the ‘new meets old’ building rises to match the height of the School of Music, along Union Quay, to the rear, while, to the front, it matches the height of the bell-tower/observation tower on the District Model School.

The tower (most recently a water tank store), in its early days, served as an observation point for shipping coming to the quays, say Will Leahy, BAM project manager and Ger Moloney, construction director (pictured left), of the much-loved 1860s District Model School facade and its engaging features, and they appear to get as much satisfaction out of the conservation as out of creating a bold, new statement building of purpose, with immense, millimetre-perfect attention to 21st century detailing.

The exterior conservation work (under the aegis of conservation architect, Michael O’Boyle, of Bluett & O’Donoghue Architects, with Malachy Walsh & Partners) included reinstatement of part of the decorative entrance porch and carvings, repair of the English garden bond-red brick gables; replacement of 25,000 inappropriate red bricks put in place in the 1990s, one by one and by hand, with more suitable, matched brick sourced from Furness, in the UK; lime repointing; redoing of sash windows and counterweights; new Bangor Blue slates and red-clay ridge tiles with timber roof vents, and cleaning of the Portland stone and saw-tooth stone eaves.

In the old building, some of the large-volume original classrooms, which had been sub-divided in the 1990s makeover to court use, now are reopened up as several, large spaces, with ceilings up to 10 metres, with original trusses and ties revealed, while most of the walls are insulated with black cork.

Public and disabled access will continue to be on Anglesea Street via the porch on the old building, passing through the matching, re-tiled, 1860s palette cross-corridors to a new, slender atrium-like and top-lit circulation spine, into the new rear building.

A rear access, off Union Quay, meanwhile, will be used for the secure arrival and departure of prisoners, and of judges.

Wilson Architecture’s Shane Kerrisk says the link element “is a zinc-clad, light-weight structure, with substantial glazing that sits free of the Model School structure and impacts as little as possible on the fabric of the Model School walls.

"The lightness of the structure is to serve as direct contrast with the solidity of the Model School and the new stone mass of the new facility behind, allowing old and new come together, in a manner that respects both designs.”

The new addition, over five times the size of of its predecessor, deserves not to be hiding its de-lights behind any bushels.

It’s an accomplished piece of work, with some signature ‘Wilson’ touches in cladding and overhangs, cantilever and window outlines (the detailing to draw rain water from the window reveals and sills, down slender gaps, is an example, specifically worked out with BAM) set for at least a 75-year working life, and ties in tidily to the demands of an inner-city site, bound by historic buildings and the accomplished architecture of the Murray O’Laoire-designed School of Music, along Union Quay, coincidentally also a PPP design-and-build contract.

To accommodate six new courts, for jury and non-jury cases, concourses and complex circulation routes over six levels to allow for separation of uses (for public, court personnel, judges, lawyers, witnesses, prisoners, media, gardaí, prison officers, etc) necessitated seven separate lifts and seven staircases.

Other functions are concourse/common areas, individual judges’ rooms/suites with mini-kitchens, interview rooms, spaces for assembling/calling juries, and rooms for solicitors, barristers, briefings and media.

While the exterior of the new-build is Irish limestone (5,000 sq metres in all), this same fine stone also features internally in some key public areas as a wall finish, with the tiny, grid-line gaps between the repeat pattern of 500mm and one-metre panels lining up exactly with other wall panels, and across floors, says BAM’s Will Leahy, proudly: once you start to notice it, it’s incredibly impressive, a feature of measuring and marking-out and fitting, and it appears flawless.

Along with much use of stone, the calm presence of woods, primarily oak, is notable. All courtroom walls are clad in European oak, along with desks and oak furniture, done by specialists, Athlone-based Woodfit, including acoustic panels for optimum sound control, needed both for normal use, and when TVs are being used for evidence, (eg, from vulnerable witness suites).

The preponderance of oak “is of utmost importance to the formal and civic nature of the building,” says Shane Kerrisk, adding “the uniformity of the material is intended to enhance the perception of formality within the courtroom, while the material is functional for use in furniture.

“Great attention to detail was required to achieve the simplicity in aesthetics required in a civic building of this stature.”

Underground, meanwhile, and naturally more robust and utilitarian, are ten super-secure holding cells, eight for men and two for women, each capable of holding four to six persons, as well as changing rooms for guards, evidence and finger-print rooms, and a host of other unseen back-up services, essential for justice to be seen to be done.

Preparing to open it all up for new generations of use, the Courts Service says “it will facilitate any foreseeable demand for additional sittings in the city for Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, and any changes in family law structure.”

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