You’ve all heard the rumours; your peer mentors might have mentioned University College Dublin’s “riot-proof design” when you first arrived on the Belfield campus. You’ve been told tails of its construction in response to the student riots of the 1960’s. The College Tribune can now reveal the truth to this urban myth.
By the 1960’s, the university’s population was ready to burst. Then situated around the city centre, split between Newman House (St. Stephen’s Green), Earlsfort Terrace and the Royal College of Science (Merrion Street), the campus quickly came to outgrow its limited space in its urban environment.
During the 1940’s, the conditions in these building were seen as remarkably poor. Former UCD President Michael Tierney wrote in 1944 that “the college is easily the worst housed institution of its size and kind in the world,” describing it as having “crumbling walls and leaky rooms.”
UCD needed a Plan B…
The suburban site was seen as a place for the institution to expand and become a beacon of Ireland’s new Higher Education reforms and investments.
By 1964, the first building at Belfield was constructed. The Science Building allowed the institution to expand south, as student numbers were touching on 5,000. The student population would double over the next 20 years and plans were afoot to design a campus for the 20th Century.
A young Polish architect, Andrzej Wejchert, won an international competition to design the masterplan for Ireland’s first purpose-built campus at Belfield – deciding to defect from his home country to complete the project.
At the beginning of his career, Wejchert sought to design a campus that subverted architectural norms and trialled new city-planning ideas on this small scale.
UCD’s Gentle Revolution
As the roof slabs were being laid on the Newman Building in October 1968, students entered a period of unrest. This “Gentle Revolution” saw students protesting over the potential merger of the Protestant Trinity College Dublin and the Catholic UCD, and a dramatic shift in social attitudes influenced by student activism across the world.
Students for Democratic Action were a driving force behind a 10,000 strong protest and occupation of Earlsfort Terrace at the time. But importantly, this radical action didn’t precede or influence design of Belfield – but came after it.
Speaking to The College Tribune, Dr Ellen Rowley of UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy said the riot-proof myth can be “debunked immediately”.
“There’s no doubt that the whole climate that really came to the fore in the 1960’s was alive in the Belfield campus plan,” Rowley explained. “You couldn’t have been immune from this sense of the need to radicalise the university as an institution, which went hand in hand with civil rights movements around the world.”
According to Rowley, the designs for the Belfield campus were almost entirely finished by early 1966, which predates the student protests at the end of the decade. The construction of the campus happened in parallel to the student movements, bringing doubt to any suggestion that these protests around the world had an influence on the design of Belfield.
During this period there was a shift away from pre-war city design, towards new styles of architecture. “Rather than having grid streets, with cranks and bends,” Rowley says, architects strived to “humanise” modernist designs.
Belfield was also designed to encourage “chance encounters” with others. So, whenever you’re annoyed because you keep bumping into your ex on campus, just remember that it’s pretty much designed for that.
“There’s no doubt that Belfield is part of this radicalisation and revolution about what a university can be, but it’s designed from the student perspective rather than the governing body perspective.”
Wejchert worked with student and staff committees to gauge what the university needed in its design, and any suggestion that students weren’t at the heart of the campus can be fairly debunked.
Touching on rumours that the extensive tunnel complex beneath Belfield was also designed for the University President to escape during a riot, Rowley explains that these tunnels are use purely for service purposes. Although she debunks this myth, she does concede that “all institutions would want some sort of safe place,” as the designs were drawn up during the Cold War.
A Polish Hospital?
Rowley also says we can “completely debunk” another myth claiming the Newman Building was modelled off a Polish Hospital to save money on the design phase. She says an awful lot of work was carried out on the design of the building, with the ground floor and basement aimed at promoting student circulation and meeting, and the towers containing academic offices that encourage privacy among isolated departments.
We declare these UCD Myths: BUSTED
This article could not have been completed without the research conducted by Dr Ellen Rowley and Professor Finola O’Kane for their book ‘Making Belfield: Space and Place at UCD’ (2020). You can purchase their book here.
Here at Fócas, The College Tribune’s investigative team, we’re embarking on a new series looking to confirm or bust UCD’s best urban myths. Get in touch with your favourite myths, and we’ll take a look: [email protected]
Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter