Thursday 2 June 2011

So the boom was a disaster for Irish architecture? Think again

The legacy of Irish architecture during the good years is not just ghost estates. There were many positives too, as an exhibition in Leuven demonstrates, writes FRANK McDONALD

LOUVAIN IS what we always called it, using an anglified pronunciation of its French name and reeling it off with Paris, Rome and Salamanca as beacons of Catholic education on the continent in darker times. But really, it’s Leuven, a small university city in resolutely Flemish-speaking Flanders, where French barely gets a linguistic nod.

The Irish College, founded in 1607, still exists, but now it’s the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe. More than 20 years ago, Fás trainees were let loose on its Flemish brick facade, each one with his or her own technique for repointing mortar joints. The resulting mishmash is not a good advertisement for them, or us.

More recently the 17th-century building was renovated by Murray O’Laoire Architects, who are no longer trading. Some of their interventions were surprisingly insensitive; the old chapel was savagely secularised for use as a lecture theatre, stripped of its altar and other fittings, though curiously not the holy water fonts.

A more positive view of Ireland is being projected in Leuven by an exhibition of some of the best contemporary architecture produced in the decade from 2001 to 2010. What it shows is that hackneyed images of ghost estates do not convey an entirely accurate picture of what happened during our frenzied building boom.

Six members of Leuven’s Stad en Architectuur (City and Architecture) group came to Ireland to see many of the best buildings for themselves, and they were impressed by what chairwoman Petra Griefing called their “simple yet idiosyncratic architectural language, with the emphasis on materiality, spatiality and social context”.

Stad en Architectuur decided to “put the spotlight on Irish architecture” in collaboration with critic and curator Shane O’Toole, selecting 40 projects that featured in the Architectural Association of Ireland’s annual awards “to give a representative picture of the dynamic Irish architectural scene of the past 10 years”.

The New Irish Architecture exhibition is subtitled Rebuilding the Republic, which suggests that it is imbued with a system of values in tune with the times we live in and the role of architects in helping to create a more just society here by giving concrete expression to our collective hopes and dreams of a better future.

Cleverly, the story has been arranged under eight themed headings – such as Urban Acupuncture, the Face of Democracy, the University and the City – to “explain the background to developments and bring into focus the dominant social and spatial challenges giving rise to the solutions that have emerged”. And it does this very well.

As Griefing noted in her introduction, “the picture that emerges from the exhibition is very different and far more complex than the stereotypical media image of a post-bubble landscape littered with ‘ghost’ housing estates. These do exist, of course – monuments to collective folly and blind faith in unregulated market forces.

“But architecture was also creating another Ireland at the same time, one whose values were not built upon sand. The exhibition also demonstrates that, in addition to all the apparent differences, Irish architectural practice displays striking similarities with the Belgian experience in terms of scale and problems.”

Eight of the 40 projects on view at the Leuven Museum – itself a complex ensemble of old and new designed by Flemish architect Stéphane Beel – are by O’Donnell + Tuomey. This is hardly surprising, as they have won more AAI awards than anyone else, and their work includes such acclaimed buildings as the Glucksman Gallery in Cork.

There were ruffled feathers over the selection, with other fine architects such as McCullough Mulvin feeling they were under-represented in the exhibition. Shane O’Toole’s defence was that it wasn’t meant to be definitive, but rather an introduction to the range of contemporary architecture in Ireland over the past decade.

“It was a personal selection, but I tried to fit it into a narrative of where we’ve come from – not just for foreigners, but to make sense to ourselves,” he says. “One of the things that surprised me was that the breakdown of clients was two-thirds public and one-third private, and even the bulk of that was in the ‘not-for-profit’ category.” The Alzheimer’s Respite Centre in Blackrock, Co Dublin, slotted into a walled garden by Níall McLaughlin; HJL’s serene mortuary chapels at St James’s Hospital, and Bates Maher’s poustinia hermitage cabins jutting out of a hillside in Glencomeragh, Co Tipperary, all speak of an “architecture of healing that soothes the soul”, says O’Toole.

As he writes in the catalogue, “who would have thought that one of the legacies of the Celtic Tiger – with all of its emphasis on individualism, the free market and wealth creation – would be a raft of fine buildings for central and local government?” Indeed, this is its finest legacy.

He describes it as “the most significant body of work in Irish architecture since the redevelopment of Temple Bar in Dublin in the 1990s”, including such outstanding projects as Bucholz McEvoy’s headquarters for Limerick County Council in Dooradoyle – a prime example of architects adopting the “green agenda”.

Long-neglected communities also benefited, acquiring new facilities such as the Brookfield Community Youth Centre, in west Tallaght, robustly designed by Hassett Ducatez; the “Swiss cheese” tower of Seán O’Casey Community Centre in Dublin’s East Wall by O’Donnell + Tuomey; or Árdscoil Mhuire, Ballinasloe, Co Galway by Grafton Architects.

Grafton’s Solstice Arts Centre in Navan is one of the five cultural projects featured in the exhibition, along with Tom de Paor’s peat briquette pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2000, A2 Architects’ Eurocampus in Clonskeagh, MacGabhann Architects’ Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny and O’Donnell + Tuomey’s An Gaeláras in Derry.

The Face of Democracy segment rather improbably includes the Department of Finance’s new annex on Merrion Row, also by Grafton Architects, as well as (more aptly) their Town Hall in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath; O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Press Reception Room in Leinster House; and FKL’s Baldoyle Library and Area Office for Fingal County Council.

The relationship between the university and the city is also explored through such projects as the Ussher Library in Trinity College Dublin, by McCullough Mulvin and KMD; the Università Luigi Bocconi in Milan, which won Grafton worldwide recognition; and de Blacam and Meagher’s “redbrick university” for Cork Institute of Technology.

New housing is represented by two categories – apartments such as Clarion Quay, by Urban Projects; and the Wooden Building in Temple Bar, by deBlacam and Meagher; and individual houses as different as those designed and built by Dominic Stevens in the wilds of Leitrim and the geometrical austerity of Peter Cody’s home in Co Kilkenny.

On “urban acupuncture”, the point being made is that cities require constant reinvention to become “theatres of public life” that visitors would find attractive. Thus, the boom left us with positive improvements in the public realm, such as the Liffey Boardwalk and the 12 lighting masts topped by gas braziers in Smithfield.

These additions to Dublin, both by McGarry Ní Éanaigh, are a bit jaded now. The boardwalk attracts crime, while the braziers in Smithfield haven’t been lit for years (flaring the gas is costly, and it could singe people on the balconies of penthouse apartments). But if they’re not going to be used, they should be taken down.

New Irish Architecture: Rebuilding the Republic was sponsored by Culture Ireland with support from the Irish Embassy in Brussels, the City of Leuven, the Flemish Government and the Province of Flemish Brabant. It continues until July 5th and will then travel to other locations in Belgium, the Netherlands and hopefully elsewhere

Irish Times

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