Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A new-model creche and other designs for life

From a new centre for the Cliffs of Moher to a new centre for the kids of Tuamgraney, Clare County Council’s architectural awards celebrate diverse design

I WASN’T SURE why Clare County Council came looking for me to be one of their three judges for their Design and Conservation Awards, as I’m obviously not an architect or have any direct experience of planning. They already had those people on board, they assured me. They wanted an external, non-specialist eye.

Having a personal interest in design and architecture, and seeing a lot of examples both poor and terrific on my travels around the country, I said yes.

So I turned up at the Clare County Council offices early one morning last month along with David O’Connor, architect and Fingal county manager, and Sinead Carr, planner and director of service with South Tipperary County Council. The last time these awards were held was in 2005, so to be eligible projects had to have been carried out since then.

After three intense hours of looking at display boards, drawings and project descriptions, we had a shortlist of 29 from the 95 entries in 12 categories. Some categories, such as the best new single house in a town/village, ended up having nothing on the shortlist, while we were surprised that, in a county with some famous examples of shop fronts, the best new shop front/refurbished shop front category had a tiny number of entries.

There followed two packed days of travelling around on a minibus, visiting the locations first in east Clare and then west Clare. Visiting so many projects in such a short period was incredibly stimulating, and, for me, a reminder of how important small-scale projects can be for the communities they serve.

Categories ranged from conservation projects to infill, house extensions, residential developments and commercial buildings, among others. While O’Connor’s professional eye was primarily focused on architecture, and Carr’s on the context of the buildings in relation to their environment, my magpie journalist’s eye was picking up on social use of the public buildings and innovation in general. Surprisingly, for a panel of three, there was virtually no dissension about the eventual winners. The best work clearly spoke loudly to everyone.

ONE OF THE most interesting categories in the 2011 Clare Design and Conservation Awards was Innovation, and the one that provoked the most discussion before we settled on a winner. Or rather, joint winners. The biggest project by far of the 95 entries to the competition was the €31.5 million Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre, which opened in 2007. The scale, reach and international profile of this at-times controversial development, designed by Reddy O’Riordan Staehli architects, was incomparable to anything else on the shortlist. It was a deserving winner.

Right down at the far end of the scale, in rural Tuamgraney, we saw a creche called Brigit’s Hearth (see panel). We chose it as a joint winner with the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre because although modest, it was a truly innovative development, and a model of childcare that could and should be replicated elsewhere.

There were some other outstanding winners in other categories. Being a fan of conservation and creative reuse of buildings, I particularly liked the social history behind the Tulla Stables project and the Pavilion at Lisdoonvarna. In Tulla, the stone stables that once served the Church of Ireland patrons have now been converted into artists’ studios and a kiln. The church has now vanished, but the atmospheric graveyard remains, opposite the former stables.

AT LISDOONVARNA, the landmark wooden pavilion theatre, built in 1913 and looking startlingly like an American barn, was renovated beautifully. De Valera once held a rally here, and Maureen Potter appeared. It’s now back in use as a community centre, theatre, dancehall and gathering place.

My favourite entry of all was one that, for reasons that will become obvious, didn’t make the shortlist. It was in the best accessibility/ social inclusion section, and was described as “Arterial road for development at Ashline, Ennis-Kilrush road”. It appeared someone had taken the word “accessibility” literally.

The country girls and boys

Tuamgraney is a village in east Clare, and the community-run Brigit’s Hearth is located some miles beyond the village, literally in a field. Most purpose-built creches in this country are located in some kind of urban cluster of buildings. Directors of the project Lina Pelaez and Veronica Crombie struggled to get planning permission in the rural area they chose.

“What we wanted to do was recreate a home atmosphere, in the countryside,” Pelaez explained. The architect-designed complex, which has eco elements to it, looks like a rural house. You walk up a winding path, of a kind you imagine from a fairy tale, and then you’re in the creche. There’s a row of wellies under an archway, a big enclosed garden and a sandpit the size of a small swimming pool that faces southwest. It contains many tons of sand. “I like the children to dig, dig, dig,” grins Pelaez. “The world has to be abundant when you are little.”

Inside, a home environment has been thoughtfully and carefully created. There’s a lovely kitchen, where the older children help prepare a home-cooked lunch, and a long table with an oilcloth, where those old enough sit to eat. There are wildflowers on the table, a wood-burning stove, and pictures on the walls that “you might see in your granny’s”. Beyond that is a sunny living room, with a couch, beanbags and boxes of wooden toys. There’s also a peaceful room with sheepskins on the floor and some little beds, where children can rest. They have capacity for 26 children.

The only other building nearby is the local community hospital and nursing home. The long-term plan is to develop a kitchen garden, where the children can have allotments, and to forge links between the two communities and generations.

The winners are ...

The winners in the various categories of 2011 Clare Design and Conservation Awards are:

Innovation project Joint winners are Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre; and Brigit’s Hearth creche, Tuamgraney

New house in the countryside Elaine Bowe, architect-owner of house at Drim, Quin

Reuse/refurbishment/extension Architect John O’Reilly’s extension to house on Coast Road, Ballyvaughan

New commercial building Doolin Cave Visitor Centre

New civic building Clare County Council headquarters, Ennis

Conservation project Joint winners: Tulla Stables, Tulla; and Pavilion Hall, Lisdoonvarna

Infill development Rowan Tree Hostel, Ennis

Green technology Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre

Accessibility/social inclusion Ennis Youth Centre, Cloughleigh

New residential development Cappavilla Student Village (below), University of Limerick (located across the Clare border).

Irish Times


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