Sunday 12 July 2009

Irish architects maintain their winning touch

IRISH ARCHITECTS may be on their knees, with up to half of the profession made redundant or working three-day weeks due to the collapse of the construction industry here, but with more time on their hands, they can enter competitions abroad – and win them.

Dublin-based O’Donnell Tuomey have just won a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) competition to design a new students’ union building at the London School of Economics (LSE), beating such strong contenders as David Chipperfield and Danish practice 3XN, previously known as Nielsen, Neilsen and Neilsen.

The multiple-award-winning Irish firm took the commission for this £21 million (€24.3 million) project. LSE director of planning Julian Robinson hailed their winning scheme as “sensitive, erudite and engaging” and said it had the potential to become a world-class piece of university architecture.

LSE students’ union general secretary Aled Dilwyn Fisher said O’Donnell Tuomey had shown that they were open to further discussion with the students to “deliver the building we need” – one that would “glow with light and activity at night, and be engaging, open and social at all times”.

The daring angular design for this pivotal building on LSE’s main Aldwych campus, in the heart of London, is intended to replace a hotchpotch of buildings that date from 1903, when they were built as the Strand Union Workhouse Infirmary.

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, who both studied and worked in London in the early 1980s, will be glad to get the extra work: just over two months ago, their £16 million (€18.5 million) Photographers Gallery in Soho was cancelled because its promoters couldn’t raise the money to build it.

“We are delighted to win this opportunity to build a significant building in London, the city of our second schooling in architecture”, they told BD magazine. “We hope to make a special building for the students’ union, one that derives from and contributes to the characteristic qualities of the LSE.”

Recent O’Donnell Tuomey-designed buildings include the colourful “Swiss cheese” Seán O’Casey Community Centre in East Wall, Dublin, and the Timberyard social housing on the otherwise harsh Coombe bypass in the Liberties, which was named as Best Housing Scheme in the recent Irish Architecture Awards. There is nothing new about Irish architects winning commissions for prestigious projects overseas. One of the great coups happened in 2003, when Dublin-based Heneghan Peng beat 1,500 entrants from 83 countries to win the commission to design the Grand Egyptian Museum at the Pyramids of Giza.

Last April, this cutting-edge practice – headed by Róisín Heneghan and Shih-fu Peng – won another competition for a new bridge over the River Rhine, near one of Germany’s most sensitive sites, the “Lorelei” rock, whose legend was immortalised by Richard Wagner’s Nibelungen; their trick was to make it almost invisible.

Heneghan Peng also won competitions closer to home, for a new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim – a scheme now reinstated after being displaced (briefly) by a DUP-promoted private sector alternative – and for one of the new bridges planned for the 2012 Olympics site in London.

Ironically, the carnage on the home front is happening at a time when the international profile of Irish architects has never been higher. Most spectacular was the achievement of Grafton Architects, run by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, in winning the 2008 World Building of the Year award for their Bocconi University project in Milan.

Meanwhile, Murray Ó Laoire won joint third prize in an international competition to re-design Richard Wagner Platz in Nuremberg, right in front of the city’s opera house. Joined by former colleague, landscape architect Remi Salles of Bordeaux, their entry was was among 50 shortlisted in the competition.

Murray Ó Laoire have had an international presence since 1992 when they opened an office in Moscow, later expanding to Bratislava in Slovakia and Aachen in Germany. Headed by Hugh Murray and Seán Ó Laoire – currently president of the RIAI – they’ve been cutting back lately due to the recession.

Internationally, the outlook is almost as bleak as it is in Ireland. The latest quarterly survey by the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE) found that more than 60 per cent of the respondents judged the current picture “bad” or “very bad”, compared to 46 per cent in April, while only 8 per cent thought it was a “good” or “very good”.

Not surprisingly, the ACE has called for “an immediate increased public investment in sustainable construction and, in particular, energy-efficiency upgrading of existing buildings” as the most effective way of helping the profession – a line that would be enthusiastically endorsed by Seán Ó Laoire and RIBA president Sunand Prasad.

In the meantime, expect architects to be scouring the EU’s Official Journal and their own professional publications for competition news.

Irish Times

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