Carlow is putting itself on the cultural map with a big and bold new arts centre featuring a huge new gallery space as well as the sumptuous 355-seater George Bernard Shaw Theatre
IT ALL GREW out of Éigse, the Carlow arts festival that’s now in its 30th year. Local enthusiasm fuelled a campaign for a permanent arts facility for the town and there was a parallel demand for a theatre to cater for its exploding population; Carlow had become another cog in the wheel of Dublin’s extended commuter belt.
The county and town councils commissioned a feasibility study by Murray O’Laoire in 2000 and, a year later, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism pledged €3.17 million from its Access scheme for a visual arts centre to be built in the grounds of Carlow College, formerly a Catholic seminary called St Patrick’s College.
The site was generously donated by the college – “we couldn’t have bought it”, says Carlow town clerk Joe Watters. College president Monsignor Caoimhín O’Neill, colloquially known as Father Kevin, was one of the leading lights in Éigse and he strongly supported the local authorities’ objective to create an arts centre.
An open international architectural competition, organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) in 2004, attracted 119 entries, producing a shortlist of three. But before they could be worked up into more detailed schemes, the Carlow councils decided to add a theatre. “We were thinking big,” Watters says.
And so, Carlow has acquired what will undoubtedly be an award-winning building by London architect Terry Pawson, who emerged as the winner of the 2004 competition. Built at a cost of €18 million, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art and George Bernard Shaw Theatre will open next Saturday.
It is a measure of Carlow’s ambition that the new facility was to be called the National Centre for Contemporary Art, but this was dropped in favour of Visual because the local authorities didn’t want to be seen as having lost the run of themselves. Nonetheless, it includes what is probably the largest single gallery in Ireland.
Measuring 29m by 16m, and rising to a height of 11m, it was designed to provide an unrivalled space for showing large-scale contemporary art – unlike the pokey former soldiers’ rooms in the Irish Museum of Modern Art even after its renovation.
Certainly, the Carlow space is much larger than the main gallery of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin’s Ely Place. It is also more stunning as a pure white box, lit by high-level translucent glazing on two sides. Entered through a 5m-high opening, the effect is awe- inspiring; one feels rather dwarfed by it all.
This spectacular space is approached from the centre’s Link Gallery, which serves as a hub for three white galleries, the main space and two smaller ones. Its walls are textured concrete, superbly made in situ by rough fibreboard shuttering to give the feeling – or at least the look – of “crushed velvet”, as Pawson describes it.
The Link Gallery is a half-level above the main foyer, with its long reception desk made from stained American white oak, which is also used for all the other timber elements in the building. It can also be screened off at night when only the George Bernard Shaw Theatre is in use.
A long window looks out on to a rectangular lake fringed by reeds and water lilies; one can imagine corporate receptions being held here. Red painted walls denote the theatre’s presence, to the left of the foyer. It was named after Shaw because he had given a parcel of properties to Carlow, having once spent a pleasant night there.
The sale of some of these properties near the peak of the boom helped the local authorities to fund the theatre. To be run by Róisín McGarr, it has 355 red-upholstered seats and has been designed for music, theatre and dance, as well as film screenings, literary readings and other events.
“The council had never run a significant art gallery or theatre, so there was quite a lot of learning to do,” Pawson says. “We brought in an art handling expert who wrote the brief for the Tate Gallery and theatre consultants from London, the US and Germany to help define what was needed in terms of facilities.”
The theatre is backed up by a large rehearsal space, green room, dressing rooms, showers and toilets for performers, oodles of basement storage space and a public bar for theatre goers. On the top floor is a spacious suite of offices large enough to accommodate a small army of arts administrators.
A café/restaurant with a fully-fitted kitchen is located at basement level, opening out on to a pleasant, west-facing terrace. Here, the two councils have commissioned a 9.5m stainless steel sculpture by Eileen McDonagh. The café itself, with a capacity of 70-plus (not including the terrace), will be Carlow’s largest.
The great triumph is Visual’s translucent glass façade, made from oblong panels almost 5m high. Their grey hue was intended to blend with the rendered front of Carlow College, which dates from 1793; Pawson originally proposed timber cladding, but the local authorities wanted something more special. The glass makes the building look opaque in the daytime, when it functions as an art gallery, although this is relieved by sunlight filtering through at the upper level, giving an ice-cube effect. After dark, diffused lighting in a metre-deep cavity behind the façade makes it glow like a lantern. This will be best seen in winter, as the building is set well back from the street behind some mature trees. High walls in front are now being replaced by period-style railings.
Pawson, who is now working on a new opera house for Linz, in Austria, finds similarities between Ireland and central Europe. Unlike British architecture’s celebration of structural engineering, what we have in common with Europe is a “celebration of space and volume”.
Pawson was a partner, for 15 years, of Keith Williams, who has won awards for his Athlone Civic Centre and Wexford Opera House (in association with the Office of Public Works). And in a way, there are echoes of Wexford in Carlow’s determination to build something big in what to many seems to be a rather unlikely location.
It will be up to Carissa Farrell, the former visual arts officer of Dublin’s Draíocht, to make it work. Showing visitors around in recent months, she says they were amazed by “the sheer bravery of the councils to go ahead with this” – not only paying for the building but pledging €2 million towards its running costs over three years.
Joe Watters insists that this is not a case of Carlow trying to best its old rival, Kilkenny, but rather building on its own strengths through Éigse. But with the Arts Council’s budget already cut and the McCarthy report’s baleful view of arts funding in general, it’s going to be a challenge to ensure that Visual doesn’t become a white elephant.