Old dog, new tricks; or ‘Irish Modern’

The courage and creativity of Ireland’s young architects set a standard this province should aspire to.

Each year, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Architects (NLAA) curates a free public lecture series on issues relevant to the design culture of the province. Spearheaded by a younger generation, the lecture series has managed to tempt such avante-garde practitioners as Winnipeg’s 5468796 into presenting exciting and dynamic work to a local audience.

On Oct. 2 at the LSPU Hall Ruth O’Herlihy from McCullough Mulvin Architects brought her firm’s modern take on an ancient art form to town. Irish architecture is currently having a moment, and firms such as O’Herlihy’s are demonstrating the possibilities of creating new and dynamic work alongside the innovative renovations of listed (heritage) buildings.

In Ireland, the rules and regulations surrounding heritage structures are predictably byzantine. Yet, with projects like The Rush and Waterford Church renovations, Gothic and Norman buildings have been craftily converted into libraries and technology hubs. Their work on these projects playfully highlights the tension between old and new — where an ancient shell is outfitted with a whirling moebius strip-like interior, ready for a new generation of young and savvy patrons. Confessionals get turned into listening booths; clearstory windows have seats on which you can check your iPhone. They have at once managed to respect the scale and majesty of these old churches while giving them a new purpose in the contemporary city.

We shouldn’t be afraid to experiment

Other projects demonstrated a commitment to experimentation and complexity that our city may do well to take note of. The new Waterford Fire Station, for example, looks like a piece of zinc origami draped around a river bend. The Long Room Hub at Trinity College in Dublin, is a serious formalist attempt at rhythm and materiality, on a campus that is overcrowded with Jacobean and Georgian masterpieces. Or the Maritime Energy and Research Laboratory in Cork, which looks like an abstraction of the cliffs of West Ireland — imagine Bell Island with a roof — and describes both the landscape and the work that goes on inside. Scientists here study manufactured waves, and you can almost hear the sloshing of the water when looking at the building’s form.

The verve and the nerve of the architects at McCullough Mulvin give hope to anyone who has ever despaired while driving down Kenmount Road on a Friday afternoon.

Fingal County Council commissioned McCullough Mulvin Architects to transform St. Maur's Church in Rush into the town library. Photo: mcculloughmulvin.com
Fingal County Council commissioned McCullough Mulvin Architects to transform St. Maur’s Church in Rush into the town library. Photo: mcculloughmulvin.com

All of this is even more admirable when you consider the catastrophic effect of the 2008 financial crash on the construction industry in Ireland. Overnight, contractors, property developers, and thousands of related businesses simply went bankrupt. At the time McCullough Mulvin had 16 projects in development, all of which went on hold. The most haunting and poetic of these was the Dublin City Morgue, which stopped midway through construction. Eventually the half-built ruin was torn down in 2013, its footprint still visible but overgrown in weeds. It was elegantly eulogized as ‘a building about death that came to understand its own’. Even in failure, McCullough Mulvin do what all good architects should do — make poetry visible.

There are some missteps. An excess of admiration for all things wood, particularly in cladding and paneling, turns otherwise sensitive projects into gigantic suburban rec-rooms. The Dublin Dental Hospital, for example, stitches together five listed buildings, including James Joyce’s famed Finns Hotel. It’s an impressive and complicated sleight of hand. The firm has even managed to sneak in an extra storey, through the dexterous addition of zinc clad pods, creating a secret library in the gables of the roof. All of this good work almost gets destroyed by a hallucinatory carnival of plywood and shiny varnish. The central corridor suddenly becomes a few shag rugs and a lava lamp away from the set of Austin Powers II. Luckily, all of the finishes were applied with the thought that they could one day be removed — out of respect for the heritage status of the building, but perhaps also good taste.

McCullough Mulvin also occasionally fall victim to architecture fashion. This works in hipster restaurants, but wears thin in buildings. No one wants to look at the structural equivalent of kale chips in a hundred years. In this case there is a weakness for ‘folding’ — making surfaces indeterminate so the viewer can’t really tell if it’s a wall, a roof, or something in-between. There is also an excessive amount of admiration for ‘insertions’ — highly contrasting detached self-contained structures, that have little or no relationship to the building they sit in.

These are minor complaints. Being brave in architecture is never easy, let alone in the circumstances McCullough Mulvin has found itself. But as evidenced by their work and that of others, Ireland and its architects have begun to conjure up new tricks. For Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a bit of magic worth paying attention to.

The next lecture in the NLAA Lecture Series will feature Gilles Saucier from Saucier + Perotte Architectes, Montreal Quebec, and will take place on Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the LSPU Hall. Lectures are free and more information can be found by clicking here.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.


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