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Noreile Breen: ‘I am from this place, I have a responsibility to it’


After finding herself in the spotlight following selection for the 2018 Venice Biennale, the County Kerry architect continues to work on small scale projects deeply embedded in her homeland

For her contribution to Close Encounter: Meetings with Remarkable Buildings at the 2018 Venice Biennale, where Grafton Architects invited 16 Irish architect teams to reimagine important 20th-century works, Noreile Breen – the Biennale’s youngest participant last year – produced a number of iterative large-scale spatial models inspired by Mexican architect Luis Barragán. The model which was finally exhibited in Venice, was a study of light, colour and texture of the hallway at Barragán’s Casa Ortega, Mexico City. Ambient and direct light is filtered, reflected and coloured within a series of interconnecting spaces that recreate the interior planes of the hallway. Pink light falls on rough white plaster, warm imitation sunlight projects on a fuchsia surface creating a spectrum of oranges and reds. It is an impressive rendering of the Casa Ortega experience, emulating the Mexican glare, achieved by testing the model on a heliodon and a diffuse sky simulator.

Having studied at the Dublin School of Architecture, Breen worked with Atelier Bow-Wow in Japan and Steve Larkin Architects in Dublin before setting out on her own in 2016, basing herself between Dublin and County Kerry. Originally from Lisselton, in Kerry, she grew up in the deep rural countryside, which she describes as ‘wild, beautiful and littered with ancient structures rooted in, and made from, that physical context’.

For web

For web

Source: Noreile Breen

Field Cinema work in progress

Grounded in this same landscape in northern Kerry, Field Cinema is physically made from the earth atop which it sits. A study in shuttered rammed-earth construction, when finished the building will default as a camera obscura as well as serving as a place to screen projections both inside and out. The Irish word meithal is at the heart of the project, referencing the old Irish tradition of people coming together to respond to local needs. Field Cinema is a monument to the local community who built it, deeply rooted in its surroundings it extends far beyond its footprint to include all those who have been involved.

The construction work itself proved inherently mucky, but this seems to be a comfortable space for Breen, who attests that her favourite design tools are ‘quick, dirty, physical models’, and that she is ‘incapable of making decisions without them’. At 8m2, Field Cinema is arguably a large-scale model or an experiment – similarly, Breen describes her model for Close Encounter as ‘an instrument for looking, training the eye to see’. Dark grey flaps in the brutal grey exterior box of the model reveal the unexpected, luminous world of colour and light within, the exterior ‘secondary and inconsequential, essential only to suspend the interior’.

The projects from the last three years have been balanced against a research masters (‘a worthwhile distraction but it has stolen time’) and a considerable amount of teaching between KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Bergen School of Architecture in Norway, Parsons School of Design in New York, Queen’s University Belfast, and the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick where she is currently a lecturer. Even if, at the moment, it seems essential for survival in an Irish climate, teaching is beneficial beyond financial reasons: splitting her time equally between research, teaching and practice, Breen values the space teaching gives to learn, ‘to test ideas, working methods, to articulate and clarify thoughts, meet new people, be exposed to new things and help others with their work’.

‘Field Cinema is a monument to the local community who built it, deeply rooted in its surroundings it extends far beyond its footprint to include all those who have been involved’

Wherever she travels – for now at least – she always ends up coming home. The international teaching calendar has not diminished her ties to the Emerald Isle and she has three projects currently under way in County Kerry, County Cork and the city of Dublin – although it seems the Barragán project ignited a love for Mexico, and she plans to return soon. She is clear that the Irish have ‘an extraordinary rich culture of building’, but is concerned that some new houses in the countryside ‘have lost the innate knowledge and understanding of place embedded within traditional structures’. Breen speaks of an ambition to do better for Ireland and feels a duty to her home: ‘I am from this place, I have a responsibility to it.’

Lead image: Field Cinema, Kerry, Ireland
Photograph by Noreile Breen

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today