In a vacuum of opportunity for young Irish architects, talent condenses in ambitious, if modestly scaled, domestic projects, such as the silvered house by Clancy Moore in Dublin’s Portobello
‘I tell you, it is easier to build a grand opera or a city centre than to build a personal house,’ a 38-year-old Alvar Aalto grumbled as his and Aina’s designs for their own house came to fruition in 1936. For many architects, the house is a fulcrum of ideas and the site of some of their most important work: the Eames House for example, or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, or even John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Frank Lloyd Wright famously never stopped designing houses, constantly revisiting, refining and experimenting.
For most architects today, however, it is where they begin – an uncle’s modest extension or a trusting family friend’s country house – before eagerly graduating to larger, more public commissions. Even this first foothold on the architectural career ladder is mainly the reserve of the privileged few, often the result of wealthy family connections.
‘A generation of super-qualified Irish architects, clutching portfolios almost exclusively comprising extensions, conservatories and one-off houses – often subsidised by a busy teaching schedule’
But in places like Ireland, as local authorities and cultural institutions wither as funding is choked from their coffers, public commissions are few and far between, and those that do arise recoil from the unknown. ‘For architects younger than me it is so difficult to get work beyond housing extensions,’ Sheila O’Donnell, founding director of O’Donnell + Tuomey, admits, holding European procurement rules partially accountable, which she believes are exercised ‘with a more iron fist’ in Ireland. ‘I look at all these amazingly gifted architects and I think why are they not all building schools and housing’.
The result is a generation of super-qualified Irish architects, many with practice-based PhDs, clutching portfolios almost exclusively comprising beautifully executed and strikingly thoughtful extensions, conservatories and one-off houses – often subsidised by a busy teaching schedule. ‘Some great architects in Ireland have had entire careers designing houses’, co-founder of Clancy Moore Andrew Clancy explains. ‘Not because they are incapable, or not interested in designing other building types, but because the opportunities are not open to them.’
Many are frustrated by the limited opportunities available to most architects in Ireland (‘It is one of the reasons I left for London’, one architect tells me, ‘to try and get away from designing bourgeois houses for the well-off’) but others are more optimistic. ‘The house is where you find your voice’, Cian Deegan, one founder of TAKA, insists, while co-founder Alice Casey maintains that ‘there’s a lot in common between a €50,000 house extension and a €5 million public project’. Since founding the practice 11 years ago, TAKA’s body of work consists of remarkable private domestic projects, with the exception of the stunning Merrion Cricket Pavilion completed in 2014 and the refurbishment of a park tearoom in 2015, both in Dublin. Despite the amplification in scale, domestic projects provide essential experience navigating legal contracts and negotiating with clients and contractors – public projects demand the same care, resolution of design and attention to detail as a 20m2 conservatory.
The house is the testbed for challenging ideas, learning on the job, making mistakes, finding a way, and preparation for if and when the lucky break arrives in the form of an open public competition. Clancy Moore’s designs for the Arklow Wastewater Treatment Plant have just gone out to tender (‘infrastructure as a civic structure’ in Clancy’s words) which they won in an open competition – their first large public commission since establishing in 2007. Excluding perhaps a small but fine addition to a Dublin church in 2008, Arklow is prefaced by Clancy Moore’s collection of compelling private houses, which has most recently been joined by the conversion of a warehouse into a family home in Portobello in Dublin.
Clancy moore plan
Caught between a car mechanic and a martial arts school, the silver house shimmers halfway down a laneway carved out of the back gardens of two rungs of red-brick terraces. Originally built as a photography studio in the 1980s, photographer Fionn McCann purchased his former place of work in 2016. The house still retains its robust industrial character. Less OMA’s luxe gold-leaf Fondazione Prada and more rusting car bonnet, the facade is painted with glistening aluminium paint, usually used to weatherproof flat roofs. ‘We will probably never design another silver building,’ Clancy admits (although they have also just silverised the walls of the courtyard of their studio).
New openings flutter insouciantly across the facade, punched into the original frontage, wilfully asymmetric. The added lintels and surrounds – a distant relative of Michelangelo’s oversized pediments – and new blockwork where the industrially scaled loading bay has been filled in, are expressed beneath the paint in a delicate relief, like an Ad Reinhardt painting. Polka dot steel gates fold back and forth across two front doors: a relaxed, endlessly shifting composition of polka dot steel, drifting windows and a collage of silvered rustication. Even the burglar alarm and circular wall light are amicably invited into the facade’s easy constellation.
Clancy moore plan and detail
Inside, the experience of the house is carefully choreographed and controlled, from the column deliberately placed in front of the entrance – just off centre – in the hallway to slow and disrupt the journey from the street, to the sidelong view from the kitchen through to the central hall, framed by artfully positioned planes of colour. With the lightness of stage scenography, the timber walls on the ground floor enclose a den-like living room and ox-blood study along the street edge, and a kitchen at the back opening onto a small yard. Two staircases join the dexterous arrangement of column and wall, each ascending to a mezzanine level housing a bedroom and bathroom, forming galleries looking down onto the central ‘town square’ of the full-height hall. The architects describe the ‘equilibrium’ and ‘choreography’ of the space, ‘not one which is static, but resting’: a moment of pause between dances.
‘For an unassuming house down a Dublin backstreet, it is loaded with quotes and quips, teeming with enough ideas for a project four times its size. It creaks with potential and ambition’
‘Even though most of the projects we do are modest’, Clancy continues, ‘there is always an opportunity to learn, to see more in the work of others.’ The house is the condensation of myriad conversations, travels, lessons, readings and writings. Here, the architects cite the ‘serious playfulness’ of Akira Sakamoto and Lina Bo Bardi, and light-handed but meticulous details reveal further possible references: the columns, for example, stand slightly proud of the slab above (a nod to Venturi’s Guild House perhaps), and one column is split in two (Michelangelo again) with white-painted ‘capitals’, like an upright pair of monumental cigarettes.
For an unassuming house down a Dublin backstreet, it is loaded with quotes and quips, teeming with enough ideas for a project four times its size. It creaks with potential and ambition. Clancy Moore remain cynical of the opportunities open to architects in Ireland. Just this month on 14 May, rather than a promising young Irish architect it was 71-year-old British architect Ian Ritchie who was announced the winner of the much-anticipated public competition for a commemorative bridge at the Irish National War Memorial. ‘There is no way for younger practices here to access work based on talent,’ Clancy responded to the news on social media, ‘there is no culture of successful firms collaborating or passing on smaller work apart from domestic extensions.’
‘In lieu of larger projects, modest footprints are populated with the embryos of complex thoughts and sketches. A limit in scale has been no limit for architectural ambition’
Although it is a predicament by no means unique to Ireland, it is perhaps particularly poignant here, where a generation of now internationally recognised Irish architects, including O’Donnell + Tuomey and Grafton, were given their break in the form of an unimaginably ambitious series of public works at Temple Bar. ‘It meant all of us got to do different types of work than we would have done otherwise’, O’Donnell concedes, ‘so I suppose that was our enormous breakthrough, which hasn’t occurred for the younger generation.’ Architects such as TAKA and Clancy Moore are practising today a version of what O’Donnell describes as Group 91’s ‘guerrilla tactics, a boy scout thing’, collaborating to create a Trojan horse that drags their combined turnovers and shared experience over the line of eligibility for open competitions.
In lieu of larger projects, modest footprints are populated with the embryos of complex thoughts and sketches. A limit in scale has been no limit for architectural ambition. ‘The ultimate goal of the architect is to create a paradise,’ Alvar Aalto declared in his Gold Medal acceptance speech at the RIBA in 1957 (with the majority of his hundred house designs under his belt). ‘Every house, every product of architecture, should be a fruit of our endeavour to build an earthly paradise for people.’
Architect Clancy Moore
Photography Fionn McCann
House in a palm garden by TAKA, 2018
Through the palm fronds, a common snapping turtle stirs – one of the largest of its species in the world. But far from its natural habitat in the North American wilderness, this turtle’s home is an ex-council house in the Dublin suburb of Monkstown. Local practice TAKA relocated the aquarium from the garden shed to a new living room in the palm garden, which includes almost thirty rare palm species. Visible from the other end of the house, the turtle tank becomes a window into the garden, the chlorophyllous light filtering through its water. TAKA’s Alice Casey and Cian Deegan have refined their design ideas in a string of mature, small-scale works – here they challenge their principles of ‘structural honesty’, selectively concealing the timber frame for scenographic effect. Since completing the Merrion Cricket Pavilion in 2014 and designing the unrealised Belvedere Sports Pavilion in 2017, TAKA are ‘falling into’ a sports specialism, a niche they hope will bring them larger commissions in the future.
Taka opr 4864a
Source: Alice Clancy
Taka opr 4778
Source: Alice Clancy
Taka opr 4549a
Source: Alice Clancy
TAKA - House in a palm garden
Kenilworth Park by Ryan W Kennihan Architects, 2018
During the throes of the Celtic Tiger days in the ’90s and ’00s, Ireland constructed more than it had since its independence in 1922. Fast-track visas were issued to immigrating architects to fulfi l the urgent demand. Accepting this appealing invitation, Ryan W Kennihan fresh from his studies first moved to Dublin from Chicago in 2002, and founded his practice five years later. ‘The outsider’s perspective is always useful’, Kennihan explains. ‘Sullivan, Wright and Mies are always somehow present in my work.’ In this extension of a Victorian house in Terenure, south of Dublin, a Miesian cross bears a barrel vault along one edge, scoops of light spilling down its walls. Kenilworth Park joins a portfolio of distinguished domestic projects including the Leagaun House in County Galway. ‘People were open to employing a young architect for smaller scale projects’, Kennihan remembers, ‘which is a far cry from the attitude in the States.’ Kennihan acknowledges it is difficult for small practices to win larger work, blaming ‘a dogmatic and unimaginative interpretation of EU competitive law’.
Source: Aisling McCoy
Source: Aisling McCoy
Source: Aisling McCoy
Ryan W Kennihan Architects - Kenilworth Park
House in the woods by Arigho Larmour Wheeler Architects, 2017
Arigho Larmour Wheeler Architects’ (ALWA) three founders met in Dublin in 2004. A decade later, and now split between Dublin and Belfast, the cross-border practice was born – Jane Larmour and Patrick Wheeler in Belfast and Mark Arigho and colleague Brett Mahon in Dublin. Among the number of small domestic projects under their belts is Arigho’s own home in the southern outskirts of Dublin. Peering between the Scots pines and sycamores – whose roots the foundations delicately avoid – the house borrows its gently crumpled painted soap-bar block walls from Aalto’s house in Muuratsalo, and its lilting monopitch from Peter Aldington’s Turn End. ‘We hope to always do domestic work – it’s important to keep a variation in the scale of work we do’, Larmour affirms. But with Brexit on the horizon, ALWA cannot be sure of the future, admitting ‘we simply don’t know how Brexit will affect us and our practice’.
Source: Ros Kavanagh
Source: Ros Kavanagh
Source: Ros Kavanagh
Arigho Larmour Wheeler Architects - house in the woods
This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today