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Revisit: Birr Community School in County Offaly, Ireland by Peter and Mary Doyle Architects

The generosity and economy of Birr Community School by Peter and Mary Doyle Architects is as pertinent today as 40 years ago

Birr Community School embodies ideals of the 1970s – a decade when the Republic of Ireland changed considerably and the seeds of change were sown. In 1922, after independence from the UK, Ireland had turned inwards both culturally and economically to search for its identity; in so doing, it had become a narrow place that clutched onto religion as an alternative to colonialism. Gradually this insularity eased, however, and economic restrictions, along with censorship, were slowly rowed back through the 1960s – Ireland then joined the European Economic Community along with the UK in 1973 and reached out for social and economic change.

Until the 1970s, secondary education in Ireland was largely provided by religious orders, with only vocational education offered publicly. In 1967, the state decided to provide free secondary education for all its children and in 1974 an architectural competition, commissioned by the Department of Education and run by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI), was launched for the design of a new type of building – a ‘community school’. Offering both academic and practical education to its students, the community school also introduced parents onto school boards that, until this point, had been controlled by the religious orders. New and ambitious in its social agenda, the competition inspired young architects who sought to embody the pedagogical and social ambitions of their time. 

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Revisit: Birr Community School by Peter and Mary Doyle

The design submitted by Peter and Mary Doyle was not the winner – they were runners-up in the competition but that was enough to secure the commissions for three schools. The one in Birr was the first of these to emerge and is widely recognised as the finest building of the generation of schools that were built; it was awarded the RIAI Triennial Gold Medal for the best building in the period 1980-82. It came out of a particular lineage of Irish Modernism that began with Michael Scott who had, in 1939, won the prize for best pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, beating such lesser luminaries as Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. Scott had brought Corbusian Modernism to Ireland and his chef d’oeuvre was the 1954 Dublin bus station (AR April 1954). In the 1960s Scott’s office turned to Mies for inspiration and produced some of the best Miesian architecture in Europe. After graduating in 1959, Peter Doyle also made the pilgrimage to Chicago in search of Mies and, after working for the master for a few years, rejoined Mary Doyle in Scott’s Dublin office. They remained there until 1973 when they started their own practice, in the basement of their house. 

The Doyles’ design for Birr is an interesting evolution of the tradition of Modernism practised by Scott’s office in that it takes in a number of aspects of the structuralism articulated by Team X at that time. 1973 had seen the completion of Candilis, Josic and Woods’ Freie Universität Berlin (FU) and the Doyles’ explanation of their thinking about the community school typology has similarities to Shadrach Woods’ description of the mat plan of the FU given in a 1967 interview with John Donat. 1973 was also the occasion of the Team X ‘matrix’ meeting in Berlin, and Alison Smithson’s essay ‘How to Recognise and Read Mat-Building’ appeared in Architectural Design soon after. 

Birr Community School has a strong social agenda allied with a precise technical resolution, using precast concrete portal frames usually confined to factories and sheds. So it has a strong resonance with the Smithsons’ use of as-found industrial components in Hunstanton and, of course, shares a similar Miesian ancestry. The street is the communal heart of the project and is punctuated by six courtyard spaces, giving light and views to the deep plan, around which are organised the social and group teaching areas. Classrooms occupy the perimeter of the building and each benefits from natural light and views. There are two main entrances, one to the north for people arriving by car and bus, and one to the south for those arriving on foot and by bicycle. The plan, in part set up by this dual access, does not have a bias in either direction.

‘The “street” feels much as its name suggests: it is busy, it is bright, it feels like an outdoor space’

This lack of hierarchy is reflected in the construction strategy. The concrete portal-frame structure is made of modular parts that adjust in height and width to accommodate different activities beneath. The portal frame – a standard, cheap and readily available building component – was adapted for the particular requirements of the design. It was made in two stages: columns, available in three different heights, with rafters of different lengths then craned onto the columns on site. The combination of the varying column heights and rafter lengths produced a system that offered nine bay widths – increasing in 900mm intervals from 3.6m to 10.8m – and each of varying height. The portal-frame system, though cheap and pragmatic, gives the plan the freedom to create its rich variety of internal spaces; the economy of the construction method enables a more-expansive spatial strategy, culminating in the generous circulation and social spaces of the ‘street’. 

The modular system also suggested a potential for the building to expand and contract in response to future needs. This reflected the Doyles’ aspiration for an architecture of adaptive flexibility, ideally an architecture they proposed as having ‘no fixed form’. In their approach they embodied various influences, successfully combining an interest in the articulation of the frame with strategies for flexibility and growth in buildings through systemic construction. The mat is both a structural and a social strategy and has been remarkably successful. 

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Revisit: Birr Community School by Peter and Mary Doyle

The low-slung series of glass-sided ‘sheds’ sit on the outskirts of the small town of Birr. The school was planned as ‘a town within a town’, complete with ‘streets’, ‘piazzas’ and ‘alleyways’, which could be added to as required

The school accommodates more than 900 pupils and is at the centre of a strong community. As the only secondary school in the town it has, over four decades, developed a connection with most of the inhabitants. A number of teachers are former students and many of its current pupils are the children of previous ones. The social quality of the project is still in evidence on a visit to the building today. The ‘street’ feels much as its name suggests: it is busy, it is bright, it feels like an outdoor space.

The groundsman even worked on the construction of the original building in his youth and still remembers what is behind the linings, while the local company that made the original portal continues to manufacture new frames for extensions. Some classrooms have been added in the last decade, expanding the original 5,300m2 by around 1,200m2. These were built in phases, mainly to the perimeter of the original building, and were all designed by local architects who have made a conscious effort to be sympathetic to the original design by using a similar portal frame, concrete construction and concrete brick walls. The additions are mainly distinguished by the new fenestration: thermally broken aluminium windows read differently to the slender steel frames of the original system. 

Teachers remark on the building’s ability to absorb the large number of students without conflict, and to provide everyone with a place. The Doyles saw the mat as a flexible matrix that could absorb change. Mary Doyle said, ‘Buildings should be non-specific; modern buildings should have general applications. I think that there is a moral imperative not to waste resources, even in our building. There should be a generalisation of space and structure’. She may have made these comments in the context of the material austerity of Ireland in the ’80s, but the need to conserve environmental resources is highly relevant today.

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Revisit: Birr Community School by Peter and Mary Doyle

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Revisit: Birr Community School by Peter and Mary Doyle

Birr is in the middle of Ireland, in the centre of the Bog of Allen, and the building was originally designed with a concrete peat-fired central heating plant that reads in a similar way to Hunstanton’s iconic water tower. The school has its own 70-acre bog from which to harvest the fuel but, due to the inefficiency of the process and the wider move to reduce turf consumption, it stopped burning peat in 2001. The original services strategy by the Doyles, shown in their sections and Donat’s photographs, shows services hung at a datum, from a system devised with the concrete purlins and running parallel with the portal frames. In 2002, the electrical services and roof were replaced so some of the finer detailing, over which the Doyles took great pains, has been lost. The remedial work replaces these fittings and hanging system with ceiling-mounted standard fittings running perpendicular to the portal frame. The underside of the original roof was white and sometimes translucent, bouncing light through the space; the new roof is grey with rooflights that are too large for the spaces resulting in some being painted over to reduce glare. 

The original steel-framed single glazing is still in place, though it too is at risk of being replaced by something much more chunky to improve the U-values. Contemporary standards for energy and thermal performance pose a challenge for this building, and many others of the same generation, as they typically fall short of the desired insulation standards. 

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Revisit: Birr Community School by Peter and Mary Doyle

Photograph by Louis Petersee

Birr Community School now needs refurbishment and environmental upgrade. It was recently recognised as a building of international importance by the Getty Foundation, which awarded it a conservation grant under its Keeping it Modern programme alongside contemporary buildings such as the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn and the University of Urbino by Giancarlo De Carlo. Research conducted by Gary Boyd and John McLaughlin Architects has looked at detailed thermal and daylight modelling and air-quality analysis, as well as archival research and opening-up works to fully understand the building fabric and performance. Current research suggests the roof as a possible area of intervention to prolong its life. Photovoltaic panels could generate sustainable power, while green roofs would attenuate the rainwater run-off and reduce pressure on rainwater pipes. An improved level of insulation in the roof could compensate for heat loss through other elements and could allow for restoration, rather than replacement, of the original windows in the courtyards, shifting the strategy away from the standard elemental U-value calculations that are usually applied in building towards an approach that is  more holistic. 

Birr Community School is 40 years old this year, but it is no museum piece – it is owned by the Department of Education and Skills, a branch of the Irish government, and run by the community board, along with its principal and staff. The school embodies values as pertinent today as they were when it was first built. The Doyles’ philosophy and their approach to making space resonates with the work of contemporary architects such as Lacaton and Vassal, who deploy economy of construction to afford spaces that are more generous than their clients expect, endeavouring to provide people with more for less.

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