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Foreign correspondence: Irish narratives of departure and return

For web aa img 3650 ronan browne

Irish architecture evinces a proud vernacular tradition, yet a great deal of cross pollination has been at play, translating and transmuting external influences

‘Rem does not speak in the provinces’ – so went the beautiful rumour of the fax sent to the Architectural Association of Ireland from oma in 1996, rejecting their invitation to lecture. Its sentiment resonated with a deep substrate of our cultural formation – an unspoken need to understand where we stood in relation to others. It would be wrong to understand this feeling as insecurity. Koolhaas travelled a lot – as evidenced by his declaration in s,m,l,xl of 305,000km of travel in 1993 – but presumably only visited important or wealthy places, and Ireland was undoubtedly neither of these. Peripheries are defined by their relationships with the centre, and vice versa.

I used to think that in the face of mid-’90s Dutch positivism, Koolhaas’s feeling of distance was more acute than at other times, but it is more truthful to admit it had always been thus. The pervading economic conditions in Ireland were tenuous, as they had been, pretty much, for two centuries. We all assumed that, on graduating, we would leave to find work and, in time, might return. Ireland remains the only European country whose population today is lower than it was 200 years ago.

‘If there is a canon in Irish architecture, it seems to be one of ambiguity, of refined cross-pollinations, of great thought in small things’

In Irisches Tagebuch, published in 1957, the German writer Heinrich Böll wrote that, ‘here on this island then, live the only people in Europe that have never set out to conquer, although they were conquered several times, by Danes, Normans, Englishmen – all they sent out were priests, monks, missionaries who, by way of this strange detour via Ireland, brought the spirit of Thebaic asceticism to Europe; here, more than a thousand years ago, so far from the centre of things, as if it had slipped way out into the Atlantic, lay the glowing heart of Europe’. The time of which he writes was the period between around 500 and 800CE, when different monasteries sent out evangelical missions from the non-Roman, but recently Christian island to Europe. The mythology of this time remains a strong narrative, resurrected most recently in the Irish governmental agenda to ‘be an island at the centre of the world’, a response to retrenchment elsewhere. Beyond the platitudes there is a compelling foundational story here, which pervades much national self-description.

For web kells 58 f202v

For web kells 58 f202v

From the Book of Kells, folio 202v

The marks left by these missions remain both in Ireland and abroad. One such mission, in 563 by St Columba, went to Iona in Scotland where, two centuries later a book was commenced to mark his anniversary. This book was completed some time later in Kells in Ireland, from where it got its name. Here we find perhaps the first drawing of a building by an Irish person, on the page depicting Christ being tempted. What is of interest is not so much the narrative or the religious significance of the scene but, rather, the temple upon which he is standing. Of stave timber construction, it is a simple chapel structure similar perhaps to the building the monk knew from his own monastery, richly carved and decorated. This was not the work of naivety. The monks would have known the buildings in Jerusalem at that time differed in appearance from those they drew. The image they made was not the literal portrayal of a scene but, rather, the creation of a narrative, both within the image and between the image and the person viewing it. Just as the 24 figures in the foreground are a metaphorical portrayal of the peoples of the world, the temple is a cipher for the role of the building. The scribe deliberately placed a form they understood in the image, representing not so much an actual building but the role of the building, the idea of a building. The form of the building is synonymous with this idea, to the point that they are completely interchangeable. The building is a text, open to being read and interpreted recurrently. There is a scholarly indeterminacy at work.

On St MacDara’s Island, off Galway on Ireland’s west coast, we see a stone memory of this type of timber architecture. The projecting antae on its gables, however, are a reference to Rome, to ordered basilica facades. Subsumed in this tiny chapel, made in the same stone as the small island it stands on, we see the story of an imported thinking in architecture and a programme finding territorial expression in its fusing with preexisting local types. This process operates beyond the mere pragmatics of tectonics; it relies on memory and narrative as much as the consideration of available materials and their consequences.

‘The national narratives are of departure and return – of exile imposed, as an escape or as a means for transmutation’

If there is a canon in Irish architecture, it seems to be one of ambiguity, of refined cross-pollinations, of great thought in small things. Of conversation as a site of knowledge. Our distance from the centre and comparative historic poverty means any imported thinking is never manifest in a ‘pure’ sense. It is worn in, turned over like a stone in a pocket – familiar while strange. The enforced acts of translation and transmutation mean that process of distillation is simultaneously one of adulteration. The facades of Georgian terraces step and inflect to the ground, the buildings of the state are, in the main, conversions and annexes to existing domestic or cultural buildings. There is an unease with a centrality of vision, a comfort in the negotiated, the contingent, the conversational.

N3 14.1

N3 14.1

Source: Dennis Mortell

The N3 pavilion by dePaor Architects - the first representation of Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 200

In 1746 the young Lord Charlemont set out from Dublin on what became a nine-year grand tour. His voyage included the discovery of the city of Halicarnassus and the friezes from the mausoleum at Bodrum. He lingered in Rome for some years, where he became close friends with both Giovanni Battista Piranesi and William Chambers. Charlemont returned to Ireland, determined through his actions to leave to his countrymen an exemplary legacy in the form of an abiding contribution to domestic politics and the arts. Piranesi dedicated his first four-volume edition of his Antichità Romane (1756) to his then friend with the inscription ‘Regni Hiberniae Patricio’.

For web n3

For web n3

1.741 peat briquettes were deployed in the construction of an ‘N’ in plan and section

Charlemont saw himself as an example and a patron. It was in this spirit that he entered into correspondence with Chambers (who never visited Ireland) to design a small structure in the grounds of his estate. It started with a sketch from Charlemont of a single one-room temple to the arts. Chambers elaborated this, influenced perhaps by the drawings of Legeay that he saw in Piranesi’s collection. As this temple became more developed, Charlemont abruptly changed his intention, and under his instruction, Chambers modified the design so it could be used as a little house. Preserving the simplicity of the temple form, the result is a complex and contradictory puzzle of order, inhabitation, nuance and rigour. Presenting itself as single roomed and single storey, the Casino at Marino is comprises 16 rooms over its three levels. Its plan, contained in a circle of 12 columns, is at times nine-square and at others a Greek cross. It includes rooms for the practicalities of living, along with a bombastic theatrical bedchamber. Its decor references places and times, and the handling of rainwater and smoke present its most imaginative and poetic inventions.

‘Our architectural culture is one of import/export, of occasional correspondences with more-established centres’

This was only one of many structures erected in the grounds of Charlemont’s estate, which he opened to the public – resulting in him being mugged in his own garden more than once. The Casino is one of the few remaining fragments, oft cited by Irish architects as an influence. In our third year at university, the late Kevin Kieran, an inspirational tutor, refused to talk to his students until they had all visited this building. ‘Now we can have a conversation’, he said. We loved it for its ambiguity at all levels, the way its plan lets the air out of the ordered exterior, its gregariousness, its garrulousness. The way it can make you smile, without recourse to ‘jokes’. Despite its imported language we loved its territoriality – a fundamental lesson that architecture is its own autonomous discipline, sure, but is invariably enmeshed in the vagaries of the world, that sensitive territorial work might be done somewhere barely known by the architect.

H5b0kc

H5b0kc

Source: History Collection 2016 / Alamy Stock Photo

The Casino in Marino, a folly in Dublin designed by William Chambers

The national narratives are of departure and return – of exile imposed, as an escape or as a means for transmutation. Our architectural culture is one of import/export, of occasional correspondences with more-established centres. The natural route for Irish architecture in the 20th century was of emigration – and, indeed, that was the case very recently again. Our mostcelebrated figures from that time – Eileen Gray or, later, Kevin Roche and Peter Rice – were people who, like Joyce and Beckett, had left the island’s repressive confines, had blossomed in places with a larger horizon.

Casino marino plan

Casino marino plan

The plan of the casino, in a circle of 12 columns, is nine-square, but also recalls a Greek cross

There are those too, who chose to return. Among them was Robin Walker who, having worked for both Le Corbusier in Paris and Mies van der Rohe in the US, returned to Ireland in 1958 to work with Michael Scott & Partners, an early exponent of the potentials of Modernism in the context of the young Irish state. Walker, along with Ronnie Tallon, brought a Miesian agenda to refresh the practice’s discourse. But Walker was invested in the ideas present in this thinking beyond the making of refined skins; his works show a continual engagement with an expressive, even figurative, structural presence, juxtaposed with an enigmatic take on tectonics, enclosure and materiality.

Our island is not so much densely inhabited as densely remembered, densely imagined. It presents the customary European fabric of towns, cities and agricultural landscapes but there are frayed edges and apparent wildernesses where the built environment seems very distant. But then you notice the corrugations of a past productive landscape catching a slanting sun against the hillside, low walls in bogs that mark forgotten hamlets, chimneys rising like stelae in the middle of a commercial forest to mark some lost village. There is something in these spaces larger than their actual spatial extent. Ireland is small physically, but vast temporally.

Riba5184

Riba5184

Source: HENK SNOEK / RIBA COLLECTIONS

The 1963 weekend house by Robin Walker at Kinsale, Cork

For Ireland’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Tom de Paor reflected on the links between Ireland and Venice, mediating on St Nicholas of Myra – a Turkish bishop of the fourth century whose habit of giving survives as contemporary secular mythology, and whose bones are reputed to rest in Venice, with a disputed claim in Ireland. De Paor settled on giving a gift of land from a land-rich island to the land-starved city island. The result was a dense cubic form – an ‘N’ in plan and section, oriented north – made in briquettes of compressed peat. Bound in bales and held by a single strand of plastic, these briquettes are an iconic presence at Irish firesides. Literally made of Irish ground, shaped by industry and an early optimistic vision of self-sufficiency, the pavilion’s form recalled early monastic structures. It was a temporary structure, being committed to landfill at the close of the exhibition. Very few people, including me, saw it in the flesh.

Weekend house plan

Weekend house plan

The weekend house pavilion by Robin Walker is 11m square, designed after the architect returned from working with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago

De Paor once described it as a truffle – dense, grown out of the light, rich with thought. Above all else the physical nature of the thing itself was more important than the thinking that led to it. In times of scarce opportunity, the thinking is forced to deepen, to quest widely and with curiosity for its inspiration, to be robust, opportunistic and skilful in its execution. This was the first building overseas by an Ireland-based architect that gathered international critical attention during my education. We continue to cite it as a key moment in the recent history of our discipline on this island. It presents a moment of connection, in which an exported thought produced a gift for others beyond our shores – unabashedly of this place, yet exotic in the resonance it established with others. Perhaps this is what we value, these points of communicative potential, the finding of some essential thing in the act of translation. In the library of the Abbey of St Gall, the monastery founded by St Gall in Switzerland following his mission to Europe from Ireland in the sixth century, a plan resides of the ideal monastery. It is unclear if this drawing was made as a rejection of the imported Irish tendency towards hermetic abstraction, or as an evolution of its thinking. It continues to be an important work in European architectural culture, seemingly rediscovered by each generation. It is not ‘owned’ by any reading or architect, it is a well from which many thoughts have sprung. This polyvalence is its value.

‘Like our literature, our architecture does not directly seek Homeric themes but finds them, nonetheless, in the ordinary exotica of domestic dreaming’

The mountains of Ireland are hills really, ancient ranges worn down by glaciation and time; there are no pronounced silhouettes or exuberant volcanic activity. Our cities are not overburdened by a strong civic sense of self-worth; many are overgrown towns, still bearing the scars of their wide-scale abandonment in the first decades of the newly independent state. Everywhere is evidence of an unwritten thesis in which the eroded, the adjusted, the essentials can be found. There is no Irish style, but there is a thread that can be traced. Similarly, there are no Irish theoreticians; no need, given the generous nature of physical things, their presences, their histories that invariably walk a line between memory and invention. The built environment is a human thing, contingent and self-aware. Like our literature, our architecture does not directly seek Homeric themes but finds them, nonetheless, in the ordinary exotica of domestic dreaming.

Lead image: St MacDara’s Island stone monastery from the 10th century, modelled on its sixth-century timber predecessor. Photograph by Ronan Browne

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