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Identity check: slow architecture grows on the islands of Ireland

Group 91

The critical culture of Irish architecture, so painstakingly developed over the last half century, is now under threat of starvation

The AR paid a visit to Dublin in 1974 and published a special edition devoted to the city as a case study in urbanism later that year. Dublin was chosen as the medium for putting forward a general proposition about an alternative vision of ‘the modern city’ both because, having lost out to Belfast in the national battle for 19th-century industrial development, it retained more of its earlier city pattern than any other metropolis and, despite a recent orgy of destruction, was about to come into funds comparable to those available to other cities in Europe. 

The question the AR posed was: will Dublin use this chance to restore its urban fabric and urban community? And, by doing this, will it become the first truly modern city, fashioned on all that is best in Western experience? Or will the all-too-easy course be taken, following Birmingham and Liverpool, to reshape itself in the image that reflects the tycoon, over-centralised government and the motor car? Regrettably, the answer turned out to be decidedly mixed, following a promising start, with the latter direction increasingly dominant of late. 

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AR November 1974 visits Dublin

Despite its twee, if well-intentioned, townscape offerings, the November 1974 issue of the AR became a much-cited critique over the years, helping to spur Irish architecture into an international scene

The November 1974 AR did not make for pretty reading. But it was a touchstone that helped Irish architecture to turn the corner from rarely published insular backwater to global recognition in less than half a century. 

First and most importantly, the transformation was almost entirely predicated on Ireland’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), now the EU – the UK and the Republic of Ireland, along with Denmark, had joined the year before, on 1 January 1973, enlarging the membership to nine. This 2019 issue of the AR revisits Ireland as the UK plans to depart the EU, shrinking its current membership to 27. 

Our impressions of being part of the European club of nations turned out very differently for both of our peoples. Ireland’s hopes were already perfectly captured in a 1960 cartoon, published after its first unsuccessful application to join: it shows Dublin’s main shopping thoroughfare reimagined through a deep lifestyle longing to share in the perma-tanned Riviera glamour of continental Europe. Not altogether unreasonable when you live on a wet, grey-green rock in the middle of the sea, with the only affordable way off by mailboat and night train from Holyhead to London, arriving bleary-eyed at dawn. No wonder we invented Ryanair as soon as we could.

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Ireland keynote: Dublin Opinion 1960, Henri St après le common market

Attitudes towards Europe were captured by a 1960 cartoon published in Dublin Opinion, showing Henry Street ‘après le common market.’ Image courtesy of Estate of JM McCarthy / Dublin Opinion

Europe became a kind of dream, as America was for earlier generations. But this dream really delivered for us over the decades in concrete, observable ways. Significantly, it delivered for society at large and not only for individuals, liberalising social and labour legislation in what was then still a rigid, ultra-conservative, post-colonial state that had been ruled over for half a century by the Catholic Church and the original cadre of revolutionaries. These changes facilitated dramatic infrastructure improvements – and so much more besides. In the long term, the benefits of membership turned out to be cultural and social as well as economic. Being in Europe made Ireland a better place. We all know it. We can see it all around us every day.

That candle of innocent or indecent affection of an impoverished people for sunnier spots and wine and apparently more sophisticated ways has not yet burned out here, nearly 60 years on – even though, tragically, the Nelson Pillar, symbol of the city, was blown up by IRA dissidents a few years later in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. This insurrection ultimately led to the partition of the island with the creation of the border in 1921, and independence from Britain for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. Nonetheless, the truth is the UK and Ireland were never closer than when together in Europe, often pursuing the same policies and acting together strategically to achieve their aims.

Now we are forced, against our will, to imagine a physical border in Ireland once more. Nobody – almost nobody – north or south, wants to revisit the medieval scenario that was before. But it could happen again. Dark forces rise. A young investigative journalist, Lyra McKee, was recently murdered by paramilitaries in Derry while covering a street protest – bizarrely, just after the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the whole island. 

Borders mean difference: us and the other. Good, enjoyable difference? Or bad, disagreeable difference? Since the European single market was created in 1993 – primarily at the prompting of Margaret Thatcher’s UK government – this has been a border that let people dream it wasn’t there, except in the gentlest of ways. You knew you’d crossed it when your new mobile phone provider pinged. It offered fluidity of identity. Northern Irish citizens could choose to be Irish, British, or both, as they wished, without let or hindrance from either state. The border in Ireland is not really about trade, but a much softer desire: to identify or to have no defined identity at all.

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House Lessans in County Down by McGonigle McGrath (2018)

House Lessans in County Down by McGonigle McGrath (2018). Photograph by Aidan McGrath

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Gaelscoil Éanna Irish Language School in Belfast by ARdMackel (2009)

Gaelscoil Éanna Irish Language School in Belfast by ARdMackel (2009). Photograph by Fearghal Murray

Brexit puts all of this at risk, despite the hollow promises of politicians on all sides that there will be no return to a hard border; with or without watchtowers, there will likely be only a few secure crossing points, with many roads again cratered, spiked and closed by the authorities, as happened in the 1970s and ’80s. To provide some numerical context: while there are 120 external land border crossings along the entire eastern boundary of the EU, along the 500km frontier between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland there are currently at least 208 public cross-border roads. During the Troubles, only 20 border crossings were open.

The disturbing physical legacy of the Troubles didn’t disappear from Northern Ireland with the dismantling of British Army watchtowers and checkpoints in the ’90s. Much of it is built into the urban infrastructure and will take decades, at least, to eradicate. Belfast alone has almost 100 ‘peace walls’, closed roads and gates that allow passage during daylight hours but are shut at night. Although built as temporary security structures, intended to segregate the city’s poorer neighbourhoods along religious and political lines at a time of civil unrest and almost daily riots, some have been in place now for half a century. In total, Northern Ireland’s peace lines stretch over 35km and, surprisingly, have increased in both height and number since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Trust and compromise between the two communities remain elusive. The peace process is fragile, long and slow – and far from over, two decades after the guns fell, more or less, silent.

In addition, much of the inner-city housing built in Belfast during the Troubles was purposely low-density and took the form of short cul-de-sacs, apparently based on advice from the security services. The result is built-in discontinuity and urban impermeability, with numerous adjoining neighbourhoods cut off and isolated from each other. A decade ago the Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB), led by architects Mark Hackett, Declan Hill and Ciarán Mackel, and planners Karen Keaveney and Ken Sterrett, sought to shape a regeneration agenda that would create a connected post-conflict city whose civic vision would be manifest in its new architecture and streetscape. FAB’s pioneering research was shown in the British Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale but, with those involved worn out and frustrated at the lack of practical progress, the forum was unfortunately wound up in 2015. That was a real tragedy for Belfast, made almost inevitable by the fact that the city council does not have autonomous planning or regeneration powers, while those government departments that do lack a coordinated interest in the declining city.

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Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast by Hackett Hall McKnight (2012)

Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast by Hackett Hall McKnight (2012). Photograph by Christian Richters

Northern Ireland remains a difficult place in which to build an architectural culture. It was unexpectedly announced in April that PLACE, the charity that has run Northern Ireland’s architecture centre for the past 15 years, will receive no further funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from this summer. Little wonder that only Hall McKnight, led by Alastair Hall and Ian McKnight – who, with their former partner Mark Hackett, won the Young Architect of the Year award in 2008 – have created in Belfast a critical practice with an international reputation.

The collapse of the Northern Ireland economy, which a century ago accounted for 80 per cent of the industrial output of the entire island of Ireland, much of it centred on Belfast – then the biggest and richest city in Ireland – has been calamitous. According to the Financial Times, exports of goods and services from the Republic were €282.4bn in 2018; total exports from the North, a mere €10.1bn – almost 30 times less. Per capita income now sits at €22,000 in the once-wealthy Northern Ireland; in the once-impoverished Republic of Ireland it is €38,000.

Unsurprisingly, Dublin is once more the dominant architectural centre on the island. But let us scroll back 50 years or so to briefly consider four outstanding buildings – one in Belfast, one in Dublin and two along the border (one at each end) – that illustrate how architectural influence shifted dramatically and decisively from Belfast, which had been dominant from the mid-19th century to the 1960s, in favour of Dublin. The buildings are Ulster Museum in Belfast, Berkeley Library in Trinity College Dublin, the Church of St Aengus at Burt outside Derry, and the Carroll’s Factory (now part of Dundalk Institute of Technology) on the outskirts of Dundalk. 


Belfast Museum and Art Gallery / Ulster Museum, Francis Pym

Only one end of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery opened in 1929, construction having been delayed by the First World War – the museum was renamed Ulster Museum in 1962 and an extension designed by Francis Pym was added, drawing great planar geometries out from the Neoclassical reservations of the existing. Image courtesy of Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections


Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin by ABK Architects (1967)

Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin by ABK Architects (1967). Image courtesy of Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

The Belfast and Dublin buildings were the result of open international competitions won by English architects who were little known at the time. Each is its city’s finest example of Brutalist architecture. But there the comparisons end. The much-loved Berkeley Library (1967), with its luminescent interiors of white board-marked concrete, was ABK Architect’s first commission. The job launched the practice after Paul Koralek – then working for Marcel Breuer in New York – won the competition with a scheme drawn up at night on the kitchen table in his tiny Manhattan flat. When Prince Charles torpedoed ABK’s reputation and business with his carbuncle speech in 1984, it was Dublin that saved the practice by providing a string of notable commissions. The practice continues to thrive there today, under a new generation of partners. 

Francis Pym, who designed the gazebo dedicated to the memory of Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst Castle in 1969, was not so lucky with his Cubist sculptural tour de force for Ulster Museum (1971), which local architectural historian David Evans has said ‘brood[s] over the conifers of the Botanic Gardens like a mastodon’. In an echo of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney experience, the embattled Pym found Belfast wasn’t ready for a museum of that kind and resigned halfway through construction, eventually abandoning architecture altogether to become an Anglican priest.

The two border buildings are among Ireland’s finest. Liam McCormick’s magical Church of St Aengus (1967), also known as Burt Church, in County Donegal – ‘my pagan building’, as he called it – was voted Ireland’s Building of the Century in a Sunday newspaper poll 20 years ago. McCormick, after whom the Royal Society of Ulster Architects named its most prestigious architecture award, was appointed High Sheriff of Derry City in 1970-71. The following year, his office was firebombed and his archives destroyed. 


Church of St Aengus at Burt, County Donegal, by Liam McCormick (1967)

Church of St Aengus at Burt, County Donegal, by Liam McCormick (1967). Image courtesy of Henk Snoek / RIBA Collections


Carroll’s Factory in Dundalk by Scott Tallon Walker Architects (1970)

Carroll’s Factory in Dundalk by Scott Tallon Walker Architects (1970). Image courtesy of John Donat / RIBA Collections

The Carroll’s Factory (1970) is Ronnie Tallon of Scott Tallon Walker’s masterpiece, and was the last great work of architecture built along the border. Since then, the border has been more or less an architectural wasteland, although it has provided rich, if troubling, inspiration over the years for writers, such as Colm Tóibín, and artists, including Willie Doherty and Donovan Wylie.

In retrospect, the AR’s 1974 visit to Dublin marked a watershed that was not obvious at the time. Although Michael Scott would receive the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for the work of Scott Tallon Walker in 1975, a significant generational shift was already under way – one that would bring with it new material values and a fresh direction for Irish architecture, shifting its gaze away from the automobile and corporate America towards the European city. 

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, who curated last year’s Venice Biennale, graduated in 1974 from University College Dublin (UCD), while future Royal Gold Medallists Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey completed their Part 1, also at UCD. Cathal O’Neill was in his first year as professor, after the school had been resuscitated by Ivor Smith and his ‘flying circus’ from London – of Ed Jones, Fenella Dixon, Chris Cross and Mike Gold – supplemented by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metstein from Glasgow. Many of them and others from the Royal College of Art, including Kenneth Frampton, have remained close observers and friends of the Irish scene and significant champions of its output over the years. Perhaps of equal significance, Shane de Blacam had then recently returned from the office of philosopher-architect Louis Kahn to teach at UCD. De Blacam remains a compelling and influential giant of this golden age in Irish architecture – remote, often silent, always brilliant and, crucially, forever fearful of words and their power to distract from the task at hand, which is architecture alone, a silent art that speaks without a voice about the room, the garden, the institution and the correct materials of which they are made and that give them form. 


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Cork Institute of Technology by De Blacam and Meagher

De Blacam and Meagher’s work at Cork Institute of Technology was completed in 2006. The sweeping arcs of countless bricks convey a sense of serious mass, a silence reflective of de Blacam’s restraint regarding language, lest it distract from the task at hand – which is architecture alone. Photograph by Peter Cook

The Irish Architectural Archive was established in 1976, providing for the first time a consolidated source for researching and writing a nuanced, inclusive history of Irish architecture. The campaigning journalist Frank McDonald, writing in the Irish Times, gave an impassioned voice to architecture and the built environment. Some years later, John O’Regan dropped out of UCD to found Gandon Editions, the first Irish publishing house dedicated to art and architecture, and Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin of McCullough Mulvin wrote the landmark survey, A Lost Tradition: The Nature of Architecture in Ireland. Annual award schemes were set up and raised the level of debate immeasurably but, overall, the 1980s were not kind to Irish architects. There was a haemorrhage of an entire generation of young graduates: it is estimated that 90 per cent had emigrated by the end of the decade. Ireland’s loss was England’s gain, as the career of Níall McLaughlin, for one, illustrates. At least the economic recession meant we were spared the worst excesses of Postmodernism. It was a period of research and paper projects that, in the end, proved invaluable in laying the groundwork for the game-changing projects of the 1990s. Confidence was growing in other ways, too, through the rise of U2, Bob Geldof’s role in Live Aid and international football success at the tournaments in Spain, Germany and Italy.

The 1990s gave us the redevelopment of Dublin’s cultural quarter, Temple Bar, guided by Group 91 – an urban design collective of eight small practices, including O’Donnell and Tuomey, Grafton and McCullough Mulvin – that marked a rapprochement between modern architecture and the traditional city and, finally, put Irish architecture on the international map. David Mackay of MBM in Barcelona hailed it as revolutionary for prioritising the design of public space: streets, squares and their sequence and proportions.

‘While far from monolithic, the critical culture’s predominant character might best be described as a form of slow architecture’

Architecture was suddenly popular with the general public, and the first decade of the new millennium gave us new schools of architecture in Limerick, Cork and Waterford, in addition to the older UCD and the Dublin Institute of Technology (now TUD, the Technological University Dublin). The Mies van der Rohe Award, the Venice Biennale, the RIBA Stirling Prize and the World Architecture Festival allowed Irish architects to shine on the international stage. That decade also brought competitions for new civic offices across the country, as local government was reorganised. These open design competitions added new faces to the scene, notably the Irish-American practices of Bucholz McEvoy and Heneghan Peng, who won their first commissions through this programme. Keith Williams from London was also a beneficiary, and made strong contributions to Irish architecture.

As we approach 2020, the generation that was emerging when the AR devoted its issue to Dublin are in their mid-60s and building more abroad, where they have found it easier to gain significant commissions than at home, where public procurement criteria are more narrowly interpreted. Having finally recovered from the 2008 global financial crash, which hit Ireland harder than anywhere bar Greece and Spain, several generations are waiting in the wings. An intergenerational architectural culture has been built up, largely through the schools of architecture where the great majority of our best practising architects continue to teach. 

11 view of facade from rear access laneway showing waterproof 'wainscotting', brick and cast in situ gutter beam

Merrion Cricket Pavilion in Dublin by TAKA (2014)

Merrion Cricket Pavilion in Dublin by TAKA (2014). Photograph by Alice Clancy

While far from monolithic, this critical culture’s predominant character might best be described as a form of slow architecture, marked by what could almost be termed an obsession with time and place, deriving its power from a sort of architectural divining of the site to reveal and heighten its latent nature, whether urban or rural, in Ireland or somewhere else. At its best it is almost primal, as in the work of de Blacam and Meagher, or strangely familiar, as O’Donnell + Tuomey describe what they unearth. It is about weight and material craft, about building – which is essential to allowing time as an element of architecture – rather than assembly. Brick, of course, and oak and stone, but concrete, too – from the highway-scaled structures of Grafton to the sculpted intimacy of Tom de Paor’s Pálás cinema, to the raw farmyard sheds of Paul Dillon’s ‘barefoot’ architecture for isolated communities in the west of Ireland.

Sixteen stars and rising stars from the next generation were provided a unique forum by Farrell and McNamara at last year’s Venice Biennale. Space permitting, there could have been many others. Curated by Hugh Campbell, dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at UCD, Close Encounter: Meetings with Remarkable Buildings was based on a shared conviction that, for the thoughtful practitioner and teacher of architecture, engaging with the work of others is a way of enriching and extending one’s own critical and creative capacities.

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Hanging Gardens in Limerick by Denis Byrne Architects and Carr Cotter Naessens (2019)

Hanging Gardens in Limerick by Denis Byrne Architects and Carr Cotter Naessens (2019). Photograph by Paul Tierney


Inchicore School in Dublin by Donaghy Dimond (2015)

Inchicore School in Dublin by Donaghy Dimond (2015). Photograph by Ros Kavanagh

One fears, however, that despite the fact that Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar spent an entire day touring the Biennale in August, the rising generations will not easily find the commissions they deserve at home. Public procurement policies have tightened such that the opportunities that afforded Group 91, Bucholz McEvoy and Heneghan Peng their breakthroughs hardly exist any more. An existential threat hangs over the future of architecture in Ireland. Our unambitious, unimaginative procurement system has grown more or less closed to unearthing new talent; it risks killing off the very concept of critical practice as the best emerging architects struggle to find meaningful work that could address the desperate challenges facing our society.

How long can architects survive on house extensions and other small private commissions before their potential atrophies in the absence of challenges at a larger scale? Critical architectural practice may lean towards Europe and its social values, but the chilly free market ideology that shapes our economy, both north and south, sweeps in from the Anglosphere, closer to Boston than Berlin. Our professional bodies need to step up to the most urgent task confronting the profession in Ireland: its critical future, its only future of worth. Examples of best procurement practice from all across Europe need to be brought to the urgent attention of government and commissioning authorities with demands for their immediate implementation. As of now, not tomorrow. The threat to the lifeblood of the profession must be faced down in both parts of the island if the new-found global reputation of Irish architecture is to survive, let alone prosper.

Lead image: Group 91 architects, including (back row, left to right) Michael McGarry, Derek Tynan, Sheila O’Donnell, Shelly McNamara, Niall McCullough, Shay Cleary, John Tuomey; (front row, left to right) Paul Keogh, Rachael Chidlow, Siobhán Ní Éanaigh, Yvonne Farrell, Valerie Mulvin and Shane O’Toole. Photograph by Tony Higgins

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