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The Long Room Hub by McCullough Mulvin Architects, Dublin, Ireland

The Long Room Hub is a tall, oblong casket of pierced stone that takes its place within the centuries old precincts of Trinity College Dublin. Photography by Christian Richters

Inside the casket is a walnut-lined cabinet of spaces designed to inculcate a clubby, contemplative haven of study and refuge for humanities scholars. The area is an incubator of ideas and interaction for latter-day St Jeromes, who can retreat to the eyrie-like library or shoot the intellectual breeze in a series of elegantly appointed common rooms. Although this might appear to reinforce the familiar routines and atmospheres of academic self-containment and introspection, McCullough Mulvin Architects’ thoughtful new building also connects both physically and experientially with the eclectic chessboard of the wider campus.

‘It’s a place of encounter for people who don’t like to meet,’ says Valerie Mulvin of McCullough Mulvin. But the nature of this encounter is not only personal and cerebral, it is also architectural, between a collection of buildings across different eras. McCullough Mulvin’s offices are a stone’s throw away from Trinity, and when the practice secured the commission to design the Long Room Hub, it already had experience of adding to the college’s historic continuum with the completion of the Ussher Library in 2003. The Ussher lies next to ABK’s seminal 1967 Berkeley Library, and is just one fragment of dialogue in a complex articulation of epochal architectural and academic ambitions that have shaped the townscape around the green quad of Fellows Square. Occupying a site on the south-west corner of the square, the new Long Room Hub is the latest addition to a historically resonant sum of parts.

The original Long Room forms part of the Thomas Burgh Library, a solid and rhythmic Georgian range that presides, with paternalistic propriety, over the northern edge of Fellows Square. Among the Library’s assets is the fabled Book of Kells, while the Long Room itself is one of Dublin’s finest interiors, a space of imperious, Gormenghast grandeur stuffed with busts and bookcases. Redefining the idea of what a library should be in these changing digital times, McCullough Mulvin’s Long Room Hub is an abstract, modern coda to centuries of acquisition and tradition. Part of its remit involves providing space for a team involved in digitising the Library’s collections of manuscripts and early printed books. It also contains research facilities for post-doctoral students, offices for visiting international fellows, seminar rooms, and spaces to host a regular flow of lectures, conferences, symposia and colloquia.

Tightly compacted within the civic nucleus of Dublin, Trinity has limited space for expansion. It’s the familiar dilemma of historic city centre institutions. And while the college has proved an energetic patron of modern architecture, its new buildings must be able to finesse the demands of constrained sites and contexual mindfulness, yet still be able to speak of their time.

Armoured in a carapace of pale Galician granite, the Long Room Hub forms a four-storey bar on the northern edge of Fellows Square. Its exquisitely chiselled facades confront the cascading profile of ABK’s 1978 Arts Building, while simaltaneously bookending the squat, jewel-box volume of the octagonal 1937 Reading Room. The building ‘sits riding sidesaddle’, as Valerie Mulvin puts it, with its short end and piano nobile entrance addressing the edge of Fellows Square. Here, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare cuts through the college precincts, so the site is animated by the perpetual thrum of people coming and going.

Although the massive, honeycombed granite walls evoke the immemorial solidity of cliffs and towers, their geological heft is actually illusory. The building is held up by a bridge-like steel truss spanning 34m and supported on two concrete piers, one at each end of the plan. Employing a steelwork armature expedited and simplified construction; the building took a mere eight months to complete, with the stone and glass panels simply clipped on to the supporting frame.

A sense of this deft sleight of structural hand can be apprehended in the way in which the syncopated stone panels, based on a modified Fibonacci sequence, float above the entrance, as well as through odd internal glimpses of the steel guts popping out in places, like a ship’s superstructure. Elegantly crafted balconies, shelves and seating are set within the depths of the thickened ‘tower house’ walls, so the external edge become used and inhabited.

For all the building’s structural guile, the pervading impression is still that of a lyrical synthesis of mass and light, ‘the weight and rude force of natural rock, hewn, fractured, a cliff split through with light holes,’ as Valerie Mulvin describes it. Floorplates slide and shift, forming irregular fissures throughout the interior. Funnelling columns of light from a quasi-Venetian roofscape of cupolas, gazebos and chimneys, the fissures ‘disturb expectations and create zones and double heights for work and research,’ says Mulvin.

The insistent vertical penetration of such a relatively thin plan enhances spatial and social connections, making occupants acutely aware of what’s going on elsewhere. Spaces vary enormously in size and type, from the monk-like office cells, to more gregarious lounges, seminar rooms, a lecture theatre and library. Exalted at the top of the building, the library is a lofty, honorific cockpit for scholars with fatally distracting views across the jumbled Dublin skyline.

The Long Room Hub is a compelling paradox: dark yet light, hermetic yet permeable, rational yet romantic. In adding another layer to Trinity’s rich palimpsest it restates the relationship between town and gown while also drawing on the wider tradition of the Irish meeting house: an austere, classically derived building type where people came together for intellectual enlightenment or spiritual solace. Historically, the sobriety of the architecture mirrored a sense of collective purpose and this enquiring civic mindedness finds renewed expression in McCullough Mulvin’s quietly intense drama of geometric geology fractured by light.

Architect McCullough Mulvin Architects, Dublin
Structural engineer Punch Consulting
Services engineer J. V. Tierney
Facade Contractor Duggan Systems

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