AAI Lecture Review – McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects.
14th October, 2010 at Dublin School of Architecture, DIT Bolton Street. Podcast of lecture now available.
McGarry Ní Eanaigh Architects presented five recent projects in a lecture to the AAI in the Large Kinema, Bolton Street DIT, on 14th October 2010.
Siobhán Ní Eanaigh’s introduction concerned not just the practice’s use of colour in their architecture, but rather the very nature of colour. As a framing device, this allowed a certain thread to link the shown projects thematically, rather than programmatically – three schools and two community buildings – or chronologically.
Their choice of imagery for this introduction, almost entirely taken from the works of twentieth century artists, and their specific references to what each piece meant to them in very architectural terms was a revealing primer for what was to come. It’s easy – too easy – to see a direct equivalent in “the yellow interior” of Belfast-born Gerrard Dillon’s paintings in the Ballyfermot Community and Youth centre, for example. Perhaps more interesting a theme is a self-confessed “pre-occupation”: the equivalence of figure and ground, which they equated with the work of the Australian painter and printmaker Sidney Nolan.
Throughout, the stressed message was that colour had depth, that colour had a solid nature. Be it through the work of Josef Albers, William Scott or Anish Kapoor, this sentiment was hammered home again and again.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Sauerbruch Hutton, another firm who have an architecture unashamedly rooted in colour, are also based in Berlin, where both Siobhán Ní Eanaigh and Michael McGarry worked in the early 1980s. Of course, it’s probably nothing other than a coincidence, but one wonders if the relentless greyness of communist East Germany [well-depicted in the film The Lives of Others, for those of us who have never been] sparked a polychromatic knee-jerk reaction.
Ballyfermot Leisure and Youth Centre, Dublin
‘That secret wild yellow colour’
That the Ballyfermot project was chosen as a starting point is worth addressing. Firstly, it’s the only project presented that is in Dublin; the four other projects are variously located in Louth, Offaly and Meath. However, Ballyfermot is a part of Dublin that is, in the words of Siobhán Ní Éanaigh “characterized by an awful lot of housing and not too many public buildings”, something which could also be said of their site at Ratoath, Co. Meath.
The concerns of the architects were rooted both in the site, and in the future users relationships to the buildings. Amongst the first issues to be addressed was a site strategy aimed at ‘harnessing the park … so that it becomes a part of the scheme’; something that was readily apparent, however, was the responsibility that the architects felt not so much to the client, but to the future users, rather than to the site or their own predilictions.
“Each building needed its own identity … [they needed] in their own quiet way to have their own personality,” stated Ní Éanaigh, referring to the two distinct elements of the scheme, the Youth Centre and the Leisure Centre. “[It] is about making the building friendly and non-judgmental.” The architects spoke, with obviously fond memories, of the consultative process with locals. Beyond the surefooted decisions as regards siting and orienting the buildings, creating routes and shelter, it was easily seen that there was a deep regard and level of thought given to how the building would be used, and how to make it both more practical and more enjoyable for those to whom it would become a part of their daily lives.
However, this feeling obviously had to be balanced against the need to create a public building. The architects speak of it as ‘externally calm’ – which it certainly is,almost to blandness in comparison to some of the work exhibited later – and tonally ‘natural’, a pointed reference to those who would only see muted colours in nature.
Bush Sports Hall, Louth
‘The sandy, soily colour of Slí Fáil’
The gym at Bush, another commended project in the 2009 AAI Awards, has an entirely different setting to the Ballyfermot project, sitting at the foothills of the Cooley Mountains in County Louth. Succinctly labelled “a rendered erratic” by its architects, Siobhán Ní Eanaigh described the building as an exercise in “how you make something that you want to model and also be continuous”.
What is particularly worth noting about this project is the Jekyll and Hyde traits it possesses: exuberant and stylized externally, rigorous and almost utilitarian internally. The roots of this approach, with regards both to materiality and form, are based in the fact that the building has two important jobs to do. Reflected internally is the fact that it is a hard-wearing gym for a government funded school, with all the budgetary strictures that entails. Externally, it has a vital part to play in forming an edge to the school campus, as well as creating a coherent site strategy.
Ferbane Community College, Offaly [unbuilt]
“A dark rutted thing”
Ferbane was the only unbuilt project which was shown, and by the very fact that no building work had gone ahead, and that the extensive labour that goes into making a building on a site [with all the daily experiences that make up working life] had gone undone, the architects afforded themselves a frank assessment of “an unremarkable town and a compromised site”.
Nonetheless, some powerful and emotive points were made in favour of schoolbuilding. “A school is the first interface that people have with the state,” according to Siobhán Ní Éanaigh. “[They] are formative places, and they are of a particular place.”
It’s worth mentioning that some of the strongest architectural statements of the lecture were made regarding this project; the fact that it hasn’t gone ahead to the construction phase perhaps did away with a degree of sentimentality. “[We were] pre-occupied with making a form which has a scale, which is memorable” said Siobhán Ní Énaiaigh, something which was said in direct reference to the Ferbane project, but has a resonance with all four projects shown.
From the audience’s point of view, it was disappointing that construction never went ahead. The language used to describe the genius loci – ‘the ground lines, gouged by turf cutters … a dark rutted thing’ – speak of a building of rich materiality and an earthy, hard-won and physical plan. In contrast with this language was a particularly Fauvist crayon drawing, which shone with citric, crystalline colours: to see how these two intentions would have juxtaposed – in the exterior and interior treatments, one supposes – would have brought great life to a scheme which seemed something of a cipher.
Ratoath Community College, Meath
‘A lozenge, a sweet in the sky’
Ratoath is another project in the hinterlands, another project that addresses the issues thrown up by the boom – urban sprawl and commuter towns, economic migration, a population boom and a young demographic. Ratoath is a small village, dwarfed by large housing estates that surround it. As the architects put it themselves: “Ratoath College is the first significant new public institution in the community.”
A particularly successful move is one of the very first the architects made, when they decided that “[the scheme] was not about a spine with tentacles and a series of courtyards”, but that it was rather a sinuous, slender form, that proved “impossible to make elevations; [there was] always something that was about a continuous shape.” The scale of the school is frankly massive – accommodation expectations are around 850-900 pupils – and yet the angled, folding form prevents the school from appearing as a ground-scraping fortress.
Height restrictions are both a matter of context, in this case, surrounded by fields and fields of two storey cooki-cutter semi-demitached ‘suburban’ houses, and of programme, and yet the building subtly ducks and raises its scales to break up the monotony of a single eaves-line and to accommodate the various programmatic requirements that a school has. Tellingly, the roof was always considered as a ‘fifth’ [for the sake of convention] elevation, and a lot of emphasis is placed on bringing natural light into communal spaces from overhead, especially through circular coloured ‘lozenges’ in the main entrance space.
Again, colour plays an important role in the scheme, here as an orienting device: ‘the red lab’, ‘the yellow classroom’. This may seem a rather basic, childlike device, but I have no doubt it is extremely practical: 900 children and young adults, many of them from different backgrounds and nationalities, some of them probably not native English-speakers … colour, rather than any linguistic method, is a great shorthand.
Dunshaughlin Culmullen Resource Centre, Meath
‘The making of a form and the idea of hollowing it’
The Resource Centre was the last project and continues many of the themes that are evident in the Bush Sports Hall: a cranked solid which folds its profile, an entrance that turns inside under a solid and weighty overhang, and a range of rectangles carved into the block to cut windows which reveal a depth.
However, this seems a far more assured and satisfying handling of these themes than Bush; the more varied program is certainly a factor, as is the ability to manipulate the plan in response to prescribed areas. There’s no getting around having to house a basketball court on a Department of Education budget in the Bush project, for example – you just have to fit it in and work around it.
Dunshaughlin, on the other hand, seems both more nuanced in its detailing and intrepid in its execution. The folds are sharper, the cuts are deeper, the sculpting is bolder, the colours more dramatic. It’s a well-weighted, well-scaled little cast of a building, more slender and elegant than a nugget, but very much of a single piece.
The five buildings presented by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects in this lecture have a number of factors in common, even when viewed without the converging lens of colour. The architects are building in areas – Meath, Louth, Ballyfermot, Offaly – which have neither much history, nor trust, of modern architecture. Aside from the vital primary jobs that the buildings are doing, be it school, community centre, or sports facilities, they also have a role to play as architectural outriders in these areas.
It is an important role to play, and the buildings reflect that with their strong rooting in a sense of place, careful detailing and material choice, and the architects' regard both for the opinions of their clients and the future-users. However, the buildings are never overly 'worthy', cautious or mannered: they portray the pre-occupations and interests of the architects, and keep alive a conversation with progressive architects in busier urban areas. These are important buildings.
The AAI was extremely lucky to have Professor Peter Waldman of the University of Virginia lecture on the 8th October in the Red Room, UCD School of Architecture. This lecture was snuck in on short notice when one of the committee members heard that Professor Waldman was on campus for a workshop, and as such took place on Friday, rather than our more regular Thursday slot.
Those who attended were not disappointed. Professor Waldman’s background includes a CV that many would tie themselves in knots over, but he never traded off these famous names, and indeed wears those experiences lightly and with no shortage of self-deprecation. Eisenman, Graves, Meier – if they were in the New York Five, Peter Waldman probably learnt from them, drew up details for them or fielded angry phonecalls for them.
The lecture was nominally titled Specifications of Construction, a title that would seemingly point towards a dry, academic lecture. It proved anything but.
Something that was immediately evident in Professor Waldman’s lecture was the lack of pretension in how he described his work. Certainly, there was no shortage of reference to art, high or low, nor was there any glossing over the intellectual rigour behind the work; what was missing was the wilful obscurist tendencies of many architects, and the inability to see the potential for joy.
Another particularly noticeable quality of the lecture – well, noticeable in hindsight, perhaps – was Professor Waldman’s seemingly effortless ability to order his remarks in such a way that a clear hierarchy became apparent as the lecture progressed. The same preoccupations in his work would appear again and again, and instead of explaining them outright in the first project, he would gradually add more thoughts, more pieces to the puzzle, as the issue occurred again in another context, or another scale.
Projects that occured wilful or somehow disordered were thus revealed to be a finely balanced collection of ideas, desires and practices; some fundamentals of architecture, such as orientation, were constants factors, whereas other issues, such as the aging of materials, the process of construction [for which he showed deep understanding, even love] traded places in this unremarked hiearchy with symbolism and sustainability, depending on the siting, scale, program and ‘personality’ of the project.
It was revealing, and, as gauche as it may be to say it, educational, to see the layers of thought built up in such a coherent and cogent manner. Basic – or fundamental, depending very much on your viewpoint – moves were put in place, be they in terms of siting, orientation, alignment or construction process, and the projects moved forward on that basis. Nothing arrived fully formed; everything was a considered move, and often considered with very different mindsets.
For example, the structural system of his own house was considered from a theoretical background [with all that Eisenman growing up, who could fail to consider the ordering/disordering possibilties of a grid?] as well as with reference to common practice in the area in terms of contractors, the natural qualities of materials and their performance in various systems, specifications and situations, coupled with a full and thoughtful comprehension of the logistics of transporting materials to a remote site. All of these aspects were addressed and slid into place in a unique hierarchical system based on three elements: the architect’s experience, the site, and the program.
And this was just the structure! Every aspect of the project was dealt with with this sort of combination of intuition, research, logic and experience. Perhaps more relevantly to those attending, the projects were revealed this way; by that I mean that the professor had obviously taken the time to go back over his thought processes when designing, and assemble a narrative compiled of both his ideas, study models, sketches, photographs, drawings and anecdotes. Ideas and decisions were sketched out, rather than harped upon.
It was especially enjoyable and worthwhile then to see the energy and genuine enjoyment with which Professor Waldman addressed the many questions put to him by the audience. He really relished the opportunity to delve deeper into issues which he had brought up, seemingly because he saw a genuine interest in the question. In contrast to some other ‘question & answer’ sessions, Professor Waldman didn’t seem defensive about his work: he welcomed questions, tried to answer them with particular reference with some of the shown work, and then put forward in his characteristically modest way his own thoughts on the matter. He didn’t try to sell his answers as ‘the’ answer, nor did he back off from restating some fundamentals a number of times. Answers weren’t calculated, but considered.
Professor Waldman is a natural teacher and educator, something that is best appreciated by hearing him speak to a modest audience. His lecture, at the end of what was a long, involved week on his part, and on the eve of his return to Virginia, spoke volumes about his enjoyment of teaching, and the depth of his thoughts about architecture.
The following article by Hugh Campbell appeared in Building Material 12: Morality and Architecture.
What’s the problem with Peter Zumthor? He is, after all, one of the most widely revered architects of the last decade: creator of seminal works at Chur, at Vals, at Bregenz, renowned teacher, source of a thousand student projects, deployer of delicious details, transcender of fashion and taste, champion of architecture’s enduring value. Everything about Zumthor exudes an unassailable rectitude. And yet despite all this, and despite the undoubted accomplishment and beauty of the architecture, there remains, for me, something fundamentally unsatisfactory about Zumthor’s work.
After a recent visit to the Kunsthaus at Bregenz, the reasons for this became a little clearer. On a side excursion from a college trip, four of us arrive, slightly bleary-eyed, in Bregenz on a grey Sunday morning. When, replenished by black coffee in the black café, we finally enter the gallery building, a slowly unwinding joke is set in motion. We’re greeted by a scattering of acro-props spanning floor to ceiling. A moment of doubt (is Zumthor falling down?) is followed by a flicker of Schadenfreude (Zumthor has failed!) before it becomes clear that the current exhibition, by the Spanish artist Sebastiao Sierra, is called 300 TONNES, which presumably means there’s something very big and heavy upstairs that needs to be supported down here. Accordingly, as we mount from floor to floor, we find each space disrupted by a field of props. Glass panels from the suspended ceiling are removed and leant against the side walls to allow the props uninterrupted passage. The serenity of the spaces is rudely interrupted. The crude, roughly painted metal of the props jars with the exquisite perfection of the spaces’ finishes - the jointless terrazzo floor, the chromed doorframes. And after this long set-up, on the top floor, the punchline. We emerge from the stairs to find that the whole space is occupied by large stacks of concrete blocks, sitting on plastic sheeting. Builders’ debris is scattered across the floor. In one corner, a table is laden with hardhats, tabloids and teacups. The effect is uncanny – a builders’ yard stacked with the base materials of construction is secreted within a lovingly crafted casket. The raw meets the cooked.
While most of the impressive roster of artists who have inhabited the Kunsthaus - from James Turrell to Olafur Eliasson – have seemed content to work with its serenely precious atmosphere, Sierra’s witty installation is determined to challenge the architecture’s self-importance. 300 tonnes - the combined weight of the blocks and a maximum 100 visitors (there’s a counter at the entrance, keeping tally) – is apparently the safe limit of the building’s structure, but what Sierra is really testing are the limits of Zumthor’s architectural thinking.
For Zumthor, architecture is fundamentally concerned with making: ‘Construction is the art of making a meaningful whole out of many parts. Buildings are witnesses to the human ability to construct concrete things. I believe that the real core of all architectural work lies in the act of construction.’i Hence, his buildings are presented as constructs – as elements and components joined together carefully and systematically. The ‘feathered’ glass skin of the Kunsthaus is an obvious example: it reveals its own construction; the constituent parts are evident in the finished product. There is an interest in tectonic truth-telling here which can be traced back through Kahn and Mies to Perret and Viollet-le-Duc. And for Zumthor, as for many of these figures, construction, truth and morality are fundamentally linked. The attention paid to construction and, maybe more importantly, to the presentation of construction allows architecture to become coherent and comprehensible. This comprehensibility in turn begins to acquire - in Zumthor’s view – an ontological status. The constructed object – the made thing – stands as a quiet sentinel of truth in a world devoid of ‘the real’. Here’s a passage that typifies this thinking:
Post-modern life could be described as a state in which everything beyond our own personal biography seems vague, blurred and somehow unreal. The world is full of signs and information which stand for things which no-one fully understands because they, too, turn out to be mere signs for other things. The real thing remains hidden. No-one ever gets to see it.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that real things do exist, however endangered they may be. There are earth and water, the light of the sun, landscapes and vegetation; and there are objects, made by man, such as machines, tools or musical instruments which are what they are, which are not mere vehicles for an artistic message, whosepresence is self-evident.
When we look at objects or buildings which seem to be at peace within themselves, our perception becomes calm and dulled. The objects we perceive have no message for us, they are simply there. Our perceptive faculties grow quiet, unprejudiced and unacquisitive. They reach beyond signs and symbols, they are open, empty. Here, in this perceptual vacuum, a memory may surface, a memory which seems to issue from the depths of time. Now, our observation of the object embraces a presentiment of the world in all its whole ness, because there is nothing that cannot be understood.ii
Even as it drifts into mystical obfuscation, the argument here remains clear - clear to the point of banality. Contemporary life bad – confusing, you see. No truth anymore. If only things could just...eh... be what they are. Like in the old days, you know - way back. (Needless to say, the childhood memories of the aunt’s kitchen have already been wheeled out earlier in the essay.) All the usual characteristics of Zumthor’s writing are present: the preachy tone, the peremptory dismissal of contemporary society, the nostalgia for simple, ‘true’ things, the appeal to some prelapsarian state of grace (to be found, presumably, somewhere in ‘the depths of time’.) To the arbitrariness of ‘post-modern life’ is opposed the certainty of the ‘real’ object, the supposed value of the latter completely dependent on the supposed bankruptcy of the former. Well, if postmodernism revealed anything to us, it was precisely the inadequacy of thinking through such binary oppositions. If the achievement of true ‘meaning’ and understanding is made possible only through an outright rejection of the ‘mere signs’ of the contemporary world, then it seems a fairly hollow achievement. But this is exactly the premise embodied in Zumthor’s architecture: it sets itself in opposition to what, for him, are the unmanageable complexities of our contemporary existence. It turns its back on the world and in so doing, actually admits its own weakness. The unalloyed reverence for craft and construction now begins to seem suspiciously like a substitute for any real engagement with the world. Within the bounds of the building, a resplendent perfection reigns. Beyond its limits... well, there’s nothing to be done. There is a joke told in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame about a man who goes to a tailor for a pair of trousers. After weeks of innumerable fittings, adjustments and refinements, the trousers are still not ready, and the man eventually explodes with exasperation: “‘God damn you to hell, Sir, no, its indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!’ [Tailor’s voice, scandalised] ‘But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look – [disdainful gesture, disgustedly] – at the world – [pause] – and look – [loving gesture, proudly] – at my TROUSERS!’”iii
Of course, caring about tailoring doesn’t mean not caring about the world. Mies van der Rohe, for instance, who pursued purity and perfection in steel for thirty years, always did so out of a desire that his architecture might quietly reconstitute the relationship between people and the world. He quoted Schinkel on the subject: ‘A work of architecture must not stand as a finished and self-sufficient object. True and pure imagination, having once entered the stream of the idea that it expresses, has to expand forever beyond this work, and it must venture out, leading ultimately to the infinite. It must be regarded as the point at which one can make an orderly entry into the unbreakable chain of the universe.’ Architecture is required to open itself out, rather than closing itself off. It should be a point of entry, rather than a dead end.
In very obvious ways, the Kunsthaus at Bregenz epitomises the closed nature of Zumthor’s thinking. From the inside, the outside world is completely absent. There are no views out. Even the light has to be modulated and filtered before being allowed entry. From outside, the building seems an alien presence along the lakefront. It is in the world, but not of it. Its evanescent glass shroud is akin to the transparent mac worn by Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Copolla’s brilliant 1973 film The Conversation. Hackman played Harry Caul, a sound surveillance expert who preferred to experience the world at one remove, who avoided direct engagement at all costs. But if Caul comes across as reticent and withdrawn, he is also remarkably self- absorbed. In Zumthor, we find a similar solipsism. What is most problematic about his work is not really its narrow focus, and certainly not its interest in materials and construction, but rather his conviction of the absolute moral superiority of these concerns. His architecture claims for itself a position outside the relativism and the ‘arbitrariness’ of contemporary society. But in fact Zumthor’s position is just as arbitrary, just as ideologically loaded, just as much a cultural construct as any other. The potency of Sebastiao Sierra’s installation lies in the way it draws attention to this piece of misdirection. The raw power of those dense stacks of rough concrete blocks points up the extreme self-consciousness of the gallery’s construction. It’s the blocks which, to use Zumthor’s words, ‘are not mere vehicles for an artistic message, whose presence is self- evident’, while the building becomes a ‘mere sign for something else.’ This role reversal is then further complicated by the knowledge that the stacks of blocks themselves are, in fact, the vehicle for an artistic message. Suddenly nothing seems absolute or certain; nothing seems pure or simple. By upsetting the insistent equilibrium of Zumthor’s architecture, Sierra reveals the narrowness, and the precariousness, of its ideological foundations.
Dr. Hugh Campbell is Professor of Architecture at the School of Architecture, University College Dublin.
Drawing by Catherine de Groot, 3rd Year, School of Architecture, University College Dublin.
i Zumthor, P. - A Way of Looking at Things, Architecture and Urbanism, February 1998 extra edition, p. 8.
ii Ibid., p. 14.
iii Beckett S. - Endgame, in The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 103.
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