AAI Lecture Review – McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects
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.
Images courtesy of mcGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects: http://www.mcgnie.ie/
Photographs courtesy of Richard Hatch: http://www.richardhatchphotography.com/