De Blacam and Meagher Architects: CIT, Cork

Shane de Blacam_Library_600(1)The timing of the recent site visit to de Blacam and Meagher Architects’ Cork Institute of Technology buildings, the week before the AAI Awards Adjudication, prompts once again the serious issue of the validity of an awards scheme where the jurors never visit the buildings in contention.

The coherency, the scale, the vision, the clarity of the architects’ intentions, the significance of the buildings to the prestige and place of the institution, the rigour, the fastidious attention to detail over a decade of construction: none of these attributes of the North Campus Development can be adequately conveyed over a pair of A1 boards.

The AAI is proud of its awards, and believes that there is substantial worth in not altering the agenda for its jurors, nor changing the entry regulations for its members. The jurors change on an annual basis; the rules do not.

That doesn’t mean that it’s a faultless system, nor that the awards handed out by its juries haven’t been flawed.

That the AAI did not recognize the CIT North Campus with its highest award, the Downes Medal, is to me a grievous and egregious error. That the error came about largely from the limitations imposed by the AAI Awards entry regulations is embarrassing.

The CIT North Campus buildings are a massive architectural achievement. They bring a dignity and a prestige to the institution that both affirms its role as a seat of learning and reaffirms the power of architecture to create a sense of place and an atmosphere on a grand scale.

It is an architecture of permanence and solidity, and an architecture that reflects the skills and attributes not only of its designers but of its builders. Andrea Deplazes talks about the ‘pathos of masonry’ in his book Constructing Architecture, and there is an inherent solemnity to this campus, both through its materiality and its formal layout. That the language is borrowed from Kahn may be a sticking point for some critics; then again, everything is borrowed from someone, and few results are this pressing and impressive.
The American poet Jack Gilbert called poetry a ‘witnessing to magnitude’. I’ve always felt that much of what he wrote about poetry could just as easily have applied to architecture. It’s a fantastic phrase, this ‘witnessing to magnitude’, and in this instance it is particularly appropriate. The sheer weight of the walls, the countless bricks laid, the scale and peace of the spaces, the obvious immovable nature of the masonry … it is a series of buildings of great magnitude, and a campus that establishes its institution as an important piece of the academic fabric of the country.

The tour itself was given by Shane de Blacam; he was full of insight, anecdote and reminiscences. It was a marvelous, three-dimensional relation of the history of the design and construction of the institute. From the initial success of the library, which paved the way for the rest of the scheme –“Independent student study was not on the [Institute’s] agenda … but we wanted something permanent and academic, and it is very rewarding to see something so well-used” – we were given an off-hand summation of the pros and cons of its precast concrete soffit [‘People hate it, architects like it, and I think it’s okay’] and a tribute to the joiner Eric Pierce for his work on the beech furniture.

De Blacam talked plainly of the propositions that they had made, and the negotiations the architects had engaged in with the academic authorities who held the institute’s purse-strings. Some were won [“We wanted … an aula maxima, a big hall covered in brick, albeit full of columns … we didn’t want it as a shopping mall”] while others, notably the debate over a teaching kitchen arrayed in the round with one extraction hood in the centre rather than one for every separate cooker in a traditional class-room layout, were lost: “I didn’t get a look in!”

Perhaps most satisfying was the fact that the architect was willing to make clear the relationships between the various aspects of the work: the site strategy, the initial design of each component part, the professional aspects of the job, the negotiations with contractors and clients.

Nowhere is the holistic nature of architecture – as a profession and as an art form – more clear than on site; there are many ways in which the process of construction can strip a project of its academic sheen, its subtleties and its pretensions.
It takes persuasion, determination and the ability to accept small defeats to successfully complete a project. One of the most telling remarks that de Blacam made was on leaving the stunning Demonstration Kitchen in the Tourism and Catering Building: “The fatal mistake is to touch the concrete: you strike it, and then you live with it.” There’s a real profundity in this remark. However, it wasn’t a series of profundities; we were also privy to the dry aside, “There a dignity of the academic environment which is not to do with gloss paint” as well as throwaways like the construction of the teaching kitchens engaging “the full whack of Arups M&E department!”

The work of de Blacam and Meagher Architects at Cork Institute of Technology is solemn and dignified. There’s a sense of timelessness than belongs to well-made buildings of a certain scale which restrict their material pallets to those with which traditional craftsmen and builders are most familiar – concrete, brick, and wood.

But beyond the building itself, it is encouraging to think that an Irish practice can earn the trust and respect of its clients and be afforded the time and capital to build something which has this timeless quality. The design of the first phase of the library started in 1992; the body of the rest of the campus was finished in 2007. To bring something of this scale to fruition, with all the hundreds of people who have worked on it over two decades, is really the most inspiring thing of all.

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