A towering achievement? You decide

Wed, Jun 13, 2012, 01:00

The Irish Architecture awards give the public a chance to have a say in which buildings, renovations and extensions deserve an award for beauty, originality, functionality, or that ‘je ne sais quois’

WE ARE all critics now – tweeting, blogging and sending Jedward to Eurovision – and this week the public can have a say in which of the new buildings around us deserves a special accolade.

The judges of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) architectural awards have put together a 32-project shortlist for an online public vote, as part of its broader competition.

“It engages the public with design,” says Kathryn Meghan, assistant director of the RIAI, “and gives us feedback about what people like.”

Judging by previous winners, the public like variety in their buildings. The first year they chose a dreamy glass house by the water in Donegal by MacGabhann Architects. Then it was Thomond Park in Limerick by Murray O’Laoire Architects, and next the Criminal Courts of Justice building by Henry J Lyons. Last year, Limerick was back, with the Milk Market outdoor space by Healy Partners.

While architectural judges go by criteria such as design, scale, function and the way a building fits in with its surroundings, it appears the public are more interested in how a building affects their lives – in the case of Thomond Park and the Milk Market – or how it might change their everyday world. The choice of the Criminal Courts must surely have related to its arresting visual impact.

This year, again, there is a variety of buildings to choose from, although what is striking is the number of extensions included on the shortlist. Recent years have seen a drop in the number of State and commercial commissions, and people have turned towards their own nests.

A new category (started last year) is that of emerging architects, which reflects the fact that many designers have been forced to set up their own practices. With work scarce, many buildings have not been completed, so this award allows them to enter unbuilt projects. “It highlights new thinking about design solutions,” says Meghan. “A lot of younger people are coming forward who had been working in bigger practices and abroad and they can bring a different approach.”

“It is encouraging to see Irish architects setting up their own businesses and creating impressive bodies of work in these uncertain times,” says Michelle Fagan, president of the RIAI. She highlights projects Irish architects have built abroad, such as Heneghan Peng’s Olympic bridge in London, which she says is “testament to how we are still competing at the highest levels internationally”.

The emerging practices shortlist is chosen by a separate group of judges – the Architecture Ireland magazine board. The shortlist for the public vote includes emerging practices and buildings from more established firms, such as LiD, DMVF Architects and Donal Colfer Architects. These projects demonstrate how good design does not have to be expensive.

Of course, the public is already involved from the start of the building process, when they commission buildings, and many individuals must be commended for being ambitious with their approach to their own homes.

“Which is more exciting? Conjuring up opportunities for new ways of living when you work with architects of creative ability, or the pleasure and fulfilment of living with the daring results, which give you a new way of living surrounded by materials, light and space scarcely imaginable in a typical redbrick house in Dublin 8?” say the owners of a house that was revamped by Donaghy and Dimond Architects.

This is one practice which has fully “emerged” and is creating natural, carefully thought out projects – as is Cast Architecture and Aughey O’Flaherty Architects, whose client, in Mount Anville, Dublin enjoyed the building process.

“I was told that knocking my existing house to build a new one would be an extremely stressful process,” says the house’s owner. “However, I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish and, perhaps unusually, was sad when it ended.”

Another project using a lot of natural materials and building on a close relationship between interior and exterior is the Butterfly House in Co Leitrim by LiD Architecture.

“The extension has made everyday life so enjoyable. We love living here,” say the owners.

Two striking non-domestic projects are a primary school extension in Crumlin, Dublin, by Mary Laheen Architects and a bell tower in Ballina by Axo Architects.

Rather than follow a typical spired bell tower structure, Axo and the Sisters of Mercy in Ballina took the opportunity to make something different. The religious order says the sculpture-like structure tells its story: from the seat designed to represent the generosity of the organisation to the community over the years, to the coloured glass representing how it has been a “glimmer of light” for its community.

While it is not the first such modernist take on bell towers (US universities have a penchant for them) it shows the architectural opportunities presented by such structures.

Good design stems from embracing opportunities – something depicted by the Lir Academy building on Dublin’s Pearse Street, which was designed by Smith and Kennedy Architects. The building has striking green blobs cascading down its front; more subtly, it recesses at the side and has varied brickwork. It is the sort of building that makes you look twice, showing that good architecture can be valuable branding.

This approach is evident in other projects on the shortlist. The Dublin Dental University Hospital commissioned McCullough Mulvin Architects, and got striking zinc pods on the roof beaming over Lincoln Place. The Lyric Theatre in Belfast was designed by O’Donnell and Tuomey Architects. The theatre says: “The ingenuity of the design and layout – on a horribly irregular site – has drawn much praise, from staff and paying public alike.”

Architect Edwin Lutyens once said: “There will never be great architects or great architecture without great patrons.” Howley Hayes Architects has been reviving a house Lutyens designed on Lambay Island in Co Dublin. It has a similar project on the shortlist, the restoration of the Ard na Sidhe hotel in Co Kerry. Such conservation projects, along with the others on this shortlist, will always find a place in people’s hearts: steady old friends brought back to life with a new personality.

“The public choice award has gone from strength to strength,” says Meghan, “and practices seem to value it very highly.”

So now it’s over to you.


See the shortlist and vote at architectureawards.ie. The public vote closes on June 20th and a winner will be announced on June 21st.