Built up and knocked down

Sat, Jun 25, 2011, 01:00

CANDID COMMENTS by the adjudicators have always added to the appeal of the Architectural Association of Ireland Awards. But few would have been prepared for the scathing remarks this year of the veteran critic, author, architectural historian, painter and photographer William JR Curtis.

Making his first visit here since the Nelson Pillar was blown up, in February 1966, he registered the changes “starting with the vulgar curves of the airport, the standard office fare along the Liffey (investment packages in glass), and the leaning tower of pizza designed by Ireland’s only Pritzker prizewinner on a very bad day”.

In The Time of Life, the Time of Architecture, a long essay in the competition catalogue, Curtis rails against “the corrupt star system” and how it “got into bed with fast money, investment capitalism and globalised networks of power. The critic has to be vigilant and to keep a distance from the cliques with their sycophants and ‘useful idiots’.”

He recalls writing a piece on the excesses of the star system about the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron’s “recent descent into fast-track ‘iconic’ architecture” with Projet Triangle, their “dreadful pyramidal skyscraper” planned for Paris. But the French press, “which is not very critical of the machinations of power and money”, refused to publish it.

Curtis brands Peter Eisenman’s “megalomaniac” City of Culture near Santiago de Compostela, in the Spanish region of Galicia, as a “catastrophic project . . . an empty exercise in clumsy shape-making [that] destroys an entire landscape and gives back something like a commercial centre . . . twisted about with algorithms in a pointless game of formalism”.

Another of his targets is Jürgen Mayer, who “markets his third-rate, cliche-ridden work through a mixture of digital jargon and industrial connections”, he writes. One of the “scandalous” results was that his “megastructural monstrosity” of giant mushrooms had “completely ruined” Plaza de la Encarnación in Seville.

But then the Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas famously said, “F**k context.” “That is what happened in Seville,” Curtis says, “and would have happened to Cordoba had Koolhaas built his own disastrously out-of-scale Palace of Congresses across the river from the Mezquita”, one of Europe’s most remarkable buildings.

With projects like these, he says, part of the problem “is the gulf between pretentious theorising which is used to sell positions and oppositions, especially in the gaga world of North American academia”, and what is actually built. Thus “it is what architects do, not what they say, that matters”. Having spent a day at University College Dublin’s school of architecture, he found it “mercifully free of the vapid theorising that goes on in the US, and I hope that it stays that way. But with the economic crisis, faculty members may be able to build less, with the result that there may be less direct contact between office and classroom.”

It is a relief that Curtis believes “good work has been created in Ireland in recent years, although critics have resorted to silly ‘isms’ to categorise [its] slightly Spanish feel”. He singles out Grafton Architects’ “extraordinary Bocconi building in Milan, which combines the civic and the monumental with a dynamic sense of space”. At home, Ireland “suffered from instant enrichment . . . The wreckage and vulgarisation are there for all to see in everything from gated communities and mansions on open land that look as if they have been cribbed from soap operas on American TV to silly downtown ‘iconic’ landmarks that interrupt the urban scale.

“In the middle of this orgy of mediocrity and fast money, there are several fine interventions, often tucked away down mews lanes or else inserted in the spaces left over from old convent gardens or lunatic asylums,” Curtis says. And these hidden gems, in large measure, populate the latest AAI Awards.

As in previous years, there’s a “surfeit of house extensions with convoluted kitchen arrangements floating in space and some fairly awful attempts at mimicking the rural vernacular,” he writes. “The best of modern architecture in Ireland has always involved importing models and transforming them to fit local circumstances. There’s this sort of aestheticisation of the domestic sphere around some fairly standard cliches, which very obviously represents the aspirations of the new moneyed society.”

Well, that was then. “There’s a lot of fatigue here, aesthetically. You can go on feeding off Louis Kahn only up to a certain point.”

The project that interested him the most was a social-housing scheme in Santry, in north Dublin, designed by Niall Rowan of DTA Architects. “I went to see it myself the next day and found it very convincing. It establishes a partly enclosed precinct in a difficult social zone, defines transitional territories and provides generous apartments with terraces and gardens.

“It achieves variety on the basis of standardisation . . . There is an articulate language combining brick surfaces and punched openings of variable depth and size. There are echoes perhaps of [Ralph] Erskine or [Alvaar] Aalto, but the architecture is restrained, even neutral, like much of the best domestic architecture in the past.” And this was all “against the background of what hits your eye when you drive in from Dublin airport, which is the sort of mercantile, quick-money architecture which could be anywhere. Small Irish practices have obviously not been invited to reinvent those commercial types in an interesting way, which is a sad situation.”

Given their inventiveness and the way they could “so obsessionally worry about every little thing that’s going on in a small project”, he said it would be marvellous if they got bigger projects: “To sort out the section of a multistorey workspace, for example.” But there was “obviously a cleavage . . . about who gets what jobs”.

Senator Ivana Bacik, the distinguished layperson on the jury, was struck by Curtis’s comment about “the blandness of so much of the new construction – for example, in Dublin’s docklands”. With few exceptions, he said bluntly, it was “the same junk architecture that springs up in Liverpool [or] on the outskirts of Copenhagen”. “Nobody seemed willing to compromise on anything,” said Bacik of her stint on the AAI jury. “I felt some of the others belittled my views, but they also tended to be dismissive of their fellow professionals’ opinions. It was reassuring to see that judging architectural merit can be a subjective process.”

They could not agree among themselves to award the Downes Medal, the association’s supreme award, to one of the projects that got “special awards”: Rathmines Square by Donnelly Turpin; DTA’s social housing scheme in Santry; FKL’s A-House in Rathmines; and a House in the Woods, in Co Kildare, by Hasset Ducatez. None of the four was seen as truly outstanding.

For Curtis, returning after an absence of nearly half a century, it was the old classics that left the strongest impression: the Berkeley Library, in Trinity College, by Paul Koralek; the Bank of Ireland headquarters, on Baggot Street, by Ronnie Tallon; and the Institute of Advanced Studies, on Burlington Road, by Sam Stephenson.

This year’s free awards exhibition is at Darc Space Architectural Gallery, 26 North Great George’s Street, Dublin 1, until Wednesday; it moves to the National Gallery of Ireland next month before touring the country; architecturalassociation.ie

Something special: Four projects that divided the jury

Dominic Stevens’s corrugated house in the wilds of Leitrim, admittedly built for just €25,000, is among a crop of this year’s AAI award winners that shows the recession has not brought things to a complete standstill.

How did he do it so cheaply? With the help of friends, neighbours and family, just as he had done with a straw-bale house, built in days, about 10 years ago. That was also in Co Leitrim, his adopted home.

“To pay back some of the social debt, I am going to make the plans and building instructions available for free on an interactive website so that this knowledge may, as was the case in the vernacular tradition, be held in common.”

Ivana Bacik described it as “a great, innovative concept, in keeping with the mood of the times”. But William Curtis was suspicious, saying it “could result in €25,000 houses dotted all over the place”.

Bacik wanted to give the Downes Medal to Rathmines Square, Donnelly Turpin’s leisure centre topped by apartments, featured in the Irish Times Magazine last Saturday, or to DTA’s social-housing scheme in Santry. The jury was divided. Merritt Bucholz would have given the medal to Rathmines, but William Curtis insisted Santry was superior. So they gave four projects “special awards”, with awards for three others and 15 “special mentions”.

FKL’s A-House, on a mews lane in Rathmines, Dublin, received a special award because of its “quality of space and light”. Hassett Ducatez took another one for its house in Co Kildare, a rare example of building in woods. Scott Tallon Walker and Populous won an award for the Aviva Stadium, which Bacik described as “really beautiful on the Dublin skyline – the roofline, the shape of the curve”. Another went to John McLaughlin and the artist Martin Ruchman, who together cloaked the Bord Gáis installation on North Wall Quay in Dublin, where gas pressure is reduced for local distribution, into an art object. The jury liked the way it “picks up on light and water”, as Curtis said.


FlowBord Gáis installation, North Wall Quay, D1

By the architect John McLaughlin, the artist Martin Richman and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority

Aviva StadiumLansdowne Road, D4

By Scott Tallon Walker architects and Populous

€25,000 HouseCloone, Co Leitrim

By Dominic Stevens Architects

Special awards

Rathmines SquareLeisure centre and apartments, D6

By Mark Turpin, Donnelly Turpin Architects

Social and Affordable HousingSantry Demesne, D9

By Niall Rowan, DTA Architects

A-HouseRathmines, D6

By FKL Architects

House in WoodsCo Kildare

By Hassett Ducatez Architects