The new West Cork Arts Centre, called Uillinn, certainly makes its mark on the landscape. A great hulk of weathered Corten steel rises up in the middle of Skibbereen, brazenly challenging established landmarks such as the town hall and rather modest Catholic cathedral, to proclaim the importance of the arts.
It is built on the site of Wolfe’s bakery and is entered via a temporary bridge over the fast-flowing Caol stream, which is due to be encased in an open culvert as part of a €13 million flood-defence plan for Skibbereen. What gives it a wow factor is the dramatic 7m cantilever overhead supporting four floors on top.
It could have been much better, though, if the architects who won an international competition for the project in 2009 had not been dismissed on cost grounds and it ended up being built under the supervision of quantity surveyors. The competition, organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, attracted 216 entries, including many from overseas: a phenomenal level of interest that was no doubt driven by the challenge of building something substantial in a relatively remote place as renowned as west Cork.
Winning first prize and the design commission was a coup for Dublin-based Donaghy and Dimond Architects, which had previously been known for its innovative domestic extensions and clever reconfigurations of existing houses.
When the result was announced in January 2009, the jury was unanimous in hailing the “clarity and strength” of the scheme, describing it as an “aesthetically appropriate response to the site . . . integrating the existing laneways, the public realm and the building” and saying the proportions of the Corten-steel tower would make it “sit well in context”.
According to the jury, it would also be “functionally smooth”, with spaces that “dovetail and respond well to the programmatic needs of the arts centre”, as the architects had “an understanding of the work of artists and how practitioners might want to use the building and relate to other users . . . and the general public”.
Corten steel is a divisive building material. It was developed to eliminate the need for painting and forms a rust-like appearance over time.
Architect Will Dimond said it was inspired by traditional barns in west Cork, and in particular the use of red oxide paint on their corrugated steel roofs.
The background to the project was ominous, however. As Marcus Donaghy recalls, the competition was held at a "frightening time". Architects were losing work and laying off staff, as more and more projects were pulled by developers feeling the impact of the credit crunch. Then, Lehman Brothers collapsed and Ireland guaranteed its banks.
The Department of Arts had allocated €1.5 million in May 2007, or 43 per cent of the project’s cost. Cork County Council contributed €1.4 million and the rest was raised by the West Cork Arts Centre.
Many of those involved have high praise for the very positive role played by the county council, which did everything it could to facilitate the project. For months, however, there was no indication from the department of when, or even whether, it would pay up, and the council had to provide bridging finance to keep the project afloat.
"All of a sudden, the department had no money," says arts centre director Ann Davoren, who chaired the competition jury, and she recalls "horrendous" meetings with department officials in its substantially vacant "decentralised" offices in Killarney. "We couldn't get anyone to give us a straight answer."
The department eventually handed over the €1.5 million, plus an additional €106,000, very late in the day. As a result, a building project that should have been straightforward became a living nightmare for its promoters and their architects, Donaghy and Dimond. The first tender for construction of the building ended in failure, as no applicant put in a bid that was on budget. More savings had to be found, and the basement was the first part of the original design to go.
"We've had an incredible struggle," says arts centre chairman Declan Tiernan. "To secure our funding, we had to re-engage with our design team, now led by quantity surveyors, who then had to bring in technical architects to revise the design and reduce the specification in order to achieve the building with our reduced budget."
Tiernan regrets the dismissal of Donaghy and Dimond, particularly as they had taken the project through the detailed design and planning phases. They were paid off and had to surrender their drawings to "global construction consultants" Davis Langdon.
Ruthless cost-cutting is evident in the completed building. Gone is a big cut-out in the Corten steel, facing Main Street, and a deeply recessed double-height window; it was replaced by much less satisfactory bronze anodised glazing units flush with the facade. Also gone is an open loggia on the rear building.
A concealed staircase in the main gallery, to give public access to the mezzanine level overlooking it, was dropped in favour of a combined stairs for members of the public and artists. Shuttered concrete in the stairwells is very rough, while the handrails are clunky galvanised steel rather than stainless steel.
All of these compromises had to be made because of the funding straitjacket imposed by the Department of Arts, despite a pledge in government policy on architecture to “promote high standards of design and construction in building works for which it is responsible”.
The department says that after it allocated the initial grant, “the project encountered very significant delays”. It said it “did not call for substantial budget reductions on the project [and] was not involved in the design or construction process. This was and is the responsibility of the project promoter, West Cork Arts Centre Ltd.”
The statement added that a further €106,000 was allocated to the project in March 2013, under the Arts and Culture Capital Enhancement Support Scheme, but the funding was not adequate for the arts centre’s original proposal.
At the same time, the Government is spending €550 million on a motorway between Gort and Tuam in Co Galway, which will only reach a quarter of its design capacity in 2030. Clearly, different yardsticks are used to adjudicate on value for money when it comes to motorways.
Nonetheless, Skibbereen now has “a fireplace in the middle of the town”, as Tiernan calls Uillinn. As well as offering art for everyone, it will soon have it own cafe in a single-storey pavilion with a sedum roof. However, even the stone-paved courtyard it addresses could not have been done without a private donation of €30,000.
NEW SPACE, SAME ETHOS
Bigger, brighter, but will it be better? Does a new building mean a change of direction at the West Cork Arts Centre, now rechristened Uillinn? Not exactly, says Ann Davoren, its director since 2001. “The focus is still on visual art, even though we’re a multipurpose venue,” she says.
There is a dancer in residence for the first time. Tara Brandel will be working on a community-based programme as well as a series of performances. A film club is also being re-established, and there is room to hold readings, talks and performances.
On the visual arts side, the inaugural exhibition, Fourth Space, was curated by Davoren to include the work of Irish artists exploring space and architecture. Works by Maud Cotter and David Beattie were made specifically for the galleries, while Liam O'Callaghan reconfigured work that had previously been shown. The exhibition also includes work by Mark Garry, Rhona Byrne, Karl Burke, Caoimhe Kilfeather, Dennis McNulty and Angela Fulcher, which makes for a compelling roll call.
Sam Thorne, artistic director of Tate St Ives, did the opening honours; that is a connection Davoren established because of the shared legacies between Cornwall and west Cork. Miners came over to the copper mines at Allihies, there are fishing links and, as Davoren says, there's the context: "the picturesque landscape, the light, the location at the edge of our respective countries".
Thorne will return in the summer to continue discussions that will also focus on the centre’s support for young artists and its partnership, with the Sherkin Island Development Society and DIT, on the Sherkin Island BA in visual art.
Overall, the ethos remains the same, although the new spaces give scope to show larger works and to develop bigger projects, including a collaboration with Imma on a major William Crozier exhibition, to run simultaneously in both venues in 2017.
This year's programme includes lo- cal, national and international artists; expect to see Daphne Wright, Tess Leak (who is in residence in one of the studios), Laura Gannon, Charles Tyrrell, Rachel Parry and others. Uillinn benefits from the community of artists who have made west Cork their home and from the strong reputation of the old West Cork Arts Centre. After all, unless you end up with one of those galleries that are completely hostile to art, it's not what the box looks like that counts, but what goes on inside. Fourth Space ends on March 14th. Gemma Tipton