Irish architects making waves abroad

IRISH ARCHITECTS are on the floor here at home, mostly scratching around for small projects just to keep going, but some of the…

IRISH ARCHITECTS are on the floor here at home, mostly scratching around for small projects just to keep going, but some of the more talented among them are making waves by winning international design competitions for major schemes in Boston, Budapest, Lima, London and Ramallah.

Trail-blazers Grafton Architects, which won the World Building of the Year award in 2008 for its amazingly clever Bocconi University project in Milan, has notched up another coup by winning a contest to design a new engineering campus for the University of Technology (UTEC) in Lima, Peru.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to have won,” says Grafton principal Yvonne Farrell, who travelled to Lima to present their scheme for a “man-made cliff” in a Blade Runner-like setting overlooking a heavily-trafficked motorway. Significantly, the other four architectural practices on the final shortlist were all Peruvian.

The new building, which will contain 30,000 sq m of laboratories, teaching facilities and a cultural centre, is to be built on a very difficult sloping site in the Barranco district of Lima, with an imposing presence designed to imprint itself on the minds of passing motorists and “cascading gardens” to the rear.

The architects were fascinated by the “unique condition of Lima”, with cliffs defining the boundary between land and sea, and envisaged their project for UTEC as a “new cliff” on a site that connects the city with the Pacific Ocean. Sunlight is woven through the building from a loggia at the highest level right down to its base.

As Lima’s climate is characterised by extremes of rainfall, particularly during El Niño periods, Grafton had to take into account the “huge environmental challenge” of dealing with stormwater in its design as well as the need to conserve drinking water. Planting was also selected to relate to different moisture levels.

Grafton, which employs an inclusive “atelier” approach to its work, is currently doing tender drawings for another major project – also won in competition – for the University of Toulouse school of economics; its design “re-interprets” some of the city’s characteristic promenades, buttresses, towers, cloisters, archways and courtyards.

O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects, no stranger to awards, has been commissioned to prepare a masterplan for the Central European University campus in Budapest, following another international competition – although the details of this scheme are still under wraps pending an official announcement.

The practice, run by Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, is also building a dramatic and “democratic” new Students’ Centre for the London School of Economics, due for completion in July 2013, and was just pipped at the post in another competition for a new lecture theatre and kitchens at Worcester College in Oxford.

Heneghan Peng Architects has won a design contest for the Palestinian Museum at Birzeit University, near Ramallah in the West Bank. The shortlist included London-based Edward Cullinan Architects, Henning Larsen from Copenhagen and Moriyama Teshima from Toronto.

The museum is billed as a cultural project that would become “the primary and most authoritative source of knowledge and new thinking about Palestinian history, culture and contemporary life”. In gestation for more than a decade, it is to be built in stages, with the the first phase to be completed by 2014.

Heneghan Peng stunned the architectural world in 2003 when it triumphed over more than 1,500 other competitors from 82 countries for the Grand Egyptian Museum, which will be within sight of the Pyramids of Giza. And despite all the turmoil in Egypt, a construction contract has just been awarded to an Egyptian-Belgian consortium.

Planned as the world’s largest archaeological museum, with an estimated price-tag of $550 million (€420 million), it will occupy a site of 120 acres some two kilometres from the pyramids. The kilometre-long facade will be made from translucent onyx, which will be designed in collaboration with engineers Buro Happold and sourced in Iran.

Heneghan Peng’s visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim is due to open at the end of June, and its wide pedestrian bridge leading to the Olympic Stadium in London is already complete (although the surrounding park isn’t), while another bridge design for the sensitive Lorelei stretch of the Rhine is “currently on hold”.

Emer O’Daly, who worked for Heneghan Peng for five years after graduating from UCD in 2004, has just won a major competition to design a “super-pier” in Boston Harbour, incorporating a rail station and ferry terminal, that would also be a public amenity and a driver of economic development for New Bedford. The competition was promoted by ShiftBoston, which was set up with the aim of generating more public awareness of the importance of design excellence in architecture, urban planning and technology. All the schemes, including O’Daly’s, are currently on exhibition at the Why Stop forum in Boston’s South Station.

Another young Irish architect who has gone global is Andrew Griffin, now a senior partner in Copenhagen-based JDS Architects, overseeing major projects in China – notably Chongming, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan – that are designed to “address the challenges of some of Asia’s most rapidly expanding cities”.

He still manages to live in Dublin and commute to Copenhagen for work as well as making frequent trips to China. All of the other Irish architects who’ve been winning competitions abroad are also based here, amid the gloom and doom. It’s the Wilde thing about us all being in the gutter, “but some of us are looking at the stars”.

The quality of what they produce is vividly illustrated in volume two of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) annual review, Irish Architecture, edited by Dr Sandra O'Connell. Anyone who doubts that our architects are capable of producing great buildings, at home and abroad should pick up a copy from the RIAI at 8 Merrion Square, Dublin 2.