Talking up Irish design in the Windy City


CHICAGO HAD to feature in the Irish Architecture Now US tour – and not just because its most notorious hole in the ground was dug by one of our own developers. It is also the quintessential US city and “the crucible of architecture in America”, as curator and critic Raymund Ryan grandly notes.

At the final public lecture of a recent six-city tour, Ryan even suggests that Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern – the legendary cause of the devastating Chicago fire of 1871 – not only brought about the city’s reconstruction but even Modernism itself, forged by high-rise pioneer Louis Sullivan.

After an earlier tour by Niall McCullough, Heneghan Peng and Bucholz McEvoy, taking in New York, Harvard and Pittsburgh, three more Irish architects – Yvonne Farrell, Sheila O’Donnell and Tom dePaor – travelled to Los Angeles, Berkeley and Chicago, with the support of Culture Ireland.

It is all part of this year’s Imagine Ireland festival in the US, intended to draw the attention of Americans to the diversity of Irish culture and show that there’s more to us than the debts we owe. But the Chicago event is handicapped by its Veterans’ Day scheduling and the fact it is held on a Friday.

Whatever the reason, only 50 people turn up at the Art Institute of Chicago’s 400-seat Fullerton Hall for the tripartite talk by Farrell, O’Donnell and dePaor, hosted by the Architectural Society of Chicago. This is disappointing, as they had attracted much larger audiences in Los Angeles and Berkeley.

It is a bravura performance by Farrell, who runs Grafton Architects with Shelley McNamara. Together, they won the World Building of the Year award in 2008 for Bocconi University in Milan.

Farrell talks about how they had “pulled apart the structure” in their competition-winning design to bring light into its depths, simultaneously creating airy offices for 1,000 professors, vast concourses now used to show Bocconi’s art collection, and a cliff-like facade of stone and glass engaging with the city.

Grafton had “never done anything on that scale”, but the clients trusted it to deliver the goods – and it did. On the strength of Bocconi, the practice won a commission for another grand projet – a new research building with a “sky cloister” for the University of Toulouse, alongside the city’s medieval wall.

Farrell, who now shares with McNamara a visiting professorship at Yale University, says she is always struck by what water does to the limestone landscape of the Burren, and sees this as “a metaphor for a new kind of architecture” – more like geography or geology “redefining the outer crust of our planet”.

She stresses that it is not a case of imposing their preconceived views on cities they barely know. “Every place has a different sound. And we’re not arrogant as a people – we don’t just arrive and say ‘we have the answer’. We try to discover the culture of a city, what’s really important, and make that part of our work.”

Sheila O’Donnell agrees, detailing how she and partner John Tuomey in O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects immersed themselves in the area around Lincoln’s Inn Fields before winning the commission for a new students’ centre at the London School of Economics.

“We always look closely at a place, because we want our work to be of that place.” Introduced by Ryan as one half of a partnership that has won no less than seven Downes medals in the annual Architectural Association of Ireland awards over the years, O’Donnell recalled that when they came back to Ireland in the early 1980s it had a “barren architectural culture, so we started making our own”.

It is always a collaborative effort, she says. “We both work together on every project, so words are very important as well as images. John writes and I paint, making words and images in developing a language of architecture, which is about materials, form, light and what the landscape is made of.”

O’Donnell and Tuomey are influenced by the potent materiality of ruined Irish tower houses – as indeed, quite coincidentally, are Farrell and dePaor – and this can be seen in the form of their “Swiss cheese” community centre in Dublin’s East Wall, or Grafton’s tall house for presidents of the University of Limerick.

“We also think about urban space and buildings having a heart, with places for people to meet,” O’Donnell says. In the Timberyard social housing scheme in the Liberties, which repairs the damage of a new road “brutally driven through”, every resident has a loggia, there’s a play area for kids, and a tower on the corner.

She speaks about the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast and how they dealt with another difficult triangular site, in “an amazing landscape of small houses coming down the hill” to the River Lagan. And how they had to make numerous models of the asymmetrical auditorium, sculpting it so that everyone would have good sightlines to the stage.

Sandwiched between the two formidable women, Tom dePaor performed the role of an artistic savant, showing projects ranging from his peat briquette pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2000 to the angular, copper-clad sewage pumping station on Clontarf’s seafront and his newly completed “Picture Palace” in Galway.

Its gritty design, he says, was an attempt to recall the “cheap glamour of earlier cinemas in converted sheds”. But many of his images of projects in Ireland, whether a house overlooking the Irish Sea or a holiday home in Connemara, are in black-and-white and it looks wet everywhere – a metaphor, perhaps, for the grim times.

As with the last tour, Ray Ryan has arranged architectural pilgrimages: this time to Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House, 100km west of Chicago, and Louis Kahn’s mesmerising Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Going to see them, Yvonne Farrell says, was like returning to “the nursery rhymes of our architectural training”.

In Chicago, there is also a visit to the new Poetry Foundation by the Irish-American architect John Ronan – on the day Michael D Higgins is inaugurated as President. It was built for $21.5 million (€16.5m) – a fraction of the $200m donation from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, to sustain poetry in Chicago.

It is elegant, subtle and calm – all encased within in a perforated steel screen that also encloses a beautiful courtyard. The perfect place for reading poetry, it includes an extensive library of 30,000 volumes as well as an auditorium so acoustically perfect that nobody needs a microphone. Séamus Heaney has done a reading there.

The Irish Architecture Now tours set out to show “the rich talent of our architects to an interested and untapped audience,” says Nathalie Weadick, director of the Irish Architecture Foundation. This would have a “direct effect” on how people view Ireland and could also “increase opportunities for cultural and professional connections in time”.

The venues are “high-profile”, certainly in art and architecture circles. They include the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, the Heinz Architectural Centre in Pittsburgh, the University of California’s Department of Architecture in Berkeley, the Architectural League of New York and the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

As for the hole near Lake Shore Drive left by Garret Kelleher’s abortive plan for the Chicago Spire, a twisted drill-bit designed by Santiago Calatrava that would have soared to 2,000ft (606 metres), there is no shortage of ideas about what to do with the site. But it’s laden with liens, including an $11.5 million (€8.8 million) claim by Calatrava.

Still, one has to have a sense of humour, no matter how bleak things get. Tom dePaor is hugely impressed by the honesty of a beggar near our hotel on Adams Street. “Why lie?” his hand-scrawled sign says. “It’s for beer.”

That kind of tactic might even work in Dublin as well.

Frank McDonald travelled to Chicago at the invitation of Culture Ireland. The tour was organised by the Irish Architecture Foundation