A trouble with architecture is that, by the time it's built, it's way too late to do anything about it – apart from, to quote Frank Lloyd Wright, plant vines. Despite the best efforts of model and image makers, it's also surprisingly difficult to gauge what something's going to look like until the walls go up.
Still, looking at those models, drawings and, most recently CGI, you could be forgiven for thinking that the aforementioned best efforts may be employed in the direction of a little creative deception. Skyscrapers dissolve delicately into misty yet blue skies, brickwork can appear almost ethereal, and warrens of concrete transmogrify into walkways in which well-dressed figures stop under perfectly manicured trees for impromptu cappuccinos.
The Irish Architectural Archive (IAA) on Merrion Square is replete with drawings, descriptions and models for the buildings that surround us, plus many that never made it off the page. Few of the built ones look entirely akin to their prefiguring image.
Currently the archive is also home to 94 models by architectural practices from Europe and the UK. The models muse on original drawings by architects from Le Corbusier to Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn to Adolfo Natalini, who is represented by a provocative plan to turn Rome's Coliseum into a hotel. And if drawings of unearthly buildings under sunny skies don't tend to match their concrete counterparts, these models fly happily into the realms of wild fantasy.
Based on material from Drawing Matter’s extensive collections, housed in Somerset in the UK, an initial 80 practices including five from Ireland, were invited to respond. Frustratingly the drawings (or copies of them) aren’t displayed alongside the models, so you have to do a bit of online clicking – but considering that’s how we navigate the world these days, it’s less of a challenge than if seeing the show in the flesh.
Online, or physically in front of you, the exhibition is great fun. The Irish presentation features nine additional Irish practices, so you can enjoy Niall McLaughlin’s delicate and witty reimagining of Bail Spence’s 1969 proposal to get more space into London’s Houses of Parliament. McLaughlin’s accompanying text is brilliant, exploring the history of the famously Gothic building and the political forces that shaped it.
But architects aren't always that adept at writing for a broader public. Tom de Paor's words in response to Hans Poelzig's 1919 drawings for Berlin's Grosses Schauspielhaus (Great Theatre) are possibly poetic, but it's hard to pin down the sense: "it is the repeat that makes the cut of the space, a layered negative – the fillet of course helps to bend to circle and dome, milled to scallop shadow until surface transcends armature." De Paor's model: a cut curve of watercolour paper, held in place with a paper clip; is a favourite of Drawing Matter's Niall Hobhouse.
‘Demystify the design process’
Hobhouse declares that Ireland “is punching so far above its weight on the international architecture scene” and that the exhibition aims both to be “a way of getting the participants to think hard about their personal sources and inspiration and] also as something that might demystify the design process for the more general public”.
Architecture, he concludes, “happens rather like other things in life; made up of chance conjunctions (what is in one’s head, whatever materials are lying around in the office, whoever is there to put them together, energetic discussion, and a readiness to play or experiment)”. In this, he says, de Paor’s model is both challenging, “and somehow very generous”.
It is the sort of exhibition in which everyone will find their own favourites. For sheer wit, I’m beguiled by Swiss firm, Loeliger Strub Architektur’s response to Emil Hoppe’s sketch of an unknown and so presumably unbuilt corner office building from 1911. The golden yellow model is, in fact, a beeswax candle with multiple wicks, reminding that even bricks and mortar are ultimately transitory.
Considering his own choices, exhibition co-curator (with Jantje Engels) Marius Grootveld notes Johan Celsing’s fibreglass model drawn from a 1935 design for a crematorium by Erik Gunnar Asplund. “It has an almost organic quality to it,” says the Dutch architect. “Through it he seems to have changed my interpretation of the original building, which [still] stands in Stockholm.”
IAA director Colum O’Riordan’s preferences include Noreile Breen’s gold take on Louis Kahn’s plan for an office building, Conen Sigl’s fur-clad model drawn from Giuseppe Chiantarelli’s 1795 sketch of a house in Pompeii, and Hayatsu’s seemingly fragile brass model draw from the frontispiece to a 1954 book on architecture by Marc-Antoine Laugier.
The way architecture emerges from the mind of an architect, and from the opportunities and constraints presented by the combination of client, budget, site and materials, is a fascinating one. In the early scenes of Sydney Pollack and Ultan Guilfoyle's 2006 film Sketches of Frank Gehry, the famous architect is to be seen scrunching up pieces of paper to imagine possible angles and shapes. Maybe it's also an apt metaphor for the ultimate destination of so much innovative architectural thought: screwed up paper in the bin.
Preserve that paper
Centres such as the Irish Architectural Archive and Drawing Matter take pains to preserve that paper and provide an insight into the process along the way. In some ways the traditional architect’s model will always be misleading. Foam board, the material of choice for generations of architects, is both white and light, and so the models always appear marvellously delicate and clean.
However, alongside drawings and models created to refine design, there are other breeds of image: those used for planning and marketing. And if you thought the language that wraps around architecture at concept stage was tricksy, the language of marketing takes it into a whole other realm.
When the contentious National Children’s Hospital was in planning at the Mater site, the proposed building, by O’Connell Mahon in partnership with international firm NBBJ (2012), was described as “as a cloud form enveloped in a skin of glass...chosen because of its soft ethereal shape”. The proposal also noted that the 16-story building had “an inherent conflict of scale which can only be resolved by contrast”. You don’t need to understand armatures to get that it was going to be big, bulky and completely incongruous.
Meanwhile, over at the website for One Molesworth Street, you can discover that the Henry J Lyons-designed office block, which houses the Ivy Restaurant at ground level, “has been carefully sculpted to sit comfortably within the historic context”. Also, its facade “is given richness and depth by means of a ‘floating’ filigree metal framework which cantilevers forward from the main facade and contains a rhythmic series of full-height laminated glass fins”. I quite like the actual building, but this description makes me imagine Xanadu.
Another Lyons project in development is The Bailey Gibson on the former Player Wills site on South Circular Road. Here the website lets us know that the 16-storey blocks will fit right in: “Cognisant of the low scale nature of its context, the development gradually steps from three-storeys perimeter blocks to eleven & sixteen storeys tower blocks that are placed centrally and appropriately.” Of course! Sixteen stories seem so much lower when sited in the middle of other stuff.
The accompany computer-generated images of the project add a misty haze as the blocks rise higher, almost as if they are fading into the sky (both projects at henryjlyons.com).
Across Dublin, you’re given an opportunity to “work from an icon” at the proposed new Clery’s Quarter, where you’ll find “panoramic views inspiring productivity”, which is the first time I’ve been aware of the productive powers of staring out at the view (clerysquarter.ie).
‘If perspectives are poetry’
O’Riordan notes that, as any client drawing’s purpose is to convince people to build something, “you could argue that all such perspectives are to a degree deceptive. They show the best possible building, not one compromised by budget cuts, lack of ambition from a client, developer or planning authority, shoddy builders or crappy weather.
“If perspectives are poetry,” he continues, “insofar as they grab any bit of poetic licence they can, then plan, section and elevation are prose, and generally straightforward prose at that.”
The website imagery for both One Molesworth Street and the Clery’s Quarter is the work of Galway-based Visual Lab (visuallab.ie), where Seamus O’Callaghan and his team have been responsible for pre-imagining vast swathes of Dublin, Cork and more. A mechanical engineer by training, O’Callaghan uses a range of hi-tech tools to generate wire-frame models of bits of our cities, and from there to “grow” his images of future buildings.
“The stuff we do,” he says, taking over my computer screen to bring me into the world of three-dimensional design, including programmes that predict sunlight, and databases of skies. “It’s almost like painting, but with a very complex paintbrush.” He enumerates issues, such requests for endless sunshine, as well as the problem with glass: “Glass is always tricky. We are continually asked to make the glass more reflective AND more transparent…”
In fact, O’Callaghan’s work bucks the trend of “it’s always sunny in architectural CGI”, as he includes dark skies and sometimes fog to make mood. “You’re trying to create something the eye goes through, it’s a journey, it’s emotive.” The images are entirely practically accurate, even if the emotional aspect is speculative. “Scale is always verified,” he says. “Planners aren’t stupid.”
He describes how the process of creating a CGI can also help architects imagine their buildings on location in ways that formerly weren’t possible, so it is a genuine tool, though he adds that briefs do differ. “The client’s focus for marketing imagery is usually to make the building stand out of its surroundings; they want to show off their building! However, matching a proposed building into its surroundings is the focus of the planning imagery.”
Word and image are powerful shapers of how we imagine architecture, and CGI as well as glossy books and magazines can convey everything save the actual experience of physically being in, or by a building. Truly brilliant buildings can be lyrical, but learning how to read the written and visual languages of architecture could help us to become the inheritors of better ones.
They may be designed and shown in poetry, but are thereafter built and lived in prose.
Startha Éagsúla/Alternative Histories is at the Irish Architectural Archive until the end of March. See iarc.ie, drawingmatter.org