A group of exquisite buildings by a young, now disbanded practice of architects, Bates Maher, has won the RIAI Gold Medal, a triennial award that is Irish architecture's highest accolade.
The project – four cosy hermitages run by the Rosminian order in Co Tipperary – faced phenomenal competition in a shortlist of four. The other three projects were Heneghan Peng's offices for Kildare County Council in Naas, Co Kildare; O'Donnell & Tuomey's Lewis Glucksman Gallery, at University College Cork; and Bucholz McEvoy's offices for the German technology company Sap in Galway.
"One of the giants will win it," says Tom Maher, speaking before the announcement at a ceremony last night at the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, on Merrion Square in Dublin, where the award was presented by President Michael D Higgins.
The judging panel – chaired by Des McMahon, who has won the medal twice – said the four projects were of exceptional quality and that any of them “might well have achieved gold at another time”.
The RIAI awards the medal to buildings constructed in a specific three-year period, in this case from 2004 to 2006. The shortlist shows that, along with the shoddy pile-’em-highs built in the boom years, Ireland also benefited from considered constructions.
It was through a family friend of Kevin Bates, then the other half of Bates Maher Architects, that the practice was offered the chance to pitch for the job.
In a valley in the Comeragh Mountains, Glencomeragh House is a retreat centre and house of prayer, for people of all religions and none, run by the Catholic order founded in 1828 by the Italian priest Antonio Rosmini Serbati.
Bates Maher created four retreat cabins for people who wanted more privacy than the main house would offer. One is a wheelchair-accessible poustinia – a Russian word meaning "a quiet place to find the peace within" – cantilevered over a tributary of the River Suir, and up a hill covered with wild flowers are three more poustinia, cantilevered over the hillside.
The entrance ends of the 40sq m timber structures are rooted among trees; at the other ends the cabins soar in a way that subliminally suggests where the spirit should be heading. A huge window in each brings nature – wild flowers, woods, valley and mountains – into your being.
"We were trying to create that kind of space," says Maher, who now runs ArchitectsTM – Bates has returned to work for the Irish practice Scott Tallon Walker, in Riyadh – on their success in creating both a physical and a spiritual shelter.
Nature also comes right into the hermitage in the form of a narrow enclosed garden, glazed on three sides: a sacred swatch of the world at large. Shutters can be closed for a more internal grounding, with mirrors inside allowing for reflection, and ceiling lights to remind you of a higher spirit.
God might also be found in the careful detailing, from limited use of nails to hiding plastic downpipes behind wood. Grooves in the white-painted floorboards are carried precisely up cupboard doors.
The judges, who also included Dermot Boyd, John McLaughlin, Klaus Unger and Michael McGarry, said: "Poustinia is impeccably detailed and built. Every element is exquisitely considered."
The judges, who visited six other schemes as well as the four on the shortlist, said its design “derived from its role as a hybrid of architecture and landscape which somehow succeeds in transcending both”.
Even the builder, Kieran Doran, got into the spirit of constructive observance: he and his colleagues sat on the hill one day – all day – watching the sun. Doran had made a full-size set of templates, and they "sat out on the slope, waiting for the sun to come around, and watched how it came through leaves", says Maher.
“We sat there, on each part of the site, and kept moving the templates around. We wanted the views to be different from each room, and for each house to get the sun and not be overlooked by the others.”
The builder himself was always sunny, always happy, says Maher. “He was really careful. In subsequent years it has been a rare thing to find.”
The gold medal is awarded many years after construction so that buildings can be assessed “in a mature state”. And, crucially, to assess their success.
"The poustinias have had a marked effect on our work," says Fr Paddy Pierse, who commissioned the work. "With worldwide interest created by the quality of their architecture, huge numbers have come to Glencomeragh to spend time," and 70 per cent of them have been lay people, which was part of the order's intention – and shows that good architecture can also be good for business.
Fr Pierce says the hermitages also meet a need, “which is deeply buried within all of us . . . to be in touch with ourselves and with God”.