Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 2000 – N3, by Tom de Paor

For Ireland’s first appearance at the Venice Biennale of Architecture the young designer built a pavilion from 40,000 peat briquettes. It was part stage set, part retreat

N3: Tom de Paor’s selection to design Ireland’s first Venice pavilion was vindicated by his subsequent reputation

N3: Tom de Paor’s selection to design Ireland’s first Venice pavilion was vindicated by his subsequent reputation

 

The N3 may be the shortest lived of the artworks in this series. Designed and built for the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2000, it was never reconstructed after its five-month stint at the Italian event.

This was the first time that Ireland had been invited to participate in the Biennale. The architect and curator Raymund Ryan was appointed by the Irish Architecture Foundation, and he in turn selected Tom de Paor as the exhibiting architect. De Paor had acquired a reputation as an exciting and precocious talent through early built projects including the visitor centre at Ballincollig Gunpowder Mills (designed with Emma O’Neill) and a number of striking interiors and extensions.

What de Paor proposed for Venice was an “intelligent structure” that managed to incorporate a rich stew of ideas and references into a singular form. In a contemporary homage to the ancient construction method of corbelling, the pavilion was built entirely from peat briquettes – 40,224 of them – stacked in layers that stepped gradually inwards to form a partial enclosure. In form the pavilion was described as a slumped cube. In plan the briquette walls were configured as an N: two outer walls and an inner wall dividing two pockets of peaty space.

The N spelt out in plan referred not only to the north point traditionally placed on maps and site drawings (the pavilion was oriented north-south) but also to St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus), whose bones reside in Venice. Conveniently, the Church of St Nicholas of Myra on Francis Street sat in Dublin next to a fuel depot, source of the briquettes.

The web of references and coincidences extended. Other, less literal points of reference included Cormac’s Chapel, in Cashel (corbelling), confessionals (confined bipartite spaces) and labyrinths. This network of connections between Ireland and Venice was illustrated, alongside other visual cues (John Hinde postcards, Aer Lingus planes), on a set of nine calling cards, to be encountered at the pavilion’s centre arranged like votive cards on a single briquette cast in yellow rubber.

At this point in de Paor’s career Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp were the guiding lights. Beuys the mystic shaman who charged base materials with significance, Duchamp the wry conjuror of compelling scenarios: N3 clearly borrows from the spirit of both. It was part stage set, part contemplative retreat.

If the pavilion’s intellectual armature might seem overly complex, its material presence was strong and simple, almost primitive. The stacked peat made for a dark, claustral and pungent interior, redolent of the bog.

Pavilions at international exhibitions such as the Biennale have long been charged with the twin responsibilities of reflecting national identity while appearing modern. N3 managed this consummately. It was made from the very ground of Ireland, transmuted through technical and intellectual labour into something quick witted and radical.

Erected in the sculpture garden of the Thetis research centre at Baccini, on the Venice Lido, the pavilion was somewhat remote from the main sites of the Biennale, but it was well reviewed by the international press and became something of a talking point.

The selection of de Paor to design Ireland’s first pavilion at Venice was vindicated by his subsequent reputation. He went on to produce significant built projects, including a number of private houses and, most recently, the Picture Palace cinema in Galway, while continuing to collaborate on publications and exhibitions, representing Ireland at a number of subsequent Biennales.

But N3 remains the project of his that has acquired almost mythical status, precisely because so few people saw it. At the end of the Biennale the pavilion was dismantled and dispersed as landfill. As Raymund Ryan noted in the accompanying publication, “returning to its organic origins, the structure has been translated to another country”.

De Paor had always intended it thus, describing the pavilion, tongue in cheek, as a donation from the land-rich island of Ireland to the land-hungry island-city of Venice.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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