Commonage, an art and architectural project, was founded in 2010 in Callan, Co Kilkenny. The name was inspired by Augustinian monks who left their land to the townspeople in the 16th century as a common resource.
The idea for an architectural strand for Callan’s Abhainn Rí Arts Festival of Participation and Inclusion came from Patrick Lydon, who had worked at a Camphill Community for people with learning disabilities, and was fuelled by his concerns about the decline of small towns all over Ireland.
In 2012 Commonage was curated by its founders: the art curator Rosie Lynch, the artists and designers Jo Anne Butler and Tara Kennedy (at that time students at University College Dublin's school of architecture) and the art historian Hollie Kearns.
Intending to examine how artists and architects might together explore ideas about architecture within the community, over three years the team completed an extraordinary journey. By 2012 Commonage's curators described the project as a curatorial, research and design studio with a focus on "thinking, making and doing" architecture.
They had started in 2010 with a one-week architectural festival comprising an exhibition in the derelict co-op, a video and temporary installations throughout the town. But Commonage's most important achievements that year were revitalising the old co-op as a site of social and cultural exchange, working with participants and local craftspeople. As a process this resembled a meitheal, and to formalise this, in 2011, they established a summer school.
Over 10 days 26 participants worked with invited artists and architects, Butler and Kennedy – working as the collaborative Culturstruction – local craftspeople, builders and construction professionals (many of these volunteers, some unemployed). Collectively they realised temporary building projects, including installations created by Rhona Byrne, When Things Meet, and by Architects TM, Gardener's World (Future).
In the co-op yard Culturstruction created an indoor and outdoor multipurpose arena, Breach, which facilitated a day-long seminar attended by internationally renowned speakers, including Oliver Lowenstein, editor of the 4th Door Review. Commonage subsequently helped local youths, who worked on sound and lighting systems, to set up a new company, Flashlight.
When not in formal use Breach quickly became a much-needed meeting place for local teenagers. Importantly, Breach facilitated discussions about architecture within the public realm that defined Commonage as a forum focused on both doing and thinking.
To develop further community participation, and an inclusive approach to design, in 2012 the team devised a series of design-and-build workshops: Seasonal Bridge, facilitated by LID Architecture; Callan Gate, by Gearoid Muldowney of Superfolk (to improve access for those with impaired mobility); and Cowshed for the Camphill Community, by Cowshed Collective (a group of recent architectural graduates). These projects built on the previous year's objective to open up the river walk to the public, connecting the town centre and a walled garden at Westcourt.
Commonage had started their conversation about place in Callan in 2010. By 2012, without attempting any grand master plan, they had presented new perspectives to the people of the town about their locality. Camphill's community ethos informed Commonage's values, and the Arts Council, Create and Leader provided important supports.
But the talent and vision of the curators made this project possible. The framework they developed allowed artists and architects to work with a community to consider the cultural, social and aesthetic impact of architecture. They achieved this by empowering the community to effect change, giving them skills to work with architects and artists on these issues, and showing them how community initiatives can influence the design of public spaces.
Ultimately, Commonage provided an innovative model in this country for socially engaged practices, and demonstrated compellingly how these can have a positive influence on the design of rural environments. You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Irish Academy's Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie