Finding a space for the imagination

If your new year’s resolutions include undertaking any creative projects, the first thing you’ll need is a retreat from the world


The early weeks of January are special. Whether you’re a resolution-maker or not, the new year hasn’t yet had a chance to disappoint you, or you to disappoint yourself. Good intentions abound: be more mindful, write that book, paint, do the thing you’d always dreamed of doing.

As the weeks mount up and life gets in the way, reality sets in and we’re pretty soon back to normal. But what if there was an ideal place to go and be a better person, and do all the things you’d dreamed of doing? If there was, what might it look like, and how can architecture help?

For artists and writers, there’s no one right way to make a perfect space for thinking and working.

Felicity Clear (, whose exhibition Amongst Other Things with artist Helen Hughes opens in Dún Laoghaire on January 30th, works out of a studio in Dublin city centre. She’s lucky, as a studio crisis in the capital means many artists are making do in small corners of their homes.

“The most important things are very obvious ones. As a visual artist, you need stuff, so you need some space. It’s nice if it’s warm and dry, that’s a big bonus. And for me it needs to be solitary.”

Clear says time is as important as space. “Some artists work at home, but I think I would procrastinate endlessly if I did. I like that my studio happens to be in the city. Even though I may not talk to anyone all day, I like to look out on busyness. It’s an antidote to the amount of time I’m spending on my own.”

While Clear’s ideal space is to be on her own in the heart of the city, writer Theo Dorgan recognises the idea summed up by fellow poet WB Yeats in his Lake Isle of Innisfree, his “I will arise and go now . . .”. It’s the idea of the retreat, even if it is just an ideal in your mind, a creative escapism perhaps.

“I think every writer, every artist, dreams of some small protected place where the world can be put on hold for a little while. Retreat is the right word, a place you can step back to, where you can withdraw from the daily pressures for a time, a place where you can collect and order and meditate on the impulses that are constantly coming and going in your mind.”


These ideas were recently part of an international architecture competition organised by Bernadette Donohoe of IT Sligo, together with fellow architects Cliona Brady and Michael Roulston, and curator Marianne O’Kane Boal.

Responding to Innisfree, the competition attracted 139 entries from around the world, with a shortlist being exhibited alongside an exhibition at the Model in Sligo at the end of last year.

“Just as poetry possesses a universality as well as an acutely personal sentiment, architecture provides another perspective into how we dwell and interact, and seek meaning between ourselves and the world,” says Donohoe. “It can create a pause, time to reflect, imagination.”

So maybe to fulfil your creative potential in 2016, you need two things: a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf put it, and the more mythical space where you can escape in your imagination.

This was summed up in one of the shortlisted entries by Dublin-based Nós Workshop. Land of Heart’s Desire consisted of two structures, one a small pavilion on the pier that leads to Innisfree, with space enough for one person to sit and ponder; and the outline of a small building on the island itself, within sight, yet just out of reach, suggesting, as Amélie Conway of Nós put it, possibility.

The winning entry was Square Moon by Shindesignworks, based in both London and Daegu, South Korea. It is a platform backdropped by an illuminated square. Temporarily sited floating at the edge of Innisfree, it will be reinstalled on the wetlands at IT Sligo. If square moons and imaginative possibility are one ingredient, how do you go about getting the more practical, physical space to create? West Cork-based artist Anne Ffrench ( is currently building her own studio, beside her restored cottage.

“Some of the walls were already there, so where I had to add, rather than compete with the old stone, I used wood. The whole gable-end is glass. People ask why I didn’t use glass on the front, but I need privacy to work. I need light of course, but I also need to feel a separation from the world. It’s also important to have a space that isn’t in my house. Just walking down the path to the studio gets me in the right frame of mind to go to work.”

Sligo-based Clea van der Grijn ( is working towards a solo show later this year at the Model. She has worked in studios ranging from the top floor of the Dublin Communist HQ, to a purpose built space in Temple Bar, to the studios at the Model.

“Three years in a thousand square foot church in the heart of the country was the ideal size, a size that I now aspire to . . . The main criteria are privacy and silence, so that I can close the door from the outside world, and create my own.”


If you don’t have your own cottage in the west, there are plenty of options. Check out Taschen’s Cabins for inspiration. The book includes celebrity architect Renzo Piano’s Diogene.

The architect of London’s Shard has also produced a 6sq m (65sq ft) pod house, which includes a living space, kitchenette and shower, and all for £17,000 (€19,560).

The timber-clad Shomera Me Pad ( is considerably more beautiful. Starting at 9sq m (97sq ft) up to 13sq m (140sq ft), and from €12,995 to €17,800, it’s a brilliant solution to the problem of getting away from it all while remaining at home.

“You have to step back,” says Dorgan. “Let it settle, find in yourself the calm beauty of order, by which I mean not the order of stasis or convention but the order that shapes as it releases the wild energy of the imagination.

“If you’re lucky, that retreat can be a desk, a table, a corner in your own home. More usually it’s a place apart, a place in which you can hide away from everyone except yourself.”

Looked at this way, architecture in its different forms can provide practical spaces to create, as well as more improbable constructions – subtle spots to inspire. So what are you waiting for?

Amongst Other Things, Felicity Clear and Helen Hughes, is at dlrLexicon, Dún Laoghaire, January 30th to March

Art, Architecture and Place: The Lake Isle of Innisfree, including writing by Theo Dorgan and works by Felicity Clear and Clea van der Grijn, is available from the Western Development Commission or by contacting Bernadette Donohoe at the Architecture Department IT Sligo,

Theo Dorgan’s Nine Bright Shiners, published by Dedalus, won the Irish Times-Poetry Now award. His translation of Syrian poet Maram al-Masri’s Barefoot Souls is published by Arc

Cabins, by Philip Jodidio is published by Taschen, €49.99,

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