Open sesame to Dublin’s grand designs

Open House weekend is a chance to check out some of the city’s best-loved or seldom seen architecture, with the added insight of an architect, steward or owner

Imagine the best property pages, interiors magazines and glossy architecture books all rolled into one and come to life. That’s Open House, the annual three-day event that allows us to check out some of Dublin’s most fascinating and fun buildings, with 100 homes, offices, places of worship and pleasure palaces opening their doors next weekend.

Organised by the Irish Architecture Foundation since 2005, this year's tagline is "from the obvious to the overlooked", which means you can explore Áras an Uachtaráin, Farmleigh and the Casino at Marino; and you can also dip into the Shanganagh Bray Main Drainage Scheme, the Kiosk at Leeson Street Bridge and Donnybrook Bus Garage.

Open House takes buildings we may visit or use – Rathmines Library, Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School, the Marker Hotel – and adds the perspective of an architect or steward, and sometimes also the owner, to help to bridge the gap between looking and really seeing.

At the Alliance Française, spot stone carvings by the O’Shea Brothers, which are also the subject of a brilliant exhibition by Sean Lynch at the Hugh Lane (until Sunday; And at the Trinity School of Nursing, marvel at the extravagance of the art deco interior, influenced by the period’s fascination with Egypt, following the opening of the Pyramids.

Just as intriguing – if not more so – Open House also includes private homes, the secret spaces and places you might have glimpsed from the Dart or Luas, small wonders in suburban back gardens or hidden behind otherwise ordinary façades. Some are new-build, others are extensions, and the opportunity to see what’s possible, even with a small space and a limited budget, can be inspiring.

Voice and style
Barry O'Mahony drew up a list of how he wanted to live, while sitting in his dark and draughty livingroom. "I wanted light, space, and something that had a connection with this lovely long back garden. I wanted one of those spaces where you walk in and it feels nice," he says.

The original house dates from the 1940s and O’Mahony chose the architect Eamon Peregrine, “because I looked at examples of his work, and he has a voice and a style”.

The result, listed in the programme as Courtyard Extension, is an award-winning wooden structure, where angles wrap around spaces, and the back of the house opens up to a sheltered terrace, framing garden views.

“It wasn’t too expensive,” says O’Mahony. “It cost a little more than I’d planned, but I can’t even add up how happy I am with it.”

Why open it to the public for Open House? “A year ago it was a building site, now it’s one of 100 great houses in Dublin. I’ve got a brilliant house to enjoy, and I want other people to enjoy it too.”

Joseph Little’s work on a private house in Monkstown was more radical. Listed as the EnerPHit Retrofit and Passivhaus Extension, the project showed how an existing building can be brought to high energy performance standards (the EnerPHit label is given to older buildings that don’t quite reach full Passive House levels, but which come pretty close).

“There was a lot of learning on the project,” says Little. “It has transformed the way we, and the builders work.” From the front, the house fits well into its terrace. “It’s a good neighbour,” says the architect. A kitchen extension into the garden is bright and airy and works to Passive House efficiency.

So do architects design differently when they're creating their own homes? Now a hotel, No 31 Leeson Street was the home of the architect Sam Stephenson. Designed in the 1950s, it has all the atmosphere of a James Bond villain's den, and it's great fun. More recently, Peter Carroll of A2 architects built his home on Lucky Lane. A pair of box-like shapes on an old industrial lane open up into bright and elegant spaces, in which the living areas are framed by returns to the front and the rear, so that you have a morning terrace and one to catch the evening light, too.

"At first it was strange," says Carroll, "almost eerie, like living in the architectural drawing, but it's very nice to live in a place you've designed yourself. It was done on a tight budget, and it has made me much more conscious of how things fit together, and where the money goes."

The architects also got to choose the name of the street, previously an anonymous back lane.

“The neighbours remembered farmers parking there for the cattle market in Prussia Street. If they did well, they’d go to the pub, and when they came back later money would often fall from their pockets. The local kids would come and pick it up, so it became known as Lucky Lane.”

Open House is full of stories like these, little nuggets that make you realise how architecture is more than brick, glass, stone and cement, but something alive. It’s also something that can make life better. In the programme is Niall McLaughlin’s Orchard Day Respite Centre for Alzheimer’s patients and people with dementia. Nicole Matthews, who works at the centre, describes how the design responds to a unique set of needs.

“It’s colour coded, and there are photographs, as some people lose the ability to read. You can walk a path around the gardens and come back to where you started, so there’s freedom as well as safety in the design. And it’s so light and airy – it’s uplifting; you don’t feel confined.”

Golden age
Together with Grafton Architects and Heneghan Peng, McLaughlin's is one of three Irish practices on the shortlist for the Stirling Prize (the winner of which will be announced today); another Irish architect, Sheila O'Donnell, of O'Donnell + Tuomey architects, is on the judging panel.

You might think the recession would have brought nothing but bad news for building, but Irish architecture is in something of a golden age right now.

It can be tempting to think that architecture is something other people get involved in: rich clients, urban planners, developers and designers; but we all end up living, working, playing and dreaming in the spaces it creates. Open House gives you the chance to join the conversations about what good architecture is and how we can all have a little more of it.

As Eamon Peregrine, the architect of Barry O'Mahony's award-winning extension, says, "It's the people who commission the work that are so important. Without them, you can't make these spaces."

Open House
Events run from October 4th to 6th. You can pick up a programme in the September issue of Totally Dublin, at the GPO or at Dublin City Hall. You can also check what's on at Architects, owners and volunteers will be on hand at the venues to show you around. Tickets for some buildings with limited access have already been allocated by lottery, so check in in advance for 2014.
Further afield: Open House also takes place next month in Galway (11th to 13th) and Limerick (18th to 20th).
Even further afield: Open House is a brilliant way to see 20 other cities, from London to Helsinki, Barcelona to Buenos Aires. Find out when to visit at

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