The last hurrah: awards celebrate Irish architecture

 

The Architectural Association of Ireland’s 2009 awards recognise more architects than ever before

NEVER BEFORE in the 24 years of the Architectural Association of Ireland (AAI) Awards have so many architects received recognition – and for such diverse projects, ranging from Bocconi University’s awe-inspiring Faculty Building in Milan to the Light House cinema in Smithfield and several cutting-edge houses.

“One would be hard-pressed to find this density and level of architectural quality being produced in a year in any federal state in Germany with Ireland’s population,” says Wilfried Wang, former director of the German Architecture Museum and now professor of architecture at the University of Texas.

But Wang, one of the AAI’s foreign assessors for the 2009 awards, said all of the individual buildings, as excellent as they might be, “will only be regarded in the historical context as fiddling while countrysides burn” unless architects in Ireland and elsewhere recognise their responsibilities to curb urban sprawl.

Another foreign assessor, London-based architect Dominic Papa, noted “an absence of collective, residential-led urban projects ... at a scale or level of intention that represent larger strategies of urban or suburban renewal”. Instead, there was “a preponderance of house extensions and houses beautifully isolated”.

Irish assessor Gráinne Hassett complained about the jury’s “non- inclusion” of Bucholz McEvoy’s Elm Park development in Dublin – “a scheme which breaks new ground with a singular landscape, environmental and construction strategy”, which she felt should be included for making a contribution to Irish architecture.

Its omission from the AAI exhibition is doubly ironic, given the jury’s decision to include the new tuck-shop for TDs, just inside the gates of Leinster House. Designed by Bucholz McEvoy to complement their earlier “Welcoming Pavilion”, the equally transparent “Siopa Pavilion” is a tiny thing compared to the vast scale of Elm Park.

Hassett also found it “disheartening to see, yet again ... the sheer effort expended by our best architects on the private realm. For sure, this is where people live and it is worthy of care. But it is when the effort transcends beyond care into fashion and the consumption of architecture as status that we must question our relevance.”

Connemara mapper Tim Robinson found it difficult to picture the entries in context, something he regarded as important to judge their architectural quality: “Too many of the photographs and Photoshop images helped themselves over-generously to that moment when twilight and lamplight collude in glamorising whatever they touch.”

Robinson was also “struck by a frightening degree of uniformity in many of these projects ... There seem to be very few forms, used again and again – blocks with stuck-on balconies or jutting-out bits and pieces, big timber or metal cubes balanced on small glass pedestals, big oblong windows with no detailing around them.”

But there was one entry that stood out – Grafton Architects’ mega-building in Milan. “This is an enormous project ... really complicated”, says Wilfried Wang. “The Italians are difficult clients, I should say, if not to say impossible, and God knows what other things were going on, from corruption to political pressure to Mafia. The quality of the finish is amazing by Italian standards, by European standards, by international standards. To have got this through to this level of detail is just astounding ... It makes me want to weep, basically, as it should be, of course, the standard to which we all aspire but unfortunately it’s such a rare thing.”

Stockholm-based architect Eero Koivisto had seen it. “This is one of those buildings that when you go looking for it, and you go wandering down side streets, and then – bang! Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was like seeing the Pompidou [Centre in Paris] for the first time.” Or, as Hassett commented, “it gives you a good punch”.

So Grafton Architects, headed by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, won the Downes Medal for Bocconi, which was named as “World Building of the Year” at the first World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. They also received a special award for the Department of Finance’s superb new building in Dublin’s Merrion Row.

“I feel jealous, it’s so good,” says Hassett. Wang thought it was “an amazing building. It’s incredibly refined, extremely well built, it fits in, as far as I understand, very well into the urban fabric.” He also hoped that the Department of Finance would now “realise that good quality architecture actually pays in the end”.

The second special award went to O’Donnell + Tuomey for the Seán O’Casey Community Centre in East Wall. “There’s a little bit of fun in it,” says Dominic Papa. “In an area which is obviously predominantly housing, it kind of knits in at the ground floor, with the patios and openness, and then just shoots this tower up.”

Hassett saw it as “an icon, an uplifting symbol for this area”, while for Robinson it was “bubbly and happy and made me feel much better after viewing all those bloody square windows... It pops up like a magic mushroom, a fás aon oíche. It’s like a dream. It looks as if it might disappear overnight again, despite its squareness and solidity”. Like many local people, Koivisto described it as “a Swiss cheese building, floating in a sea of dark slate roofs”. His only reservation about giving it an award was that one of Sweden’s best architects, Anders Wilhelmson, exhibited a similar project at the Venice Biennale in 2004. “But maybe it’s okay to borrow a little in architecture...”

O’Donnell + Tuomey also won an award for a sprawling concrete house built around a rocky outcrop in Killiney, which they dubbed the “Sleeping Giant”. As Papa noted, this extraordinary house “hugs the cliff as it tumbles down, and then it uses light and the juxtaposition of the roofs to really bring light deep into the plan ...” It reminded him of early projects by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza. But Wang thought the Sleeping Giant was “much heavier in terms of detailing. Because Siza has overhanging roofs and very fine edge details, the whole thing becomes quite refined. All these profiles are very thick-set” – though this was no barrier to the award.

McCullough Mulvin, whose work has been recognised repeatedly by AAI juries over the years, won two awards – one for “Jig-Saw” in Leeson Park, Dublin, a flat-roofed concrete extension trapping a small courtyard at the rear of a Victorian house, and the other for a slender office building on Lincoln Place, extending a solicitor’s office.

Jig-Saw was well liked by the assessors. “It is such a contrast to so many of the other extensions – a simple form and a strong, but restricted palette of materials,” says Papa. “It’s got balls! Two skylights and two little patios in concrete, and that’s it.” Wang agreed, describing it as a “subtle and humane” extension.

The Lincoln Place project for Sheehan Co prompted an amusing exchange. Tim Robinson thought it was beautiful, looking “like a bookcase, full of fascinating books”, in an oblique photograph of the building. “Instead it is a solicitors’ office, full of fascinating solicitors”, Hassett quipped. “Really thin solicitors,” Robinson shot back.

DTA Architects’ ingenious insertion of four cinemas into a cavernous basement on the west side of Smithfield won an award for what Wang described as “a very generous piece of architecture”, saying it “makes you want to go there”. For Koivisto, the Light House cinema complex was “a fantastic project ... very well done”.

Dominic Papa agreed, saying the architects had risen to the challenge of transforming an underground car-park into a multi-screen arthouse cinema. “It’s actually a very enjoyable series of spaces. You don’t feel claustrophobic or anything. The handling of colour and surfaces has a clarity that supports clear orientation in a very confined space.”

The final award went to Boyd Cody Architects for an ultra-minimalist house on a south-facing hill outside Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny. “It’s just really good. Damn them!”, Hassett exclaimed, failing to contain another outburst of envy. But she wasn’t the only one; both Koivisto and Papa made sketches of its unusual plan to bring home with them. Boyd Cody also received a special mention for an artist’s studio clad in corten steel and set in the rear garden of a house on Palmerston Road in Dublin 6. The same client commissioned another small architectural practice, Ailtireacht, to design an 80sq m (861sq ft) two-storey extension to the house, which also won a special mention.

Among the others, one of the most intriguing was Aughey O’Flaherty’s three houses for three sisters, set in the contours of rising ground overlooking Lough Corrib, near Cong. As Wang observed: “Three sisters came to the architect, one after another. Their brief was to be sited beside each other, but to be concealed from one another.”

Special mentions were also merited by MacGabhann Architects for the aluminium-clad Regional Cultural Centre in what passes for the heart of Letterkenny, Co Donegal, and Tuath na Mara, a house with a twisting roof and full-height glazing overlooking Lough Swilly. But Tim Robinson had his doubts: “I have a horrible feeling it shouldn’t be there.”

McGarry Ní Éanaigh should have won an award for Ballyfermot Leisure and Youth Centre, described by Koivisto as “very cleverly designed and very cleanly made” and by Wang as “monumental in the right way”.

Instead, it merely received a special mention, as did the Bush Sports Hall, on the Cooley Peninsula, by the same architects.

The fully-glazed Alto Vetro tower at the south-eastern corner of Grand Canal Quay, designed by Shay Cleary Architects for Treasury Holdings, was applauded by Papa for offering “an interesting prototype for the densification of small infill sites” even though it raised “all the usual conflicts between city icon and residential building”.

Alto Vetro, soaring 16 storeys from a site that’s only 21 metres long and 8 metres deep, might be seen as an apt symbol of the era just ended – showing how much a developer can use architecture to maximise property for profit. Indeed, there is a real sense that this year’s AAI Awards represent the last hurrah of the Celtic Tiger.

About the AAI Awards

THE ARCHITECTURAL Association of Ireland (AAI) Awards aim to encourage higher standards of architecture throughout the country, to inform the public about emerging directions in contemporary architecture and to recognise projects that make a contribution to Irish architecture.

The competition is open to architects in Ireland and to Irish architects abroad.

Assessors for the AAI Awards 2009 were: Wilfried Wang, critic and architect; Gráinne Hassett, Hassett Ducatez Architects, Dublin; Eero Koivisto, Claesson Koivisto Rune Architects, Stockholm; Dominic Papa, S333 Architects, London; and Tim Robinson, artist and author, Connemara.

The 24th AAI Awards exhibition, featuring all 27 entries selected by the jury, will be open to the public at the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin 2, from April 7th to April 22nd.

It will subsequently travel to other venues, including Ballymun Civic Centre (June 1st-26th), Tallaght Civic Theatre (August 11th to September 12th), and Tubbercurry Civic Offices and Library, Co. Sligo (October 5th to 31st).

The AAI Awards are grant-aided by the Arts Council and sponsored by Tegral Building Products.

The latest awards are documented in a fully illustrated book, New Irish Architecture 24,edited by John O’Regan and Nicola Dearey and published by Gandon Editions, price €25.

AAI Awards 2009

DOWNES MEDAL

Università Luigi Bocconi, Milan by Grafton Architects

SPECIAL AWARDS

Department of Finance, Merrion Row, Dublin 2 by Grafton Architects

Seán O’Casey Community Centre, East Wall, Dublin 3 by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

AWARDS

House in Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny by Boyd Cody Architects

Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin 7 by DTA Architects

Jig-Saw, Leeson Park, D6 by McCullough Mulvin Architects

Lincoln Place, Dublin 2 by McCullough Mulvin Architects

Sleeping Giant, Killiney, Co Dublin by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

SPECIAL MENTIONS

Eurocampus, Roebuck Road, Dublin 14 by A2 Architects

Matilde, Rathgar, Dublin 6 by Ailtireacht

Three houses, Cong, Co Galway by Aughey O’Flaherty Architects

Studio, Palmerston Road, Dublin 6 by Boyd Cody Architects

Siopa Pavilion, Kildare Street, Dublin 2 by Bucholz McEvoy Architects

Additional accommodation, SS George Thomas Church, Cathal Brugha St, Dublin 1 by Clancy Moore Architects

Alto Vetro, Grand Canal Quay, Dublin 2 by Shay Cleary Architects

Joyce’s Court Pedestrian Street, Dublin 1 by Dermot Foley Landscape Architects

Dwelling space, Eglington Road, Dublin 4 by GKMP Architects

EASA Timber Pavilion, Letterfrack, Co Galway by Happy Architecture

Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny, Co Donegal by MacGabhann Architects

Tuath na Mara, Lough Swilly, Co Donegal by MacGabhann Architects

Ballyfermot Leisure and Youth Centre, Dublin 10 by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects

Bush Sports Hall, Cooley, Co Louth by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects

House at St Patrick’s Cottages, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16 by ODOS Architects

10a Lower Grangegorman, Dublin 7 by ODOS Architects

House at Piper’s End, Letty Green, Hertfordshire by Níall McLaughlin Architects

Pedestrian Bridge, Bristol by Níall McLaughlin Architects

304 Spring Street, New York by Zakrzewski + Hyde Architects