Niall McCullough obituary: Brilliantly unconventional architect and author

Flair for peculiar angles led to unique designs in several well-known Irish buildings

Architect Niall McCullough on the roof of the Ussher Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

Niall McCullough
Born: June 15th 1958
Died: August 20th 2021

Niall McCullough, who has died at the age of 63 after a short illness, was a brilliantly unconventional architect and author. He “made the invisible visible, and insisted on truth and integrity in all the work he undertook”, as poet and playwright Vincent Woods recalled at his strictly secular funeral service in Mount Jerome’s Victorian Chapel, Dublin – the city where he was born and came to know intimately from his acute observations and original research.

He was "a life force: moral, civic, social and intellectual who helped us to see the shape of things" through his "singular, precise, expansive vision", Woods said. Brilliant, erudite, charismatic and lovable, McCullough would be remembered by his many friends as a genial host with his wife and partner Valerie Mulvin at their home in Leeson Park, "filled with food, laughter and fun", as she recalled in her moving eulogy.

It was always “Niall & Valerie”. They met and fell in love as second-year students in the UCD School of Architecture and had been together ever since. As students, they made trips together to Paris and Finland to see the works of Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, respectively. After graduating in 1981, they headed off in a battered Renault 4 to study in Rome and met the influential post-modernist Aldo Rossi, whose floating Teatro del Mondo at the 1979 Venice Biennale was a global sensation.


McCullough produced an illuminating book, Dublin: An Urban History, the fruit of his own research into how the city developed over time

Eldest son of Nuala and Joseph McCullough, a structural engineer and conservationist who died in 2017, Niall McCullough grew up on Cowper Road in Rathmines and was educated at Gonzaga College before going to UCD. His sister Elizabeth remembers him as "affectionate, intelligent, creative, with a wicked sense of humour" who had no interest whatever in sport but was passionate about music, art and history. "He enjoyed being different ... a maverick who just turned on the charm".

When Niall and Valerie established McCullough Mulvin Architects in 1986, there was no work, so they produced A Lost Tradition (1987), which Roy Foster has described as a "trailblazing and beautiful book [that] traces the evolution of Irish architectural forms from the 'mound and circle' of prehistoric sites, through ecclesiastical monuments, fortified plantation enclosures, vernacular farmhouses and bravura Georgian mansions, to the institutional architecture of modernity". They also set up their own imprint, Anne Street Press.

In 1989, McCullough produced another illuminating book, Dublin: An Urban History, the fruit of his own research into how the city developed over time – part history, part geography, part accidental and part intended. Updated in 2007 and again in 2014, it remains “the single most important visual resource for the appearance of the Georgian city in or out of print”, according to the Irish Arts Review. His most recent book, Palimpsest: Intervention and Change in Irish Architecture, exploring the layering of one thing over another, was published in 2014.

Early architectural works included converting the Free Church in Great Charles Street, off Mountjoy Square, into a resource centre for the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, and putting a formal square-columned portico on the 1960s brick box of the Abbey Theatre. Both of these projects were exercises in how McCullough Mulvin see “buildings exploring the fertile relationship of architecture, nature and time – architecture like natural form in tense or loose geometries, or new adhering to old like moss to stones”.

They entered competitions – one of the key routes for younger architects to win commissions – and joined seven other practices in forming Group 91, first to propose an eclectic terrace of infill houses off Meath Street that was never built and then to win a contest for the Temple Bar Framework Plan, which did produce results. In the divvy-up that followed, McCullough Mulvin got to design Temple Bar Music Centre (now the Button Factory), the Black Church Print Studio and Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, which also combines old and new.

Architectural grafting

Winning an architectural competition for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Hall in 1995 was a turning point for the practice, enabling it to undertake bigger projects with considerable confidence. Here, the challenge was to integrate a substantially larger new building with the existing Victorian Town Hall and former post office on Marine Road, which was achieved by creating a top-lit central atrium between old and new. Sadly, the architects were unable to prevent this space being carved up to create a new mezzanine council chamber.

Architectural grafting became a recurrent theme for the practice, evident in such projects as the Model Arts and Niland Gallery in Sligo as well as the town’s French Gothic-style Courthouse, the Butler Gallery and St Mary’s Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, the Dublin Dental School and Hospital on Lincoln Place, the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Blackrock Library and Further Education Institute, the City Library in Waterford and, most spectacularly, the Ussher Library in Trinity College.

McCullough Mulvin also designed Trinity’s Long Room Hub, a long, free-standing asymmetrical block behind its 1930 Reading Room as well as the college’s Brain Health Institute and Printing House Square student housing, currently being completed on the site of Oisín House in Pearse Street.

His penchant for peculiar angles is also obvious in the design of The Source/Thurles Arts Centre and Library, where “the geometries arise out of its very particular location, crouched like a cat at the medieval gate of Thurles and stretched around a bend in the Suir; the folded roof rising and falling like a small mountain range”. And like all of the practice’s work, its design would have evolved from collaborative discussions over drawings and models in a studio setting, including fellow directors Valerie Mulvin, Ruth O’Herlihy and Corán O’Connor.

McCullough was fascinated by maps, especially older ones, and would also spend hours tramping through archaeological sites in <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_location">Ireland</a> and abroad

In 2004, Gandon Editions produced a full-colour monograph, WORK: McCullough Mulvin Architects, with an introduction by Wiel Arets and Raymund Ryan, who noted that its hallmark was an "appreciation and re-use of existing architectural fabric together with the simultaneous emergence of idealistic spatial form". Their work has also been widely shown internationally in Italy, Germany, Britain, Spain, the US, India, the Czech Republic and Portugal, where their Displaced Longitude exhibition was installed on the concourse of a Porto metro station in 2017.

Laden with awards for their projects, which also included the Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD as well as the Mardyke Sports Pavilion and Beaufort Maritime and Energy Research Laboratory for UCC, they won a commission to draw up a master plan and design new facilities for Thapar University in India’s Punjab state –another example of Irish architects’ success abroad. Their red sandstone buildings not only refer to Indian models of architecture, but also provide shade and cooling against intense summer heat.

McCullough was "constantly learning [and] his huge ambition in life was not to be bored". He was fascinated by maps, especially older ones, and would also spend hours tramping through archaeological sites in Ireland and abroad, seeking to make sense of them. He had also been working on another Dublin book when he was take ill with oesophageal cancer last May, and Valerie has pledged to finish it. Approximate Formality, her own book on the origins and potentially bright future of Irish towns, was published in June.

Niall McCullough is survived by his wife Valerie, stepson Nat and mother Nuala, sister Elizabeth, brothers Eoin and Conor, their partners and his much loved nieces and nephews, his wide circle of friends and colleagues, including all at McCullough Mulvin Architects. At his own request, his ashes are to be scattered at Ostia, the port of ancient Rome.