Derry arts centre shortlisted for top UK award

The Gaeláras building involves a novel zig-zag design influenced by the pinball machine

The Gaeláras building involves a novel zig-zag design influenced by the pinball machine

AN IRISH language teaching and performance centre in Derry city designed by Dublin architects O’Donnell and Tuomey is on the shortlist for the prestigious Riba Stirling Prize, along with five others. The winner will be announced on October 1st.

It is the first time in the Royal Institute of British Architects award’s 16-year history that a building in Northern Ireland has made the shortlist although O’Donnell and Tuomey has already had two projects in previous Stirling finals: the Ranelagh Multi-denominational School in Dublin, and the Glucksman Gallery in Cork.

The shortlisted building in Derry, known as An Gaeláras, which was built on a tight budget in the Great James Street area, faces strong competition. The other five shortlisted projects include a school in Brixton, London, by Zaha Hadid Architects, who won the Stirling Prize last year for an arts museum in Rome, and the Folkwang Museum in Germany, by David Chipperfield, who won the prize in 2007 for a literature museum in Germany.

Also on the list is the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome by Hopkins Architects; the redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon, by Rab Bennets; and the Angel Building, a reconfigured 1980s office block in London’s Islington, by AHMM (Allford Hall Monaghan Morris).

Many of those involved in the Gaeláras centre were involved in protests in Derry and some were imprisoned in Long Kesh where they learned Irish. They went on to set up the centre, a cultural body which receives public funding.

“A door was opened through education and a cultural identity,” said John Tuomey, a partner in the architects’ firm with Sheila O’Donnell. The brief was for a performance space, classrooms, small-business units, a cafe, shop, and offices. The site was 50m deep and 15m wide and “blind” on three sides, so there could be no windows or doors except at the front of the building. An immovable electricity substation, and the decision to put the performance space at the back of the building (necessitating a fire exit down the side and out to the front), meant the entrance was further narrowed.

The solution was to treat the building like a pinball machine – just as the practice did with the Irish Film Institute in Temple Bar, Dublin where you enter through a small entrance and “bounce” from place to place, whether that be reception, ticket office, cafe, bar and so on. “It gives a freedom of movement inside,” said Tuomey.

Last year Architectural Association of Ireland judge Charles Jencks said, of the Derry building’s zig-zagging interior: “Architecturally it is very sophisticated in terms of playing a double-game of the rectilinear walls versus the diagonalism.”

The building has a top-lit courtyard at its centre, designed to orientate users and bring in natural light.

The reception, cafe, shop and performance space are on the ground floor and the offices above: “The problem when moving up in an arts building,” said Tuomey, “is that people have to go through fire doors and stairwells and they get confused. The courtyard focuses people.”

Industrial materials are used throughout from the red-oxide steel balconies and stairwells to blue wooden shutters and concrete built-in furniture and boardmarked-walls (in which wooden planks are imprinted on the concrete). The plank lines are 75mm deep to relate to brickwork on the surrounding houses. The workaday materials continue in the performance space which is lined with oriented strand board.

The Stirling Prize, awarded for “the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year”, is named after the eminent architect Jim Stirling who died in 1992.

John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell worked for him in London in the late 1970s. “Being on the shortlist means a lot. Jim Stirling was my mentor: Sheila’s too. He was like an uncle and he gave us the courage to make our own architecture,” said Tuomey.