Irish architects ride out the storm

With a radically reduced number of projects at home, Irish architects are struggling to make ends meet, but by making waves abroad…

With a radically reduced number of projects at home, Irish architects are struggling to make ends meet, but by making waves abroad, the industry can make it through the rough times

HOME TRUTHS were spoken, unusually enough, by architects at their recent annual conference in Carlow – about cut-throat competition to get what little work there is now and the hypocrisy of having a Government policy on architecture when so many obstacles are put in the way of actually achieving good architecture.

Gone are the days when members of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) travelled as far as Chicago for the their annual conference, or to Barcelona, Helsinki, Paris, Verona and Copenhagen. But these are hard times, with the construction industry on its knees and up to half of the profession unemployed.

The conference theme, “Riding out the storm – survival, renewal and recovery”, reflected the fact that many architects are in receipt of the Jobseekers allowance while most of those still working are “struggling to keep practices afloat on radically reduced numbers of projects”, as Minister for Arts and Heritage Jimmy Deenihan acknowledged.

RIAI president Paul Keogh quoted Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

And indeed, they were. For the biggest draws at this year’s conference were legendary architecture critic Kenneth Frampton, Pritzker prize-winner Rafael Moneo and British architect Edward Jones, who received a CBE in 2010.

They came to the opalescent Visual centre for the arts in Carlow to receive honorary fellowships of the RIAI for being good to Irish architects over the years. Jones, for example, played a leading role in saving the UCD School of Architecture in the early 1970s when he was one of the “Flying Circus” of tutors who commuted from London and Glasgow.

Frampton was instrumental in securing a place for Dublin-based Grafton Architects in the 2001 competition to design a new faculty building for Bocconi University in Milan. They went on not only to win the competition with their daring design, but also achieved the ultimate accolade of having it named World Building of the Year in 2008.

The Bocconi project was also shortlisted for the EU’s Mies van der Rohe award for contemporary European architecture in 2009, which was won by Norwegian architects Snøhetta for Oslo’s new Opera House. But the fact that an Irish practice had made the shortlist of five confirmed that architects in Ireland were making waves overseas.

A few weeks ago, O’Donnell and Tuomey came close to winning the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize for their Gaeláras Irish cultural centre in Derry; the jury gave it for the second year running to architectural diva Zaha Hadid, this time for a London school, the Evelyn Grace Academy, instead of rewarding lesser-known names.

Now, there’s some prospect of Irish architecture being “branded” internationally as part of Enterprise Ireland’s international selling programme for professional services under-used at home. Indeed, Deenihan said his department “would hope to examine” this possibility next year along with Culture Ireland and the RIAI.

“We have an architectural track record and reputation that is of very high standing internationally. Contemporary Irish architecture is of a standard shared with the best in Europe and very effectively competes for business globally – proven by completed buildings and the international awards and prizes won by Irish architects of late.”

So what would Irish architects bring to the marketplace? According to Frampton, who is Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University in New York, “the Irish are still looking for [a sense of] place” and putting value on “the local versus the global”.

And Grafton’s great work in Milan showed that they could bring this gift anywhere.

After all, as property developer Richard Barrett remarked, “you don’t bring an Irish cottage to Shanghai. You bring what forms you, wherever you go”. And he should know, having masterminded the creation of a new investment stream for Treasury Holdings in China. Unlike Frampton, Barrett believes that globalisation is still kicking.

For a critic and author with a worldwide reputation, it was refreshing to hear Frampton admit that "ignorance and blindness" accounted for the extraordinary fact that his influential book Modern Architecture: A Critical History(originally published in 1980), made no mention of Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House.

Utzon was the prime example of a foreign architect building something in a faraway place that became not just the symbol of a city, but of a country. Neither should it be forgotten that Dundalk-born structural engineer Peter Rice, then still in his 20s and working for Ove Arup (another Dane), helped to make the Sydney Opera House stand up.

Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell said her generation was “completely baptised in our understanding of ‘critical regionalism’ [as promulgated by Frampton in 1981] probably because of Ireland’s relative peripherality”.

The way she pictured him was: “we’re a crew of architects aboard a ship in very choppy sea, and up there in the crow’s nest is Kenneth Frampton”.

As John Tuomey put it, he “has given us a bishop’s blessing to go forth and multiply by reminding us that we can take what we know and apply it in another place”.

On the way to Carlow, Frampton went to see Russborough House, which he says embodies “the universal globalisation of Palladian architecture, stitched into the Irish landscape”. Later, Tuomey confronted Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn about the “blocked, useless system of procurement” for new schools, with rules that exclude younger architects who hadn’t previously designed a school with a similar budget. On that basis, O’Donnell + Tuomey would never have built Ranelagh Multi-denominational School.

More perniciously, as Sheila O’Donnell noted, older established practices are undercutting younger ones by charging fees as low as 2 per cent for their services. “Doctors don’t do it. Lawyers don’t do it. Why should we?” she asked to a big round of applause. “Please stop cutting fees – it’s destroying the future of our profession.”

Keogh warned that the cycle of below-cost fees was “really compromising the ability of architects to focus on quality issues”, including sustainability. “We’ve lost our own self-respect because we’re the ones bidding ridiculously low levels of fees.” For him, procurement was “the elephant in the room” that needed reform.

As an architect himself, even if he hasn’t practised for years, Ruairí Quinn could hardly ignore these earnest pleas, and he promised that details of an architectural competition to design new schools would be released in December. And he wanted these to be “in an urban setting, not on the edge where roads don’t even have footpaths”.

But he also cautioned that Ireland has “far too many schools”, often located in inner urban areas where the population is declining – including many secondary schools with as few as 200 students. And he suggested that under-employed architects and even architectural students might be recruited to “start surveying what we have”.

Small pickings for a profession that’s enduring an almost existential crisis.

A collection at the conference for the Architects Benevolent Society raised an impressive €2,000, which trustee Jim Coady said would go to those in need and “make a difference in terms of whether they can turn on the immersion heater at home”. It’s as bad as that.

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