‘Displaced Longitude’ – An Irishman’s Diary on the McCullough Mulvin Architects exhibition in Porto

 “Displaced Longitude – Dublin/Porto”, by McCullough Mulvin Architects, in Oporto’s São Bento metro station

“Displaced Longitude – Dublin/Porto”, by McCullough Mulvin Architects, in Oporto’s São Bento metro station

 

It takes a particular type of bravado for a relatively small Irish architectural practice to stage a month-long exhibition of their work in a major European city’s metro station, designed by Álvaro Siza, one of the host country’s most celebrated modernist architects.

Displaced Longitude – Dublin/Porto, by McCullough Mulvin Architects, is housed in and around a specially commissioned plywood tower on the main concourse of São Bento metro station, right in the centre of this topographically vertiginious city that’s still quaintly rendered in English as “Oporto”.

I thought Portugal’s second-largest conurbation would be a bit like Cork, but it’s actually enormous – with a population of 2.4 million spread over hills on both sides of the River Duoro, and stretching out to the Atlantic Ocean along Boa Vista boulevard, which gave its name to a famous football club.

Orla Tunney, Ireland’s remarkably tall ambassador to Portugal and daughter of the late Jim Tunney TD, came up from Lisbon to open the exhibition, as soon as the local team had finished putting it together.

Speaking in Portuguese, she told everyone it was part of Culture Ireland’s 2017 programme.

For the architects, Niall McCullough explained its title by talking about how Ireland and Portugal share “extraordinary similarities” as they are both European countries on the edge of the Atlantic, with much larger neighbours to the east. “Their differences are ones of latitude, not longitude.”

The exhibition illustrates McCullough Mulvin’s architecture in Ireland and in India through seven current projects – “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”.

Films of the architects’ work – much of it drone footage edited by Cuan MacConghail, whose brother Fiach used to run the Abbey Theatre – are projected from the plywood tower on the ceiling, one of the walls and an oblong plywood box-table, shuddering slightly from the metro trains running below.

The drone-shot film projected on the ceiling shows buildings in their landscape or city contexts, in which they appear in passing, as it were.

The second film, projected on the side wall, is essentially about buildings as three-dimensional models, with the camera looking at each one from different angles.

Completing the trio of films is one shot entirely at ground level, featuring buildings experienced in real time by the human eye; McCullough Mulvin director Ruth O’Herlihy shot the one that shows the first of its projects for Thapar University, in the Punjab province of northern India.

This student housing scheme, with 2,000 study bedrooms, is by far the largest. Arranged in four blocks, all screened from the sun by red slats made from glass-reinforced concrete, are laid out around a central space with fountains, with kinky angles that are a hallmark of McCullough Mulvin’s work.

The practice is concerned with time, place and nature, which guide how to “make something right in a particular place”, an architecture of geography – approaches to material and fabric, making things that are “static, extracted, carved-out” and others concerned with “line, tension and geometry”.

As the architects explain, “living in Ireland sustains an interest in nature, in its phenomenal landscape, its weather and light – how to frame it, making fissures that become ways of admitting light”, as in the Beaufort Laboratory at Ringaskiddy, in Cork Harbour, which was set up to study wave energy.

Two other projects also derive from ideas about “constructed geographies” – Kishogue School, bizarrely located right next to a busy distributor road in west Dublin, and the new Waterford Fire Station, on the southeastern city’s outskirts, with its lookout tower rising up from a folded landscape of sorts.

Then there’s McCullough Mulvin’s work in Trinity College Dublin, where the practice collaborated with KMD Architecture on the Ussher Library as well as designing the Long Room Hub behind its 1930 Reading Room and dense student housing to replace the Oisín House office block on Pearse Street.

Two other featured projects are partly new and partly old: St Mary’s Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, with its extension beautifully clad in lead, and the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Rathmines, where new elements are grafted onto a pre-existing building to expand its public use.

What ordinary Portuguese people using São Bento metro station will make of it all is anybody’s guess; in all probability, given the strength of their architectural culture, they are likely to be intrigued.

Before the exhibition closes, McCullough Mulvin will deliver a public lecture on their work and philosophy.

Coincidentally, Niall McCullough is the subject of another exhibition by Belfast artist Mark Orange that’s currently touring around Dublin buildings designed by the practice.

It even features an audio recording of his gurgling stomach, “taped” not long after he had consumed two buttery croissants.

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