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Award-winning Architects Go Public with Buildings for Everyone

The Sunday Tribune, June 2005

In terms of architecture, Ireland is currently a country of two halves.

It is a place of soulless commuter suburbs, which appear to have sprung up with little consideration for community, the environment or design.

It is a country of one-off housing, the so-called ‘bungalow blight’, where private houses designed straight from manuals dot the countryside, the subject of bitter debate about what kind of image we want to present to the world.

Quietly, out of the media spotlight, it is also a country with an international reputation for fine public and civic buildings, with the past 10 years of wealth and prosperity allowing for something of a revolution in our public spaces and a previously unheard-of commitment to design and architectural quality.

The Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) awards, announced last week, reflected this change.  Out of the seven projects given special awards on the evening, five were for buildings that have a relationship with the public.  The winner of Best Public Building, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, although a private commission, is for public consumption.  The IMI Conference Centre in Sandyford, the winner of the Best Commercial Building, is a space that can be directly or indirectly enjoyed by the public.  Projects like the sheltered housing project in Gorey, Co Wexford, which won the Best Housing Project, and the Athlone Civic Centre, which took the Best Sustainable Project award, were commissioned and supported by local government.

Private buildings also featured in the special awards: the house in Clonakilty, in Cork, by Niall McGlaughlin Architects, took the best building in the landscape award, as did the house at Roslea, by Aughey O’Flaherty Architects, but overall, these holiday homes were almost apologetic additions to a list largely filled with public buildings; the sense is now that Ireland is a country of beautiful buildings created for the public domain, and the private sector is running fast to catch up.

In his opening address, Tony Reddy, president of the RIAI, as good as acknowledged this, when he said the awards “recognise the significance of good architecture, not only for the immediate end users but also for its contribution to the quality of the built environment and its impact on the wider public”.

The awareness of the importance of good architecture and design within the public realm was something that drew architect Keith Williams, designer of the Athlone Civic Centre, to this country.  UK-based, he had never worked here until now, although he was aware of the country’s reputation for a commitment to “really fine” public buildings.  “The public sector buildings being built now are meant to be landmark buildings,” he says.  “They are buildings that are meant to last.”

Williams says he tries, as much as possible, to work on buildings which are in the public realm.  “A substantial amount of the work I do is on public buildings.  They interest me the most as they give me the greatest opportunity to make changes to the environment that affects the lives of citizens.  It gives me greater responsibility as an architect.”

Although the Civic Centre won its award for sustainability, Williams said he was also conscious of creating something that would look beautiful.  He did so; the centre was described by the RIAI judges as having “grace, beauty and sophistication”.  “The fact that it does not shout sustainability,” they wrote, “demonstrates how environmentally sustainable design considerations can be integrated with good architecture.”

Williams himself found the experience a liberating one: the commitment, on the part of clients Westmeath County Council and Athlone Town Council, to ‘total design’, meant he created everything from a new town square outside the building to the door handles on its inside.  The result is a building that is not only beautiful, but looks as if it is an integral part of its environment.

The Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, praised by the judges as “dreamy and poetic” also forms an integral part of its landscape.  The gallery, a wooden pavilion on a limestone pier, is set alongside a river and among the trees, on a site close to the entrance of University College Cork.  Although it can be seen from the entrance, it forms the effect of a tree house; architects O’Donnell and Tuomey kept the building as close as they could to the surrounding trees without damaging their roots.  It was, as John Tuomey writes in his book, Architecture, Craft and Culture, a search for “a crucial element of connection” between the natural landscape and the newly built environment.

The Glucksman, which opened last year, has been one of the most important additions to the built environment of Cork City.  Describing it as a “new fulcrum between town and gown”, the RIAI judges called the gallery a “meeting point that projects future linkages”, bringing the university closer to the heart of the city.

The connections that can be created by thoughtful, well-designed buildings are also emphasised in the judges’ reaction to the sheltered housing project in Gorey.  Designed by Paul Keogh Architects, the judges described it as an environment that is “safe and relaxing”, one which “encouraged social interaction which in turn makes a community work on every level”.  The project was commissioned by the local St Vincent de Paul in order to provide a hostel for homeless men and sheltered housing for the elderly.  The impression is of a bright and sunny group of houses clustered around a calm, relaxing green area, and the clients, clearly delighted by the results, praised the quality of the finished work, which they described as “calm”, “sheltered”, “pleasant” and “secure”.

That Ireland, so often described these days as the ‘concrete isle’, should have produced these projects, which satisfy architects and public alike, is a testament to the enormous strides that have been taken in architecture in this country.

Tony Reddy warned that this cannot be the exception, but must be the rule.  “Quality architecture must be considered to be an essential ingredient of well thought-out urban policies, and not merely the icing on the cake.  Vast sums of money are due to be spent on construction in this country over the next 10 years.  It is incumbent upon the state and developers to see that this money is well invested, with the highest possible standards being applied, in order to maximise both the economic and the social benefits of development to local communities and to Irish society as a whole.”