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Everything Flows

Patrick Lynch

O’Donnell and Tuomey: Selected Works, by Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, Princeton Architectural Press, 176 pp, £23, ISBN: 978-1568986012

Architecture, Craft and Culture, by John Tuomey, Gandon Editions, 72 pp, £6.70, ISBN 09468-4662-6

Architecture is not the first thing that we think of when we think of Ireland: landscape and history enter our thoughts, followed swiftly by literature and music. The land and events are sung of and remembered in words rather than images, and a whole scene is set in literature and popular recollection in which no single building takes centre stage, never mind an architect.(1) While Mies van der Rohe sought salvation from mechanisation through devout attention to construction, declaring that “God is in the detail”, James Joyce points us towards the sacramental character of the city: “That is God,” Joyce’s Stephen declaims. “A shout in the street.” The ubiquity of the Irish pastoral or urban scene asserts itself over individual building, and wells and towers appear to be part of the setting and the background of mythic meanings from whence they spring. Perhaps this explains the inspiration of Aldo Rossi to Irish architects, who acknowledged that “in Venice, where although one may be interested in whether a building is by Palladio or Longhena, it is first and always the stones of Venice”(2).

On returning from five years in London in 1982 – where Sheila O’Donnell completed a masters degree at The Royal College of Art and both she and John Tuomey worked with James Stirling – returning “in search of a subject”, Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey married, bought a house and thought about how they might go “in search of the soul of Irish architecture”. Their role as studio teachers at UCD has involved not only educating a generation of Irish architects that are now gaining international recognition (Tom De Paor being the most prominent); they could also be said to have saved Irish architectural culture from the cults of technology and critical theory that afflict British architectural education. Alongside Grafton architects, McCullough Mulvin and De Blacam & Meagher, O’Donnell and Tuomey architects (O’D+T) can reasonably be considered to have cared for the soul of Irish architecture over the past few decades, even if defining what exactly that has become is less of a pressing concern than before.

Glucksman Gallery UCC

John Tuomey took a sabbatical from twenty-three years’ continuous studio teaching at UCD in 2003. Whilst working on the Glucksman Gallery (shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize), he found the time to write a Master of Architecture dissertation, published in 2004 as Architecture Craft and Culture. O’Donnell and Tuomey’s praxis since 1988 presumes “a poetic task for architecture, but its heft and urgency are of a civil kind pertaining to ordinary life and responding to social occasion”. And the recent publication of their Selected Works by a prestigious American university press is part of their continuing engagement with the broader context of architectural culture.

In his introductory essay to Selected Works, “Continuity and Renewal in the Work of O’Donnell and Tuomey”, Dr Hugh Campbell of UCD suggests that it is impossible to think about the past two decades of Irish architecture without considering O’Donnell + Tuomey. Indeed without their involvement with Group ’91, alongside Grafton architects, Paul Keogh and others there would be no Temple Bar, and thus, he suggests, no internationally recognisable image of modern Ireland for young Irish people. O’D+T designed the Irish Film Centre (1992) and then the National Photographic Archive (1996) at the same time as a Gallery for Photography at right angles to this on Meeting House Square, creating at once a site for outdoor cinema and a new cultural core to Temple Bar, de facto a centre for youthful Dubliners. Indeed, Campbell asserts that without the opportunity to celebrate the pleasure of street life that Temple Bar offers, Dublin would not be recognised as the centre of Ireland by young Irish people. These are clearly grand claims, and need to be placed into a context that is outside the scope of this review. But the renewal of Temple Bar is at once conservationist and modern, offering an example of how to be at once traditional and contemporary, without compromising either quality. Unlike the slum clearances of the modern period or the nostalgic heritage quarters that typify most post-industrial cities, Dublin planners and architects have been able to act decisively to save and remake whole quarters and to integrate new activities into a legible and coherent urban ensemble.

A happy collaboration of friends formed as Group ’91 to counter the modernist myth of the master plan made by a lone genius. The renaissance of Temple Bar is in some ways both an attempt to renew the industrial vernacular of the nineteenth century city, and to import some southern Mediterranean festivity into the heart of the plain style of the Georgian city. The mixed grandeur of high and local culture, of bars and international art cinema, can be seen as a reaction against the colonial legacy of a city whose geography was divided along class lines(3), and the mix of cultural production and consumption at Temple Bar today is a sign of the success of Group ’91 in creating a common ground for all ages and classes to enjoy. It is as if a country fair has come to town, and the solid backdrop of the buildings enables the mayhem of daily and evening life to take up residence there almost by stealth, seemingly as much in concert with as against the character of the rather stern and massive buildings.

A difficult trick to pull off is achieved: spontaneity is given space and time because of the careful order of things. Buildings slyly offer themselves as projecting screens to the fair, without imitating the fun – avoiding the dreadful mistake of most modern architects, who think that their buildings can make things happen and even seek to “lift spirits” through their gaudy flaunts and vulgar colours. Temple Bar resists flamboyant tomfoolery in favour of creating the setting for life; it is a theatre, not a celebrity itself.

How was this possible? What were the particular ingredients that enabled Irish architects to recognise and to reanimate Dublin? In this essay I would like to talk around these two publications by and about O’Donnell and Tuomey, to attempt to describe via circumnavigation the ground where they sit. Campbell refers to the “festive calm” of their architecture, and I would like to consider the origins and meaning of this paradoxical description, since it suggests a lesson for us, a sense of imminence and hope.

Sheila O’Donnell was partly responsible for bringing the first exhibition of work of the Italian architect Aldo Rossi to Ireland. Rossi developed a theory of typology in The Architecture of the City that enabled him to go beyond what he called “the naive functionalism” of the modern period to see how “the dialectical structure” of places reveals the underlying structure of political relations in the public sphere. He distinguishes between “projective typologies”, whose use can change over time, and “pathological typologies”, which become redundant and die. The health of cities depends on both, and yet modern architecture placed too much emphasis upon the “function” of individual buildings – hence the fetishism of temporary machines à habiter (machines for living in) – while not enough attention was paid to the spaces between them.

For Rossi, city structures are organised in a dialectical manner: the law and the state set in direct opposition – often across a square from a church, for example. His “dialectical materialism” led to a reading of the city that considered the skeleton of the political processes that underlies civic life – the structure of power analogous to a body, with the various organs of power represented in the individual buildings that house governance, education and the domestic realm. Thus diverse cities share common structures while the individual characters of cities reveal the responses over time of architects to climate and topography and to the wealth of its citizens. Which is why we can orient ourselves in strange cities quite quickly, and even anticipate where the courthouse or the university will be if we stand in the cathedral square.

Individual architects respond to this background through accepting or challenging the dialectical processes at work on the larger scale of the city. An architect either diverts or directs the flow of influence between the various competing powers that act as their patrons or clients for design. Rossi saw this tension between individual buildings and the res publica in terms of economic and class conflict, with the architect operating as a mediator between the demands of the client and those of the authorities that protect the cityscape. The code of conduct of an architect both demands and enables a degree of objectivity, and Rossi’s writing draws our attention to our complicity in the renewal or destruction of the tension between the various parts and parties that make up a city. He demanded that architects should have a social and historical sense that extends beyond their personal or their institute’s sense of correctitude. And this must have resonated in a generation encountering the first stirrings of gombeenism and the imposition of road engineering upon urbanism.

Rossi taught us to value the contribution made to the urban setting over the particular characteristics of an individual built object, teaching us to see that technical prowess means nothing if a building vandalises its context. His edicts are harsh, demanding that we accept that “for every authentic artist this means to remake, not in order to effect some change (which is the mark of superficial people) but out of a strange profundity of feeling for things …” If Rossi’s early work is an attempt to describe the value of each part of a city in objective terms based upon the dialectics of power and money and use, his ironically titled Scientific Autobiography tempers this youthful rationalism with a series of extremely evocative photographs of spaces that he loved: a Roman aqueduct held up by a prosthetic brace; a Connecticut lighthouse shaped like a mast; a Wintergarten at the University of Zurich; a cortile at Seville; and my favourite, an Italian farmhouse kitchen.

Writing in The Blue Book, the exhibition catalogue of 1983/84, O’Donnell suggested that for Rossi “the autonomy of architecture” is something painterly rather than simply rhetorical. In particular, she claims, the “relationship between artefact and the figure is similar to that found in Renaissance painting”. Buildings are depicted in his paintings as “pure objects, and yet are invested with a role that is not neutral, but contributes to the mood”. Visiting these psychologically arresting images in the flesh you find that the housing scheme at Gallaratese for example, “is in a true classical sense an ordered backdrop against which people can live their lives”. Rossi’s “logical system” is counterpoised by the romantic mood of his drawings, which “evoke a world of memories and nostalgia”, and O’Donnell offers us this contradiction as a paradox; “character” in Rossi’s architecture results from “his knowledge of the past and present” and his “logical system” of “rationalism” against which she asserts, (“against this rationalism”) is “played the store of autobiographical information: the things he has seen and remembered, which alter and enrich without destroying it”. Yet this paradox is not resolved, and in fact in philosophical terms O’Donnell is offering us an example of Kant’s antinomies, whereby the supposedly objective realm of logic is starkly countered by the supposedly subjective role of memory. These opposites cannot be resolved in an empirical fashion; they resist argumentation because both are constructs that serve as tropes to further the divide between body and mind and between reason and feeling.

What is lacking in O’Donnell’s critique is not lacking in her own architecture, I would contest, that is an appreciation of the intra-subjective role of dramatic images, the haunting quality of imagination revealed in Rossi’s lexicon of archetypes. Yet trapped between seeking a logical method and the ironic pose of attempting a “scientific” memoir, Rossi goes round in circles. O’Donnell refers to the “poetic” aspect in Rossi’s work as “analogical”, but denied the contingent influences of places and events his sketches of buildings seen from above lack sites. They are as dislocated as a modernist factory and suggest only melancholy and alienation. Because Rossi seeks objectification and when that fails we are offered sentimental images drawn at arm’s length, his buildings and sketches can only operate as code for a language whose codebook resists translation. Nonetheless, somewhere between his engaging tone and the mysteriously familiar figural forms in his sketches sits some common ground that enables us to make sense of the contradictions that confront us in his work.

As O’Donnell insightfully suggests, it is the background quality of Rossi’s architecture that enables it to support life, and yet very rarely in his writings does he attempt to ground his observations of what he loves in the theoretical framework that he has wrought for us, perhaps unconsciously acknowledging that the images he talks about resist direct assimilation into a theory. Since they describe the continuous decisions of praxis they also resist his solipsistic poetics. For example, in the example of the farmhouse kitchen he talks of the actual space he chose so carefully to illustrate his book with. He rambles in a most affecting manner lost in personal reminiscences and doubting the efficacy of his theories whilst reasserting the truth of memory. The photograph sits there unremarked upon. Dark ceiling beams recede from view above a stone floor, a staircase disappears in the distance, light from one corner of the room illuminates the wall surface and picks out a table set for family life that, I imagine, has also seen a birth and a corpse. An image of preservation and of endurance and hard work and allayed decay is presented to us, of architecture that is made to last and to accept change. This room is not just fit for its purpose, the image suggests; it modestly represents the dignity of the lives of the inhabitants. You can imagine the conversations held there and the emotion and suffering that it has seen. For Rossi saw human life as inevitably theatrical. Our habitats testify to our enduring love of display and ritual, “an analogy for architecture, what I have called ‘the fixed scene of human events’.” The theatricality of human affairs, our processional movement and daily habits, led Rossi to conclude that “it is clear that the theatre must be stationary, stable and irreversible – but this seems true of all architecture”. Types are still backdrops – like stage sets that do not change, just as the concept of type is “constant and manifests itself with a character of necessity”. His buildings possess a certain quality that reminds us of de Chirico’s spaces, where the effect of melancholia and surrealistic depth is achieved through a rather direct juxtaposition between static, neo-classical tropes, suggestive of archetypal images, and the fleeting encounter of this timeless scene with speeding trains. The quest for a poetics of dissolution - suggestive of decay and ruination - that is common to both Rossi’s sketches of objects and to de Chirico’s paintings of empty spaces, which appear as if they exist somewhere in an airless necropolis, haunted by shadows. Rossi muses in his memoir that “Forgetting Architecture comes to mind as a more appropriate title… since while I may talk about a school, a cemetery, a theatre, it is more correct to say that I talk about life, death, imagination.”

Types for Rossi are symbolic of ideals – the law court as a site of justice; a university cloister alluding to the sanctity of education; the hushed atmosphere of a library reminding us of the sacred qualities of literature and knowledge; the sheltering quality of uniform housing and the individualistic qualities of other structures allude to the psychological differences that we recognise between the various public and private aspects of our lives and the masks that we wear. These ideals have emotional characteristics too, and buildings possess personae, Rossi suggested. Architects too should adapt themselves to differing circumstances and to different occasions, he believed, claiming “I have always known that architecture was determined by the hour and the event.” He reminds us that our task as architects is remaining open to “always the idea of place, and hence light and time and imagination”.

The year after O’Donnell’s Rossi essay, Tuomey published an article in Annexe 4, a short-lived publication by UCD architecture department, entitled “Images of the Past”. Writing about three rural buildings that exemplify the unity of “typical forms” built according to “tectonic principles” that “is a sine qua non of meaningful architecture”, Tuomey declares rather hubristically that there is an “innate classical tradition existing in Ireland before our eyes which is in danger of being totally lost”. He attempts in this essay to assert the power of images over what George Steiner calls “the literal past”, clearly echoing his partner’s emphasis upon the pictorial content of Rossi’s production “against” his logic. Historical models should act as a guide to design, one that “does not inhibit creativity”, Tuomey asserts - with perhaps some degree of concerned overinsistence and provocation. Such perhaps is the typical overstatement of a young critic seeking to anticipate and rebuff criticism and set out his stall. However, like Rossi, he has a clear eye for powerfully affecting architecture whose principal quality could be described as “character”. The examples he gives lack authorship and so can be considered vernacular and part of a common sense of purpose and appropriateness. All are strange collages of Christian and classical imagery, of Palladian and French baroque and “the memory of ancient ring forts”. Tuomey spots something unusual about them, claiming that the “apparently contrasting buildings and land enhance each other and merge to form a desolate and poetic image that seems specifically Irish, a proto-architectural image containing a message which could help us to discover an architecture appropriate for this island”, he claims. His optimism for the “restrained and urbane” combination of “contemporary architectural ideas” and the “indigenous rural type” that he sees in a farmhouse at Kilcarty, Co Meath probably could be taken as a nascent declaration of intent that the next twenty years of O’D+T’s production fulfils.

In “Images of the Past” Tuomey was not just offering inspiration to his colleagues and himself; he was also applying the rod to the “arrogant and anti-historical view” of architects who indulge in a popular “misunderstanding of the architect’s role”, seeking to produce “an extraordinary invention as a particular response to the special demands of site, climate, client, etc”. His insistence, along with his partner, upon the autonomy of form and upon the continuity of tradition despite its adjustment to different settings (“the argument is equally applicable to towns and villages”, he claimed in 1982) is here cast as a scolding rejection of the modernist architect’s search for unique expression of each building’s function and independence from situation. But his appreciation for the unloved and overlooked vernacular architecture of rural and working class Ireland (and O’Donnell’s love of Italy) is not subjective, not simply a rejection of logic. Rather, it is a counter-argument to the universal claims of modernism, whose insistence upon the criteria of rationalism to measure human history and our artefacts is of course woefully wrong-headed.

The critique of Foucault, Eco et al exposes the misapplication of rational technique to the sphere of human affairs. For Tuomey, the link between a building and its landscape, “also in some way man-made” intimates a deeper reciprocity between tectonic and type and form and ultimately presages a poetics based upon making. In this formulation, the stand-off between mind and heart resulting from the collusion of Enlightenment reason and the industrial applications of productive knowledge produced the leisured class for whom the picturesque country house and garden can be seen as the epitome of imperial disengagement from the land. Instead of architecture that occupies the land like an invading force, Tuomey offers us a glimpse of a unity between object and world, something that intimates the phenomenological tradition, one that he first gains access to via Frampton’s notion of “critical regionalism”. But his way into thinking about the contingent is via another mode of universal culture, “the art and science of building” (tectonics). However, the examples he offers in “Images of the Past” are not universal. They are located somewhere in a way that Tuomey invites Irish architects to value. He challenges them to appreciate their own architectural heritage and to reject the idea that each building is a unique commission that somehow involves cultural amnesia. While Rossi’s writing is polemical and drenched in nostalgia, Tuomey’s is practical and quotidian - it is as if the latter is in some way an attempt to ground the rationalism of Rossi’s dialectics in some form of poetics based upon collective memories of rural and working class family life. “Images of the Past” is a manifesto for “architectural presence which transcends their time and function”, seeking through historical reference to rural types “a basic context linking the vagaries of time and taste”. It seeks timeless universal values within the contingent realm of the vernacular, juxtaposing tectonics with form when the former fails to offer a clear guide to praxis.(5)

While Rossi’s Marxism is idealistic and even nostalgic for the future decay of industry, which is perhaps a harbinger of revolutionary progression, English-American critic and Colombia University professor Kenneth Frampton’s critique is more finely attuned to the specific questions of national identity and climate. Hugh Campbell acknowledges the debt O’D+T’s approach pays to Frampton’s influential “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, which was first published in 1983 in a collection entitled The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post Modern Culture, shortly after Tuomey’s return to Dublin. Campbell cites Frampton’s preface to his essay, a quotation from Paul Ricoeur’s Universal Civilization and National Cultures, published in 1961:

Thus we come to the crucial problem confronting nations just rising from underdevelopment. In order to get on the road toward modernization, is it necessary to jettison the old cultural past which has been the raison d’être of a nation? ... On the one hand, it has to root itself in the soil of its past, forge a national spirit, and unfurl this spiritual and cultural revindication before the colonialist’s personality… There is a paradox: how to become modern and return to sources; how to revive an old dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization.(6)

The articulation of the problems facing a former colonial culture as a “paradox” must have appealed to the ambivalent mix of rural and urban nostalgia that typifies the returning prodigal’s desire to go back to somewhere they love and yet want to change. Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, on which Tuomey worked for five years, reinscribed a broken neo-classical drum into central Stuttgart, a gesture that appeared more like a bomb-damaged ruin that had been wittily refurbished by a knowing postmodern ironist than a modern building. Questions of national identity and of past guilt were tackled head on by Stirling, incensing the German architectural and cultural elite, who saw his deployment of historical styles as dangerously close to parody of the fascist architect Albert Speer’s use of neoclassical typological elements. Postmodernism in the visual arts coincided with a crisis in tradition that mirrored empirical collapse, and the question then arose: how does one make an authentic architecture which acknowledges its cultural and phenomenal context without resorting to either pastiche of local building styles or pastiche of the now tainted language of universal classical culture? The Staatsgalerie was seen as both the best Po-Mo building and the one that killed that language: It could not be imitated. Similarly, the international style was in crisis, and the heavyhanded attempt of modernist architects to yoke together notions of technical and scientific progress with social progress were cruelly exposed in the failings of utopian housing schemes that by 1980 were being condemned by everyone from urban geographers to members of the British royal family.

Frampton marks what he calls “the rise and fall of the avant-garde” in Marcusian(7) terms, pointing out that what still passes for progressive thinking in design is a symptom of what happens “when technics becomes the universal form of material production: it circumscribes an entire culture, it projects a historical totality – a ‘world’”. Frampton’s essay is a call to arms for a nascent ecological approach to building and “a renewed basis for the spiritual, one founded in a regional reaffirmation – grounds at least for some form of collective spirituality”. Frampton proposes that we consider also the “resistance of the place-form”, “topography, context, climate, light and tectonic form” and “the visual versus the tactile”. In particular he hates air-conditioning, seeing it as the extension of the international style into our lungs. Frampton’s critique is not only against certain things; he is also in favour of architectural values that are proper to the practice of it and reveal the humanist philosophy that supports our model of praxis, concluding that “The tactile and the tectonic jointly have the capacity to transcend the mere appearance of the technical in much the same way as the place-form has the potential to withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization”. Frampton’s critique of the disembodied character of most modern architecture is based upon a phenomenological and structuralist approach that emphasises the design of spaces over the superficial approaches to form-making that make architecture into a branch of the advertising industry. In particular, the tactile qualities of space are emphasised. He poses a dialectics of touch to counter the disembodied aura of hi-tech architecture:

the tactile opposes itself to the scenographic and the drawing of veils over the surface of reality. Its capacity to arouse the impulse to touch returns the architect to the poetics of construction … The tactile and the tectonic jointly have the capacity to transcend the mere appearance of the technical in much the same way as the place-form has the potential to withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization.

This attitude was developed in his Studies in Tectonic Culture (2001) into a manifesto for architectural thinking that reinvigorates the craft tradition as a way out of the pointlessly universal solutions imposed upon architecture by mass production and standardisation (tectonics means the art and science of building). His recent book Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture is a collection of essays that amount to an attack upon what he calls “archi-tainment”, or what others have called “star architecture”, whereby the architect operates as a brand. Frampton’s collected essays, entitled Work, Action and Labour (2002), make clear his debt to Hannah Arendt and to the postwar optimism of London (where he worked on the early stages of the Barbican and on social housing projects with Douglas Stephens). Resistance to the claims of the virtual world that technology promises, the living death of a life spent outside of our bodies and imaginations, has made Frampton an exile both geographically and “spiritually” from London, teaching in New York at Colombia University since the late 1970s. He has also been cut off from the main developments in British architecture, the scene that grew out of the Architectural Association since he taught there. For many Frampton is a throwback to an age when architecture was considered a vocation and ethics and politics were commingled within the act of design. He is considered a sort of apologist for humane modernism, as if this were some sort of style that went out of date, rather than a world view itself.

Frampton’s ecological critique of the role of star architects in the destruction of the environment mirrors his concern with their refusal of the discipline of architecture in favour of a cult of individualism. His critique appears prescient today, even if his emphasis upon tectonics is perhaps incompatible with the deeper dimensions of phenomenology. Simply put, the meaning of spaces cannot be reduced to questions of craft versus technology, since both of these terms emancipate architecture from its traditional role as the mother of the arts and foreground the appearance of the building itself. These appearances are only the surface manifestation of a tacit and latent world which architecture reveals to us and enables us to reorient ourselves in. Thus questions of the meaning of spaces cannot be addressed if we remain focused upon

questions of technique.(8)

I would like to elaborate upon the inspiration for Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism” essay(9), since Paul Ricoeur’s late work articulates many of the concerns that Tuomey’s own writing introduces. “An urgent task today,” Ricoeur claimed just before his death in 1986, “is to preserve the tension between tradition and utopia. The challenge is to reanimate tradition and bring utopia closer.”(10) The Irish philosopher Richard Kearney has written at length about Ricoeur’s work, stressing in particular the primary role of the “social imagination”. Tuomey’s insistence upon “a poetic task for architecture, but [one in which] its heft and urgency are of a civil kind pertaining to ordinary life and responding to social occasion” fulfils the convictions that underlie the work of Frampton and points us back towards its origins in Ricoeur’s work, and I think that it would be useful to us if we pay some attention now to “the social imagination” as this notion, properly understood, may enable us to place O’D + T’s work in a contemporary critical context that grounds the Irish condition within the modern world. This may enable us to appreciate the depth of the task that they face today. “Imagination comes into play in that moment when a new meaning emerges out of the ruins of a literal interpretation,” Ricoeur claims, citing Joyce’s Ulysses as an example of our capacity to “configure” what is “defiguring” before us. The “two pivotal functions of our ‘social imaginary’,” Kearney elaborates for us, are that “ideology tends towards ‘integration’ (preserving a sense of a shared identity) while ‘utopia’ works in the opposite direction of rupture (introducing a sense of novelty, difference, discontinuity).” Ideology tends towards “image-pictures” while utopian thinking offers “image fiction”. Ideology preserves the “foundational symbols” of a society but the “danger is that this reaffirmation can be perverted”, Ricoeur warns us, “usually by monopolistic elites, into a mystificatory discourse which serves to uncritically vindicate or glorify the established political powers”. He concludes that: “In such instances, the symbols of a community become fixed and fetishized; they serve as lies.”(11)

Such petrification of language into symbols that no longer communicate the power of imagination – clichés of redundant meanings – haunt the architect in particular, since our work always risks appearing heavy handed the more articulate and historically referential it aspires to become. Similarly, “the glance from elsewhere” that Ricoeur refers to as the utopian image, risks “functioning as a future completely cut off from the experience of past and present”. Kearney posits that “utopia can serve as a mystificatory ideology in its own right – justifying the oppressions of today in the name of some unattainable liberties of tomorrow”. The continuing tendency of modern architects to ignore where they are asked to build in favour of their own personal “design philosophy” testifies to the domination of either typology (a form of ideology) or technology (a form of utopia) over common sense and decorum. Ricoeur concludes that “Ideology as a symbolic confirmation of the past and utopia as a symbolic opening towards the future are complementary”, while Kearney reminds us of “[Herbert] Marcuse’s view that all authentic utopias are grounded in recollection”.

John Tuomey elaborates on this point in Architecture, Craft and Culture(12), and he sets out his case for an architecture that communicates to us how it is made, rejecting the idea that a new building cannot appear old and that it should appear perfectly new. The synthetic nature of designing enables him to suggest a way of uniting at once typology and site in a clear demonstration of his desire for “a way of thinking which would provide an integration between construction and the site, a recasting of the redundant craft condition which by tradition would exploit local materials and harness indigenous skills … embedding an initial sense of strategy which could remain evident in the eventual experience of an actual building”.

Such thinking seeks to fuse ideas about tectonics with an anthropologist’s eye for local practices. Architecture, Craft and Culture concerns both material culture and the history of ideas in architecture, it recalls the pensive meditations of Alvar Aalto, Peter Zumthor and Alvaro Siza, similar architect-teachers to whom Tuomey refers. “We carry novels in our pockets on holidays,” he says and a catholic cast of poets, musicians and filmmakers jostle together as if at the bar of a very good pub alongside architects who share Tuomey’s sense of “social responsibility and a more private vision”. At once philosophical and poetic, Tuomey’s argument is bookended by two juxtapositions. Firstly, the strange relationship between the autonomous aspects of architecture such as the discipline of structure on the one hand and the vernacular tradition of construction and craft on the other. Secondly, the tension between what Seamus Heaney calls, “two orders of knowledge, the practical and the poetic”, which Tuomey seeks to reconcile as a sense of personal duty to the ethical function of architecture.

He begins with an examination of a photograph of Luis Barragan’s studio, which he compares to Vermeer’s painting The Geographer. That ideas exist in things, he declares, “is not an esoteric thought, since buildings are widely understood as evidence of human intelligence to be interpreted as part of the material culture”. He continues, accepting the paradox that there is “an element of mystery in this everyday phenomenon which makes us want to slow the world down, to sit at a table … daydream”. Architecture is a reasonable, but not an entirely rational activity, he suggests. Tuomey laminates past and present without regard for what he calls “linear art historical categories”. In a chapter entitled “Time, permanence, continuity and the living present” he declares an interest in buildings that appear “old and new at the same time”. For Tuomey, “continuity and renewal is the task of the architect”. Architecture requires of an architect “knowledge of typology, historical research, and intuitive analysis from first principles”, in response to a “social process of exchange and consensus” that acknowledges “the tectonic and economic” reality of “constructed landscapes”. This mode of practice puts “thought before action to defend the threatened territory of meaning”, dismissing the narcissism and formlessness of most contemporary, ostensibly avant-garde design (“we don’t need to reinvent the wheel”). He places his faith in the history of architecture, which is a language open for reinterpretation and creative renewal. An architect’s “intentions are embodied”, he claims, “ideas are communicated by buildings which speak to each other across time”.

Two aspects of architectural language are identified. First, he asserts that “buildings, while primarily perceived in terms of space and surface, take their measure from structure and constructional systems”. Second, the phenomenological qualities of materials are considered in relationship to the deep reciprocity of form and structure via construction (a discourse traditionally known as tectonics). Tuomey has particular interest in excavation and carved composition and also in the heuristic activities of drawing and model-making. In particular, like Alvar Aalto, he sees in the vernacular tradition the potential to relate nature to culture via ecology and craft, enabling the architect’s duty of care to the “concrete realities of construction, purpose and place”.

Tuomey is frank: “ … frustration surrounds us in our work, but a lived-in building, loved in use, is one of the rewards that reminds us of the worth of an architect’s effort and makes us, in turn, feel useful”. The “purpose” of space is considered to be a more communicative notion than use understood as function. And he evokes the poetic force of memory to explain how “a new building should feel familiar… the legibility of its organisation can be intuited by your feet, telling you where to go … the ideal of building that we have been seeking is one that can consolidate and transform both situation and purpose”. This is not simply a matter of formal typologies, or of programme, but also of the atmosphere that a building exhibits in response to place and the events that recur there. The potency of time in architecture is considered both as a living tradition and as an aspect of existential experience; architecture is a humanistic art of memory, occurring here and now.

Tuomey admires and is seeking to emulate Alvaro Siza’s capacity to manifest a hermeneutic capacity to exhibit a masterly control of historical references alongside “subversive reworking of typology in the service of the meaning and significance of form”. Tuomey is primarily concerned with character in architecture, what he calls Siza’s “extreme sophistication” combined with a “charm of a childlike simplicity”. His greatest insight is that to practice is to profess: praxis seeks to reconcile the artifice and gravity of thought. He declares: “we are agents in the continuity of architectural culture”; professional knowledge and experience of life combine to enable “perseverance to hold the line or the courage to change course”. The lesson of this book is that perseverance and courage are not isolated from the broader context of human praxis, and that the daily choices we face as architects are not “the reaction of an individual moment but the exercise of an established craft in the continuity of time”.

Tuomey proceeds to discuss with elegant brevity some of his practice’s buildings, whose precise description imbues them with archetypal and poignant qualities that make them memorable, like short prose poems. He describes in detail the construction of A House in the Ground; A Home by the Sea; A School in the City; A College in the Country and A Pavilion in the Trees. These terse descriptions are elaborated upon in Selected Works, and the projects selected form the basis for this book. Writing the dissertation as a heuristic study clearly helped Tuomey to establish what he believes in. The dogmatic tone of his earlier essay is replaced by the stern convictions of a professional who is optimistic but fully engaged in the urgent realities of the daily practice of design. Perhaps the danger of modernist demolition of the Georgian city has passed, only to be replaced by the threat of bungalow culture destroying the countryside? Maybe the threat of utopia has been replaced by the dead hand of “preservatism”? In response to these twin tendencies, O’D+T’s work might be discussed as an attempt to assess the value of both and to resist the temptation to acknowledge only one of these characteristics of the “social imagination”.

When O’D+T presented the works of Brian Maguire(13) in 1991 at the newly refurbished Irish Museum of Modern Art, the pavilion in which they were shown attracted some hostile comment. It was as if the unseen hinterland of Irish architecture, the sheds that pepper the land, had somehow been condensed into this singular manifestation, and the anger it aroused said a lot about the national attitudes towards its actual built heritage, and de facto, towards the natural world. Evidence of the agricultural reality that situates Maguire’s paintings, the background within which his characters operate, was a shocking refutation of the carefully refurbished Georgiana of Shay Cleary’s galleries. Unadorned industrial red metal cladding and simple softwood beams, cheap grille as flooring and roof lines reminiscent of fishermen’s huts – the contrast with the setting could not have been more extreme. It was as if suddenly, without anyone preparing for it, a wedding had been crashed by a country cousin who had forgotten to clean his boots. Such anger was generated by the structure that their colleagues felt embarrassed and ashamed on O’D+T’s behalf, assuming that the nakedness of the construction was the result of funding problems or inexperience, rather than a deliberate if innocent interest in the tectonics of rural building and the semiotics of this overlooked background. Up until this moment, Irish architecture was happy to assimilate the tectonics of Mies van der Rohe or Georgian decorum. Somehow O’D+T had filtered Rossi’s overlooked and unloved working class rural artefacts through a critique of the discrete tectonics of Frampton’s proto-ecological affection for the vernacular, and introduced something “other” and remote and yet strangely familiar to the Irish architectural psyche. And everyone has been trying to work this crisis out ever since. In psychic terms, it is as if the long repressed memories of seeing but not really looking at commonplace things, things that had not registered in the collective visual imagination as being worthy of regard had suddenly burst forth uninvited into the popular domain. In this sense the Irish pavilion, displaced from its representational role – its original context was an international art fair in Holland - took on another life in the context of Georgian Dublin. There it acted as a “glance from elsewhere”, as Ricoeur has it, of an elsewhere that was actually present but psychologically other. In this instance the project could be described as utopian – it optimistically claimed value for something considered worthless in monetary terms while appearing to be conservative. Campbell puts the contradiction like this: “The wish to assert and to hold onto a particular Irish identity in the context of rapid modernization is more often expressed as a progressive, rather than a conservative impulse.” He links this attitude to “the arts-and-crafts movement’s capacity”, paradoxically I would suggest, “to recast the vernacular as the avant-garde”; thus acknowledging, tacitly, Ricoeur’s “urgent task”.

The edge of Irish towns can drift rapidly into raggedy waters, the woven context fraying before our eyes into shopping centres or bungalows, the urban and rural replaced instead by the steadily suburban. At Galbally the creation of two rows of housing successfully allays this fraying, marking both an edge and suggesting how this boundary could continue. A low level terrace of houses for old people emphasises and amplifies the importance of the street and pavement, continuing the latter up to form an enlarged stoop for gossip beside a miniature garden planter. Pedestrians walking, and general slowness, are celebrated and the front-door-lined street is reinforced as the primary spatial realm of the town. Another taller block, set askance slightly higher up the slope out of town, acts as another boundary, intimating a firmer threshold between rus et urbs, defining a shift in scale and atmosphere from within and without this edge. One can imagine more of these blocks at other positions on the roads that drift down into Galbally, intimating a Roman wall and consolidating the identity of the place.

Such picturesque compositions inevitably suggest to us recognisable tropes, an architectural language that preserves memories of a way of existence that is under threat from over-development and the blight of gombeenism, itself a corrupter of architectural characteristics in favour of kitsch and that ultimately useless commodity, money. In this condition the preservation of a clear boundary between centre and periphery has been sought, and Galbally now burns itself into your retina as if it were an after-image, something seen behind closed eyes, something that the architects refer to as “subliminal”, which means for them “under the skin”. I think that the potentially conservative nature of the implementation of known types has been averted in this instance, avoiding the negative connotations that Ricoeur associates with the pictorial tendencies of the “social imagination”. Because the setting requires a clear sense of difference to be established between town and hinterland, but also for continuity of the streetscape to be allowed to develop as a pattern, the design is Janus-like, both traditional and emphatically new. And the exaggerated qualities of caricatured domesticity reveal a gentle sense of humour; wryness and confident modesty of scale belie the complexity of deploying forms that border on archetypes or cliché. Like old people, this architecture is repetitive and stubborn - it holds its ground.

Furniture College, Letterfrack, Co. Galway

In a context that is physically intact but psychologically blasted, the conversion of a Catholic industrial school “where cruelty and harshness were widespread”, into a thriving furniture college shows us how one can be critical of a region in a specifically architectural manner, a critique that reveals also an attitude towards social processes that are revealed to be embedded in the material cultures that buildings represent, or as Hannah Arendt puts it in her description of the ancient Greek polis, beloved of Frampton: “walls are like laws”. The initial reaction of O’D+T was to lower the windows of the existing structures “to allow people to see out”, a decision that sounds obvious enough once stated, but which nonetheless seems to me to strike at the heart of the problem of restrictive institutions: they constrict movement and imagination.

Reconfiguration of the approach to the place “opens up the closed form of the courtyard plan like a foldout chain of different forms”, we read, “to banish the ghosts”; and yet the obviousness of this gesture is not evident in the architecture. You do not get the sense of an aggressively Oedipal desire to act recklessly, nor is there a sense of wanton enjoyment in destruction. Rather, “to loosen its bonds by shifting the geometry”, and “by opening up the closed institution, to renew the ground” O’D+T reveal that it is the topographical character of the site and how you move around and build on it perhaps more than the object-like qualities of Rossi’s “urban artifacts” that now engage their attention.

We find then two large tilted timber sheds that house the workshops. Handsome and lithe, they sit propped against the stone terrain on concrete piers, appearing somewhat as exposed foundations. A family of timber types grow from tectonic elements, angled columns align to form a sheltered colonnade, a profile of gables springs from the “rock and boggy ground” and tilts in the wind. These forms are vaguely familiar, and they are adjusted to different ground and light conditions like elegant plants that have been husbanded and trained – somewhat like cultivated and tempered timbers in fact. In this quite small project of modification and removal, the local vernacular architecture is exposed to a distant conversation of northern European origin, displacing Galway slightly from its fetters and bringing into play an idea of Ireland on the edge of the continent, with something in common with Norway and Iceland perhaps as much as with Rome.

In a lecture at the Architectural Association in London in 2003, O’D+T spoke about their commission by the president of University College Cork as a change from the way they were used to finding work. Calling them en route to America in search of funding, he challenged the architects to come up with some images of a building whose programme was not yet clear and which did not as yet have a fixed site. Tuomey initially resisted the demand to produce an image, feeling unable to do so without a solid brief, anxious to avoid the trap of those “starchitects” whose computer renderings of futuristic forms stand in for grounded ideas.

Unlike their conventional model – of working on plan to establish the scale and workings of a building often hemmed in by neighbours – this site called for another approach. The riverine plateau beneath the rock escarpment at UCC is elusive territory, phenomenal rather than linguistic in character, material rather than typological, landscape rather than architecture. Tuomey’s immediate response came after a dream in which he remembered some Cork-inspired stanzas from Seamus Heaney’s “Seeing Things”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise

Were all at prayers inside the oratory

A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep

It hooked itself into the altar rails

And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope

And struggled to release it. But in vain.

‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So

They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back

Out of the marvellous as he had known it.(14)

Recalling these words seems to have coincided with a spontaneous recollection of the topographical characteristics of the site. In thinking about the building the architects seem to have been thinking about geology and history too. Thinking about what is where, by drawing routes and views across the site, – drawing the various spatial realms of Town and Gown together as it were – makes the act of drawing an act of observation, and the act of design seems like an act of memory. The early sketches published in the Selected Works are really drawings of the site section, and the building seems to be a measure of the layers of time represented by the constructed landscape as much as an autonomous thing. A long, wide, shallow stair connects the river walk up to a narrow plateau that seeps under a glass wall to enter the building, sliding down a narrow internal staircase and creeping up a grand stair up to the first floor, where the building properly announces itself to you in the faces of the booksellers there.

It is as if the external influence of the words of the poem – itself a reference to the monks’ beehive cells perched upon the cliff edge on the Cork island of Skerries – enabled the architects to draw from their residue of spatial memories some sense of the essential qualities of the project. Perhaps this is truly how we work when rationalist rhetoric is put aside in favour of gravity and touch? Perhaps the act of creative thinking is less invention than interpretation? Working at pace, with a vague understanding of the programmatic demands of a building, seems to have loosened O’D+T’s design methods, and the finished building is difficult to qualify in type terms or as an image. David Leatherbarrow’s essay “Landings and Crossings – The Lewis Glucksman Gallery” continues Tuomey’s interest in Heaney’s poem, and is prefaced with a stanza from “Crossings”, referring to the St Brigid’s Day tradition of stepping through a “girdle of straw rope”:

The Open they came into by these moves

Stood Opener, hoops came off the world,

They could feel the February air.(15)

Leatherbarrow takes seriously and at face value the suggestion that spatial thresholds might reveal deeper layers of reality to us than the visual world. Implicit in the essay is the implication that the predominance of landings and crossings in the building might point to a poetic intention that proceeds by “coupling a topographical inheritance with an architectural possibility” to “show what existed before the landing stepped onto the site”. In other words, the act of building does not simply mean the creation of something new or the erasure of the history of a site. The experience of visiting a new building, such as the Glucksman gallery, suggests another potential for architecture, a poetic one that can deflect our attention away from itself towards what exists in the world. Questions of the image, or formal language or semiotics, are displaced towards looking at the site within which the building sits. The “axial disequilibrium” of the building’s morphology is described as “asymmetrical balance, kept in static equilibrium by means of cantilevers”. These cantilevered spaces are large balconies that open views towards the city and back to the university above, focusing the gallery visitor’s view outside of the exhibition spaces towards the natural world. One’s attention is displaced beyond the individual art works displayed in the building towards the world that inspired them, and thus the form of the building expresses an “alocentric order – centred outside itself”. He cites baroque precedents for this, both in sculptural terms and as spatial ancestors for the building’s “contrapasto profile; it is irregular, distended, even convulsive, by virtue of being engaged in the contraries of its vicinity”, comparing this with Rudolf Wittkower’s description of Bernini’s David, where “the spiritual focus of the statue (presumably Goliath) is outside the statue itself”.

Similarly, the lower floor of the building is described as being like “a baroque sala terrena” open to the garden and in fact completed by it when the café is consummated by its summer use for al fresco meals. On sunny days people are drawn to the lawn beneath the gallery. The fragmentary spaces set up by the building have a powerfully volumetric quality, whose character is somewhat like a resonance or echo. Sitting there is a comforting experience, as if you are being gently held. Movement too feels directed but you feel free to choose different ways to go. The shallow staircase up from the river path meets the flat approach from the university above, beside a tall wall of glass that reflects the garden beside and below it. You are intensely conscious that the mirror effect of the glass wall is bringing the garden below close to the edge of your body and that the body of the building is both losing its material condition and becoming a huge glassy screen. The effect is not disquieting, but you are conscious of being asked to consider carefully your position in relation to things. Your senses are sharpened, and you sense that while the building is palpably there and not moving, as Heaney suggests: “Everything flows. Even a solid man.”(16)

Leatherbarrow eschews representation, cautious that it made postmodernism in architecture into an arid game of formalism and semiotics, in favour of a critique of the commonplace and overlooked. The landing rather than the façade is investigated as the site of meaning. Lurking within these spatial moments are spatial figures though, and he proposes that we see their analogue in the baroque fusion of landscape with architecture. Spatial thresholds spill over into architectonic fragments in the drawings of the baroque architect and theorist Serlio and the fusion of architecture with gardens occurs in his famous image of a staircase that resolves the transition between both upon an elevated circular landing. Both building and landscape appear as partial fragments in Serlio’s drawing, but the space between them is given a clear form by human traffic between them. In baroque culture the fusion of the natural world with the world of myth is offered in an analogous form as festival. Thus landings are really stages, belvedere and proscenium archways are dramatic as well as spatial transitions that reveal both literal and symbolic thresholds between the ideal realms of theatre – where the gods bear witness to human affairs in the firmament, and the witness of the natural world upon human ambitions and our artefacts.

Typically these moments of transition occur at cultivated changes of level in a garden, often around fountains and archways, and in the galleries of baroque houses where frescoes and architectural stucco combine to frame an actual and an imagined view of the garden beyond and the heavens above. A Spiegelsaal (hall of mirrors), for example, sits at the threshold of a baroque castle and reflects the garden beyond in mirrors adorned with carved fruit and lacquered branches, catching the ambiguity between the perception and illusion of space in the false perspective of a fresco. Baroque theatricality looks to undermine its own illusionism to remind us of the limits of our fabrications. We are challenged to appreciate where we are in time and space and to acknowledge the importance of location to our perception. The hubris of universal systems is revealed to us as just one point of view and yet the unity of our senses is reaffirmed; things that might seem to make sense to us from one point of view later appear to be phantoms. Baroque theatricality is essentially symbolic, which means that half of a token is offered in lieu of the imaginative reconstruction of the whole meaning of a situation in our imagination or memory. A symbol is not a code, it does not represent any one other thing, but alludes to many meanings that coalesce around the moment at which we perceive a symbol, and it cannot be translated wholly elsewhere. Thus, like theatre, symbolism is temporal and situated, as Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us:

In the case of the symbol ... and for our experience of the symbolic in general, the particular represents itself as a fragment of being that promises to complete and make whole whatever corresponds to it. Or, indeed, the symbol is that other fragment that has always been sought in order to make whole our fragmentary life.(17)

In baroque culture the festival emerged as an event that sought to make spatial and experiential the fragmentary nature of our engagement with representation; festivals enable, encourage and support participation, and like theatre generally they only manage to communicate meaning if we are engaged with the moment fully. Architecture is much less articulate, and can only seek to stop everything happening at once. Art is now housed in galleries and the sense of transition and of mediation this type implies in its baroque sense, as a threshold, is made wonderfully precise and lucid for us at the Glucksman.

Architectural language, like all language, is not timeless, nor is it a fixed code. What appeared as transgressive and potentially destructive in one period can appear in another, if the danger has been noted and averted, as utopian and opening. The horizon of time is experienced in language; our understanding of life is as partial as the representational stability to which we aspire. Gadamer notices a paradox in our understanding of art: “not all pictures, like poems, offer up their secrets to us at the same rate,” he writes, but “all art of whatever kind always speaks a language of recognition”.

O’D+T offer us an exemplary lesson in the delicately balanced tensions of autonomy and contingency in architecture, exhibiting “freedom that arises out of conditions that are given to design, not apart from them”, Leatherbarrow suggests. Perhaps it takes time to “develop a way of seeing”, to begin to “build with certainty and imagination in a spirit of contribution to the continuum of architectural culture”. Ricoeur’s urgent task still seems to call for an appropriate response not an absolute method. In architectural terms this might mean that the architectural idealism of Rossi’s “constant types” need to be grounded with a sense of the timeliness of particular situations; and that the contingent nature of Frampton’s “tectonic culture” might engage more fully with representation on the one hand and the utopian aspects of the craft tradition on the other. I suspect that it is this task that O’D + T have discovered through their work: “ … in search of the soul of Irish architecture … what we found was actually another way of looking. Instead of coming up with tangible answers to elusive and in any case misguided questions, we realized our sense of purpose through the process of the search itself – a life’s work discovered in a day’s work”, a hard-won insight that inverts the modern notion of experimental method that progresses from theory to practice. Instead, for these architects, praxis has led philosophical enquiry.

Like the classical sense of a concept – something that only becomes clear once the work is well progressed – a paradox has been suggested by O’Donnell and Tuomey that echoes the conclusions of Ricoeur, Marcuse and Gadamer; it is the same one with which Heaney concludes Seeing Things:

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,

Convert to things foreknown;

And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.

Seventh heaven may be

The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.(18)

 

1. Joyce’s Dublin is the site of rites and thresholds. Mundane passages accrue a symbolic significance that inverts the traditional progression from worldly to cosmic: instead of elevating the everyday use of things to mysterious significance, perhaps the modern Irish imagination seeks to remove the aura of the enigmatic embellishments of Catholic culture, at the same time mocking the pretensions of Protestant institutional settings.

2. A Scientific Autobiography, Aldo Rossi, MIT Press, 1981.

3. Cf Dublin: An Urban History, Niall McCullough, Anne Street Press, 1989 (2nd edition 2007) in which the history of the city was explored as a ruin that exposed the skeleton beneath the brick carapace as a guide to future resuscitation of the corpse, which almost twenty years later is now quite realised.

4. The first exhibition of Aldo Rossi’s work in Ireland was at the Blue Studio Architecture Gallery, Dawson Street, Dublin, May 16th-31st, 1983. The catalogue has a preface by Paul Keogh and an introduction by Sheila O’Donnell, collaborators Rachel Chidlow, Niall McCullough, Valerie Mulvin, John Tuomey, with Dr Andreas Papadakis and Frank Russell of Architectural Design, edited and designed by John O’Regan, Gandon Editions, Dublin.

5. The vernacular tradition is strong in Irish poetry of course, from Kavanagh to Heaney, and one can sense how Rossi’s exotic parochialism must have exerted a strong pull upon Irish architects working in what felt then to be a marginal position in 1980s Dublin. We can imagine the thrill that this sense of discovery of the unspoken hinterland of the constructed landscape must have inspired in a son of an engineer from Tralee and in the imagination of two architects returning from the cosmopolitan world of Stirling’s postmodern eclecticism to a Dublin scene still dominated by Miesian influence (most of the leading lights claimed to have studied and worked in his Chicago office) for whom a shed was just a building, and only grand architecture could aspire to Baukunst. A similar distinction is made in English between gardens and houses: the former attempt naturalness and want to appear timeless paradise, the house is an aloof ideal.

Perhaps one could extrapolate here a difference between Irish and English poetics generally? Whereas English poetics attempts the shift from low to high gear via veneration of nature, hymning glories of history – mostly preindustrial history of a romantic, tame, mythic landscape (think of Blake, Morris, Lawrence, etc), the Irish mode is debunking. Perhaps there is nothing romantic about the Irish landscape; it is not tame; there has not yet been any irrevocable fall; there is no native picturesque attempt to recapture a prelapsarian paradise; we do not as yet feel – in the Irish countryside – any guilt, nor worship a ridiculous sublime view of innocent nature from which we were expelled as punishment for technological knowhow. Unlike the English landscape, Ireland is too resistant and sparse to become either just playground or factory: there are not simply dark satanic mills and fake country estates. Irish poetry does not seek to recover a mythic past, but to debunk the cod-poetics of the dilettante and flaneur, offering instead of Blake’s lament for “Jerusalem”, Heaney’s “a pen with which to dig”.

The difference might be that while the English landscape was enclosed, partitioned and controlled by industrial agriculture and then by water-based steam engineering, the Irish landscape still retains both its pre-Christian character and the ritualistic sense of devotional movement and theatrical time that typifies pre-Reformation cultures. A proliferation of shrines mark out the land, roads diverge around them, neon can be added and yet the essential quality of the place is intact. A typical shrine is a sort of portal that you enter through engagement with liturgy and the particular way in which you are instructed to walk “a round”, mouthing repetitive prayers of devotion.

The survival and renewal of the sacred character of antique pagan shrines, often devoted to a virginal earth goddess, can be traced in the conversion of pantheistic temples to Christian churches, and the festivals of Huelva and other Spanish and Latin cities maintain unbroken the tradition of joyous and carnal, pious dance and song. Such devotional poetics is the origin of the theatricality of civic decorum. Public spaces are made in order to enable festive religious performances and all of the ritual of law and education to be made visible. The character of this theatrical setting is dependent upon the activities that occur there; its decorum and expression of the charged nature of the public realm and the masques that people wear are echoed in the ornamental decoration of the architecture. These festive events are of course analogous of nature, and the penetration of the countryside into the city fabric occurs still as a residue of the arrival of a divine emperor or monarch, or of pagan gods and regenerative time, “the eternal return” of spring, etc. Nature and the supernatural are reconciled in festivals, which structured the calendar of city life, the architecture providing the physical setting for the playing out of the various games of renewal that link us to our premodern pasts.

Architecture’s traditional role can be described then as the provision of a setting for the mundane and dramatic aspects of life, and of the representation of this moment of transformation of human events from business to theatre. Over the past four centuries this tradition has quite vanished from the official culture of most of northern Europe: the functional and technological character of its architecture is evidence of and contributes to the paucity of our public spaces and the limits of public lives. Yet the interpenetration of natural and cultural realms, of the self and the world, can still be sensed as a “resonance”, Rilke suggests, that lingers “in lions and rocks/ and in the trees and birds. There you are singing still.”

In Ireland this resonance is felt whenever we step outside of a car – land is not just a useful commodity to be exploited, it is the residue of cultural memory and harbinger of genius loci, the spirit of a place. Those spots of ancient oak woods that have avoided the Elizabethan taint are granted a sort of secular historical authenticity akin to a shrine. History and geography and geology and agriculture – and poetic explication of the reasons how these aspects of culture are inextricably enfolded, are layers of the same rich and intoxicating mix in Irish conversations. In other words, recognizing a place, identifying a site – the architect’s first act – is not simply a matter of drainage and economics, although it is also these things, but a matter of witnessing the forces that are at play to shape the “character” of a place.

And this is what is special about the approach of O’Donnell and Tuomey and might be what makes them specifically Irish architects, and this is what might be at stake today when the sacred isle is at risk from bulldozers and road engineers and tarmac and breeze-block bungalows: just when the rest of the world has awoken from the nightmare of modernity, the Irish construction industry is in danger of silencing the “divine one” and putting the land to sleep. Yet architecture and poetry remind us that though beset, “battered and broke”, sometimes we come across something so well crafted that we hear the trace of divine nature’s “upbuilding music”.

6. Labour, Work and Architecture: Collected Essays on Architecture and Design, Kenneth Frampton, London, 2002.

7. Cf. Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse, London, 1955.

8. Cf. “From Typology to Hermeneutics in Architectural Design”, Dalibor Vesely, in Heaven and Earth: Festschrift to Honour Karsten Harries, August 2007

9. Frampton acknowledges the debt due to Dr Dalibor Vesely of Cambridge University for his introduction to the work of Ricoeur in the preface to this essay in his collected essays, MIT Press, 2002.

10. “The Hermeneutical Imagination (Ricoeur)”, chapter in Poetics of Imagining: From Husserl to Lyotard (Problems of Modern European Thought), Richard Kearney, 1991.

11. The Creativity of Language, Paul Ricoeur, cited in Kearney, op cit.

12. Architecture, Craft and Culture, John Tuomey, Cork 2004.

13. The Irish Pavilion, Cork, 1992

14. Seeing Things, Seamus Heaney, London, 1991.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. The Relevance of the Beautiful: Art as Play, Symbol and Festival and other essays, H-G Gadamer, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

18. Tuomey, op cit.


Patrick Lynch studied at Liverpool and Cambridge Universities. He is a director of Lynch architects in London and in Dublin. He taught at the Architectural Association, Kingston and London Metropolitan Universities and is currently a studio tutor at University College Dublin and a review tutor at Dublin Institute of Technology. Lynch architects won the British Young Architect of the Year Award in 2005.

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