Profile : O’Donnell + Tuomey,
Gandon Editions,



Interview by Kester Rattenbury

Your work seems to go beyond the normal architectural obsessions and limits – the fixation on the perfectly crafted object, which stops there. It seems to extend to how people live, to a relation to your society.

S – Coming back from London, we appreciated our sense of cultural identity with Ireland. The country is quite small, and there’s a sense of shared values. Sometimes when we are talking to people, we get a sense of what they want in a building, which they wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves. In a way, we are setting a backdrop to what people were doing anyway. We wouldn’t like to feel that we were overly shaping those activities, but accommodating and enhancing them.

J – The relationship of the architect’s work to society was a major component of Group 91, a determination to go beyond the design of the individual buildings. It was a shared aspiration to go beyond the design of the city as a matter of form, to integrate our role as architects with a wider brief. It was part of the climate of the times. In everyone’s work, there’s an aspect of luck and timing, but you set out to create the world around you, and, in a sense, you attract the work you get.
The pace of our projects has given us the chance to think. We have worked slowly – sometimes frustratingly slowly – on these buildings. All people who make things do so in the belief that artefacts invested with some spirit acquire an existence of their own much beyond original intentions. You have to make your intentions capacious enough to accommodate that longer-term phenomenon.

And you talk about building up a body of work.

J – We are interested in the idea of critical practice, so it matters to us that there should be meaningful continuity. Up to now, we haven’t had any repeat projects – three houses, but every other project has involved us finding out about a different kind of building. We’ve never done the same brief twice. Although we have had a number of disparate projects, we are still concerned it should make a continuous thread of sense. So we do see ourselves as having a sense of purpose which is overarching, and, in that sense, all parts of the work are continuous. I remember reading an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which he said that in his life, he realised he had written only one book. It came out in different versions, in different stories, at different times, but his life’s work added up to one book. It’s such a beautiful thing to be able to say. The inspiration of a painter like Léger, who sustained a project through his life, would be more influential on us than sporadic flashes of change.

S – Yet it is important that our work shouldn’t be a house style, where people say, ‘I’ll have one of those.’ We don’t feel that either we or the client know what they are going to end up with. In a sense, each project starts from scratch. What John is saying is true, but it’s a difficult line to draw. We want that sense of continuity, but it’s not a style.

An approach rather than a style?

S – That’s right, an approach.