Princeton Architectural Press,
This book begins with our first public commission, the Irish Pavilion designed in 1989 for the 11 Cities/11 Nations exhibition in the Netherlands, and one of the last projects included is Ireland’s Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2004. In the fifteen-year timeline between these two temporary constructions our work has circled around topics of culture and dwelling, with schools and colleges, art centers, and houses among our projects. While we believe that the scope of an architect’s practice must encompass critical questions of strategy, the scale of our buildings has necessarily been small and specific.
The path of our practice has led to a number of different one-off designs, a series of buildings tailor-made to suit specific sites and circumstances. However, we have always thought of the work as a single project, a sustained investigation into the place-making significance of form. Amid the proliferation of building that floods over old distinctions between cities and countryside, filling up the physical space around us, works of architecture might be looked to as evidence of resistance; as counter-projects they draw attention to what is owed to the culture and what could be imagined to be of enduring value in future use. Within the limits imposed by prevailing circumstances, well-designed buildings restructure our reading of the world in the same way that a poem can offer some shape out of the confusion of practical reality.
We returned to Ireland from London as young architects in search of the soul of Irish architecture, but 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. We do not think of our buildings as separate objects to be looked at, but rather as places to see into and out from, closely related to the spaces in between and the wider world beyond—the convergence of city lanes in the Irish Film Centre courtyard in Dublin’s Temple Bar, the hillside settlement of Ranelagh School, sheds crouched under the mountains in Connemara in the Furniture College at Letterfrack, campus-to-river connections in the Glucksman Gallery parkland at the University College Cork.
We hope that our buildings would feel strangely familiar in the places where they are sited and to the people who live with them. They should seem strange because they are new, because they are not completely conventional, and because they have a compressed quality that is the result of concentrated thought. They ought to be familiar in the sense that they belong where they are built, that they recast existing conditions in a new light, and that they extend or consolidate the urban and landscape systems that surround them. We have had the good fortune to work in situations where solutions could be envisaged from a consideration of the context. We intend our work to reveal rather than obliterate the possibilities that might have been latent on the site before we started.
But this perception should not be restricted only to thereness, to the presence of the building. Architecture’s scope goes beyond that of site-specific sculpture. The question of use is crucial to the meaning of architecture, and the social assimilation of structures into the life of human beings is an essential ingredient of its value. A good building is enhanced by use and usefulness, and the pattern of its use has to be imagined in the design on the drawing board if any resonance is to be expected from its application in reality. Life often conspires against our best intentions, and frustration surrounds us in our work, but a lived-in building, which is loved in use, reminds us of the worth of an architect’s effort and makes us, in turn, feel useful. In this sense, useful means more than just functional, and a strange element of the immeasurable is admitted when we take into account both mechanical operation and psychological satisfaction. A new building feels familiar if a recognition of the old world outside itself is included in its newness; if the legibility of its organization can be intuited by your feet telling you where to go rather than your conscious mind looking for signs to follow.
The ideal of building that we have been seeking is one that can consolidate and transform both situation and purpose. This is a poetic task for architecture, but its heft and its urgency are of a civil kind, pertaining to ordinary life and responding to social occasion. Grounded in the everyday, we still seek the sublime in architecture. One meaning of sublime is that which is just under the skin, and we start our search there.