Ways of Working,


by Mehrdad Hadighi, Chair of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

A book, even a fragmentary one, has a center which attracts it. This center is not fixed, but is displaced by the pressure of the book and the circumstances of its composition. Yet it is also a fixed center which, if it is genuine, displaces itself, while remaining the same and becoming always more central, more hidden, more uncertain, and more imperious.

– Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature

Blanchot opens The Space of Literature with this passage, placing the reader immediately within the space of the book, feeling the pressure of the book, and sensing the complexity of writing as a practice. In their buildings, O’Donnell and Tuomey present us with situations, long before entering the building, the resolution of which places us amidst the complexity of the many pressures that form the practice and the building. Others have written eloquently about O’Donnell and Tuomey’s engagement of construction, their interest in function and the Irish identity. I add to that the very particular way they address situational, constructive, spatial, material, and cultural issues, not to resolve them away, but rather to highlight their inevitability and the impossibility of a resolution.

The fleeting center for O’Donnell and Tuomey is the ambiguity and the complexity of making a building on a site, a labyrinth of mutually negating possibilities, centers that are made peripheral, peripheries that are made central, and sometimes both simultaneously. Others would make problems go away, solve them to be gone, in order for the center to appear once and for all, crisp and clear, without any doubt. O’Donnell and Tuomey solve problems in such a way that the solution problematizes the problem. The problem is solved, not by aiming at and hitting the center, but by moving about the center, in fact, carefully strategizing against aiming at and hitting the center.

O’Donnell + Tuomey often quote from the writings of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. In Heaney’s poem about the ship that appears in the air, with its anchor stuck into the altar rails of the oratory of the Clonmacnoise monastery, there is a passage that bewilders us even after the monks free the ship and it sails on:

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,

– Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things

The “drowning” of one in the water, which is the air that others are breathing, reminds us of the mystery and the complexity of the poem, and the mutually negating possibilities that expose the pressure of the center, but never reveal the center itself, even after the problem of the stuck anchor has been solved.