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Ireland's Pavilion, Biennale 2004

In response to the theme of the Venice Biennale 2004, "Metamorph", Ireland's Pavilion was itself transformative of an ongoing project for the phased redevelopment of the former Industrial School and its eventual incorporation within a community-generated campus at Letterfrack: the transformation of an institution. The installation in the Arsenale was intended to tell the story of the past, present and projected future of the site. The exhibition focused in on the architecture of the new Furniture College and provided an overview of the history, culture and landscape of Connemara West.

Arsenale di Venezia, 30122 Venezia VE, Italy
45°26'05.5"N 12°20'59.6"E
Start Year:
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters 2015 Awards: O’Donnell + Tuomey
    Dublin, 29 Oct  – 9 Nov 2015
  • New Irish Architecture – Rebuilding the Republic
    Leuven, Belgium

The new buildings at Letterfrack represent a rethinking of the relationship of the former penal institution with its place. Ireland’s Pavilion recasts elements of the architectural project to suggest characteristics of confinement and release, closed institutions and frameworks for change. Under the roof trusses of the abandoned Artiglierie munitions factory, separate structures confront one another in an analogous composition. Principles of form and construction, abstracted from the built reality of a contemporary college, evoke memories of chapels and shrines, lobster pots and the skeletal carcasses of upturned boats.

Open Frame

The timber framed structure of the Machine Hall workshops was an important first principle of building construction in Letterfrack. The Open Frame utilizes similar structural principles, an elegant economy, a leaning lattice. In this case the frame is put to work to support three levels of exhibition information; a high level colour panorama, an eye level black and white frieze and seven window boxes describing process, history, matter, structure, culture, form and time.

Scary House

A different kind of structure stands in counterbalance to the Open Frame; more intimate, more complex in its resonance. An island chapel, an inverted curragh, a twisted house, an open-ended lobster pot with a sea-shell sandy floor.

Settle Bench

A distinctive element of Irish country furniture, the traditional settle bench allowed the traveler to sit at the focal point of the room (the hearth), with a clear view of the front door, front window and activities of the kitchen. Some benches incorporated a falling table, some provided boxed-in storage under a lifting seat and some had a shelf at the top of the boarded backrest. We have designed a hybrid adaptation for the Biennale to allow visitors to sit and read at the focal point of the exhibition. The bench has been built using craft techniques at The Conservation and Restoration Centre in Letterfrack.

Some buildings have savage histories that can leave a place in need of a kind of architectural exorcism, a project of redemption. The people of Letterfrack, an isolated Atlantic community, are re-imagining their village and the institution at its heart. A 19th century hamlet, where life was overshadowed for much of the last century by a repressive reformatory, is being imaginatively transformed to secure its future in the new millennium. Three centuries, three different visions of community.
In the Arsenale, as in Letterfrack, the old and the new stand slightly apart, in balanced equilibrium. In this metamorphic installation, the gables of the institution bring to mind the two earliest surviving church forms in the west of Ireland. There are other references: to lobster pots, which are easy to enter but hard to escape; and, half-clad in canvas, like a Galway currach or fishing boat, and half stripped to the bone, the façade of the edifice dissolves in front of our eyes. Here, the college, inspired by the five-ply, stick-build structure of its wonderful sheds, is rendered dynamic, light, open and breezily confident.
Together, these abstractions create a forecourt, a point of orientation: the old religious prison, a scary house remembered as in a nightmare, its fearful symmetry askew; and the open framework of a community college in the wild, pregnant with possibilities. The work is unfinished but we have seen the dawn: an institution transformed.

John and Sheila’s response – the metamorphic reworking of their award-winning architectural project – has resulted in a significant event in the difficult field of exhibiting architecture.

Shane O'Toole, Ireland’s Commissioner for the Venice Biennale 2004


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