ABK’s Library, Local Area Offices and Courthouse, in Kilmallock, County Limerick
A single-storey civic complex in Kilmallock has saved the Irish town from a grim architectural legacy of 19th century workhouses
Kilmallock, an hour’s drive south of Limerick, is as unusual a town as may be found — a town like Lazarus. “The Irish Baalbek”, as it was grandly known in the 18th century, was a ghost town for 150 years. It was later raised from the dead, but the powerful aroma of the past still clings to its medieval bones. ABK’s library, local government and courthouse complex is the first significant work of architecture in the town since Frederick G Hicks’s Church of Ireland opened in 1938.
Kilmallock reached maturity in around 1600 as one of the few sizeable inland towns in Ireland, before being devastated by war. The walled town was bombarded in 1648 during the Cromwellian campaign and destroyed for a second time by Jacobite forces during the Williamite war in 1690. Its former prosperity and status were never recovered.
The Limerick-to-Cork road was routed away from Kilmallock in the 1830s but a lifeline of sorts was thrown to it in 1841 with the construction of a poor relief Union Workhouse, the most dreaded and feared institution in 19th century Ireland. Housing more than 1,000 destitute men, women and children, the pauper population of the workhouse exceeded that of Kilmallock itself. But it succeeded in resuscitating the worn-out, atrophied town.
Kilmallock was reclaimed as a palimpsest during the Catholic-nationalist surge in the latter half of the 19th century. Handsome terraces of houses, banks and shops were built of limestone and render, retaining the medieval street pattern. The decline of agriculture over recent decades has seen the town’s fortunes fade again, however, prompting the government — this time of the local variety — into action.
The principal architectural success story of the last 15 years in Ireland has been the programme of civic architecture rolled out by local authorities. Some of the best architects — ABK, Bucholz McEvoy, FKL, Grafton, Heneghan Peng, MacGabhann, McCullough Mulvin, Scott Tallon Walker and Keith Williams among them — were retained to bring local government closer to its communities.
ABK designed acclaimed civic offices for councils in Offaly, North Tipperary and Cork city, while Limerick County Council’s headquarters at Dooradoyle, designed by Bucholz McEvoy, achieved even greater prominence when it was selected as Ireland’s entry to the 2002 Venice Biennale. Architecture has become a good news story for local authorities.
Limerick County Council assembled the brief for a local area office to improve the delivery of council services in Kilmallock and provide a new library and up-graded district court. Each part of the whole was small, no more than 500sq m, but the council believed the scheme could set an urban and architectural benchmark for the town.
There were three clients and funders: the county council for the local area office; the county council and the Library Council of the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government for the library; and the Courts Service of the Department of Justice for the court.
The chosen site was at the forbidding end of town. The main blocks of the workhouse had long since disappeared, replaced by local authority houses, but the entrance block — the former workhouse administration unit — survived. The first floor had been converted into a dingy, classroom-like courtroom in 1925, while part of the ground floor was in use as a fire station. The rest was council offices. The remainder of the site was given over to a yard for the council’s engineering depot.
ABK won the commission through a competitive interview process. “It was an awkward site, terribly compromised,” says ABK director John Parker. “Our original idea was to make an open square at the end of the main street, a traditional square, contrasting with the dense character of the town. Kilmallock has no public space because the main street is so tight, much more compressed than in a typical market town. We were thinking of three separate buildings around a square because nobody knew if funding could be secured for each part of the brief at the same time.
“But it was difficult, because of the location of the workhouse, which closes the vista from the main street in an angled way. And local people were very attached to this familiar stone building, despite its sinister history.”
When the brief changed, to include a quantum of town car parking, the idea of making a square fell away and the composition of the vista at the end of the main street became the primary architectural driver.
“We started playing with what goes where,” says Parker. “In particular, what should go into the two-storey workhouse. There was pressure from part of the client body to use it for the local area office. I was really opposed to the compromise involved in that, cramming offices into a building 4.5m wide.”
An insight into ABK’s skill at managing the brief is revealed by its approach to universal access. It proposed putting everything on the ground floor, accessible to everybody. “It made it a democratic project,” says Parker. It also meant he could get rid of the upper floor of the workhouse building.
Union workhouses were built throughout Ireland under a system of poor relief established by the British government in 1838. The decision in 1839 to award the plum commission to design all the workhouses in the country to George Wilkinson, a 25-year-old Englishman, caused such rancour among local architects that they founded the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) that same year. But nothing succeeds like success. Wilkinson, author of a pioneering study, Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland, in 1845, was elected to head the RIAI in 1851, at the tender age of 37.
Wilkinson and his staff of three designed the workhouses to a unitary pattern, with walls of limestone masonry, unplastered but heavily whitewashed internally, and mortar or clay floors.
By March 1840, 64 were under construction; in April 1842, 81 buildings were fit for occupation. By 1851, with the worst of Ireland’s Great Famine over, Wilkinson had completed 163 workhouses — enough to house 176,700 people.
Of this prodigious output, little remains. “Very few have survived,” says Parker. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t this little structure be interesting as a kind of memorial to the workhouse?’ We decided to turn it into an artefact, to gut it and create a great hall, to make the whole of the building a foyer to the courtroom, as it once was to the workhouse.” The courtroom sits in what was originally a yard behind the building.
It was a hard sell, as the workhouse was a protected structure, but ABK prevailed. Where originally there were three front rooms and two large offices with fireplaces, one at each end, and a boardroom and offices overhead, there is now a luminous, chilly, limestone-lined civic hall that contrasts sharply with the domesticity of the new library’s “living room”. It was important to Parker that it should feel a bit spartan, like an outdoor space. “Most of the court’s business is done in this hall, with clients meeting their solicitors and so on, so I wanted it to feel like the steps of the court,” he says. “People shouldn’t be tempted to take their coats off here.”
When the court is not in session, which is most of the time, the hall can be used by the town for exhibitions and events. ABK was worried about the compatibility of the criminal court with the library, where children come and go freely, often alone, so a little distance was put between the two. And, in a clever arrangement, the library schedules its weekly closing day for whenever the court is sitting.
The key to the design was settling the court in the former workhouse building. “The court building has gravitas,” says Parker. “It sets the story up. Then all we had to do was hold the building line and fit the accommodation behind the walls, like urban infill…
“We wanted to give Kilmallock, which feels quite heavy, something contextual but really light, refined and elegant. Something that would be inspirational, that would make them really proud. We focused on the tautness of the envelope and the esplanade between the building and the car park.”
The two are separated by a drop and a limestone wall. The library takes up the corner, its inverted tent roof rising to the light and inviting the town in. The Library Council’s aim of attracting users who don’t normally visit libraries has worked — 1,500 people, almost 40% of the town’s population, registered as readers within the first six weeks. The library shares a deep, recessed porch and top-lit exhibition space with the local area office, which is characterised as a temple of governance by a screening colonnade of limestone piers, each measuring 150mm x 100mm. Proportioned as stone mullions, they double as a thoughtful nod to the majestic ruins of the Elizabethan town.
Thoughtfulness runs deep throughout the tightly planned scheme, from the well-tempered quality of light and tall ceilings that impart a sense of airy wellbeing, to a sunny staff canteen and delightful courtyard gardens. There are irritations, inevitably, such as ceramic anti-solar fritting used decoratively on north-facing windows; the clumsy junction of old and new front facades; and a washroom lobby that disturbs the serenity of the remodelled workhouse hall.
But all is forgiven. ABK’s small, single-storey building is the best thing to have happened to Kilmallock in generations. It has changed the character of the workaday town, injecting an air of breezy optimism. Yet it hardly reveals itself until you are upon it, offering a wonderfully low-key rem-inder of how good architecture always has an effect out of all proportion to its scale.
Architect ABK Architects, Structural engineer Michael Punch & Partners, M & E engineer Homan O’Brien Associates, Quantity surveyor DLPKS,
Main contractor Brian McCarthy Contracting
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