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Wednesday23 July 2014

MacGabhann Architects' cultural centre in County Donegal turns up the volume

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Local practice MacGabhann's second building in the little town of Letterkenny is a metal-clad tour de force in gold and silver, reports Charles Rattray

Letterkenny is no great shakes as a town. An important commercial centre, yes, but considerably less engaging than Derry to the east, just across the border into Northern Ireland, and with markedly less scenic appeal than Donegal’s spectacular landscape and coastline to the west, north and, for that matter, south. For architects, however, this hilly town of around 18,000 people is becoming very interesting indeed because it is now home to two of MacGabhann Architects’ extraordinary buildings: the Council Area Office of 2002 and this recently completed Regional Cultural Centre. Moreover, the visibility of each of these public buildings from the other, and the 19th century cathedral from both, has become a key triangulation of the town.

What strikes one straightaway about this building is its terrific presence, its visceral impact. The faceted and gleaming exterior is intensely sculptural and, in its eschewal of conventional architectural structure, metaphoric. It might be the surface of a great native metal rock placed on the slope to encourage and guide movement between the two streets that lie above and below it; it might be an installation, collaborating with its situation to reflect, almost literally, the natural terrain and comment on the character of its surroundings. But notwithstanding MacGabhann Architects’ methods, which are distinctly sculptural — the firm makes dozens of models before the best ones are drawn, and it is relatively uninterested in issues such as type and technology — this is not sculpture, but architecture. Where the metal surface stops is glass, and so at the front — as we may now call it — there is a generous view of the interior that gives a very clear understanding of scale and use. It is not such a mysterious object after all, even if a degree of formal ambiguity remains: is it skin or thing, or do we feel the tension of both?

The interior on display behind this glazing is the building’s foyer: a significant internal street on several levels running the length of the building. As Alastair Hall of Hackett & Hall noted in Modern Ulster Architecture, this space can be read as a vast stage set, viewed through a proscenium, defined by the rake of the roof and the falling ground plane below. This analogy — of foyer as theatre, with town as audience — can be continued in the entrance sequence. A little draught lobby with automatic doors is an arrival moment celebrated by floor, walls and ceiling entirely lined with crimson coir matting, a colour and material that immediately evoke theatrical red plush. Proceeding to the town side, myriad lights in the soffit of the cantilevered first floor art gallery, as well as the presence of external steps, make particular spaces to pause. There is more than a degree of ambiguity here too.

In the wedge-shaped foyer, the circulation is organised with the two most important rooms — theatre and art gallery — forming the ends of a route. Between these are theatre workshops, music practice rooms and multimedia suites; behind are offices, the kitchen and the workings of the building. At the entrance, a ramp leads down towards the 150-seat theatre space, while stairs lead up to the level of the art gallery located immediately above it. These stairs are fun: a wider part allows people to move out of the stream and look over the crowd, while the balusters of flat section steel are set at different angles to contrive teasing variations of view and subtly varied shadows. Sections of the balustrade pivot to allow bigger art pieces through, and there is a hoist to take them to the gallery.

The methods are distinctly sculptural — the firm makes dozens of models before the best ones are drawn

The gallery itself has one external wall clad in gold-coloured alloy with the same shingle pattern as the aluminium skin everywhere else on the outside. But here, uniquely, the cladding continues to the inside. As well as helping to mark the entrance of the building, the material richness marks the entrance to this special room, its golden doors — the material is continuous — encouraging exploration just as the fanciful might set out for the caislean oir (golden castle) found at the end of all the best rainbows in Irish mythology. Within, the gallery is calm. The floor is grey concrete, with the white walls punctuated by a single narrow window to the town. The ceiling is flat, but voids for roof lighting show the concrete beams of the main roof structure running through — an honest gesture that leaves the beams looking relatively puny in relation to the rooflights and the scale of the room. The relationship between ceiling and structure, box gallery and outer form, might have been better if the beams had been extended to ceiling level as fins with flat soffits and sloping top surfaces.

A second flight of stairs leads from the first floor gallery level to the roof, or at least to a small window seat at roof level that has views over the town, down through the foyer and out to the slope. The views here are good, although whether quite spectacular enough to encourage any but the most infatuated lovers to make the trip remains to be seen. Without access to a roof terrace, it is very much in the mould of Venturi’s “nowhere stair” that led only to the clerestorey of the house he designed for his mother back in 1962. At one level, AA Milne’s lines on the stair where Christopher Robin sat seem to sum it up: “And all sorts of funny thoughts/Run around my head:/It isn’t really anywhere!/It’s somewhere else instead!” On the other hand, the continuity the stair provides between roof levels informs one of sectional complexities and pleasures that the overall form conceals, and the climb to the top of the golden wall is a key part of the foyer’s stage set charm.

The secondary rooms of the building are straightforward on plan, less so in section as the ceiling line follows the external form — and this form is a complex one not determined primarily by the uses of its component rooms. The results here feel appropriate, if sometimes unusual.

An example is the multimedia suite, the sort of space that too often exists, overwarm under a suspended ceiling peppered with well intentioned antiglare lamps. In this building, that room is a wonderfully generous 8m high, lit by clerestorey glazing with natural ventilation, and with tubular lamps forming a horizontal datum below the sloping and ribbed concrete soffit. One trusts this is good judgement rather than good luck because the sort of conceptual approach used here, focused as it is on celebrating the specifics of the site at the expense of more generic concerns, risks missing two spatial attributes that are usually seen in opposition, namely the reciprocity between use and form, and the provision of the sort of generic spaces that can accommodate different and unanticipated uses over time.

The conceptual approach used here celebrates the specifics of the site

Memorably allusive

Although MacGabhann Architects does not seem to rely on precedent to any great extent, the golden cladding of the gallery wall does call to mind Hans Scharoun’s library and the reclad Philharmonie concert hall in Berlin. It is probably incidental that Tarla MacGabhann spent several years in Libeskind’s Berlin office, and that the cladding here in Ireland was fitted by a Berlin-based contractor. More significant are other debts that the architect might have to Scharoun’s organic method. Of these, the most notable is a departure from the cubic and the Platonic in favour of more apparently spontaneous forms. These are painstakingly developed to express something about the place and the society they sit in.

Here, the practice, whose office is based close to Letterkenny and whose two partners were born and raised there, has inherited a certain legitimacy, but more important is the fact that its effort has developed a number of works that form an emotional, as well as a physical, contact with the locality. Like these other works, this

Cultural Centre lies outside any orthodox modern lineage in architecture. Its relationship to modernism lies not only in opposition, but also in the way it embraces the fragmentary and allusive qualities so essential to modern art in general and so strikingly evident in the literary work of TS Eliot and James Joyce.

This is not an architecture that is easy to draw quickly or to discuss in traditional terms, but it remains highly memorable. It is about form, about landscape, about intuition — and perhaps about a growing regional identity.

Project team

Client Donegal County Council, Architect MacGabhann Architects, Main contractor McDermott & Trearty, Structural engineer Albert Fry & Associates, M&E engineer Burk Morrison, Quantity surveyor Sammon Surveyors, Theatre consultant Ken Hartnett, Acoustic consultant FR Mark & Associates

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