O’Donnell & Tuomey’s historical inspiration
A Derry cultural centre for the Irish language looks to the Middle Ages for the inspiration for its dynamic concrete form
More than a dozen years have passed since the IRA restored the ceasefire that heralded the end of the Troubles. Peace may have broken out, but Derry holds fast to its tribal murals and slogans. Identity remains a raw issue in a city divided by two names.
For decades now, territory here has been claimed with a paint can in one hand and a roller brush in the other. Today, almost 35 years after the failed anti-terrorism policy of internment without trial was abandoned, the dark brooding stones of the medieval city walls, high above the nationalist Bogside, remain freshly daubed with monumental white letters demanding somebody “End Internment Now”.
The most surprising consequence of internment was, perhaps, its role as a catalyst for the revival in Northern Ireland of Gaeilge, the almost-extinct Irish language. Before its widespread adoption by republican prisoners in the Long Kesh H-Blocks, the daily use of Irish had effectively shrunk to a few rural areas across the border. The prisoners’ motivations may have been as much clandestine as cultural, but today, under the new dispensation, the language is flourishing.
So much so that a host of agencies, including both governments, the European Union peace and reconciliation programme, the International Fund for Ireland and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, have collaborated in funding the creation in Derry of Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, a purpose-built civic presence for this minority culture.
The Cultúrlann (cultural centre), designed by O’Donnell & Tuomey for An Gaeláras, the north-west’s leading Irish-language arts and cultural organisation, is home to a 200-seat theatre, language classrooms, a youth club, café, book shop and local business incubation suite.
The building occupies a deep, blind plot on Great James Street at the ragged end of the city’s Georgian quarter. The site, 50m long by 15m wide, is bounded on three sides by party walls, while the useful street frontage was halved by the need to retain an existing electricity board substation on the site and carve out a fire escape for the new complex.
“One problem was finding daylight,” says John Tuomey. “Another was that the biggest spaces, the performance space and the café, would take up the whole of the ground floor. The other spaces, the enterprise offices, education rooms and arts and craft area, were just as important and every part of the building needed to be active, not hidden away off a corridor.”
The architects fell back on an approach they discovered when designing the Irish Film Centre around an irregularly shaped found space in Dublin’s Temple Bar in the early 1990s. All of the Cultúrlann’s activities are clustered around an “external” social space, a glass-roofed trapezoidal courtyard that is carved through the four floors of the building, giving access to the different functions, which are laid out one per level, each according to its needs: culture, enterprise, teaching and administration.
Unusually, this courtyard plan does not represent a retreat, either literal or metaphorical, from the outside world. On the contrary, its dynamic form strains for the street as well as the sky. “We didn’t want the courtyard to become separated from the footpath, so we pulled it forward and dragged the front door deep into the building,” says Tuomey.
Courtyard and entrance are divided only by the depth of a wedge-shaped column but connected through their DNA — board-marked concrete — and a shared floor of white terrazzo flags. “The ambition is to draw people in off the street before they really know what’s happening to them and open a door to the culture,” he says.
The threshold trick is achieved courtesy of a zigzag diagonal structure that tightens relationships, like a corkscrew. Tuomey calls it a “jack-in-the-box scheme, forced into its sleeve”. Jagged and restless as shrapnel, the plan seems pressurised by some elemental force as powerful as pack ice or shifting tectonic plates, an impression heightened by the sense that at its heart is a diamond in the rough.
The zigzag grid even stirs up the facade, folding it like a concertina and squeezing it to fit onto three long-forgotten domestic plots between a neoclassical former manse and the taller, undistinguished buildings of the terrace.
“Although it is a contextual building, the Cultúrlann has to be disruptive,” says Tuomey. “It has the scale and presence of a house, but the ambition of a civic building. It has to be opened up. To do that, to crack the house open, it must create commotion on the street.”
Like their mentor, James Stirling, who famously mined the three red university buildings at Leicester, Cambridge and Oxford from a single unbuilt design — the garden-wall residential project of 1959 for Selwyn College, Cambridge — O’Donnell & Tuomey’s public buildings can generally be traced back to domestic trigger projects. For Ranelagh School, think Hudson House. For the Glucksman Gallery, the Howth House.
The Cultúrlann is the first in a series of buildings, which includes the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, a museum in Coleraine and the student centre for the London School of Economics, to have been triggered by the Sleeping Giant house at Killiney, overlooking Dublin Bay, of 2005-07 (Works February 8, 2008).
“Killiney was a real experiment, a cat’s cradle of overlapping lines of desire and counter-positioned elements,” says Tuomey. “We said, ‘Let’s imagine it doesn’t have an outside’ and promised ourselves we wouldn’t worry about what it looked like.
“In Derry, we have worked very hard to make a facade but I’m not sure in my own heart that this building is ready to be seen,” he says. “The front is not fully ready for the world yet, because we haven’t done this before.
“We thought of it as a brick building cast in concrete, like a Rachel Whiteread, responding to everything about the brick except the brick itself. Although we were in the Georgian Quarter, I just knew it had to be concrete: poured liquid that sets on the site. Primal, like a thought embodied in the physical construction. Everything else could be brought to site.”
The 75mm boarding corresponds to the height of a brick. O’Donnell & Tuomey even promised it would be a red building and showed it that way in their drawings. Intense, saturated red, as if it had been dropped in a bucket of clay. The idea came from the memory of a performance work they had witnessed in London in 1978, in which their friend, Nigel Rolfe, stacked timber to the ceiling of a gallery before coating the structure in thick wet clay to form a piece called Red Wedge.
But the building is not red. Instead, the entrance front is dominated by a two-storey banner in eye-stinging, woad-blue paint. Tuomey explains that, as the concrete emerged and people began thinking of it as a timber building, it seemed a shame to colour it.
One hopes that the real reason for the change of heart was budgetary, not a loss of nerve. There is a beguiling, primitive beauty to the idea of hand-finished, clay-caked concrete. But deciding to paint the finest board-marked concrete on the island of Ireland — even a relatively small part of it — is deeply transgressive, akin to keying the side of a classic car. Once done, there can be no going back.
The move from clay to paint did, however, force the architects to think about colour in a way they had not done heretofore. “We were looking for colours that have legitimacy beyond choice but can agitate off each other,” says Tuomey.
“We didn’t want to slip back into a modernist diagram, so everything is earthy, not primary. Red oxide is a steel primer. The mustard yellow of the window frames was matched to the scaffold poles on the site. It looks like farm machinery, another no-choice choice. The blue is a chalk colour.”
Yet in a city where paint is political and symbols serious, it cannot have been missed that the fractured, fissured facade seems to have been poetically settled as a collage of mutant variants on the colours of contested identity, derived, however ambiguously, from the Irish tricolour and the Union Flag. Here is a blue banner, red gates, green Reglit glass and orange windows, all sharing a common ground of the finest white concrete. Architecture is, indeed, a political act.
“You need something to cut the concrete, like a tie or a scarf,” says Tuomey. “Some of the buildings across the road have painted shop fronts. We like that old tradition in provincial Irish towns. Okay, ideally we should have used marmorino, like Scarpa — polished plaster, cobalt-blue — but we didn’t have the money for that so we painted it instead. Corb himself wasn’t above doing that either. And it’s an arts centre. The Cultúrlann is meant to be a populist building, not a refined one.”
O’Donnell & Tuomey have always been alive to the poignancy of the vernacular but their provocative undercutting of high architectural values by low building practice also prompts questions about what, ultimately, is important in a work of architecture. What must be held on to and what may be let go?
In fairness, they offered one answer at the Venice Biennale in 2008, where, for their exhibit as part of Ireland’s entry, “The Lives of Spaces”, they reduced the essence of the Cultúrlann to a single space.
“Architecture aspires to the condition of a ruin,” says Tuomey. “All you have to do with this is take the rooflight off and it will be a noble ruin, a place to play and run around. It’s more than just space.
“In Temple Bar, we were after the space. That was a weakness. Those buildings are not strong enough. We are getting to know old buildings better, to appreciate their decrepitude, and as we do, what we have found is that it is structure that lasts. You can knock bits off them and they’ll live to fight another day.”
Tuomey cites the vertical organisation and monumental stone forms of Norman tower houses as one inspiration for the Cultúrlann’s central court, which he calls “our best effort yet to build an inside-out tower house”. The 400-year-old Rothe House in Kilkenny, a leading example of pre-Renaissance urban architecture in Ireland, was another influence.
“I like the way of moving through medieval buildings, how the circulation is not direct,” he says. “The informality of the architecture reveals itself by degrees, which is good for cultural exchange and sociability.”
He is on to something profound here. The courtyard does not feel new, but already ancient, like a found space that has been worked and reworked over generations. Its beauty is mysterious, even melancholy. The construction itself seems engaged in an act of memory, the light appearing to catch on the traces of long-vanished nails and quarter-sawn timber planks until it slows and is petrified.
This is a space to experience rather than to look at, to capture with the imagination instead of through the eyes or with a camera. With its eddying, ascending, magical mystery tour of mural staircases, slung bridges, balconies and ramparts that sometimes wind within the court and sometimes outside and around it, all topped off by a glimpse through the rooflight across grassy slopes to the paint-daubed city walls above the Bogside, the Cultúrlann seems destined for success as a place in which new, more optimistic, tales of the city will unfold and be told.
They know it already in Derry. As Eamonn McCann, the local journalist and radical political activist, recently remarked: “Even empty, it has a lived-in, laughed-in, sung-and-danced-in feel.”
Original print headline - Historical translation
Architect O’Donnell & Tuomey; Client An Gaeláras; Quantity surveyor/project manager Sammon Chartered Surveyors; Structural engineer Albert Fry Associates; Services engineer IN2 Engineering Design Partnership; Main contractor JPM Contracts