Terry Pawson’s Visual Arts Centre engages with Carlow
Rather than offering an icon, Carlow’s Visual Arts Centre complements the town and allows the art to dominate, writes Robert Payne
Carlow Town and the county to which it gives its name are situated in a part of Ireland that has been urbanised since the Norman invasion of the 12th century. Here the towns are more elaborate than elsewhere in the country. Rather than following the model of the sraidbhaile, the “street-town”, located on an ancient trade route and widened where necessary into a rough rectangle or triangle to form a market place, the towns of south-east Ireland display more complex patterns of organisation, reminiscent of those on the European mainland, though this is not to say they are exact facsimiles.
While streets may be laid out as crossroads and in grid patterns, the shapes made are approximate; while there may be defined routes and public squares, these urban gestures are executed modestly rather than grandly. So an axis may be laid out with buildings aligned on one side only, or be focused on a church or courthouse or the house of the local grandee with a centralised porch or door case but asymmetrical wings; or a public square will be trapezoidal in plan, or will have only three sides, the fourth perhaps consisting of a line of trees or a river bank.
Such economy in plan is often paralleled by a restrained palette of materials in elevation. In Carlow the beautiful, pale grey, hard local limestone is everywhere: not just as cut blocks but also ground into cement for renders, which historically were then washed with the same lime in whites and pinks. The inherent austerity of these approaches, which speaks to a frugality in the Irish character that foreigners often miss, is mitigated by the picturesque effects that arise when these are overlaid on differing topographies, sometimes natural but often man-made.
Carlow Town exhibits these features in abundance, and it is in this context that Terry Pawson Architects’ Visual Arts Centre and George Bernard Shaw Theatre must sit. Pawson won the commission in competition in 2005, and construction recently started. But the project occupies a larger footprint than the practice’s original proposal, owing to the dropping of a stipulation within the competition brief that a ruined stone wall should be retained.
The site is right in the centre of town on one side of a green space dominated by a large 19th century seminary, and is overlooked by the side of Carlow’s miniature Roman Catholic cathedral. It was occupied by a group of agricultural sheds painted green. The urban context of the projects displays the characteristic mixture of formally loose planning and topographically picturesque composition.
Its engagement with the existing urban context will make a building that embeds itself in the town
Terry Pawson Architects has observed this context with an accurate eye and responded to it with subtlety and skill. The main gallery is a simple rectangular box which asserts itself externally as the tallest form in the composition, and is entered centrally on its long axis. This straightforward gesture ties the new building not only to its forceful neighbours but also to a dominant aspect of the town plan. The other major spaces of the building — the theatre and the lesser galleries — spiral around the main room, descending and ascending as the topography, partly natural and partly manmade, dictates. Again, a striking characteristic of the town is recalled in miniature. Acute observations continue around the main entrance — a feature of the design that enjoyed significant elaboration once the site was expanded.
An elongated limestone wall echoes those in the town and speaks “boundary” to a local mind familiar with such structures, while also providing a tidy way to organise the inevitable clutter of signage that public buildings attract. This wall signals the start of a switchback sequence of entry that is deeply reminiscent of Irish public buildings where the pomposity of entering on axis is immediately deflated into a sociable swirling movement. The evocation of the memorable and the familiar also informs the palette of materials in the interior. The combination of stone, concrete and wood in the entrance hall reminds the visitor of the strategy often used in Ireland when restoring ruined medieval buildings; the simple plastered walls of the galleries make these rooms recede politely so that the art contained within them can dominate.
Outside, the hierarchy of the interior spaces is reflected in the topographical massing of their volumes. They are clad in a greenish glass, which nods towards the green-painted agricultural sheds that formerly occupied the site.
Terry Pawson Architects is to be commended for avoiding the contemporary temptation to offer Carlow an “iconic” building. Its considered engagement with the existing urban context, which requires study to uncover, will make a building that embeds itself in the town from the start. This is not to argue that the practice has proposed something timid and self-effacing. On the contrary, its manipulation of the interior volumes and its restrained proposals for construction, particularly in the gallery that can accept large art works, will provide a vital springboard for art of the future, most certainly in Ireland, and probably also in the wider world. The opening of this building in December will be signature enough.
Architect Terry Pawson Architects, Structural and services engineer Arup Ireland, Quantity Surveyor Nolan Ryan Partnership, Acoustic consultant Acoustic Dimensions, Theatre consultant Theatre Project Consultants, Art Handling Bruce McAllister, Contractor Rohcon