Waterford Fire Station is a regional response centre for the South East of Ireland; it contains ten engine bays, maintenance and storage facilities, offices and residential accommodation for forty firefighters. Set in a neutral landscape, the building made its own world; it seems from the air like a piece of coiled origami, the dynamic pinwheel tension held by the still point of the drill tower. From the ground, however, the geometry stretches, becoming more like a nest or an inhabited wall; folding down from three stories to one, the autonomous structure shelters a loose fit of rooms, the hard external edge holding an softer inner facade, space between fabric and structure becoming covered galleries perfect for use in the mild wet Irish climate . The court – like a private amphitheatre- releases its tension through the engine bays - a metaphor for watchful stillness followed by sudden and immediate action, and perhaps something of de Chirico in the tension of the empty space waiting for the firefighter’s return.
The Beaufort Laboratory was built for University College Cork as a research facility to explore the potential of the sea- both to predict its actions and its potential for energy; scientists required a series of huge water tanks artificially agitated to reproduce natural situations, and research offices for meeting and study. The site was beside the real sea, near the last berthing point of the Titanic in 1912. In this context, the project becomes about the balance between nature and artifice, about the geometry of water movement and the impact of water on material through erosion- one of the great beauties of Irish landscape in rocks, trees and vegetation. Concepts of erosion- in this case responding to the prevailing South West wind and rain– sustained an architecture of indents and balconies against the side wall of the building, the imprint of form worn away like a piece of driftwood. The plan evolved to cover the maximum area with the minimum material, cuts formed for sustainable breathing, for gardens, for deliveries, forming a tense zoomorphic line. The lower tank hall roof has a density of steelwork reflecting the need for clear spans; the relationship with the plan form created a network of triangles around lower and higher points; experimenting with them – moving them up and down- became a three dimensional exploration of frozen waves; the roof evolved into a thin surface like a folded paper fan or a Gothic vault. The taller research block overlooks the harbour - scientists positioned between the natural action of water and their own manipulated version- the building like a creature crawling to the sea.
The second set of buildings are also about nature but in this case analogous to moss - about adherence - where everything is also about another thing which already exists – asking what can be added, inserted or displaced to make what exists more visible- something which has independent design integrity – but which, when added to something else, makes a third truth. The two new/old projects - a military library and a museum- are both about adding to existing landscapes, but one became about adjacency, the other about engagement with their respective contexts. One is a barracks and the other a church- one a locus of endless numbering- the other a sacred space where numbers are meaningless- about ordinariness and special-ness.
Military barracks offer a rational linear landscape of repetitive containers for transient occupation; at the largest scale, the units are extremely simple in character, but in detail have beautiful materials and technical intelligence. The site for the Military Archives – a facility with offices, a conservation laboratory and a large modern storage facility- was in an old hospital block with space for a new building behind it, the mix of old and new suiting aspirations to balance tradition and modernity. The design sought to reverse routes and meanings between past and present, where certain things are accentuated and others submerged. The new building became a solid brick storage box in the tradition of military warehouses, its weight and gables creating an affinity of form; the old hangs off its weight, a light-filled space of offices with a timber-lined reading room, the narrow end opened as a new public entrance. The front façade of the new cranks to create a fissure courtyard somewhere between a natural declivity and a tight urban space typical of the old city of Dublin; staff move from old to new seeking books and records across glazed bridges- between the crafted material of the old wall and the folded plain-ness of the new. Architecture became a tool to crank the building around to the new orientation; space is used in a way quite alien to its military origins; the old - full of windows, light and detail, becomes almost festive against the new wall.
St Mary’s Church in Kilkenny, a medieval building, was to become a museum of stone sculpture, with some extension required for the display of artefacts in a controlled environment. How to do this was not immediately obvious; it emerged from survey and from simply walking around the building, allowing time for ideas to develop- in this case an experiment in the use of archaeology to help define an architectural solution. Intimations that the church was conceived as a monumental object were confirmed by research; the chancel had been reduced in size during its history; when this was added to the survey, it was clear the original building was symmetric. The nave also had aisles to either side of the main structure; archaeology revealed the presence of extant foundations under the earth. Discrete new elements were replaced on these old foundations, reconstructing one aisle and rebuilding the chancel high over the old walls, amplifying the spatial complexity of the structure and developing a sequence of internal routes and views through walls to further vistas. The new elements – providing climate controlled spaces- are timber-lined internally and made of lead externally- lead’s soft malleability a foil to Irish grey stone and sky. The rest of the project worked with the nature of the building, providing a new stone floor, repairing materials, leaving exposed a large section of the original timber roof at the crossing which acts as a critical focus in the plan.
The third architecture comprises sets of buildings within existing university structures, providing a multiple responses within the equivalent of small cities. The projects are all independent, but mutually linked to a particular place and climate so grow a natural affinity through adjacency.
The practice has worked on three significant projects in Trinity College Dublin; all share characteristics that derive from their particular circumstance. We are all slow to see what is amazing about our particular contexts; in Dublin the 18th century university grid sits like the vision of perfect urbanity in the dead centre of the labyrinthine city, as if teaching it a lesson in rationality. Constructed as single blocks with open corners, the Georgian stone architecture is ordinary/special; contemporary projects work to respond to that evolved nature, work with the grid and its social nature- the essence of an intense conversation carried on across a courtyard and up a staircase- and, increasingly, forge new links to connect the University with the surrounding city. Built in stone, the two buildings sustain the axiality of the site; both engage with podiums and establish a subdued contemporary language; both take metaphors of nature at different scales. The Ussher Library formed three sculptural elements on a podium- a Book Conservation Laboratory, a book tower and a reading block- leaving space between them for light and passage like natural rock fissures; the building forms a new entrance to the College, people move through it like water in a river. The Long Room Post Graduate Hub is a simple rectangle in outline cut by dramatic lightwells, the stone elevation eroded by light in the way water erodes rock. The Oisin House project ( under construction ) makes a podium with health and medical facilities under floors of student housing; it works with the same criteria- the grid, the use of stone, the courtyard plan extends the typology of the College and forms a new public entrance but develops the idea of radical engagement with existing contexts. The architecture- like an iceberg- is a contemporary vernacular for the city, three stone blocks like mountains coiled around the central space and folded down with blank elevations to provide an appropriate context for the 18th century Printing House.
Bearing many implicit similarities are two student residence complexes and a Learning Centre for Thapar University in the Indian Punjab -. India is about scale and people; it is a rapidly changing world, open, passionately engaged with modernity; new projects engage with technologies, with a climate and a culture, with people talking, offering opinions. In the flat plain, architecture makes landscape, shade, section; Indian models provides copious examples of spaces, raised platforms, and enclosed shady gardens. The three projects create a focal route across an existing campus, incidents linked by gardens and a covered walkway. One end is held by the red student housing, the Learning Centre holds the middle ground; the third white student housing – a screened block with projecting common rooms to a planted court- stands along the route. The two ends comprise discrete blocks within a podium architecture; the red student housing, aerated internally by staggered double height social spaces, stand like chiselled chess pieces in a walled garden. Their mathematical adjustment – all blocks are the same form turned- contrasts with the riven character of the Learning Centre, where three stone-clad blocks- a Library, Computer Building and Lecture Theatre- start at ground level and rise high above a giant sheltering podium- the space beneath becomes the teeming open heart of the university. Huge inhabited ramps access the upper formal level where the three buildings stand in sculptural alignment; they hold the edge, but fold against one another in a near-natural adjustment; people flow between; the elevations screen rooms and gardens behind. Major internal spaces, top-lit- light sieved through plants on the roof- start at the ground floor and extend upwards through the section like periscopes, drawing people in and up to upper levels on a network of staircases.
If the projects are about buildings in Ireland and India, they are also about the pregnant architectural relationships between Ireland and Portugal- countries that would gain by being closer. The line of 5 degrees longitude West runs right through both- where we work in Dublin is nearly on the same line as Porto; we sharethe Atlantic, peripherality, large neighbours to the East, our differences are ones of latitude, not longitude. One difference is that Portugal has an architectural culture; Ireland does not- our prizes and awards are for music, theatre and literature. There is good and bad in this; in Ireland, architecture grows quietly in the background- wildflowers by the side of the road. To express our ideas through film seemed right for Porto, not least because the exhibition space was in the Siza- designed Sao Bento metro station- underground- and relatively dark. Film became the canvas, stretched across the walls and ceilings of a space which was not ‘cave-like’ but elegantly shaped and folded -and where moving pictures – squares and rectangles of light- could distort or question the exact geometries.
The station has two entrances- a low-key shallow one and a grand deep one with a flight of steps to the concourse; other escalators and steps lead down to the platform level. Like most transport interchanges, there is a necessary provisionality to the space- no destination, only ways in,out,up and down which can be reversed or repeated backwards. In Sao Bento, there is an inversion in the programme; the low-key entrance is the one most used one, the grand one is quiet- architecture slightly separated from function. The project positions the films towards the quiet end, enticing the eye away from normality- to engage with what might be a remote trick of the light. Pulling people down to use the whole space, the films and their supports also create a possible focal point, distorting the universality of the space.
Locating films in a metro station asks questions of time; this is a space dedicated to regular arrival and departure- people enter and leave in waves; trains arrive and depart in accordance with fixed timetables. Film disturbs the ground under this certainty; it has its own time frame; it arrives and leaves at a different pace-in this case there is more than one film; they have their own interlinked time structure as well.
The three Porto films are about current architectural projects- completed, in design evolution, one under construction. Two are of urban scale- Thapar University in the Indian Punjab and Trinity College in Dublin, where the practice has built three major projects in an historic university. Two projects are palimpsests, partly new and partly-old - St Mary’s Museum in Kilkenny and the Military Archives project in Dublin- where new elements are like accretions on older ones; three relate specifically to ideas of ‘constructed’ geographies- Kishogue School in west Dublin, the Beaufort Laboratory in Cork and Waterford Fire Station in Waterford City.
All seen from one point, the films present the projects simultaneously but from different angles; they are about different architectural perceptions - as ideas, as realities, and somewhere between-perception enhanced by the monstrous capacity of drones. Some of the buildings cannot be fully understood without their ‘place’; others construct one; all are influenced by template of nature at the largest scale and the smallest scale of rocks, fissures, moss.
One film- the largest- projected on the ceiling of the station- shows the buildings flat down in landscape or in their city context- the camera rolls over the city, the countryside with majestic slowness ; the buildings appear in passing- forms amongst many others, fields of grey or green amidst all the secret empty spaces of the world. If this film is about architecture as plan, as the architect’s hidden idea, the second film – projected on the side wall- is essentially about the building as three-dimensional model. The camera folds in, down and around looking at the projects from different angles and at different distances, swinging around and gradually closing in on the detail, the drone like a fly at the window. The third film is the smallest –and also the stillest , the most unchanging; time passes slowly in it; the camera is on the ground; the buildings are experienced in real time by the human eye.
The viewer can look at the films singly, in sequence, or together; they are run at the same time and are looped- they run together on some occasions, but on others are left to‘lose’ time against one another - different images appear with others at different times of the day, projects occasionally conjoined, occasionally separated, allowing the similarities between them to become clear without words.