Introduction to an Introduction: On the Work of McCullough Mulvin There is a small engraving that is reproduced in a number of publications by Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin. It first appears at the beginning of their 1987 book A Lost Tradition: the Nature of Architecture in Ireland, where is occupies the page before the main body of the text, a location that suggests it acts as a kind of allegorical frontispiece to what follows. In writing the present introduction to the work of these architects, I want to dwell on this image – which is itself positioned as a kind of introduction, not just to A Lost Tradition, the first of their books, but to their body of work that will thereafter unfold – for it seems to me to cast light in important ways on the work of the architects.

Titled “‘Louthiana’, holy well”, the engraving depicts a small corbelled stone structure with a curving profile, sitting within a grove of trees that rise in a ring of ten trunks, with an eleventh – broken – visible to the rear. As the trees extend, the trunks divide before merging together into a single leafy crown raised high above the little construction below. The image is drawn from the third book of Thomas Wright’s Louthiana: or, an Introduction to the Antiquities of Ireland of 1748 (where it is oddly classed with “the Most Remarkable Remains of the Works of the Danes and the Druids” and rather mysteriously is the one plate in the book without an accompanying commentary). The fact that McCullough and Mulvin place this engraving at the start of their book encourages us to see it as a kind of emblematic primitive hut, a frontispiece that irresistibly recalls the famous image at the beginning of Abbé Laugier’s Essai sur l’architecture. That such a reference might exist should not surprise us. Laugier’s text, first published in 1753, is normally understood within a tradition of architectural ‘rationalism’, a tradition that would eventually come to irrigate in intricate ways, from the 1960s on, critical European responses to instrumentalised and technocratic planning. Through the influence of figures such as Aldo Rossi, this fed a new attention to the city as a place of complex historical experience as conveyed through its artifacts; the related idea of it as a site of ‘collective memory’; and the kind of intensified appreciation of architecture’s participation in, and cultivation of, the city that motivated actions such as the celebrated campaigning proposal by Group 91 architects, which included McCullough Mulvin, that prevented the destruction of Dublin’s historic Temple Bar district.

In the engraving published by Laugier, the reclining muse of architecture points to a grove of trees in which the lineaments of a trabeated and pedimented structure are discernable, produced – as it were – ‘out of nature’. This is emphasised in the engraving by the fact that the primitive hut’s columns are still-growing trees, and so differ from the origin myth presented in Laugier’s own text, in which it is imagined that fallen branches were placed upright to make posts. The back of the muse is turned toward us, so that her instructing finger directs the viewer away, which is to say, away from the present and into the past. This is a temporally structured, backward-directed view. As such the fragments on which the muse rests are less ruins, as they first appear, than intimations of the architectural elements that will lithify from this near naturally-given form, which correct architecture must then point back to, much as the muse herself is doing. Here architecture emerges almost as a process of petrification, one that is also a transformation of nature into culture, a culture that remains true insofar as it is tethered to and determined by its model. This is a culture, the lesson thus tells us, which can only properly be one to the extent that it remains, in a fundamental way, at the point of its emergence.

Turning from this image to the one that McCullough Mulvin substitute for it, we are struck by the complex and ambiguous temporality that the Louthiana engraving introduces. Firstly we notice the disappearance of the figures that direct our view. Instead, the small engraving is isolated, rather beautifully, in the centre of the large square format sheet. Thus we see that the little structure in its grove of trees is not indexically pointed to: it is not given didactically as a determining lesson, but is instead offered in more reticent and less declamatory way. Whatever its status might be, it is not that of a grounding authority. Rather, it is paratextual, something that sits alongside: its relation to the text is not determined in advance, but awaits articulation. Secondly, we are led to speculate on the temporal relations that are depicted by the image. If the normative stories of architecture’s emergence have imagined the transition from the (perhaps sacred) grove of trees, McCullough Mulvin’s chosen emblem exhibits a much more ambivalent character. Here, it is very difficult to know what has come first, and certainly there are no intimations of priority and no obvious mimetic relation. Instead, everything seems to turn on the differential interplay between the two parts of the image, building and grove, which themselves oscillate ambiguously between nature and culture (is this, for example, an intentionally-planted stand of trees, composed so as to ring the little oratory-like structure, or has it sprung up untended?) The slim trunks of the trees (small because young or because rising from poor and rocky ground?) extend in wavering lines past the stone enclosure, as if so many wreaths of smoke that accumulate in the leafy mass above. Through the screen they make – for they stretch so high above it – we see with an increased sensitivity the low but beautiful boat-like curve of the stone walls. Having recognised this, the trunks now appear not smoke-like but wet and saturated, transmitting what is presumably the same sacred water that issues from the spring to the cloud of leaves above, which then iconographically appears to return it through the braided streams of the spindly trunks.

I first became aware of this image long ago, through McCullough and Mulvin’s book. I encountered it literally as a point of entry to their work, and it has remained so for me. The same strange and uncertain interplay of history it sets in motion, and the gentle and undidactic equivocality of the image – so reticent yet at the same time so compellingly dense and present – resonates through the architecture of McCullough and Mulvin. It is not uncommon for architects to talk about historic environments in terms of layers. It seems hard to object, and why would one do so? Patterns of settlement and occupation succeed one another in time, and the motif of sedimentary deposition can seem especially self-evident in countries with agonistic histories, such as Ireland. No doubt we can point to many cultural environments that exhibit layering in just this way, but at the same time I wonder to what extent this terminology – which is partly the description of a process, but which also in architectural discourses shades into a description of experience – registers that way that we actually encounter these places. The archaeological metaphorics of layering suggests that some things remain further back by virtue of their historicity, forming a kind of substrate. But here it seems to me that it is more pertinent and meaningful, for architecture at any rate, to speak in terms of complex conditions of co-presence, situations which involve the interaction of things with one other in ways that can be intensely affective and that can unsettle – often in disconcerting ways – the kind of assignment and assumptions of place that ideas of layering imply. I feel that the little frontispiece that we have been discussing makes something like this visible for us, and it is the condition from which it derives its peculiar tension as a dialectical image, one with which it is good to think.

In introducing the work of McCullough Mulvin Architects that follows, I want to propose that we might consider it a kind of extended inquiry into the poetics of this idea of co-presence. That is to say, an ongoing investigation into what happens when things are brought into certain relations with one another, in such a way that what has hitherto remained latent and has habitually gone unrecognised now becomes palpable. It appears to me that something like this lies at the root of the ‘radical’ – and here we perhaps might say ‘contrapuntal’ – contextualism of which they have written. Crucially this is an architecture that is not strident, but that instead gently binds its materials together through subtle alternations of constellated form. It is a characteristic that runs through their work, there – for example – in the Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo (2000); in the reinhabited church of the Rush Library (2009), in which the dialectic of building and grove seems to return; and in the delicate modulations of the Long Room Hub at Trinity College, Dublin (2010). Its powers and potentials animate the fine projects that are documented in this publication. 

—Mark Dorrian