Dublin Design: Poised to Break Out

By Virginia Gardiner
The New York Times
January 5, 2006

LETTERFRACK, a bleak and boggy village in western Ireland, was once best known for a reform school run by the Christian Brothers that was rife with physical and sexual abuse. Some 100 boys died there in its 87 years of operation, before it finally closed in 1974 - a dismal record even by the standards of church-run Irish reformatories.

Thirteen years later, when the Letterfrack Furniture College opened, it could not afford a new building, and instead took up residence in the prisonlike, seemingly haunted reform school. It was an odd start for an institution intended to reverse the depressed town's fortunes, and for several years the college operated on a meager budget with a skeletal staff, offering vocational training in furniture design and production to local students. But now Letterfrack is becoming famous for the furniture college, which as of 2002 has a stylish modern campus designed by the celebrated Dublin architecture firm O'Donnell & Tuomey. The school, now known for the exceptional quality of its graduates' wood furniture, attracts applicants from all over Ireland and Europe.

Letterfrack is one of many visible signs that Ireland's recent transformation into an economic powerhouse is playing out in the realms of architecture and design. Young architects and industrial and graphic designers, most of whom would once have left the country to pursue their careers, are studying and setting up shop in Irish cities, winning major commissions and turning Ireland into a center of world-class design.

Deyan Sudjic, the architecture critic for The Observer in London, attributes the new "Irish presence" in design not just to the economic boom itself, but to a "cultural confidence" born of it. The evidence of this new mood is accumulating all over Ireland, and beginning to spread beyond the country's shores. Last July, the Glucksman Gallery in Cork, a graceful new oak, glass and limestone building by O'Donnell & Tuomey, was nominated for the Royal Institute of British Architects' prestigious Stirling Prize. A month later, a huge new Habitat store, an Irish franchise of the European chain, opened in Dublin, showcasing Irish-designed furniture along with the usual Habitat line.

This year a major arts center by Grafton Architects in Dublin, featuring a luminous marble mosaic facade, will open in County Meath, and at the foot of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, construction will begin on a $335 million museum, conservation center and conference center by the Dublin-based Heneghan Peng Architects, who beat out some 1,500 other applicants in one of the largest architectural competitions ever.

Even the country's design establishment seems to have been caught by surprise by the pace of change.

"The number of designers being produced today doesn't meet the demand," said Colm O'Briain, the director of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. The National College is Ireland's premier design school, but even there, design became a significant part of the curriculum only in the 1970's, and the school is just on the verge of increasing its post-graduate design programs from 16 students to more than 50.

"Visual culture thrives on wealth," Mr. O'Briain said simply.

For all their newfound confidence, Ireland's young architects and designers are having to contend with the lack of any national design legacy to work from. The most famous 20th-century Irish designer was Eileen Gray, and she spent her life in France.

"We haven't had a visual culture," said John Tuomey of O'Donnell & Tuomey, who remembers searching for the "soul of Irish architecture" with his partner, Sheila O'Donnell, when they started their practice. In the end, all they could come up with was the striking but simple image of "buildings standing starkly on the landscape, like figures in the rain."

Charles O'Toole, the designer behind Charles Furniture, which sells pieces through the new Habitat store, said he has faced the same challenge in his work. "There aren't national design precedents here, as there are in places like Denmark or Italy," he said.

And Richard Seabrooke, the creative director of a Dublin graphic design group called Dynamo, said that in the absence of such a cultural patrimony, there has been a longtime tendency to embrace cultural cliches.

"We're still finding our way away from the Celtic-Riverdance thing," he said.

Mr. Seabrooke, 32, who favors hoodies in street-art-inspired patterns and Diesel jeans, designs packaging and corporate logos, and has recently been doing on-screen graphics and animation for new Irish television stations like City, a Dublin channel that started last year, and Channel 6, a national channel that will start broadcasting in March. Believing a more cohesive social scene will help the country's graphic and industrial designers forge a distinct aesthetic style, he has created a Web-based magazine, Candy, that highlights the work of young designers and artists, about half of them Irish, and has started holding events every two months with speakers like the Dublin graphic designers four5one, best known for their U2 album covers.

Young architects in Ireland have a bit more of a history to build on, thanks in part to Ms. O'Donnell and Mr. Tuomey, who were among a generation of architects who returned to Dublin in the 80's after working abroad, drawn not by the still-moribund economy but by a new cultural and political progressivism.

Twentieth-century Irish building up to that point had been heavily influenced by the architecture of corporate America, but the new returnees were more interested in the ideas of Europeans like Aldo Rossi, who were focused on responsible urban planning. Several young firms, including O'Donnell & Tuomey, participated in the government-sponsored Temple Bar project in 1991, which produced architecturally adventurous buildings that helped turn that dilapidated medieval neighborhood into a cultural hub of Dublin.

A decade-long economic boom and the resulting urban sprawl have again shifted the country's architectural priorities. Raymund Ryan, an Irish critic and curator now working at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, says that the challenge facing young Irish architects is no longer the inner city, but the suburbs.

Mr. Ryan added that Irish architecture is still informed, if not by an Irish "soul," then by "a notion of memory and narrative" - as in O'Donnell & Tuomey's Letterfrack project, which kept the brooding reform school building in place even as it surrounded it with sloping modern structures. But he sees an equally powerful influence in the globalization exemplified by "comfortably international" firms like Heneghan Peng Architects, which was based for a time in New York, is building in Ireland, Egypt and Britain, and has a principal, Shih-Fu Peng, who was raised in the United States and Asia. Even Irish architects who have remained abroad are contributing to the country's globalized design culture: the Royal Institute of British Architects' award for the best small building by a British architect in 2005 went to a sharply angular house in County Cork designed by Niall McLaughlin, an Irishman based in London.

One often hears the refrain "everything is global" from architects and designers, including Mr. Seabrooke. "We are European," said Leo Scarff, a furniture designer and a co-founder of a low-cost plywood line called Jist. "I don't see the point in trying to develop a modern Irish style." Even John Tuomey calls his search for the soul of Irish architecture "a completely false quest, like nationalism, just out of date."

The dominant aesthetic style among young designers, which might best be described as Irish-inflected European, is embodied in the work of Tom de Paor, a 38-year-old architect whom Shane O'Toole, the architecture critic for The Irish Times, has called a "white-hot talent." Mr. de Paor built the pavilion for Ireland's 2000 debut at the Venice Architecture Biennial by stacking manufactured peat briquettes into a blocky structure. Mr. Ryan, who curated the event, described Mr. de Paor as "comfortable playing with Ireland's insecurity toward the past."

Last year, Mr. de Paor completed two underground houses, dug into a lot behind St. Nicholas of Myra church in Dublin, built soon after Catholic emancipation in the 19th century. "During the excavation," he recalled, "we discovered the site had been a burial ground in a 16th-century cholera epidemic." The houses, lighted naturally from above, are essentially buried in a graveyard.

The houses' spare, elegant concrete and tropical hardwood interiors, ambiguously European in style, are hidden behind an unmistakably Irish facade: an old stone wall that runs along the lot's edge, punctuated by modest wood doors and large panes of mirrored glass that reflect neighboring buildings.

As John Tuomey puts it, "People used to worry that the global would destroy the local, but in fact, the global helps the local to untrap itself."


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