ABK’s National Film School in Ireland was inspired by a Ben Nicholson sculpture and Louis Kahn, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Christian Richters.
It’s over half a century since a sprightly ABK set up shop after co-founder Paul Koralek won an international competition to design Trinity College’s Berkeley Library in Dublin, which has a mythical status and is arguably its best work. It was 1961, and Koralek returned from New York where he had been working for Marcel Breuer to join his colleagues from the AA: Peter Ahrends, who’d worked for Denys Lasdun, and the imposing third co-founder, Richard Burton. All three have now retired and their London office closed two years ago, although it’s surprising how often you hear them and their current activities mentioned within a broadly loyal architectural profession, if not by its press. ABK’s other office in Dublin - where its reputation was secured by the completion of the library, a harbinger of the Irish architectural renaissance to come - has continued to do good work. Its National Film School completed in nearby Dún Laoghaire last October; a gem-like cluster of interlocking sand-blasted concrete, rendered and largely unfenestrated blocks, it has a strong resonance with the Berkeley Library, though smaller.
‘The architectural inspiration was quite formal,’ says ABK director John Parker, referring to a sculpture by Richard Burton’s mentor Ben Nicholson, like a concept model of the National Film School. ABK’s other inspiration was the idea of the building as a machine. Net-to-gross has been torqued up to something approaching 100 per cent, and teaching and studio zones could be seen as a pair of chambers. Not surprisingly, Parker incants the old Louis Kahn ‘served and servant’ spaces wisdom. Although this doesn’t quite fit the teaching and support-versus-studio space divide, there’s heavy-duty servant technology along with well-organised concrete plenums and risers, accessible for maintenance and adaptation.
As you look up to the glazed roof of the gorge-like social spine which separates these two zones, you’re struck by the size of the ducts connecting the plant space and the studios, and the kit which serves it reads even more strongly in the building’s cross-section. There’s a machine logic at play here, because the studios have to be dead quiet, with a stately movement of air through the capacious ducts.
There’s also a box-within-abox acoustic logic to the studio construction. Their in-situ concrete outer shells are structurally isolated from their inner walls, which are lined with insulation, enabling them to respond quickly to intermittent patterns of occupation. Natural ventilation in the studios was potentially too noisy, although it has been achieved in the classrooms. Below the windows, which have blackout blinds, arrays of solid, motorised aluminium ventilators (something of an ABK standby) provide intake air which then rises through chimneys embedded in the service wall on the opposite side of the classrooms. The windows are flush with the render, so the teaching volume looks as though a taught outer skin has been stretched across a frame. There’s not muchevidence of a structural frame in the low-level interiors, because so much of the concrete is suspended from above, creating clear, open spaces.
Fair-faced in-situ concrete walls have a blanched 60 per cent GGBS ordinary Portland cementsubstitute,and were constructed in three sixmetre deep, 25m-long pours, thus avoiding vertical joints, but also increasing their thickness to 300mm and creating forests of rebar. Selffinishing exposed structural elements were chosen to reduce construction and maintenance costs.
The brief was for a standalone building, but ABK wanted to connect to the school’s original home in an existing courtyard building on the campus of the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology. This meant existing facilities could be retained and didn’t have to be replicated, and also improved barrier free access to the existing building. Th e new school sinks into the ground, enabling floor levels to line up while minimising the facade surface areas, and a ramp leads down to the entrance forecourt, completed by a ritzy bolt-fi xed glass screen with a printed ceramic collage of historic Vertov and Niépce images and, of course, a cantilevered concrete porte-cochère.