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Library Headquarters and Branch Library, Clones, Ireland, by Keith Williams Architects

The rural Irish town of Clones is the surprising setting for cutting edge civic architecture, writes Stephen Best

Rural Ireland has become a hotbed of crisp, clean Modernism. Sleepy little granite villages on the European periphery, defined by their church and modest market squares, are finding that local authorities are commissioning buildings which are at the cutting edge of contemporary architectural design.

Clones, County Monaghan, is just such a place. Although a little frayed around the edges, it is pretty, with a population of less than 3,000. Situated just one mile from the Northern Irish border, it was once known for its fine lace and transport links. And more recently from sport and culture, as the birthplace of world-champion boxer Barry McGuigan (aka ‘the Clones Cyclone’), and the setting for the 1992 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Patrick McCabe – the Butcher Boy – and a film by the same name. Now it is defined by a radiant white block that illuminates its heart. Clones, it seems, has always punched above its weight.

Designed by London-based firm Keith Williams Architects and commissioned by Monaghan County Council through competitive interview, the new County Library Headquarters and Branch Library is unexpected. It’s the kind of building that makes you stop and look, a contemporary form that asserts its modernity within a vernacular setting. Yet the question that must be asked of it, like that of all new architecture, is not how does it stand out, but how does it fit in.

Of what was built in Ireland during the decade-long building boom, too much stands out. It appears every field and small town has become littered with a melange of rendered boxes, each licked with the faintest smudge of patinated copper and stained pine weather boarding. A legacy that nearly everyone now agrees was not the product of sustainable development, still less of intelligent functional design. Almost none of it could be said to fit in.

Fortunately in parallel, in a higher stratum, a different architecture appeared; one defined by material restraint and sculptural form. Emerging predominantly in public buildings, championed by local authorities for local communities, it presented itself in a style which challenged the predictable tropes of contemporary commercial architecture. The best examples are carefully stitched into the existing urban fabric, and include two earlier works by Williams, in Athlone and Wexford. Good architecture needs good clients.

Completed in 2008, the €7 million library and office gives out-of-the-way Clones the kind of civic building more often associated with a smart Central European town. But then this isn’t the first time architects building in Clones have looked to classic European Modernism for inspiration. The striking 1926 precast concrete GNR Engine Shed around the corner, still standing despite attempts to demolish it, is reputedly a replica of one in Milan.

The town sits atop a bulbous hill in the gently undulating landscape of glacial drumlins stretching west to the River Shannon. The site, at the bottom of the hill behind the main triangular public space – the Diamond – is in a recovered back-land carved out by the council from the rear gardens of shops on Fermanagh Street, the main road north. When commissioned the project was proposed to form the centrepiece of an area regeneration scheme, although today there is little evidence of revitalisation beyond the library itself. It is approached by car along 98 Avenue, the bypass, or on foot from the town centre through a narrow pedestrian laneway from the main shopping street.

Clad in crisp precast concrete panels, the building has a blinding white cubic form, punctuated by an array of tinted windows, with more than a hint of early Modernism. It is set in stark contrast to its immediate context, a chaotic, wrinkled, grey tapestry of rear elevations and industrial sheds. The language is heroic, a reductive composition of interlocking blocks that speak in a muted tone, and is reminiscent of the Bauhaus-inspired white relief sculptures from the 1930s by Ben Nicholson.

Its two simply expressed cubic forms, an elongated ‘L’ and a rectangular box, fuse neatly to form a three-storey whole and help make the composition of elements easy to read. Each part, library from administration, public from private, is explicitly described.

The two-storey L-shape is extruded at its upper level to trace two minimalist glazed cantilevers onto the primary public elevations. The one over-sailing 98 Avenue works particularly well in projecting the building’s presence from a distance. The other doesn’t; at two storeys above and left of the entrance, it is too high to provide shelter and too subtle to provide suitable definition to the front door. Library staff have now supplemented its presence with two potted plants either side of the entrance.

Inside, the guillotine-sharp detailing and crisp white forms give way to a counter-intuitive dark lobby, lined in lush walnut. This contrast conspires to arrest your step, to entice the visitor to slow down and take notice. A game that all really good public architecture plays; it makes the building feel intimate while civic.

The walnut extends inside across the two-storey-high in situ concrete ceiling and disappears through a high-level slot. To the right is a modest double-height exhibition space illuminated by a high-level window, and to the left is the main lending library, which has a traditional layout. The space is a wide two-storey volume, which presents a welcoming public room. It is lined in white perforated acoustic plasterboard, sandwiched between the heavily articulated concrete soffit, a Williams motif, and the polished grey concrete floor. At the upper level the main volume is bookended by two glass boxes, meeting rooms, which slide into the space to lend a sense of transparency and openness. On the ground floor tucked behind the reception desk is the local history archive, illuminated by a full-length clerestory.

The volumetric gymnastics which dominate the form continue inside but change focus to be more humanistic and theatrical. The interplay of form is now used to manipulate light and space. Instead of simple, easily read shapes, the interior is full of discovery; each part is made richer by spatial surprise. There is an almost Loosian feel to the composition which celebrates the space between. The first-floor corridor linking the offices to the meeting rooms, for example, appears as an open balcony above the entrance, to provide fleeting glances and physical engagement with below.

The interest in interlocking space to exploit views and vistas is not limited to the interior. Carefully edited window locations reveal certain views and hide others such as the chaotic back-lands, which disappear as if by magic. That this is done without denying its overall context is the real trick though.

The space is allowed to flow freely from inside to out. On the ground floor the pavement is drawn into the library through two large windows, detailed with a flush threshold, facing the pedestrian entrances. Above, the windows extend the space by capturing important landmarks such as O’Neill Park Church, whose steeple is perfectly framed from just in front of the reception desk when looking up to the north-west corner. This situates the building in Clones and shows a confident and well-practised hand at work. 

At night the building transforms again, further asserting the Modernist tradition. Its sculptural form dissolves and brings a hint of big city urbanity to this regional town, where it appears to have settled nicely into its context and community. It is a fine tribute to the public bodies that have been so robust in getting decent architecture built. This is a building that has the potential to be carried further, to be more than a neatly ironed crease on the surface of chaos.

Stephen Best is senior lecturer in the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Dublin Institute of Technology

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