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A Modernist building in a Victorian landscape has succeeded because of its bold mix of elements, materials and planes

Built environment

Turlough House in County Mayo (about four miles outside Castlebar on the N5 east of the N17 Sligo/Galway route), was the Victorian country retreat of the Fitzgerald family. After a brief stint as a high-quality B&B in the 1960s and '70s, it was bought by Ireland's heritage industry and returned to its Victorian glory for connoisseurs of the period to visit.

However, with a vast acreage of beautiful landscaping (designed in the Victorian Gothic style by Sir Thomas Deane in 1865), an obligatory gift shop (selling crafts rather than trinkets) and a cafeteria serving the best coffee I have had in a long while, it still needed a bigger focus to attract paying tourists. Enter the National Museum of Country Life.

The new building is in three sections: a public museum, storage block and link buildings. In some senses the non-public areas were even more pleasing than the main museum block, with their understated presence on such historic landscape.

A 3m high glass, steel and aluminium box links the main museum to the storage block - two relatively blank facades joined by a transparent corridor of industrial chic. The link building 'joins' the new museum gable by a freestanding aluminium canopy which oversails the lower-level roof to moderate the discrepancies in height. The glazed link leading to the larger storage facility has oversized eaves to provide an external cloister, literally mirroring the internal corridor. This link is a simple, silver-grey building leading to a more massive barn-style block which, even though its pristine modern form is in close proximity to the existing Victorian outbuildings (2m at its gable end), manages to blend in perfectly.

The landscaping comprises a trapezoidal lawn crossed with gravel paths and, although the gravel was too deep for comfort when I was there, the straightforward geometry and unobtrusive planting certainly help to anchor the buildings in their setting. Indeed, this is something that the architect Des Byrne has been keen to achieve, finding a form which will make 'the buildings part of the landscape and not separate from it'. By a sensitive handling of materials and scale, this objective has certainly been achieved.

I had already caught glimpses of the museum across the lake while driving into the car park, but walking towards the entrance across the landscape I was unaware of the scale of the building. The museum block is situated across steeply sloping tiered land, running down to the water, each tier reflecting an internal storey height. It is only from the ground floor (highest level) that one glimpses, over the balcony, the full extent of the interior display space. The view across each floor is a sea of timber flooring set against light-coloured plastered walls.

Entering through the glass facade, past a blank wall of stretcher-bond granite slabs and simple reception desk, the sounds of the exhibits - a gentle cacophony of birdsong and harps - wafts from below. The floor plans are quite angular with no two floors replicating the same plan form - although navigating the museum is straightforward and intuitive, resulting in a pleasant dearth of signage.

The museum's exhibits have been arranged to examine the folklore and folk-life of a bygone age. Level 1, the entrance and reception level, is a cutaway mezzanine and tapers to a very narrow point. Exhibits on this floor, and generally throughout the building, are quite sparse, which is beneficial for a sense of space and ease of lingering but could mean that the visit is over quite quickly - giving scope for a lengthy appreciation of the grounds.

The displays state that in the past 'the museum emphasised its role in presenting knowledge and products of the old skills', whereas now the museum places 'emphasis on the people behind the objects, as a means of communicating a way of life'. This is a shame. While the tour is fascinating, it has a certain 'I remember that' feel to it, rather than an intellectually challenging learning experience. Mind you, the footage of locals making rope from straw bales is intriguing and an actual man-trap used by landowners to catch trespassers in the 1900s was shocking; but there is a lack of dates on pictures to allow you to situate things. Events such as the famine, or 1916, get only a cursory mention.

At the apex of Level 1, the lift is separated from the main building (in a very high-spec enclosure), as is a curious seating area in the fully glazed prow. I had difficulty imagining how these secluded spaces would be used, but the building was just beginning to fill up with visitors while I was there, so it is difficult to judge. Some of the finishes in these hidden spaces looked a little worn but could be easily livened up.

The floor below is effectively a free-floating plan, set apart from the long side-walls.

Accessed by the simple staircases of marble, steel and glass, the soffit of Level 1 cuts sharply across this floor, reducing it to a low single-height space in places. Only at the far end can one see glimpses of daylight in an otherwise introspective building. Byrne has done this intentionally. Museums tend to have to be somewhat windowless places, but Byrne has provided large humanising windows and played different games with each.

On one level, he has blocked the window off by placing a feature wall in front to ensure that the light does not penetrate too far into the exhibition; in another, he has provided a long window at waist height to make visitors 'bow to the landscape' if they want to see it and be part of the outside experience.

Outside, the building gives up some of its geometric secrets: the lowest floor is a calming grid of piloti; the entrance level is 'detached' from the lower floors; the main building is slightly curved; and the elevations are an artistic abstraction. All this adds to the intrigue of a building inspired by what Byrne calls 'modern European public architecture'.

ARCHITECT'S COMMENTS

The site comprises approximately 12ha of woodlands and semi-formal gardens. It contains a lake with pleasure islands, a fortified house in ruins, conservatories, De Burgo Castle, a nearby abbey, graveyard and round tower.

The new exhibition building is to one side of the main house, with most of its volume below house level. It acts as a landscape element, terminating the steep grassed terraces which connect the house and lake.

The main entrance level is defined by a granite diagonal wall, which visually connects the house and the round tower across the valley.

To the rear of the main house, the new storage and conservation studios form two new courtyards - one a new service courtyard, the other a new public space behind the main house.A glazed linkbuilding connects the exhibition and storage/conservation buildings. This forms the third side of the new public space, with the entrance to the exhibition building and the grassed terraces on the fourth side.

CREDITS

CLIENT Office of Public Works, Mayo County Council, The Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, The National Museum of Ireland ARCHITECT Office of Public Works Architectural Services, tel 00 353 1 6476301 ENGINEER, QS, PROJECT MANAGEMENT AND FIRE CONSULTANT OPW MAIN CONTRACTOR JJRhatigan VALUE £8.4 million (building), £4.2 million (fit-out) BUILDING AREA 1,800m 2(exhibition), 1,700m 2 (storage), 1,500m 2 (restoration) CONTRACT PERIOD May 1999-September 2000 (building), September 2001 (fit-out)

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