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ABK in Ireland

Over the past 40 years, the practice of Ahrends, Burton and Koralek has developed a special affinity with the Emerald Isle, forging an enduring success that looks set to continue

The partnership of Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek, which had existed in spirit since the three men became friends and collaborators at the AA in the early 1950s, was formalised on the basis of Koralek's victory in the 1961 competition for a new library at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). Ireland, therefore, had a special resonance for ABK from the beginning - it was Irish patronage which launched one of Britain's most consistently interesting architectural practices. Forty years on, the special relationship between ABK and Ireland continues, with a number of projects on site across the country.

The Berkeley Library took six years to complete and was managed by ABK from London. It was a later TCD project, the Dental School and Hospital extension for which the firm was appointed in 1991, that led to the opening of a Dublin office, initially led by Paul de Freine and latterly headed up by two Irish-born architects, Robert Davys (a veteran of ABK's long-running Moscow embassy project) and John Parker (ex-de Blacam & Meagher). It currently has a staff of 13, though Irish projects also involve staff in the London office - both Ahrends and Koralek regularly visit Ireland.

The success of the library, the first modern building of significance in Dublin since Michael Scott's Busaras (1952), led to further jobs - the school campus at St Andrew's College, Booterstown, completed in 1972, and the Arts Building at TCD, opened in 1978. Then the work dried up. A stagnant economy through the '80s drove young Irish architects to London and beyond in search of work - a remarkable number ended up in the office of James Stirling.

The post-1990 boom, with the economy growing at up to 10 per cent annually, generated what has been seen as an architectural renaissance, with roots, perhaps, in the 'flying circus' which Ivor Richards had assembled to reinvigorate Irish architectural education in the '70s, but equally a reflection of Ireland's new identity as a European nation. New practices were launched, with a broad range of influences - Scandinavia, for example, and the urban insights of Colin Rowe and Aldo Rossi - which extended beyond mainline Anglo-American modernism. (De Blacam & Meagher, Grafton Architects and McCullough Mulvin all secured commissions from TCD, the latter winning the competition for an extension to the Berkeley Library. ) To its credit, ABK has more than held its own in an increasingly competitive scene.

Back in the early '60s, the only concern expressed by Dublin planners about the library project was whether it could be seen from the street. Reassured on this point, they gave the scheme the green light. (The same planners permitted some depressing atrocities to mar the Georgian streets of the city. ) By the '90s, attitudes had changed dramatically. The Dental Hospital was located at the less prestigious eastern end of the TCD campus, among the science and engineering faculties - the 'back door' of the College. The existing hospital building was a late Victorian structure in hard red brick, but there was a strong presumption that the additions would be 'in keeping'. ABK opened up the Victorian facade to create a new entrance to the hospital (which treats 2,500 patients weekly), with a full-height, daylit atrium behind providing a connection to a new block housing the clinical facilities - lecture rooms and administrative areas are contained within the old building. To the street the extension is expressed as a curving wall of red brick, pierced by square window openings - a distinctly Rationalist version of contextualism. Behind, however, the new building has a lightweight glazed aesthetic, with a glazed tower which acts as a marker both for the hospital and for an improved gateway to the campus. The scheme was a fascinating balancing act between ABK's established traditions and the more formal urbanism which, as a response, perhaps, to the mistakes of the past, had found favour in the Dublin of the 1990s.

Europeanism came easily to ABK - it was the rise of Hitler which brought firstly Koralek and, in due course, Ahrends to Britain. For younger Irish people, the growing European connection has been linked to a search for a modern cultural identity in which architects have inevitably become involved. ABK's croquet and tennis club, designed for the affluent suburbanites of Carrickmines and completed in 2000, represents a sincere attempt at a pragmatic modern architecture with roots in the Irish landscape. 'It was essentially a landscape project', says John Parker. There are fine views from the site to the Wicklow Mountains and the essence of the scheme was to preserve something of the informality of the place - it was the same challenge, on a larger scale, which had confronted Michael Hopkins at Glyndebourne. The club was an exclusive institution, inhabiting a collection of second-hand sheds 'held together by paint', as Parker recalls. ABK's proposals had to go to a ballot of members - surprisingly, perhaps, they got nearly 90 per cent support and lots of input to the scheme. The greater part of the new building was to consist of covered, all-weather tennis courts, along with the usual changing rooms, bars and offices.

In the best Prairie House tradition - the youthful obsession of Ahrends, Burton and Koralek with Wright should not be forgotten - the building seems to be generated by the landscape, by the contours and the lines of existing garden walls. There is a natural downhill progression from the well-ordered parking area to the smooth, green croquet lawns which give the clubhouse its setting.

The covered courts are contained within simple sheds, timber-clad, sheltered from the rain but not heated. The combination of white render and timber on the main building is typical of the new Irish aesthetic.

There have been disappointments for ABK in Ireland - failing to secure the commission for the TCD library extension, of course, the British Embassy competition of 1990 (won by Allies & Morrison), and that for the extension of the National Gallery of Ireland (1996, resulting in a win for Benson & Forsyth). In the case of the Berkeley Library, ABK's strategy was arguably the right one, not least in terms of its minimal impact on the existing building. TCD has, however, brought ABK back to extend its Arts Building in the sensitive western sector of the campus, close to its most prized historic buildings and overlooking Fellows' Square. The only practical way to extend the building was, in fact, upwards. The new spaces occupy glazed pavilions, under curved, 'floating' roofs on top of the 1970s building.Other work at TCD is in the pipeline.

The TCD connection, along with ABK's long experience of educational work, has ensured it a share in the major programme of investment in new schools and colleges.

Work on the Institute of Technology at Tralee, County Kerry, which is relocating from a congested town centre site, began in 1996 with the first students arriving last autumn. The 10ha site at Dromthacker, for all its fine views, is highly exposed, open to the worst extremes of weather driving in from the Atlantic. 'It's a site where you simply have to design for the climate', says Koralek. The buildings are constructed of rendered blockwork with pitched or curved aluminium-clad roofs. The diagram of the new campus, with two buildings realised so far, is equally responsive to the place, with protective covered ways along a curved linear plan, creating (when the project is completed) a city in miniature.

The site for the Institute of Technology at Blanchardstown is very different, close to Dublin and a big new business park, served by the M50 motorway, which the Institute, with its stress on practical and business skills, complements. A covered 'street' again connects the teaching and ancillary buildings, here arranged as X-shaped blocks along the 'necklace' of the street, which looks on to a landscaped inner quadrangle. Having drawn up the masterplan, ABK was commissioned for the first four buildings on the site, including a library and assembly hall/refectory as well as highly flexible teaching spaces.

Overhanging metal clad roofs provide extra protection from the Irish rain, while rendered blockwork is the principal ingredient in the materials mix.

The third of the new technology institutes planned by ABK is at Waterford (where the practice completed a visitor centre, a conversion of a 19th century warehouse, in 1997). The existing buildings on the site, just outside the town, date from the 1960s. ABK proposed enclosing them in an undulating wall of new buildings, with a series of pools and a new square, partly covered by a striking canopied pavilion, punctuating the site - ABK's longstanding collaborator, landscape architect James Hope, was closely involved in the scheme - which has so far not been realised.

Like education, local government in Ireland is currently being transformed, with a new emphasis on public access and 'onestop shops' increasingly in vogue. Tullamore is typical of the country towns, once sleepy places, which seem to have acquired a new sense of purpose. The site for the Offaly county headquarters is an extensive Victorian garden close to the town centre, a lush and sheltered place, with fine mature trees.

ABK's complex of buildings, a three-storey office block, with single-storey extensions to contain the council chamber, creche and other support facilities, has been conceived as a calm but richly textured composition.

The use of timber screening on the facades ofthe office block is both a climatic and a referential device, while the lower blocks are clad largely in stone - low-energy consumption has been a prime aim in the scheme.

The 9000m 2administrative complex at Nenagh, County Tipperary, about to start on site and to be shared by county and district councils, combines a low-rise (largely twostorey) format, appropriate to the context, with some dramatic moves - the two council chamber takes the form of a sawn-off drum punctuating the main frontage, where a glazed atrium welcomes the public. Glass, natural stone and terracotta give the building a proper sense of dignity and quality.

The range of ABK's Irish work is impressive - from local authority housing in Limerick to major development proposals for the heart of Dublin. Last year, the practice was commissioned by Dublin City Corporation to develop plans for a mixed development on a block in the north-east inner city. The project includes both new buildings and the conversion of existing structures, including a Victorian chapel, as well as the provision of a new open space.

Robert Davys is highly optimistic about the future: 'Despite all we've achieved, Ireland is still behind the times in terms of its public infrastructure', he says. 'There's a lot of public work to be done, even if the commercial sector falters.' Paul Koralek likes the fact that 'architects still inspire respect in Ireland - the project managers have been kept in check'.

Fee-based bidding is shunned and , though PPP-style projects are multiplying, particularly in the educational field, design and build is not the Irish way - ABK often finds itself working with contractors in a traditional relationship and being impressed by their response to innovative designs.

Much of this may, of course, change in years to come - but there seems to be a natural empathy between ABK and Ireland, where the practice prospered when, in the later '80s and early '90s it was clearly suffering from the aftermath of the National Gallery fiasco in Britain. (The Prince of Wales commands little sway in Ireland. ) Then there are the 'outstanding' clients which the firm has found there - like Professor Derry Shanley of the Dublin Dental Hospital, who sought out ABK after seeing its John Lewis store in Kingston-onThames. Winning the TCD library competition back in 1961 was an extraordinary stroke of good fortune (Koralek was 28 at the time) but the relationship which that success forged has endured and looks set to endure for some time to come.

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