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Infra-Éireann - Making Ireland Modern

Venice Biennale 2014: Infra-Éireann, The Irish Pavilion

Biennale director Rem Koolhaas asked individual countries to engage with a single theme - Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014 - a period that almost corresponds with the first 100 years of the Irish nation. With their pavilion, co-commissioners, curators and designers Gary A. Boyd and John McLaughlin challenge Koolhaas’s view that ‘national identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity’. Taking the destruction of the General Post Office in Dublin in the Easter Rising of 1916 as a tabula rasa moment, Boyd and McLaughlin have chosen to present 10 ‘infrastructural episodes’ from the past century.

These episodes focus on the types of infrastructure built as part of the modernisation of Ireland, including electrification, television and dam-building (the Shannon Hydro-electric facility, pictured). The curators aim to show how the adoption of Modernist architecture, seen as a way to escape the country’s colonial past, was central to the cultural imagining of this new nation. Through large-format photographs, archival drawings and construction details of buildings ranging from Michael Scott’s Busáras Dublin bus terminal (representing urban transportation) to the current proliferation of data centres (representing the internet), the episodes are embedded or hung within the pavilion.

For those going to Venice, Ireland’s open-frame timber pavilion - the form of which takes its inspiration from the Modernist structures featured within - will be situated at the end of the Artigliere section of the Arsenale for the duration of the biennale.

If you can’t make it to Venice, the flat-pack pavilion will be shipped back to Ireland after the biennale, where it will take up residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork and the Galway Arts Festival during 2015. Tom Ravenscroft

Q&A with Gary A. Boyd and John McLaughlin

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There is a lot of competition for attention at the Venice Biennale. Why should people visit the Irish Pavilion?

The pavilion is intensely architectural - it is not a conceptual installation. Ireland doesn’t have a permanent pavilion, so we have designed a flat-pack building to hold the exhibits - a fragment of modernity populated by drawings, models and photographs. We wanted to show the concrete identity of Irish modernity, so there are working drawings and large-scale details. One example is a curtain walling detail from 1961 that was totally dry - it used no mastic - and still looks good today. We have linked these details to the buildings and their infrastructural networks to show the relationship between the tectonic, the social and the territorial. We have also produced new, large-scale drawings of infrastructural networks.

How does the Irish Pavilion relate to Rem Koolhaas’s wider aims for the Biennale?

Very directly. We found his proposition compelling and that is what prompted us to enter the competition to represent Ireland. The liberating potential of modernity has lost favour in architecture, and we both believe strongly in its democratic and social dimensions. Koolhaas said that modernity has erased identity by making everywhere the same, but we want to show that it is more complex than that. In a situation where the major signifiers of identity such as language had already been erased by colonialism, modernity became a means of reimagining a culture. The Shannon Hydro-electric scheme in the 1920s was a demonstration of the fledgling state’s ability to go it alone. The artist Seán Keating painted the huge dam as an allegory of the passage from the dark night of colonialism to the clear light of independence. Ireland became a template and testing ground for decolonisation.

The pavilion focuses on 10 infrastructural events. How did you select them?

The choice of infrastructures was informed by a reading of Irish social history. The 19th century in Ireland was grim, and by the 1920s the country was very underdeveloped. It continued to be until relatively recently. We have featured 10 infrastructures from 10 decades. Each infrastructural episode was a political and social response to the needs of the time.

What does the pavilion say about current Irish architecture?

The pavilion deals with a century of development. Koolhaas asked participants ‘to look back to look forward’. One episode is a series of flyovers on the motorway from Dublin to Belfast designed by Grafton Architects, who epitomise the best of current Irish architecture. It was hugely symbolic that the road was built after the Good Friday Agreement. But we didn’t want to stop with current practice as we are also interested in the future, and modernity is an ongoing process. Ireland is one of the most globalised countries in the world, so we wanted to explore this condition, too. Connections between the past, present and future will be apparent in the exhibition.

Are the data centres you showcase worthy of an architecture exhibition?

In 1923 Le Corbusier wrote Towards a New Architecture, which featured photographs of grain silos, aeroplanes and motorcars alongside Greek temples. We are applying the same logic to the current century. People think that The Cloud is virtual and talk about Parametricism, but in fact it is intensely physical and has a huge environmental impact. It is not a cloud, it’s a shed. The data centres are very interesting and incidentally, quite beautiful.

Which other pavilions are you most looking forward to visiting?

This biennale is going to be quite different to previous ones because everyone is addressing the same questions. The history of modernity in the major European centres is quite well known, so we are looking forward to seeing the pavilions of less well-known countries. There are 10 new participants this year and many Asian, African and South American countries only started taking part recently, so we will be visiting their pavilions, as well as of course Great Britain, the USA, the Netherlands, France and Germany.

Gary A. Boyd is reader in architecture at Queen’s University Belfast. John McLaughlin is a practising architect and teaches at the Cork Centre for Architectural Education

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