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Masterful Cork

As the first MArch students graduate from Ireland’s only master’s course, Stephen Best considers the school’s pedagogical approach

Cork City is a small place with a big city feel and a big city attitude. Pride abounds, and proud places understand the value of architecture. It is even said that Cork’s red and white flag was inspired by St Anne’s in Shandon, a rough red sandstone church dressed in white ashlar, overlooking the city.

After years of serious lobbying by the local community and with support from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, University College Cork and the Cork Institute of Technology came together in 2006 to pool their resources and fund the opening of a new school – the Cork Centre for Architectural Education (CCAE). The result of this hard work is about to bear fruit. In September, the first cohort of 22 MArch students will graduate through the school.

CCAE’s director, its first, Professor Kevin McCartney describes their ambitions simply. For him, the school is responsive to its community and presents a broad focus on architectural humanities with an eye on technology in its delivery.

McCartney and his team have forged a radical agenda focused on reflective inquiry, where the studio culture is infected by the academic disciplines and does not stand alone. It is an explicit relationship: one is used as a vehicle to support the other.

From the first architectural project, this year located in the rich tapestry of Garnish Island in Bantry Bay, the undergraduate students are instilled with a thirst for inquiry, curiosity and critique. This is a research-led agenda that forms the backbone of the school, the latent DNA from which all projects flow, the evidence of it found in each subsequent year.

An overarching pedagogical theme in the programme is its strong practice-based culture, which serves to promote collaborative working at undergraduate level, and through research into areas such as renewable materials, where the school is funded by the EU’s Natural-Energy Efficient-Sustainable fund.

Located in the city centre, in a vacant office building across the road from Cork City Hall, the school is well connected and has many and varied allegiances within the two sponsoring institutions, as well as others it has made locally with the Crawford College of Art and Design, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, the National Sculpture Factory and the broader city.

This connectivity has cultivated significant cultural capital in the school that draws from a broad base of artistic, social and technical sources. The results on the wall seem to suggest a happy marriage between ideas and making, where art, engineering, society, history, and theory all collude and have significant consequences on the students’ final architectural resolution.

As part of the everyday cultural fabric of Cork, the school has been quick to exploit opportunities to engage. They use the city and region as a working laboratory, regularly inviting public and private bodies to connect with the school’s studies and proposals.

Aligned with this broad cultural outlook is a fascination with detail, not only in the traditional sense – does it stand up, keep the water out and heat in? – but also in the degree to which projects are finished. Inquiry into the human scale is ‘essential’, says undergraduate programme leader Gary Boyd. ‘We do not experience architecture through plan or section, but through its detail.’

This is a sophisticated approach that breeds maturity and suppresses any urge to imitate image-driven solutions. It focuses attention on making and the wider aesthetic conversation about inhabitation. The downside is that at times the results become internalised and abstracted and it can sometimes be difficult to see how the final building relates to its context.

Each academic year focuses on a specific theme within in a local community context. Second year investigates architecture as a collective device and uses Cork city as its medium. Third year engages with the periphery and decamps to one of the regional towns. Fourth year unlocks the door to individual exploration and research, whereby each student develops their preoccupations into an holistic architectural study. However it is in the new, 12-month long MArch course, coordinated by Jason O’Shaughnessy, where the fireworks really begin.

As the first taught architecture master’s in the Republic of Ireland, the MArch demonstrates an international approach to research and design exploration. The scene for this year’s students’ inquiry is Istanbul, a city with a rich historic palette. Katie Murray and Michelle Barrett’s joint thesis, Weaving a Tale of the City, embodies the strength of the programme. Their inquiry into the temporal nature of human activity through the lens of archaeological research produced dynamic forms. Abstracted from the layers of inhabitation within the city, it is a speculative work that forms an active, city-wide network of fragments.

The MArch work challenges preconceived ideas in Ireland of what a fifth year architecture student should produce. Provided that the level of inquiry remains elevated above that of novelty, this will be a welcome departure.

Over the summer, each MArch student must reflect on their architectural ideas and propose how they will disseminate their findings. So, when the famous bells of Shandon toll in September, the city’s long wait should be over and the first RIAI Part 2 graduates will emerge triumphant. Hopefully they will remain in Cork or at least return when the time is right, as this proud city deserves architects that understand it.

Stephen Best is architecture critic of The Sunday Times in Ireland and senior lecturer, DIT

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