‘The building has a strongly sculptural character that looks as though it might have been hewn out of the ground,’ writes John McLaughlin
Limerick is one of the most disadvantaged cities in Ireland and largely missed out on the Celtic Tiger boom. It has also suffered in the subsequent bust with the loss of major employer Dell to Poland. The University of Limerick (UL) has been a beacon for the city by developing progressive education and strong international links. Its campus is outside of the city, along the south bank of the river Shannon and there is a new section being developed on the north bank in the adjacent County Clare.
This newer section was masterplanned a decade ago by BDP which proposed a loose collection of buildings in a soft landscape with a suburban character. Into this soft centre, Grafton Architects has added the Medical School and associated student housing, as well as a canopy forming a bus and bicycle shelter, and has skilfully introduced a more urban character to the campus. The new suite of buildings combines with three existing neighbouring institutions, the Sports Pavilion, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, and the Health Sciences Building, in order to make a new public space.
The teaching in the Medical School uses problem-based learning - a progressive method based on seminar teaching. This means that the brief consisted of a large number of medium-sized rooms and only one large lecture theatre. Grafton has composed these rooms into a large four-storey building that anchors the centre of the public space. The building is made of concrete and local limestone and has a strong, sculptural character that looks as though it might have been hewn out of the ground. Externally, the robust structure is expressed as a double-height loggia with the windows of the upper floors paired vertically above to give a grand scale to the facade. The piers of the loggia are angled to provide screening in a way reminiscent of Louis Kahn at the Salk Institute.
Carved into the limestone mass is a meandering staircase inspired by Paul Rudolph Hall, the Yale School of Architecture building, which is lit from above with a delightful series of social areas at each floor. This central deep void is lined on each side by seminar rooms, each with a generous window to the outside so that even on a dark day they are washed in daylight. In addition to the limestone, timber, concrete and fair-faced blockwork are deployed in the interior. The window reveals are deep, giving a visceral quality to the architecture.
Grafton used the Medical School as an anchor for the other buildings around it. The new buildings relate to each other through materials and composition. Across the main square, the bus stop and steps form a civic portal that resolves the diverse geometries of the existing buildings and screens the sports centre. Here again a grander scale is used to great effect. Between these two elements three large-scale villas of student housing in brick with limestone trimmings complete the intervention. The change in material articulates their residential function, while a strong sculptural approach is maintained, thus relating them to the overall plan. Windows are again paired vertically to give a larger scale and a sense of gravitas. Deep thresholds are used to give privacy as well as shelter.
These buildings reflect Grafton Architects’ philosophy of ‘architecture as a new geography’, binding the human, social, material and topographic qualities of a place together in an active synthesis. The mining of the limestone bedrock of the site and the heroic scale of the buildings unite the suburban campus and constitute an act of architectural and social resistance.
John McLaughlin, director, John McLaughlin Architects
Shelley McNamara, director, Grafton Architects
What was your initial design concept?
To make a public space in what was essentially an open field and express the university’s visionary educational ideas. To combine faculty buildings with residences in a way that encouraged overlap between health sciences, music, sport, medicine and living.
Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?
We started the project thinking we would make two buildings, the Medical School and the student housing. In the design development, we broke the housing into three blocks to give it the scale of large houses. This allowed us to make a looser connection with the undulating ground and to allow the space of the bigger landscape to interact with the new civic space. We then made a fifth element to hold the space to the west - a bus stop, bicycle shelter and amphitheatre.
What elements of the surrounding context does the building draw upon?
Aspects of the formal character derive from an interpretation of the campus masterplan, which requires an organic approach to making public spaces on the north side of the river. Here the ground slopes and remnants of the agrarian landscape pattern remain as old field patterns and hedgerows. The project is located in County Clare, a limestone county, with the karst hills of The Burren nearby. We aim to capture memory, place, materiality, climate and culture.
What was the client’s input?
The buildings were designed in constant dialogue with three principal groups, The Building Committee, Campus Life and the Medical School staff. The Medical School staff proposed a visionary approach to teaching medicine in Ireland that encourages students to discover and construct knowledge, rather than consume it.
These discussions directly influenced the architecture. Clinical skills rooms and laboratories were seen as studios and the building has an open, interactive atmosphere.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project - and why?
To make a space with civic quality in a rural setting.
What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?
Again we learned that the support of a visionary client and user is essential, that architecture is a silent language and that memory, culture and place are embedded in buildings.
Where does this building sit within the practice’s evolution?
The project continues exploration of carving a connection between ground and sky and of deep facades; the making of edges and thresholds. It also builds on lessons learned in making public spaces in Temple Bar, Navan and Milan as well as our experience in rural contexts like Ballinasloe and North Kildare.