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Dunshaughlin Pastoral Centre, County Meath, Ireland, by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects

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McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects’ Dunshaughlin Pastoral Centre is a vibrant heart for a recession-struck Irish community, says Rory Olcayto.Photography by Richard Hatch

While the UK construction industry reels from the government’s brutal decapitation of Building Schools for the Future (AJ 08.07.10), Ireland is dealing with a situation considerably more grave. House-building starts on site could slump to 7,500 this year, down from 90,000 in 2006, and the construction workforce is expected to shrink to below 100,000 next year. In 2007 that figure was four times as big.

There is good news, however: the quality of design produced by the Irish architecture profession remains extremely high. This was evidenced by the shortlist for the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland’s Irish Architecture Awards 2010, for which the building featured here, Dunshaughlin Pastoral Centre by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects, received a high commendation in the Cultural Buildings category.

Likewise, on first sight, McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects’ building seems characterised by extreme contrast. Externally, from most angles, the asymmetrical, slate-coloured polyhedron has a brooding presence. Yet, internally the aesthetic is more pop-art grotto, with stunning yellowfinishes and glittering lights that provoke a sense of wonder in the visitor. But the closer you look, the more the boundaries blur, and a coherent whole emerges. Furthermore, the centre’s location and landscape design significantly enhances the immediate townscape.

Dunshaughlin itself, which has around 3,500 inhabitants and is just 29km from Dublin, grew faster than anywhere else in the country during the Irish property bubble. Hundreds of new homes were built to accommodate a population that increased by nearly 50 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Not all the new development is blight. In fact, the town has developed a reputation for good architecture: Grafton Architects completed its excellent civic offices in 2002 and a private house by Consarc Design Group was shortlisted for this year’s Irish Architecture Awards.

Dunshaughlin Pastoral Centre, too, is a direct beneficiary of the same economic forces. In 2005, the Parish Council of Dunshaughlin and Culmullen first conceived a new centre to cater for the growing town. At that time, education programmes and counselling meetings were being held in schools and halls throughout the parish. A year later, the client approached McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects to design a building to meet the social needs of the community. The brief asked for a parish office, a café, a multi-purpose hall, meeting and counselling rooms and a youth room within an area of 500m2.

The site occupied by the pastoral centre is located just off Main Street. It is defined by the 1980s St Seachnall’s Church (pebble-dashed and all roof), which was set amid an extensive car park, and the Parochial House, an older building in red and buff brick enclosed by a garden wall and a prominent mature hedge.

‘Cars were parked all around the church,’ says project architect Matt MacDonagh-Dumler, who worked up a design originated by practice director Siobhán Ní Éanaigh. The existing conditions were a ‘free for all’. MacDonagh-Dumler explains that the key to making sense of the site was to position a third building compositionally and contextually, to form what he calls a ‘binder’. This binder takes the form of hard-landscaped public space, softened by trees, in which people can linger or spill into after events in the centre.

Commonality was scarce. The grey slate on the roofs of both existing buildings provided inspiration for the pastoral centre’s Marley Eternit-clad envelope, and the church’s striking, hard-to-ignore roof offered a starting point for the centre’s angular form and its ‘roof as fifth elevation’ concept. This sounds simplistic, naive even (why look for inspiration where there is none?), and it would be fair to wag fingers if the building was a failure. Instead it is a great success; a well-crafted, low-budget community building fashioned from contemporary materials.

Coupled with a new pedestrian route inserted between the church and the Parochial House, using the hedge as one side of the avenue and a new line of Italian cypress trees as the other, the overall composition and the centre’s symbiotic form work incredibly well. The route, clearly accessed from Main Street and defined by self-binding gravel, terminates at the centre’s timber and glass entrance, which is top-lined with a bright yellow powder-coated and curled-up aluminium soffit. It gives the building’s enigmatic form a cartoonish smile, drawing the eye from Main Street and encouraging investigation.

In fact, the cheeky flash of yellow signals the stunning interior. A café with a fully glazed external wall becomes a corridor leading to a communal hall. MacDonagh-Dumler says the firm sought to create the impression of these spaces having been ‘hollowed out of the dark, solid built form’. The cave-like volume, whose height and width vary, is rendered luminous by bright yellow-painted walls and Dalsouple rubber floors to match. The servery and the seating placed outside the counselling rooms are finished in Meranti ply, but they look like solid wood. And while the walls and floor are smooth surfaces, the ceiling is randomly perforated for acoustics, with inset and pendant luminaires that lend the space a celestial, grotto-like quality.

This theme is continued externally. Windows to the kitchen, which would otherwise be one of the first things visitors see, are neatly screened by Marley Eternit panels shot through with randomly placed peepholes of various diameters. On the rear elevation, toilet windows are given the same treatment. It’s a fun and, more importantly, memorable detail. The contractor, Aidan Elliott Construction, and the imaginative client must take some credit for helping these moments shine, stresses MacDonagh-Dumler.

A flourish of details further marks the centre out as a thoughtful piece of architecture. The parapet capping is razor-thin and the elevations have a pleasing machine-tooled finish. They hover just above ground level too, accentuating the building’s ‘object’ feel. MacDonagh-Dumler speaks of the maple tree planted in the forecourt and how it will burnish gold in the autumn, ‘alongside the yellow entrance and interiors in the months before Christmas’. An angular rooflight brings sunlight deep inside, while cast-glass globes in the café have translucent stems that glow with light to resemble ‘teardrops’. Aptly, the youth room has a rebellious streak: instead of yellow, it’s a ridiculously bright orange. This is a thoughtful building, yes, but a witty one too – two welcome qualities when times are this hard.

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