Young Irish architect Tom de Paor (pronounced 'pware'), is lead consultant on one of Britain's largest public art projects to date, the £9 million A13 Artscape scheme between Barking and Dagenham (AJ 30.3.00). His Dublin-based practice, de Paor Architects, has also been invited to design Ireland's first architectural representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale this year.
Instead of allowing himself a few words of justifiable self-congratulation on the Venice invitation, he delivers a punning compliment to another architect.'Venice is the graveyard of great projects, you know. And it's exciting that David Chipperfield is actually going to build one. I think his proposed development for the cemetery of San Michele is wonderful.'
With a little encouragement, de Paor embarks on a dead-pan description of his project; it could have been lifted from a novel by the great Irish comic writer Myles na Gopaleen. 'Ireland is donating 25 tonnes of its land mass.We're giving a gift of land to the smaller island, to Venice, because that's what it needs. . . It's a modest proposal.' (Rapid mental check by interviewer that April is safely behind us. ) De Paor continues:
'The quality of the land? One hundred per cent natural: 12 per cent water content, 0.3 per cent sulphur content. Bog? It's fuel: peat briquettes, it's what we burn in Ireland.'
The inspiration for the structure is St Nicholas of Myra: 'St Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers, apothecaries, pawn-brokers, perfumers (his bones emitted fragrances after he was buried), virgins, slaves, prostitutes and owners of property. We're making an inhabitable north point, N-shaped in plan section and elevation, abstracted.' The 'N' relates to Nicholas, aka Santa Claus. De Paor relates the turbulent history of the saint's corpse, snatched from Turkey to Bari, and thence to its final resting place in San Niccolo di Lido in Venice.The Dublin connection goes back to Norse times and St Nicholas' role as patron of seafarers; then there is the additional canal-link.
De Paor admits that these narratives are not an essential part of the design process and that his ambition is 'to make a serious piece of architecture that is loaded'. But there is the perennial problem of how concepts are born.
'How do you generate a project with no brief - how do you do that?'And he adds: 'We've had a lot of fun doing it.' He knows that his use of peat will raise eyebrows and admits he is being provocative. 'It's an invitation to think about it.
What is sustainable? The N is also a large question mark.' When the project is removed from its location in the Arsenale, the briquettes will become part of a public garden in Venice.