On a craggy site on the Irish coast, Niall McLaughlin Architects’ precisely hewn home challenges our ideas of the familiar and the domestic, writes Stephen Best
In Cork’s most south-westerly parish, on the Mizen Head peninsula overlooking the Fastnet lighthouse, is a rarely found creature. Sitting squat on its craggy site like a hardy black mollusc scowling into the salty breeze, the house at Spanish Cove by Niall McLaughlin Architects is a resilient, romantic, rustic dwelling in an intensely contemporary style.
Like McLaughlin’s previous award-winning home at Clonakilty in West Cork, Spanish Cove is a sensitively designed extension to a modest white-painted cottage. It is a building that eschews ostentation, asserting instead an altogether different aesthetic, one that seems hewn from the grey folded landscape, which makes this Atlantic coastline so famed. The architecture shares an almost Ruskinian sense of coherence with the landscape.
Tuned to the specificities of place, Spanish Cove is approached from above, through a low, unassuming timber gate over which is glimpsed a view of the distant Fastnet Rock. The original building remains, clamped between two sheer, gorse-laden, polished stone ridges. It nestles into a luminous green valley at the bottom of a winding gravel drive beside a gently burbling stream.
McLaughlin has, however, reinvented the cottage and stripped the form back to its constituent parts, blinding white walls and blue-grey slate. It has become more essential, more theatrical. The simple disconnection of the traditional chimney breast from the body reinforces the drama, as does the punctured window at its base, through which the flickering welcome of a stately hall fire can be glimpsed. The architecture surprises and challenges our perceptions of the familiar.
Screened by the cottage, facing the ocean, the new house emerges from a cascading limestone terrace. It is a volley of four self-similar monopitch forms, separated by a tartan grid of lightwells and level changes that arrest movement between them and provide poetic moments, which instantly draw your view left and right out from the interior to frame the landscape.
Stepping diagonally across the terrace from north to south, the blocks either nuzzle up close against the valley wall or sit back to create generous sheltered courtyards, as they move gently down the sloping site towards the water’s edge. Each form is surgically sliced to reveal a soaring, light-filled volume wrapped in a thick, smooth ashlar coat of blue Irish limestone that melts into the scenery.
At the entrance, the bright exterior gives way to golden brown Iroko wall panels, a comforting contrast that speaks of home and draws you in towards the flickering fire that forms one end of the main east-west axis. The other is anchored with a framed view of the ocean, a dynamic live picture, which at one moment is like a gentle, calm Hiroshi Sugimoto Seascape and at the next a constantly shattering, incoherent Turner. This subtle duality intensifies and celebrates the perception of security and adventure. It renders the space with a magnetic pull that draws and piques curiosity.
Inside, the space flows downwards from block to block and from entrance to landscape as a unified whole, firmly organised yet without boundaries. The architecture seems to take its cue from some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s bolder split-level projects, which have freedom of movement while gracefully integrating with their surroundings.
Sandwiched between the building and the valley edge are five sheltered courtyards. To the south, these paved parterres provide a place to sit and entertain. They capture the sun and shelter against the prevailing westerly breeze. The upper level, populated with a solitary sculptural strawberry tree, is edged with an elbow-high stone trough through which the running stream is channelled before it cascades into a shallow reflecting pool on the next level down. While to the north, the courtyards fulfil a more scenic function and are scattered with small limestone chips.
The timber windows overlooking the courtyards’ north and south are set back into the facade. They embrace the external space and blur the threshold between garden and interior, while also celebrating the heavy, sober stone cloak.
At the edge of the terrace, the last block is splintered into two trapezoidal forms; living room in one, study in the other. They are separated by the line of the fast-flowing stream and kinked at an angle to visually obscure the internal courtyard. Each has a big picture window and is lined entirely in Iroko panelling that radiates humanity, domesticity and fraternity. It endows the space with an unusual sense of serenity and belonging from which to view the universe. It is a feeling that is at its most intense when shimmering light from the reflecting pool shines through the west facing window to dance overhead, while gazing out across the ocean to Fastnet and beyond.
Elsewhere, the experience is less expansive, more intense and personal. The master bathroom, for example, is pushed close to the cliff edge, creating an intimate cave-like space that focuses attention on the small details; plants and cracks in the rock face take on a sense of hyper-reality.
The use of major building materials is restricted to just three; blue Irish limestone, which can be highly polished to draw out natural silvery white fossilised flecks, honed ashlar, chipped gravel or flamed paving; Iroko, which can be wall panels, window frames or flooring; and white paint, which McLaughlin sees as ground. This narrow palette provides the building with a powerful expression that undoubtedly would have been weakened if any other material had been added to the composition.
McLaughlin is a keen observer, as all the best architects are. He takes care to notice things that matter. It is a skill that echoes the work of the late Liam McCormick and provides the humility required to surgically stitch architecture into the site, to maximise opportunities and celebrate the specific.
Gaston Bachelard, author of Poetics of Space, described two of the chief benefits of a house as being a shelter against the storm and a place to dream in peace. The magic of the everyday, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, defines this poetic, dreamy home.
Stephen Best is architecture critic of The Sunday Times in Ireland