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O’Donnell + Tuomey: Space for Architecture

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The full text of Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey’s Gold Medal lecture which the pair gave at the RIBA earlier this month

1: Everything Accumulates 

This is a very special moment for us. We are deeply honoured to be here this evening in this capacity. We feel that we should account for ourselves. So we will talk a bit about where we have come from and about where we are going.

There is a traditional Irish form of  performed conversation called an Agallamh Beirte… this takes place between two people (usually a man and a woman) who take turns to speak.

We have chosen six headings to structure our thoughts and will each talk three times.

Each project contributes something to the way we approach our work. Projects accrue and build one on another, they are not discrete. Ideas and methods pile up, we hoard them - nothing is wasted. The starting point for each new work builds on all the work already done. It’s a slow continuous, enfolding business.

On the one hand architecture is a clearly defined discipline with its own rules and inherent logic. But it is so complex and so much a part of life and living that it is influenced by and accommodates and maybe even contains many other aspects of human creativity and ingenuity. It extends beyond itself in a number of ways.


The presence or effect of a building reaches further than its physical boundaries, outside the limits of its site to the world beyond, at least until it meets the buildings and spaces that surround it or the landscape that defines it. In a less material way architecture extends to embrace other art forms and disciplines.

When David Chipperfield invited us to contribute to his Common Ground Venice biennale we decided to show that our common ground includes works of poetry, sculpture, prose, photography and geometry. We gathered together works by others, works that have affected and influenced us- a collection of what we call our affinities. And we displayed them in a case facing a shelf of study models, made in our studio, of some architectural affinities. We wanted to record and extend the conversation, Even the silent conversation, between them, and with us. Such affinities have become an integral part of our work.

At the same time in another corner of the Giardini we filled a box with found things – stones, shells, functional artefacts, pigments and tools of our trade, souvenirs, keepsakes, chapels, shrines and landscapes recorded in maps and sketches. This box had been sent to us by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien with the invitation to make an installation that was not our professional work, but which comprised things that speak to you and the work you do. Unlike the ‘affinities’ these are not works of art, but objects which have taken on significance through use, observation or our own active appropriation.

Ours is an art that is physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual

Projects by other people are also part of the base out of which our work is made. Some things stay in the mind and we eventually take ownership of them, like Kahn’s Escherick House that we first learned about from Shane de Blacam, as part of his first year teaching on the essentials of architecture. Or Ed Jones’s Chelsea studio with its asymptotic junctions, the schools of Colqhoun and Miller, the giant columns of Rossi’s Gallaratese. And of course Stirling’s Red buildings and all of Corb are in there near the bottom of this rich compost. These are all part of our work and our life in architecture. The concrete stairs in Tod and Billie’s Folk Art Museum may not still physically exist on W53rd Street, but it absolutely abides with us and in the world of architecture, and there it will survive. So ours is an art that is physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual. Even mis-remembered places and buildings become real and vital in our re-membering.

Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School

Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School

Designing Ranelagh School with its basic brief for eight classrooms, two offices and a playhall offered a wonderful opportunity to reflect on type, typology, repetition, difference, order, institutions, community, neighbourhood and the everyday. These things are dug into the mix and become part of the next project even if its subject is apparently quite different.

Terragni is not just interesting for his rigorous rationalism - it’s for what he does with it and to it. How he makes his own of the type; plays it and stretches it in plan and elevation, and in three dimensions. Those steps pushed up against the pure, complete form of the Casa del Fascio to get you in. They are vernacular and human and timeless - they both affirm and challenge the purity and perfection of the abstract box

This grounding in the everyday, this remembering and celebrating of the ordinariness and specialness of a threshold, lifts this work above an intellectually satisfying exercise and into what we call the Space for Architecture. 

City Architecture Studio Poster

City Architecture Studio Poster

When we came back from London to Dublin, we imagined that we might build small-scale, socially useful civic buildings in Irish towns. As we left London a good friend had told us, half-jokingly, to ‘go back and change the face of Irish architecture’, and, half-jokingly, we held onto this as an idealistic dream. We were inspired by the idea that architecture could have a role in defining a society, and we came back to find ourselves in a society undergoing great cultural and social change. The Arts, especially Theatre, seemed to reflect the rapid developments occurring. Everything was in flux and it was possible and necessary to contribute to the discussion and to be part of the change. There was no work for young architects but there was plenty to think about. The physical fabric of Dublin was decaying and neglected. No-one lived down town. The docks had moved further out leaving a huge area of empty land and abandoned buildings. We felt we had a mission to bring European urbanism and city living to Dublin. So we got involved. Over 10 years, in different groupings of like-minded contemporaries, we made proposals and counter projects for how Dublin might develop.

City Architecture Studio Masterplan

City Architecture Studio Masterplan

Everyone in Dublin said we were mad

As City Architecture Studio we designed a masterplan for the docklands to demonstrate that 10,000 people could live there. Everyone in Dublin said we were mad; that no-one would ever choose to live in the city. But here in London the AJ published the project in full and put us on their cover in October 1984.

As Group 91 we made a series of strategic and detailed proposals at different scales. We finally won the Temple Bar framework competition in 1992. Poacher turned gamekeeper. While we were busy redesigning the city we lived off teaching and small projects. We learned to think strategically and experientially at the same time. We realised that a house needs an urban strategy and a city block needs intimate space. That you have to make the work you believe in and you have to stick with it.

When Group 91 won that competition John and I had been working for 4 years on the site next door on the design of the Irish Film Centre. This was our first public project, and our first experience of working with an existing building.

In responding to existing buildings you inevitably work on strategy and detail together from the beginning. You are brought right up against the essentials of architecture; material, light, texture, construction are all part of the initial thinking. So in this case the accumulation was in place before we intervened. Rather than composing we were orchestrating- working to bring order and meaning to a set of structures and geometries, which chance and accident had gathered together.

That experience profoundly affected how we work; since then we haven’t distinguished between projects for new buildings and re-workings. It’s a matter of degree.

All sites contain marks and evidence of cultivation or use; we are always working in the context of existing conditions. These conditions are just more evident when a built structure is part of the site.

2: Architecture and Sacrifice: Site and Volume                                   

Last year, at Joseph Rykwert’s Gold Medal lecture, we learned that John Ruskin, on being offered the Royal Gold Medal by the RIBA, reacted with a prompt refusal. Ruskin, according to Rykwert, at least on this occasion, chose sacrifice.

Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture was the book my father gave me when I was at the beginning of my studies in architecture. In the opening chapter, the Lamp of Sacrifice, Ruskin makes every effort to distinguish mere building from the meaning of architecture. He reasonably admits that…

‘There can be no good architecture which is not based on good building’

Well, we would agree with that. But then, he goes on to say, that to keep our ideas of building and architecture distinct from each other, we must…

‘Understand fully that architecture concerns itself only with those characters of an edifice which are above and beyond its common use

Well, we couldn’t agree with him there. Ruskin believed that architecture can be measured only by that which is useless and unnecessary - and we would aspire towards an architecture of useful beauty.

Two big differences arise straight away then between Ruskin and us, especially in relation to these important questions of architecture and sacrifice: Our acceptance of this most unexpected honour from our respected peers and our insistence that, at least for us, architecture is always going to be grounded in the everyday - albeit ever-aspiring to what we might call ‘the elevated ordinary’. Or, as Seamus Heaney somewhere says: ‘Make your study the unregarded floor’.

Virginia Woolf, answering her own question on ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ tells us that ‘To read a book well, one should read it as if one were writing it. Begin not by sitting on the bench among the judges but by standing in the dock with the criminal. Be his fellow worker, become his accomplice. Even if you wish merely to read books, begin by writing them’.

Standing as we are here in the dock, still dealing with this out-of-the-blue gold medal, we hope you will follow the advice of one of your own local author’s - and begin not by sitting on the bench among the judges, at least for the length of tonight’s short talk, and hear us out while we try to answer our own questions on ‘How Should One Approach an Architect’s Work?’ Or to refine our intentions in this regard, still trusting in the audience as our accomplice – to tell you how we ourselves tend to approach certain aspects of this most privileged and complicated career.

Let me read a short quote from the Blue Guide to Mainland Greece:

‘When we look for the origins of the Greek temple we find that the setting comes first, long before the building… A promontory, a spring of water, a cave, a grove of trees – any unusual or life-giving phenomenon could seem to possess…. an unseen power.

Greek architecture is all about the vital presence of the object

According to the Blue Guide, and please remember that this is a guide for all readers and not only for architects, there are three primary elements needed to define most ancient places of cult: the table that marks the spot, the perimeter that defines its setting, and the chamber that houses the goods. Greek architecture, as you know, is all about the outside, the vital presence of the object. If we were reading from a Blue Guide to the Byzantine it would have been all about the interior luminous space. Combining these two tendencies, the search for external presence and the exploration of internal volume, from the concrete clarity of the foundations at Delphi to the brick-built mysteries of Hagia Sophia, perhaps we could be seen as much more Greco-Byzantine in our spiritual origins, and not be starting out our lecture here in London, wrongly perceived as some species of roving Irish regionalists.

Lewis Glucksman Gallery

Lewis Glucksman Gallery

This is the site for the Glucksman Gallery, with the River Lee cutting through a limestone escarpment. We worked our way upwards and out of the ground of this site.

The project began in plan and developed in section as a consequence of the first move, and then the form developed in a non-linear way, or in a series of jumps, from the first line drawn in the sand, in this case helped by leaning on a Heaney poem.

For this secluded riverside site, our first thoughts were to keep all the existing trees, to lift the gallery up in the air, above the limestone escarpment to turn the plan - to look out from within the gallery at selected views of the college in one direction and views back to the city – along and not across the river. The Glucksman has a void at its centre. It’s really an inverted courtyard pushed up from below and the inner section is made visible in the external form.

Irish Language Centre in Derry

An Gaelaras Irish Language Centre in Derry

At the Irish Language Centre in Derry, we wanted to work our way outwards from within a landlocked infill site.

The courtyard is really a residual volume that remains after the extraction of some imagined mediaeval tower house, a solid spatial volume rather than a negative void, the plan is designed to open up a three-dimensional civic processional journey. With the visitor moving through the building like the ball in a pin-ball machine, propelled along his journey by incidents encountered in his pathoverlapping spaces overlook the route through the various levels of this very public building.

Lyric Theatre

Lyric Theatre

And at the centre of the internal public streetscape of the Lyric, is another project entirely, the theatre auditorium, an acoustic vessel, embodying the active interdependence between actor and audience. The external expression of the building was developed from the tradition of Belfast brick buildings and the form opens up to extend the interior volumes out towards the river landscape.

And we hope to combine some of these aspects of civic building, university life and accessible culture in a project that will soon extend across half a city block, now starting on site, in the world heritage streetscape of Budapest. This is the first phase of a three-phase masterplan for the Central European University. To create a new public entrance to the University on the grand street of Nador Utca, where balconies, bay windows and big cornices loom out over the building line, and exuberant elevations directly adjoin more restrained facades. The first phase of this building contains a library over a learning café over an auditorium, on a visual axis with the River Danube. With the courtyards of five buildings, three old and two new, three-dimensionally interconnected. To create social spaces for student and academic life in this beautiful city of courtyards and passageways. The scheme is designed to make an internally integrated campus and to open up the academic labyrinth to relate outwards to the lively urban realm of Budapest.

Central European University

Central European University, Budapest

3: The World Outside (Public Realm)

In our world the work of making architecture always includes making the public realm. This applies as much to houses as it does to institutional buildings.

Howth House

Howth House

We like buildings that are not hermetic, sealed, smooth objects separated from their context or from the ground around them. We try to make buildings that don’t hover or stand in distinct contrast; that have more complex relationships with ground and air. Where there is an exchange between place and building, inside and outside, old and new. This phenomenon exists in time as well as place, in spirit as well as fabric.

We include the world outside within the orbit of the building

Working on designs for schools we developed a way of thinking about the relationship between inside and outside; using intermediate, even indeterminate, spaces to prolong the experience of entering or leaving. The standard Irish school brief has strict floor area controls and no allowance for social space; we found we could enrich the spatial catalogue by including the world outside within the orbit of the building.

External spaces that are part of the architecture but not sealed from the elements are not counted in the calculation of floor area. Covered verandas, steps and platforms, porches allow for some ambiguity about the state of being either inside or outside. They extend the architecture beyond the door. We are interested in contingent, even non-committal spaces, where the decision to enter can be eased or postponed.

Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School

Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School

The Ranelagh School builds its site using cut and fill to negotiate the level change on this small urban plot. The site is divided almost exactly in half between building and constructed yard. The veranda elaborates the boundary between the two conditions; the dug-in yard flows under it, staff rooms and offices project into it, and it cranks in section to define the roof terrace above. On the street side a brick wall is built hard against the boundary to protect the classrooms from the noise of passing traffic, above eye level this brick enclosure cuts back to provide shallow courts for light, air and outside space for the classrooms and in response to the domestic scale of the neighbouring houses.

The Hudson House, a small dwelling dug into and rising out of a narrow stepped site in the middle of Navan, was designed at the same time as Ranelagh School, and some of the same concerns were in our minds. Here the change in site level was more dramatic- the garden is a full storey higher than the street. In this house inside and outside spaces overlap, leading from an archway in the street through to the raised garden level that looks back over the town. The Hudsons ran a busy restaurant in the street-front building; the site for their new house was the back yard and garden behind. The yard was in the shell of a ruined shed, whose concrete walls retained the earth of the surrounding gardens. They were already living an inside-outside life. They lived in an apartment above the restaurant, and took most of their meals, during breaks from the kitchen, at a table in the open-air ruin of the rough concrete yard. Their new house is built around the life they were already living in this particular place. The plan is a rectangle divided in two and slipped. The forecourt pushes part of the living room out into the yard, creating a matching pocket space that slows and shelters the movement from living room to court. Across the court is a three-storey tower of bedrooms. There is no covered connection from living to bedrooms. Yet the house is still one building; the enclosing walls and floor of the living room extend into and across the court. One wall turns up to form the gable of the bedroom tower; another runs past the tower to the raised ground beyond. The courtyard is a room in the house and a space in the town. The house was built in two construction phases. The concrete shell, which retains the site edges and defines the spatial enclosure, was built by a specialist contractor in just six weeks. Then there was a delay before a local house-builder installed timber floors, partitions, doors and windows, to turn the structure into a house. During the pause, the distinction between inside and outside seemed unclear, the house hovered between ruin and construction, coming and going, domestic and civic. The clients held a candlelit party with hay bales for furniture, and learned to love the empty spaces of their future home.

This one-off design, which was such a particular response to its unusual site conditions, has turned out to be our most generic project. Many subsequent projects have built on and developed the spatial and constructional ideas contained in this small building. The movement through and under the Glucksman Gallery is closely related to the spatial strategy of the Hudson House.

St Angela’s College, currently on site, is a greatly expanded version of this world of over and under and in-between. It too is on a landlocked, steep urban site. New interventions manoeuvre their way down the hill, passing between existing historic buildings. A continuous external route from top to bottom negotiates the 18-metre drop in site levels, connecting courts, gardens and playgrounds.The social housing scheme in Richmond Hill turns the Hudson House.

O'Donnell + Tuomey's Timberyard Housing

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Timberyard Housing

In Timberyard housing the brick enclosing walls are modulated with recessed porches, double height terraces and projecting bay windows to give a sense of depth and urban complexity to the building’s edge and to provide an interface between the private world of the house and the local neighbourhood. This kind of transitional space brings the outside world into the domestic realm by framing it as a borrowed landscape, while holding it out by means of the protective depth of enclosing walls. It acts like a zoom lens allowing the occupants to adjust their relationship with the boundaries of their domestic territory.

Heidegger said that: ‘A boundary is not that at which something stops, but, as the Greeks recognised, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.’

The triangular court has a narrow opening to Cork Street, which slows and quietens the city behind. Projecting staircases, recessed alcoves, seats and trees populate the space and make it a kind of Campo — an occupied room. A slipped pattern of domestic-scaled windows suggests occupation by many people; double-height loggias mark the location of each individual apartment and give a larger scale rhythm to the facade. The brick surface steps and angles around corners to make an unbroken enclosure, turning into the Timberyard, crossing the floor of the yard itself, before  making its way back out to the street where it joins in urban continuity with the ubiquitous brick streetscape of the Liberties.

O'Donnell + Tuomey's Photographers Gallery

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Photographers Gallery

The Photographers Gallery in Soho is tucked away down a narrow lane off Oxford St. This vertical extension of a brick warehouse is clad in a dark render overcoat that steps forward from the face of the existing brickwork like a close-fitting camera case. The north light periscope window is a single eye looking out over and framing the skyline; a sentinel visible from the surrounding city.

Sean O’Casey community centre has a strong presence at the edge of the Dublin docklands: a defiant symbol of the existence of this vibrant old community in the middle of a newly commercialised neighbourhood. The plan is subdivided into four quarters: childcare, age care, sports and drama. Its small tower of meeting rooms whose windows float skywards rises out of an inward looking courtyard building, sheltering the daily activities of old people and children and sportsmen. The circular windows and corrugated concrete surface came out of early conversations with local people about ships and silos and the silent sheds of their collective memory, their familiar docklands landscape.

4: Craft and Construction

We want to make our buildings feel permanent, to make a lasting thing, robust and ready for a long and useful life in the world. I think that’s why we like to work with raw materials, with the archaic stuff that will weather naturally and wear out slowly: brick, concrete and timber seem to offer some sort of aesthetic resistance – resilient as they are to time and season. But for the builder, this makes his life a little more difficult. Because the structure is the first thing to be made -  in the mostly wet and often windy outdoor conditions of a building site - and then these primary elements have to be protected through all the messy stages of the process of construction – eventually to emerge intact as a precious finish. The first thing made becomes the first thing visible - in a world where final finishes don’t conspire to cover up early work.

The builder is a necessary part of the team

This is difficult to achieve in real life – and sometimes we have seen a well-made piece of work suffer from the untimely drop of a scaffold pole or a belt from the end of a passing ladder. But the builder is a necessary part of the team, and has to feel part of the family that is working together to make a good building. Architects must be ready to praise the work and learn to love the man who is doing his best.

Let me quote from Rilke, who in his efforts to seek out ‘Space for Poetry’, told his patron Princess to ‘praise this world to the angel’. Let me read the following few words extracted from Rilke’s Ninth Elegy. So show him something simple which, formed over generations, lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze. Tell him of things. He will stand astonished; as you stood by the rope-makers in Rome or the potters along the Nile. We could translate Rilke’s lyrical advice (to send praise to the angel) to more practical, but no less poetic, ends. Architects should speak directly to clients, contractors and tradesmen, talking simply about qualities near our hand; qualities that inhere in what Rilke liked to call ‘Things’ - or in what we call buildings.

Architects’ ideas live on in the practical poetical things we call buildings

Architecture is a craft-based art. The architect’s concept has to be carried across to live in the building itself, and this transference is realised through the active commitment of the contractor and the measured skill of manual work. Bricklayers, carpenters, shuttering contractors, site engineers and general foremen are the unsung actors that make actual architecture out of architects’ intentions. These are the people worth talking to, worth taking into our confidence, and whose advice is worth listening to. Ideas are born in the mind, but architects’ ideas live on in the practical poetical things we call buildings. Or, as Denys Lasdun said: ‘You can go and see it, and the building, if it has anything to say, will have to speak for itself.’

Professional training inclines our profession towards the view that craftsmanship is a thing of the past, and by this way of thinking, architectural design should avoid the demands of difficult construction and instead it ought to provide for the norms of the industry. As if the building process should be, or could be, reduced to the assembly of standardised components. On the contrary, we have found that the whole construction team can rise to the satisfaction of seeing a difficult job done well. And we have had the good fortune to work with master-craftsmen and very careful colleagues who attend to the discipline of their craft at every stage in the difficult journey from design to completion.

ODT Studio

The O’Donnell + Tuomey Studio

Strangely enough, it seems that the more difficult the challenge, the better the chances of getting the work done well. This is one further reason for us to try to approach simplicity through complication; because if it’s too easy to do, no one seems to think its worth trying to do it particularly well. We practice our own craft through a studio-based way of working. First thoughts are sketched out in soft pencil, then quickly drawn up on computer and roughly modelled in cardboard. The process is repeated on a daily basis and designs are gradually developed with overlay drawings on A3 sheets of ‘Skizzen’ paper. There is nothing novel in this routine; it’s the technique we learned at Jim Stirling’s office. It’s the means by which fluency emerges, continuous in many respects with the methods of student project work. And, sometimes, on a good day, a mysterious jump in thinking happens when the work itself is in flow. Constant practice in the studio helps to develop a surer sense of scale and some practical experience on site helps to keep the mind’s eye and the hand’s action connected to each other.

Working closely with trusted colleagues in the studio and cooperating with expert consultants is one of the tangible benefits of professional practice. Unlike in College life, where the hard question always seems to be ‘Why?’ - In practice more often the interesting question is ‘How?’ This is the craftsman’s question, and the search for an adequate answer can open up directions for collaborative investigation into the capacities of materials and methods of construction.

The technology of communication has changed completely in our generation. The principles of the tools of the trade have changed somewhat less. The raw materials of construction have changed very little. The really big change in building technology happened long ago, by the end of the nineteenth century – with the separation of structural frame from enclosing fabric. Walls these days are not monolithic, weight no longer requires massive thickness for its support, and buildings provide added protection from the weather in purpose-specific layers of construction. This is the breakthrough that, after countless centuries of masonry-based building, brought about the revolution in 20th century aesthetics of construction. Nowadays this news is no longer new.

Timber cladding at the Glucksman Gallery

Timber cladding at the Glucksman Gallery

Timber, always a scarce resource, requiring management at source and maintenance in use, is still sawn in planks and joined in sections to allow for movement along and across the grain. And the technology of glass and steel is amazing in its complexity and refinement, but the difference is in degree, not in kind. Bricks have changed not at all. 175,000 bricks for the LSE were individually made from clods of clay, hand thrown in wooden moulds, sprinkled with coloured sands and baked in the oven like loaves of bread.

Construction sites are social settings, settings where the social art of architecture takes on its substance. And the quality of craftsmanship is always ready, like Rilke’s angel, to be recognised with human respect at every stage from setting out to finishing off.

5: Building Ground: Plans and Maps

Plans have always been the starting point for our work. In a way our plans have become more complex, but maybe they are also getting simpler and more intuitive. We started out with order and geometry and rigour; with absolutes. Those things are still there, but now the plans are also about movement, direction and balance and always about use and occupation. Life, experience and building have all worked on and over the order; have stretched and pulled the geometry. We are not afraid to bend and angle walls in response to the multiple forces acting on us- of place, climate and programme. We like to use words to clarify design ideas - we try to pin down complexities by capturing them in carefully chosen phrases.

Driving through a Finnish forest on a pilgrimage to see Aalto’s work John started one of his many Aalto limericks with the lines:

‘In his late church work Aalto was anti

Any walls that were straight, he liked slanty’

Sometimes silly words are actually very serious. The material quality and responsive spatial character of those churches and houses of Aalto’s had a profound effect on us.

TS Eliot says that: ‘The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games;

Watercolour image of stones

Watercolour image of stones

For me picking up the right stone on a beach is a difficult matter. While it’s not easy to define, the selection method has become more certain over time. Stones of similar shape are favoured, or those of common colour, but so are some erratic stones that fit in only by standing out. The most interesting ones have strong forms shaped by the forces of nature. They feel complete. They can’t be added to or subtracted from. The critical selection of a handful of stones could be compared to editing words in a phrase. They are turned over and scrutinized. Most are rejected. Drawing or painting the gathered stones gives us ownership of their forms. It fixes them on a surface and in our minds. Collecting and grouping things in this way is part of the preparation for the eventual assembly of parts in a building, for the ordering and balancing of dimensions and densities, of heavy and light, of solid and ephemeral phenomena.

Our interest is in how material qualities can influence deeper thoughts about life

Our interest is not just in the physical characteristics of objects; it’s in how the material qualities of things can influence deeper thoughts about life and use, relating to more profound and perhaps even metaphysical aspects of architecture, to how we experience things.

On the day that we heard we had won the LSE competition I picked up three angular red stones on a beach full of smooth white rounded stones. Those LSE-specific stones jumped out of that familiar background - the gap between noticing and making was suddenly diminished. Why do stones matter? Because they are matter. They have their own material quality, they show the marks of time, altered by weather and affected by water. They embody characteristics of the place they come from. They are part of the ground we live on and the stuff we build with.

We spend hours observing steps and seats outside the doors of archaic Greek chapels, noticing the singular quality of  small sacred spaces and how they are anchored to the earth. Roof and walls make one continuous surface - sometimes the chapel itself is half-swallowed by a rock face. Layers of whitewash unify the form. Low enclosing walls combine with seats and steps to act as skirting and plinth. The built ground is integrated with the building form. Maps and plans are also part of our thought process. Drawing over the Nolli Plan, with each day’s route through Rome drawn in a different coloured pencil, records our path. As well as the fact that we don’t move through the same places in the same way each time. Our feet lead us, we mark that route on the map, and then the map itself suggests alternative routes: it leads us too. The drawn-over map stakes out our Rome as a thing in itself. By acting on the map we claim the city.

A few years ago on Greek island holidays I started to make swimming maps. I swim into the harbour every day, lining myself up with a cave in the headland opposite, or a moored fishing boat or a peak on a distant hazy mountain range. I mark the route I’ve taken on the map I’m making. The map changes and develops with each swim; the swims develop in response to the map. I see myself suspended in aquatic space between the fishing boats. This swimming map unites objects and space- It maps the space between things that are not quite static. So the space is not static either. It is liquid.

Swimming Map

Sheila O’Donnell’s Swimming Map

Space separates things, defining and measuring the gaps between objects, but it is also a thing in itself. It shifts between positive and negative, between concrete and abstract. Describing the process of making his maps of the West of Ireland, Tim Robinson says: ‘While walking the land I am the pen on the paper, while drawing this map my pen is myself walking the land.’ Plans of buildings are maps. They chart experience, culture and occupation. But they anticipate the future rather than describing the present and the past. The act of marking maps, following our feet, fixes certain spatial conditions in our minds. That’s why we bring our life experience into our studio work - what we’re doing is building a world, or trying to project a new place in the old world.

The LSE Student Centre is directly influenced by these experiences and observations. The plan embodies movement; space flows freely in horizontal plan and vertical section. With the stairs slowly twisting and turning around the fixed vertical element of the lift shaft- like swimming around a boat in the harbour. The folded, faceted façade responds to the Rights to Light restrictions. And was tailored in response to views down the approaching lanes and alleys. Our concept for the building was Street Life: the network of lanes that define the campus continues into the building winding up and through the floors in the form of a big generous staircase connecting the various levels. The building is anchored to its site while pulling away from its edges to make an entrance forecourt at the front and courts for light and air at the back. The surface of the skin was cut out along fold lines to form large areas of glazing and to define the entrance forecourt.

Model of the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre

Model of the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre

When the building was almost complete we were commissioned by Westminster to design the public realm. We continued the brick floor of the entrance hall and the geometry of the plan out into the paving of the street.  The canopy provides a gathering space, an in-between space between the public realm and the buildingand this indoor-outdoor campus street life continues through to the foyer and all the way up the open stair to the rooftop café.

6: Future Perfect

No matter how many times you return to look out from your Roman holiday hotel window, the Pantheon’s portico stoically stands its ground, indifferent to your admiring gaze.

The day begins at a carefully chosen spot at the usual café counter, chosen with care to allow you to divide your attentions between drinking a morning espresso and keeping the old brick elephant in clear view out the corner of your eye.

Last grappa of the evening is taken at the properly named Tempio Bar, right opposite the lit-up Pantheon, most impressively timeless at this hour, at any hour, at any time. At times like this the much-copied original reminds you, if only superficially, of a well-worn image of itself and, at the same time, more fundamentally, of the origins of civic architecture.

The Pantheon holds its own canonical place in the architectural pantheon, its endurance impervious to the many changes and various continuities that have provided the conditions for its unconditional survival through two thousand years.

An architectural form full of pagan history, passively resistant to Christian ritual, burial place of the divine Raphael, it is today mostly appreciated for its existential presence, its aura as Rilke would have it, the simple wonder of an ancient empty vessel wide open to the elements, suddenly made manifest to our senses through the spectacle of its oculus, by columns of solid sunlight slanting across the shell of its concrete ceiling or by showers of rain power-washing its sloping floor.

Brick, concrete and stone; the whole heavy structure facing north, its x axis extending out onto the public ground of the adjoining piazza, its y axis leading up into the open air of the heavens above.

This once was, and somehow it still remains, a brand new building, disruptively radical in its intentions, dazzlingly inventive in its construction, belonging intrinsically to its place and promising further possibilities beyond its physical limits.

We had come in hope of catching an evening performance, some unspecified, hopefully surtitled, Greek tragedy. At the ticket office they apologised because, postponed due to last year’s forest fires, tonight there would be a special show of Beckett’s Happy Days. We were lucky enough to witness Fiona Shaw’s Winnie, heroically struggling to maintain her optimism, here in the theatre-in-the-round at Epidaurus, buried up to her waist and then her neck at the epicentre of ancient drama. Beckett’s classic twentieth century theatre of the absurd, adapted to its archetypal setting, owls hooting in the trees and other animal sounds-off, seen against a black starry backdrop and a rising moon. And Winnie telling herself: ‘Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! After all. So far.’ We could interpret Winnie’s repeated reliance on the Future Perfect as somehow analogous to the way an architect designing has to think about time, suspended as he is, as she was, between the past and the future.

To envisage a project having any sense of permanence in its built reality you have to push your mind forward to an unspecified point in the imagined past of a fictional future and, from that precarious vantage point, look back over the likely lasting consequences of any actions you are about to propose in the immediate present. This is one meaning of the word project, used as a verb, meaning to propel.

Even the grand old Pantheon must once have seemed disruptively new in ancient Rome. And we have seen the contemporary archaic drama of Happy Days brought to new sense via an Arcadian engagement with ancient architecture and living nature. New and old are not really adequate or relevant terms to describe the purposeful vitality of architecture.

The Future Perfect is a progressive tense, a useful position from which to fortify the proposition of a particular design, and to rehearse some of its more difficult parts, or perhaps to seize the moment, to change your mind and start over again, to fail again, fail better.

We should not be persuading ourselves into a fool’s paradise of an impossibly perfect future. We should be reminding ourselves, again and again, by way of the Future Perfect, of the more complex dimensions of what will have been of the imperfect reality of this continuous and living present.

Sheila began this talk with the idea that Everything Accumulates. This drawing, showing some of our projects at the same scale, is titled Composite Functions, Compatible Plans Connected.

Composite Functions, Compatible Plans Connected

Composite Functions, Compatible Plans Connected

Like in the song, Them Dry Bones, where the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, we wanted to bring different schemes together to see how they might link up and make some continuity between themselves.

Starting at the top, the Vessel is a seeing device lodged in the Cyclops eye of the Photographers’ Gallery and the Gallery is spliced back-to-back with the Glucksman Gallery whose river-viewing window is hooked up with the sea-viewing window in the Howth House. And the gable of this private house is attached to the gable of the Timberyard Social Housing and at the other end the LSE Student Centre continues the brick wall around the corner until its café flows over into to the café of the Lyric Theatre, whose own backstage is now back-to-back with the backstage of the Irish Language Cultural Centre, etcetera, etcetera…making one continuous city out of these different buildings.

And somehow the LSE sits happily at the centre of all this interactivity – as London itself has always been central to our own working lives in architecture.

After all. So far.

Thank you


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