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The Church Alley: Grafted Architecture by Ross Melbourne

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

As the built product of an amateur national sport, the Irish Handball Alley can concievably be considered as Ireland’s only indiginous Modern Architecture; an artefact that emerged from a unique social and cultural tradition, erected utilising a contemporary form of concrete construction.

The simpllicity of its architectural composition - a higher front wall (often already in existence) butressed by two additional sloping side walls - implies that any wall over thirty feet could have been deemed sufficient as a potential playing location. As such, the alley’s built form is often dismissed as a condition of rural pragmatism; the existing front wall percieved merely as an element of convenience. However, this vernacular indifference to the craft of architecture it not without spatial effect.

The positioning of each new object into the existing urban or rural landscape, by the simple introduction of two side walls, is crucial to understanding the social status of these structures and the motives of their non-architects. The process of exploring an existing situation as a found object and assigning new attributes through the insertion of twin walls can be understood here as a creative act of appropriation. This process can result in a mongrelisation of disparate architectural elements through an operation of collage that can breed extraordinary ensembles imbued with both their existing and proposed traits that can produce suprising architectural experiences.

In County Kilkenny, there is an intriguing architectural coupling of two of Modern Ireland’s proclivities: Sport and Religion; this particular alley has been grafted onto the gable end of a church.

I visited it one late afternoon in Early Spring. With its hunkered mass partially buried, silence seemed to swell around it like a stone dropped in water.

Both building types – the Church Hall and the Big Alley - can be understood as single-room spaces of ceremony, simply orchestrated in space by the building’s plan. One penetrates this sober object on an axial route through a minimal opening which forces the visitor to bow as he enters.

Raising one’s head to the where the altar once stood, the experience is analogous to the landscape architect’s custom of providing an upward projective device in an enclosed garden; the gable end addresses the sky and offers a sense of vertical relief.

Here, the frameless window opening casts silouettes of the ormnamental tracery onto the unembellished concrete, marking the passage of time on the internal walls of the court.

The floor plan, in both the ecclesiastical and the athletic domains, endevours to support a reciprocal relationship to the movement of the human body. For any sports player the idea of the plan as a generator is a tacit methodology; as the rules of the game are embedded in the playing field, the plan is always understood as an instrumental prerequisite of the game itself.

The authority of the alley’s three dimensions assures the players to such an extent that they can forgo the fourth. The precise geometry occludes any sensory connection with the immediate hinterland.  The wind must fall flat enough for the flight of the ball to be unaffected producing an introspective space in which the horizon is always out of view.

This hybrid space, evocative of both spheres of everyday life (religious and athletic), is now neither one or the other. With the rise of International Handball in the 1970s, the dimensions of the playing court were globally established and the scale of the Big Alley became outdated overnight. Functionless, this alley became an aesthetic object of vernacular sculpture –  a mute sentinel of its past lives.

Retaining their importance as symbols of their respective communities, many other alleys have been painted with campaign slogans, political murals, and with welcome signage by regional tourist groups. Often, their once legible forms are now hidden in plain sight, subsumed into the fabric of the urban environment. In some instances, the addition of a roof has enclosed the alley to create a community hall.

As an introverted, autonomous mass of near impenetrable solitude, this alley shares many characteristics with the Atlantic Wall military bunkers: minimal openings with an absence of detail, partially burial in the earth and constructed solely from reinforced concrete. Paul Virilio’s seminal study on these objects would - ironically for this church-alley - prompt Brutalist religious architecture with the power to inspire terror as well as awe.

‘Bunker Archaeology’[1] examined these military edifices as a typology with homogenous qualities capable of stimulating Virilio’s poetic insights on modern warfare. Taken as a collective, a taxonomy of the Handball Alley - invariable artifacts with parasitic tendencies coupled with minor evolutions in form (for example, the addition of the back wall in the 1950s marked the emergence of viewing windows and raised terraced seating above changing rooms and vestibule areas) - could help to foster an appreciation of the spatial and material qualities of these places in the public imagination.

These buildings are symbolic when perceived as an accumulation of a specific culture, yet their stark forms can be judged singularly as blights on the landscape.

The recent debate in Albania concerning Enver Hoxha’s bunkerisation[2] of the countryside is an interesting parallel which raises the unsolved problem of what the shelf life of such buildings should be and what futures could be possible: Appreciation as community detritus-cum-picturesque ruin or a self-conscious project of adaptive re-use?

The proliferation of these buildings is key to understanding their shared salient features, yet an all-encompassing nationwide strategy of aesthetic conservation would be to the object’s detriment. This approach would be the antithesis to the bottom-up emergence of these social structures, the montage process that determined their striking ad hoc charm.

Perhaps an existing scenario can suggest a way forward for the Big Alley. From the late 1880s to the late twentieth century Handball Alleys were promoted in religious, educational and military institutions. RIC barracks were later converted into Garda stations and as the urban fabric eventually surrounded a station in County Meath, the side-by-side configuration of the alleys became its boundary walls. The interior became a car park, the exterior a vast concrete elevation.

As one passes this precinct, the expansive, sloping concrete walls can be interpreted as an austere choreography of military defense. Here, the unadorned concrete in an institutional setting transmits an expression akin to the mute and enigmatic military bunkers. Like alley walls claiming a church, this overlap can produce an experience provocative of both factual and fictional narratives. Passive preservation might be the most radical approach yet.



1.     [1] Paul Virilio, ‘Bunker Archaeology’ (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994)

2.     [2] Jason Payne, ‘Projekti Bunkerizimit: The Strange Case of the Albanian Bunker’  in ‘Log Issue 31’ (New York: Anyone Corporation, 2014). Payne charts the current discourse on the myriad bunkers remaining from Hoxha’s military-industrial project, which attempted to construct 700,000 defensive bunkers in the 1970s.

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