From the cave to the primitive hut, from Newgrange to St Macdara’s Oratory, architecture begins with a single room. That is how it is here, too, on the largest of the Aran Islands, where Paul Dillon has deftly perched a tiny, bony proto-temple upon a limestone cliff above the port village of Kilronan. And so it begins. Again.
The art room is modest in size – 100msq – and secreted behind, set apart from, the little mid-century school, the oldest of Ireland’s five post-primary island schools, with an enrolment of just 56 students. Yet it has immediately attracted global attention: from the Mies van der Rohe Award, which is the European Union’s biennial prize for contemporary architecture, and the Architectural Review, the world’s premier English-language journal.
What is it about the raw farmyard sheds of Dillon’s ‘barefoot’ architecture for isolated communities in the west of Ireland that attracts such international regard? What is it that seems so vital, so current and so urgent to so many?
Perhaps a clue can be gleaned from an essay published on ArchDaily in recent days. In it, Mario Carpo, the Reyner Banham Professor of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett, University College London, writes: “For us, the design professionals … buildings should be henceforth organically grown, or ‘sourced’, like wild mushrooms or bio-certified potatoes: designed and built by local people, each of them fully traceable to a local birthplace; and each building made with local materials, in a local way, expressing and embodying local identities.”
That’s it, pretty much, in a nutshell. An architecture of modest means, locally sourced. In this, Dillon, whose practice is based in the Maam Valley, is walking, half a century later, in the footsteps of his fellow Galwegian, Noel Dowley [Tegral BOTM April 2016]. As Dillon told Lisa Godson in the AR: “I like the idea that I’m needed; the architecture is extra.”
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