Art Room - June 2019

Art Room, Coláiste Naomh Éinne, Inis Mór, Aran, Co. Galway

Paul Dillon Architects
2016 – 2018

Photographs – copyright Ros Kavanagh, courtesy of Paul Dillon Architects
 
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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Let’s talk about need. The Galway-Roscommon Educational Training Board determined that this school was entitled to an art room, a couple of pottery wheels and a furnace. “We went out on a ferry – the whole design team and the client – for to meet them,” says Dillon. “The original school is approached by a narrow road. It’s really well done, with a stone front, but the back seemed more interesting, on a cliffside. It’s now a marker from the surroundings, with views back to Cleggan. Decisions were made quickly around the table. There was only the one site visit. I was familiar with the technical regulations. Some kids were playing tag rugby out on the front lawn. They’d come in to Clifden to play with my own kids. Some of them, county footballers. Then I saw they were playing handball against a plywood wall. They had built it themselves. Some of them were All-Ireland and world handball champions.”

Godson reports that the principal, Mícheál Ó Culáin, asked if two handball courts could be included in the brief. The code played on the island uses a single wall as a court, easily accommodated against the rear of the new building. Dillon says: “I like a building to not be sitting around waiting for something to happen, but instead for it to be addressing a range of needs day to day and throughout the year.” 

There is something of the lovely ugly boy about this project, that clearly knows its front from its back, its generous offering from its essential one on hard-scrubbed land, where, as Dillon says, “the 60cm of topsoil is more valuable than concrete. You could almost have played handball on that [the limestone immediately beneath the earth].” From the bare yard behind to the loggia, with a Grecian view over the sea, all in one turn of the corner. From sport to art, to contemplation, and the world beyond. Shelter, skills and playground, all in one go. “The architecture worked hard,” says Dillon.
“Builders came over on the boat. These communities are kind of connected. 15 minutes by plane or 50 by boat. You might get a plumber, an electrician, out there. The foreman lived close to Rosmuc, near the pier. I said to him, all the quality samples are already there in Rosmuc [Tegral BOTM April 2018]. I would have looked at how they built a house, and would want to push it a little more. It’s a back-and-forth.”

There’s much to admire in this stubborn usefulness. Care, grace, nobility. Unexpected generosity. Admire the gentle camber of the plinth, how the ring beam plays between arcade lintol and window cill in the clerestory gables, the person-height pours of the concrete columns, the gorgeous trusses, the loggia’s timber soffit that draws out the perspective, the fat columns that end the loggia. 

I ask about the verge lightning conductors, something new to me. “They’re hit out there on a weekly basis,” says Dillon. “It runs the length of the ridge, as a requirement. We tucked it in behind the gutter and downpipe for earthing. It had to be signed off by a certified contractor. Every building there has to have it. This is not something you would design. Sometimes you can try too hard to find a detail.” 

Architecture exists in small gestures. This is full of them. Not so much less is more, as this is more.