Paul Dillon is an outlier, one that Irish architecture would do well to treasure and support. So it is heartening to see his work attract increasing recognition from those who think about the health of our architectural culture. Here’s hoping more clients will follow in their wake.
Perhaps his best known work is this modest, multi-award-winning extension to Gairmscoil na bPiarsach in Ros Muc, an Irish-language vocational school for 75 boys and girls in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht. The school, built in 1945 and extended twice – in the 1960s and 1990s – is named for Pádraig Pearse, An Piarsach, who visited the area in 1903, built a holiday cottage and spent the next twelve summers there. The old schoolhouse was latterly a Pearse Museum, opened by Éamon de Valera himself.
Dillon, who worked as an emigrant foreman on Manhattan construction sites in the 1980s before training as an architect in New York and California, came back to Galway in 1997 and set up on his own in 1999. 2008 was his breakout year, just as the crash arrived. Then came a series of school extensions, all with tiny budgets. He started in Newcastle West, with a commission for a single prefab.
His portfolio has grown, but he is still not eligible to design a new school, because his annual turnover isn’t considered high enough. Nothing to do with talent or ability or expertise, just size. Our public sector’s myopic procurement regulations cast the majority of architects outside the commissioning net [A2, the architects of Eurocampus, Tegral’s September 2016 Building of the Month, is another example], but it is particularly cruel to emerging and rural practices, who suffer disproportionately when eligibility is determined this way.
Dillon’s opportunity was the Department of Education and Skills’s devolved grant scheme for minor capital works – typically prefab replacement – under which schools can pick their own design team, whether architects, engineers or technologists. The budget must be less than €500K. “The budget is so small that bigger companies don’t want to deal with it”, he says. “My priority is to figure out what suits the builder and the environment. We don’t ever discuss architecture. I am just like a carpenter or a plumber in all of this. That’s my aim – I just want to show that my services are required within society.
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