House at Aill Breac - March 2019

House at Aill Breac, Baile Uí Chonaola, Connemara, Co Galway

2003 – 2006 


Photographs – copyright Nelson Carvalho, courtesy Tom de Paor
A little house was made on the Wild Atlantic Way, under a small mountain, overlooking the sea, with Slyne Head to the west, a pier below, and surrounded by the loose suburbia typical of the place, where, as Tom de Paor says, “the ground in between is doing its rough thing.” In a landscape peppered with houses, the square plan was orientated to pull the landscape in, catching the most interesting light and views.

It is called Cois Cúain, which is like waterfront, sea view, or bayside. “To us it was just at the end of the road,” says brand strategist Ciarán OGaora, whose father Pádraic, former head of RTÉ’s Nuacht, and mother were Tom’s clients. “It’s brilliant as a summer house, where different generations can enjoy each other’s company, with all that air above your head and wood paneling, like in a beach shack. No corridors, only common space. When cooking, it’s totally sociable, with the red island unit at one end as a nucleus.”

It is at once a rumination on, among other things, the primitive hut, the square and the pyramid and their enduring importance, architectural placement in the landscape, and the raw, primal sense of pleasure in ‘camping’ holidays of the sort that were so brilliantly promoted and delivered during my youth by An Óige, the national organisation. Robert Payne picked up on these aspects when awarding the house in the AAI Awards in 2007, saying, “It seems to be sort of flawless … about concept, but also about pleasure.”

The painted, tongued-and-grooved, casino-tent interior circulates around the stove, its flue and the water tank. “I always found that very amusing,” says de Paor. “It sitting there, with the plumbing all exposed, suspended above the stove. A bit like all the other water tanks around about, for the cattle. In Connemara, the expulsion of cattle and division of the house into rooms are recent events. Oral tradition relates the former byre-end divided from the kitchen by a partition for a bedroom.”



The interior comprises a low wall of three bedrooms and a bathroom opening directly onto the living space, that provides a “little open attic for spare mattresses and canoes,” says de Paor. Children come straight in from the beach to their bedrooms. “There is no porch. That can make it hard going in wet weather,” he says. “More of a place for sandwiches than dinner parties. The holiday home is a different type, somewhere between a shed and a house.” 

Corresponding with Patrick Lynch on April 14, 2018 (see the Journal of Civic Architecture #1), he wrote, “I tend towards primitive geometry, from which I remove. Circles, when I can, triangles, squares. I have made a number of square houses for instance, in the country or suburbia because it is the strongest form, with a pyramid roof – it has only two points of view, the front and the oblique – and so becomes quickly a registration on the landscape, as well as familiar, and [provides] value for money.”

“It had to be very cheap, and therefore simple,” he tells me. “The square form was economical. There are different ways you can place a square form. You can do a flat facade, but this one is oblique. You come at the snout of it, which avoids the small politics of front and back. The pleasure of the square plan is like the pleasure of chess or any board game. There are strict rules. It can never be extended. It was the first of my square houses to finish. It was fresh at the time to think of houses like that. Just do a good big roof. It’s win-win. The planners like them and you get a lot of space.” The hips are crisp, the gutters are half-round haybarn gutters that sit on top of the wall.

OGaora says the locals refer to it as The Mosque: “There is probably no other house west of the Shannon with a pyramidal roof – and then the chimney just looks like a minaret,” and is somewhat reminiscent of the weathervane that surmounts the apex of the roof de Paor’s Pálás cinema in Galway, which, inexplicably, was passed over this year for the AAI’s Downes Medal. As another aside, this plot was also the genesis of Tom’s tower-house contribution to Ireland’s pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale. As I prepare to leave, he shows me his reward for the job: a Perry Ogden photograph of Francis Bacon’s London kitchen, which has a full-length bath in it. Blood brothers.

To the late Jonathan Woolf, the brilliant London architect who was one of the AAI jurors in 2007, and left us far too soon, go the last words: “It’s … straightforward, yet enigmatic. What I really enjoy [is] the view of the site from further up the hill – this little cube with the pyramidal roof, the purity of the exterior, but then the way that it’s immediately undermined by the asymmetrical windows. And the platonic square footprint is undermined by this no-nonsense organisation, which breaks the square straight away. I really enjoy that. Economy is key to this project. There’s economy as a concept, allowing the ordinary to temper the formality. But also there’s a joy ... This little cube seems to be out on its own, sort of singing.”