Laboratory Abbotstown - January 2019

Laboratory, Abbotstown, Co. Dublin

1981 – 1985 

John Tuomey, Office of Public Works

Photographs – courtesy and copyright John Tuomey (1985), Conor Byrne, OPW (2010)

In the deep gloom of the recession, a new dawn was rising for Irish architecture, even if we were not yet awake to it. The Central Meat Control Laboratory was John Tuomey's first building after he returned to Ireland from Jim Stirling’s studio in London, where he had worked on the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and the competition for the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre. It should have won the inaugural AAI Downes Medal in 1986, but for a below-the-line tag that the new awards were ‘a forecast of architecture to come’, and this was already built. So the jury ruled it out from the prize. The regulations were soon clarified, but too late for Abbotstown, which was, however, subsequently commended in the RIAI Gold Medal award.

I wrote in The Sunday Tribune in December 1989 that this was the most important Irish building of the 1980s, a decade when little enough was built here and young architects were searching for the ‘Irishness’ of modern Irish architecture, primarily through its connection with landscape. I still think it was – although it is now much altered, a faded shadow of its original heroic self. Today, it is the Sport Ireland Institute on the National Sports Campus, saddled with a monster on its back – a 16-bay, High Performance Centre tacked on to its rear – a really brutal extension, mindless in its banality, like something served up from a closed city in the former USSR. 

Abbotstown House, near Blanchardstown, was purchased by the Department of Agriculture in 1950, with over 400 acres, to accommodate the Veterinary Research Laboratory and state farm. The early-19th century house and farm buildings remained the focal point of the estate over the next half-century while additional farming and scientific facilities were gradually added. 
 
  
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The estate is laid out in an orthogonal field pattern with a central meandering service road. The form of the laboratory reflects this geometric ordering with the entrance wall ‘hinged’ open to align with the road. Tuomey also planted a row of lime trees, “in the hope of establishing an avenue [opposite the farmyard entrance],” he says.

The laboratory areas were planned as a segregated suite of clean rooms separated from the offices by service and storage rooms. Circulation between these zones was via a buffer area in which over-clothes could be changed, and hands washed, ritualistically, even. The brief requirement for extracted fumes to be discharged at high level for health and safety reasons prompted associations with the roof forms of malting and mill buildings; for example, on Dublin’s Guinness estate. The large hipped roofs expressed this idea of ‘extract’ in a generalised sense, while providing space for the elaborate services and ventilation equipment. 

“The job file landed on my desk,” he recalls. “It was not considered a special project by the OPW. There were no architectural expectations attached to the brief. And as for me, I was trying to clear my head from the influence of Stirling’s eclecticism. This effort was not entirely successful, but I thought I was making an independent start to reconsider the case for continuity in State architecture. 

“National schools were a definite influence, with their high classrooms and lower attached offices and outlying play sheds. And the one I went to in Cooley was just that shade of yellow. I was living on a diet of early Asplund at the time. His woodland chapel is an influence on the cross section for sure. The new Asplund book by Stuart Wrede was on my desk. All that discussion of National Romanticism was in the air. Michael Graves also was an influence, not denying that, but then I’d say Graves [who gave John his first American teaching platform, at Princeton in 1986] was studying Asplund too. You could lay the blame on Asplund, colour-wise. And high-roofed-section-wise, too.
“The large-format, double-sized, diamond slates were to give a more-than-domestic scale to the expression. I thought they gave an industrial workshop character. And it’s true to say that some of them blew off in a high wind. So we went back and centre-fixed them, unconventionally, with dome-headed screw fixings. Otto Wagner’s stone cladding details were an influence there, you know, where the fixings are part of the surface decoration.”

He told Cesare Piva in 1999: “I was very lucky to be able to use that project for all sorts of musings about architecture and landscape which ran in parallel with the programme but which could not have existed without the very technical nature of the brief. There are things I would do differently if I were doing it again but not the resonance of that building over the long-distance views and its place in the landscape.” 

In the end, that is what remains.