Emmett Scanlon: You teach architecture in several schools. Although many young practices teach, few engage at so many levels in so many schools. Why have you elected to do this?
Andrew Clancy + Colm Moore: Our intention in teaching together in multiple schools of architecture is to understand the common ground outside of orthodoxy or agenda in advance, perhaps, of concentrating our energies in one place. Inevitably each school, each studio, has its own culture. Engaging in these divergent dialogues continues to contribute to the development of our own studio practice. The reciprocal also exists; our teaching approach has grown out of our own working process, where we seek a reduction of extra-architectural abstract thought, to perception and the 'inarguability' of the actual – a belief that good architecture is walked through.
In our view the role of architecture is not to create strong foreground figures or to seek to impose feelings, but rather to establish frames of perception, to act as a background to the lives of those who use it. In this we are not interested in novelty or fashion, these sensations are fleeting and ultimately meaningless in the context of space that may exist for many years. Rather, we are interested in the capacity of space to focus human experience, to bring out or sensitize us to the conditions of the place where we are building.
Perhaps more simply put, we are interested in good rooms, the Church of St Thomas & St George being a good example of this – a good room, intensively used, at the scale of the city. Our instinct was that the necessary intervention should be ambiguous or imperceptible upon entering so as to avoid any interference in the strength of the existing experience.
ES: It's interesting you use the room to explain what you are doing. What is, in your view, a room? Are there rooms that you seek out again and again to assist the development of your own?
AC + CM: Yes, considering the room moves the discourse from the objective to the subjective, from an abstract architecture to a figurative one and references a cultural dialogue of continuity documented through centuries of tradition. Architecture in its essence has a very direct concern – that of how we can manipulate space to support occupation. Our infatuation with the room is born in opposition to the contemporary orthodoxy of spatial continuity, to remove every articulation between spaces, between inside and outside. We operate in a temperate climate where a sense of comfort and cosiness, of inner seclusion, the experience of the interior, are important. In this sense the room has a power for its sense of isolation and completeness, the sense of itself – its mood, its character. In this context the room is the basic element of architecture – a discrete and contained space that supports and facilitates comfortable inhabitation, simply made with walls, floors and ceilings, and with punctures in these for access, air, light or aspect. A high degree of sophistication is required to resolve these concerns using a grammar of the interior that we are only beginning to investigate in our work, one of lining and furnishing. The room's inhabitation and occupation are analogous with the character of its owner; furniture, furnishings and personal collections turn the space into a very personal intimate document. The rooms we seek out are not necessarily in the canon of architecture and not always real, often they occur in art, in literature, or in memory. We often return to two complementary thoughts, Goethe's comment that the larger window binds the room too closely with the outside, and a line from the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh – 'Through a chink too wide comes no wonder.'
ES: Could you talk about lining and furnishing more specifically in your work? Is there a way in which this strategy works with a domestic room, the domestic life?
AC + CM: [The Kerry house extension] starts with the original house, a traditional square-plan house of medium size, and its position on a man-made hill at the centre of an elaborately planted, deceptively ordered, romantic landscape. The original house was made with a series of internalized rooms, and was complete in a way. So making an addition to this was difficult. We developed a strategy of elaborating the threshold between the reception rooms of the existing house and the garden, wrapping the house in a notional forest of columns, a sort of ruin, creating deep verandas to the south and west of the main living spaces and a series of indoor and outdoor garden rooms for eating and entertaining.
We came to the idea of linings in an attempt to tune the atmosphere of each room. In the new, bright rooms a veneer of Silver Bird's Eye Maple was chosen for the infill panels, its thinness contrasting with the quite massive concrete columns. Its light grey tone reflects the green of the garden and its pattern mirrors the accidental and beautiful marbling of the cast in situ concrete, creating a shimmering that softens the ensemble. A good deal of these panels disguise storage and a back kitchen lined with walnut deep in the plan. A further lining of a green velvet curtain is capable of enclosing a new room around the suspended chimney breast, banishing the garden at night. This curtain is the most powerful.
In the darker existing rooms, more used in the evening and night time, the linings are more articulated, and warmer – walnut timber, red curtains – holding shadows and highlights in corners and niches; they are not infill, but fully make the room.
ES: Do you think architects in Ireland are valued in the same way as in Europe? Do you think there is enough being done to develop architecture in Ireland now?
AC + CM: In a sense architecture is an adolescent in Irish culture – self-conscious and sensitive, it may be hard to criticize. This is a problem, the lack of a critical voice in the discourse at the moment, which is not limited to Ireland. In defence of local critics, they have spent the last decades trying to sell architecture to the public. Due to the sales pitch, the ability of the wider public to engage in complex thought about buildings, simple things, has been painfully overlooked. Why can't people analyse buildings as well as the latest release of iPhone software? We see only faint praise, no criticism.
Meanwhile, the attachment to property as opposed to buildings, even homes, is still firmly engrained and being reinforced in the Irish psyche. Architecture has been proffered by the broader media as adding value, commercial not spiritual! This is particularly evident in the procurement of public buildings in Ireland, where the primary criteria for assessment are turnover, prior experience with the building type, and level of insurance. This means that in practice there is no possibility of younger or smaller firms getting to design a school, say. This in effect has created a cycle of larger firms getting most of the work in these areas, to the detriment of the overall quality of the built environment in this country, and further erosion of the image of the profession. In general, a practice has to build itself up using private clients, competition and work abroad before being eligible for public work. This contrasts greatly with the situation in other European countries, Belgium being a good example, and in this there is certainly not enough being done.
Perhaps Ireland has no great cultural legacy of public space, maybe the parlour or the public house, little else. We are only learning to use our parks now. In Dublin the most powerful public spaces are the harbours, piers and informal bathing spots that line the bay, Victorian infrastructure mostly. In this regard we are not quite European. Public does not equate to physical openness. In this regard perhaps we are more interested in civic buildings that outlive function, our city's Georgian fabric for example.