Why are Irish world class architects not building in Ireland?

Grafton Architects have just won the 2020 Royal Gold Medal, but are ineligible to tender for many major projects at home

The popularity of Open House, the worldwide free architecture festival, shows the huge level of interest in how, and where, we live and work or, at the very least, in snooping around other people’s buildings.

Last year more than 31,000 people took part in over 100 tours, walks and visits in Dublin. There are also Open House festivals in Cork, Belfast, Limerick, as well as internationally. So with all that interest, who actually gets to decide what the future of architecture looks like? Is it all big clients with vast budgets? Can other people have a say, and how will the challenges of climate change combine with the need for greater urban densities, and the desire rooted in so many people in this country to live in the centre of a small patch of land they can call their own?

The consultation period for a new architectural policy is shortly to be launched by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Rather oddly, spatial planning and housing are dealt with by a different department, that of housing, planning and local government. It doesn’t seem ideal for joined-up thinking, but a major focus of the new policy will be to address climate resilience and, according to a department spokeswoman, there will be “a stronger focus on wellbeing”, which, one would hope, will influence housing and planning too.

Policy aside, Irish architects are winning awards around the world, so maybe the future is in good hands? The latest big win was earlier this month when Grafton Architects was named the 2020 recipient of the Royal Gold Medal. Award-winning practice O'Donnell + Tuomey is designing a new V&A Museum in London, as well as a second home for the Sadler's Wells dance company, also in London. Another Dublin-based firm, McCullough Mulvin, is on site in the Indian Punjab with an enormous project for Thapar University.


But back at home, certain things are holding many such firms back, and it’s a question of size.

An unprepossessing doorway leads off Dame Street and up a narrow stair, to the offices of Grafton Architects. Housed in a Victorian Gothic building on the corner with Trinity Street, the offices are the usual mix of people working at computers, all together in one big room, surrounded by papers, books, models and drawings. In a smaller space, a pair of large, colour photographs are tacked to the wall. One shows the ancient settlement on Skellig Michael off the coast of Co Kerry, and the other a remarkably similar image, but this time it's of Machu Picchu, Peru.

"It might seem presumptuous," says Shelley McNamara, who along with Yvonne Farrell set up Grafton in 1978. "To relate Peru to Ireland, but we were thinking about the climate, and the geography, and there were connections."

A passionate speaker, McNamara describes the way landscape shapes behaviour and character, and the shared determination of a people carving out living spaces in some of the world’s most remote places. Presumptuous or not, Grafton won the project, to build a campus for the University of Engineering and Technology, in the Peruvian capital, Lima. The project was completed in 2015.

McNamara and Farrell are professors of architecture at University College Dublin, and have held chairs of architecture in the US at Harvard and Yale. They have won the World Building of the Year award for another university, in Milan, and are working on a commission for the London School of Economics. They were also the selectors for last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, an incredibly prestigious role.

Their exhibition was internationally acclaimed, and yet, as McNamara tells me, Grafton are ineligible to tender for many major projects in Ireland. This is because the procurement processes are so labyrinthine and strict, that all but a handful of firms are excluded.

Kathryn Meghen, chief executive of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) explains the situation. She tells me how public procurement policies are outlined at EU level, but individual countries interpret them differently. In Ireland, this is done stringently. For example, with a school project it is not unusual to have a stipulation that the selected architects must have designed between three and five schools in the immediately preceding years – begging the obvious question: if you're not allowed to design a school, how do you get to design a school?

Things are also often set up in such a way that only very large firms have the capacity to deal with all the paperwork. The result is that a tiny handful of large architectural practices scoop up the major projects, and in the process exclude, not only Grafton, but the exceptionally exciting younger practices in Ireland today.

Part of McNamara and Farrell’s Venice exhibition has come back to Ireland. Having been exhibited at Cork’s Glucksman Gallery, it has now opened at Carlow’s Visual, where it will run until January 19th, 2020. Close Encounter engaged 16 architects, working in Ireland, to respond to 16 iconic buildings around the world.

The results are fascinating, although they do suffer in places from that rather “trainspotterish” thing that can afflict some architectural exhibitions. You get most out of it if you’re familiar with the source buildings, and while Bucholz McEvoy and Clancy Moore acknowledge human interaction by creating seating, Tom de Paor gives us some fey sketches tacked to the wall. Language is an issue too. Architecture is a profession, and like all professions has its own jargon. “Here is a study of the exoskeleton field of the roof as a trope in the work of Vilanova Artigass . . .” write Donaghy + Diamond introducing their set of architects models in a glass case on a plinth.

Another problem is that we experience architecture by being in it, or beside it, and we don’t get to fully realise how it will make us be, and feel, until it is built. Photography doesn’t do the job – it only raises envy with ideas of pristine open-plan emptiness, and vast spaces of cement or raw timber, populated with artfully placed sofas: not the messy business, and (hopefully) warm feelings of day-to-day living. The results are that it can be difficult to work out how to judge architecture on first impressions. This brings us back to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous quote that “the physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines”.

But it's worth persevering with Close Encounter. Steve Larkin creates an incredibly beautiful, sculptural wooden piece, that invites you to gaze in and ponder. It's a response to Kaija and Heikki Siern's Otaniemi Chapel in Finland. Intriguingly, A2, Noreile Breen, and Carr Cotter & Naessens all make structures with variations on the theme of peepholes, which makes it impossible to ignore the metaphor of being on the outside of something, excluded, and wishing you had an "in".

"The biggest blockage is opportunity," says McNamara, when I ask her what's holding Ireland back from a bright architectural future. "It puts a lid on talent and creativity. It's seriously inhibiting the generation next to us." She points out that not a single one of the architects and practices in Close Encounter would qualify for an architectural project under the Irish interpretation of procurement rules. Nathalie Weadick, director of the Irish Architecture Foundation, organisers of Open House Dublin this weekend, agrees, suggesting that, alongside climate change, it is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession.

Ryan Kennihan, who is also in the exhibition, puts it in a different way: "It is like having a whole team of Lionel Messis, who are forced to sit on the bench and watch because the coach made up a policy to exclude anyone who is under 1.7m tall. Being 1.7m tall has nothing to do with someone's ability to play football. When the nation's most talented architects are excluded from building, the whole country loses."

There's a rule of thumb with architects, that a practice can grow to about 15 or 20 people, and then choose to stay small, or else expand to hundreds. It's down to the group nature of the exercise. The problem is that current procurement policy only favours practices that opt for the expansion route. Peter Carroll of A2 Architects, who is also in Close Encounter, suggests there should be a maximum turnover figure for some projects to exclude those larger firms, and create space for new voices.

"This policy is one being explored in the UK," he says. "As an example it would be appropriate to consider a maximum turnover of €1 million for any firms tendering for work below €10 million. This would rebalance the procurement eco system in a very easily managed manner." He also adds that a switch in assessment from project volumes, "to one of skill and sensibility", would be another positive move. "Players like the State-run Land Development Agency have the potential to totally transform and invigorate architectural practice in Ireland," he concludes. "The question is will it though. Unless the State takes bold moves to support practice now, our profession will dwindle."

Niall McCullough of the internationally decorated McCullough Mulvin, a practice that has elected to stay small in scale, says that if you want to see where the really exciting work is in Irish architecture today, you should take a look into people’s back gardens. “It’s behind the façades,” he says, musing on how, to show what’s going on, you would have an exhibition of extensions.

Domestic extensions, he argues, are often the perfect example of blending the old and the new, and of working out how to live with both – which is, after all, a problem the world’s cities, and smaller towns and villages have to solve. We also need to learn, he says, about being more comfortable with our heritage, and rethinking conservation policies so that reuse can become part of our blueprint for a more sustainable future. The future is, he says, in reimagining our cities. “Cities are built for happiness, not for commerce. They’re the greatest human invention, and at their best, they’re built for happiness.” Policy makers take note.

Building change: What’s going on in architecture just now

The Open House Festivals open city doors to the public around the world. Upcoming in Ireland are Open House Dublin, October 11th-13th, and Open House Limerick, October 18th-20th. Find details and the best addresses at openhousedublin.com and openhouselimerick.ie

The Irish Architecture Foundation's Big Debate exploring "What Kind of City Do You Want", with a focus on Dublin, is on October 11th at 6.30pm at the Trinity Business School. Free, but booking essential at architecturefoundation.ie

Close Encounter runs at Visual, Carlow until January 19th, 2020. visualcarlow.ie

The Department of Culture Heritage and the Gaeltacht's consultation process for a new architecture policy launches soon. Details and address for submissions at chg.gov.ie