In search of the typical

If there is one thing common to most of the new houses that have sprung up between Louisburgh and Mweelrea Mountain (about a …

If there is one thing common to most of the new houses that have sprung up between Louisburgh and Mweelrea Mountain (about a score of them now), it is their meticulous alignment with the edge of the road. Regardless of the path of the sun, or where the best views lie, they are squared up to watch the tractors go by - this on roomy sites that would let them pick any lay-out they liked.

Apart from that, few of the houses look much alike. Each is certainly a huge improvement on the soulless, shoe-box bungalows built by the thousand a generation ago. Plain oblongs are out, along with the dreary Spanish colonnades of the 1970s. Well-detailed bays, sunrooms and porches relieve the old bleak geometries and rooflines and offer somewhere to stand that's out of the wind. A good few of the new homes are twostorey, with or without dormers, and here it is possible to have arguments. Stuck out on its own on a mile of moorland road, a two-storey house can have the lost look of a Bronte parsonage (but excellent views from upstairs). Closer to a crossroads village, even an elaborate import from Rathgar can begin to look neighbourly after a while. Collectively, they stand for the "eclectic postmodernism" that followed the mock-Georgian of the 1980s (or so we are told).

These are not, in general, the homes of blow-ins, or holiday cottages, but houses built for married sons, daughters or retiring relatives on family farmland. And if there's the occasional concrete balustrade to interrupt the dry-stone walling, or an over-fanciful latticing of white PVC windows, I am not prepared to get too preciously purist about it. This is a celebration of comfort a generation or two on from the small Land Commission farmhouse in which seven or eight people shared about 800 square feet. A bit of show-off folk-ornament is in order.

Few of these new houses seem likely to conform to that highly-desirable, urban-middle-class aesthetic of "fitting into the landscape". The designs were not picked for self-effacement - or, indeed, with any obvious sense of relationship to surroundings. The house was considered as an object in itself. And in a largely treeless, gale-swept landscape, no one seems to be rushing to follow the Vineys and envelop the residence in a spinney.


With these thoughts in mind, I have been browsing a handsome new publication commissioned by Louth County Council. Build- ing Sensitively and Sustainably in County Louth is by Philip and Delphine Geoghegan, of Icon Architecture and Urban Design, who produced a similar book for Co Wexford in 1988. A companion booklet, drawing on the main work, offers Design Guidelines for Single Houses in the Countryside. It is immediately obvious that if Philip and Delphine could wave a wand, the letters column of this newspaper would be robbed of a favourite topic. New houses in the countryside would simply cease to worry us, so shyly would they peep from their sheltering foliage, so sympathetic would be their forms and materials to local building traditions.

The reason so many old houses fit so well into the landscape is that they were sited, first of all, for shelter from the wind and weather. New houses, with central heating, insulation and doors and windows that fit, have no such modesty. The Geoghegans are emphatic that shelter still matters. You tuck the new house into a natural shelf below the skyline, in the lee of existing trees and hedges, shape the buildings to catch the sun and steer the wind away, and nestle them even more into shelter-planting.

This, presumably, is if you have a whole farm to choose from. And how long do you wait before your house retires discreetly within its grove of sycamores?

To judge from the book proper, Co Louth (not a county I know well) has a great fabric of leafy villages - the "Arcadian" ideal of Termonfeckin, for example - and of strong and definite traditional building styles which encourage coherent new design. But what do we do here in the western outback, where the last thatched cabins have collapsed and the squat oblong of the slated Land Commission cottage, usually with a flat-roofed extension at the back, is the only "tradition" in sight?

"Simple forms look best in the landscape," say the Geoghegans - but their simple forms are expensive, architects' jobs, finely judged in proportions and detail. Their pet designs (and mine) are actually not very simple at all, but "simple" forms set around courtyards to create sheltered spaces, with plenty of glass to trap the sun. We are as far as ever from developing a modern vernacular for the Irish countryside. In the huge variety of new single-house design that I see around me, there is very little indeed that is ugly, but increasing stretches of what the Geoghegans term "a random and disparate appearance". What is missing is any sense of connection between the house and its natural setting, any resonance with the forms and materials of the landscape, the palpable regime of its weather, or even its human history.

In the open countryside of the west, there are so few robust and covetable "strong farmer" dwellings of the past to create a building tradition or prompt much continuity. On the one hand is the cramped utility of the Land Commission; on the other the overblown stage-set of the nearest Big House. The new wave of building has no roots: it comes from an evolving rural middle class, largely withdrawn from land and nature and following its own, eclectic taste.

Would there still be a point in a national architectural competition, run by the Heritage Council and co-funded by the building industry, to produce a range of prizewinning, affordable regional designs? Could we get as excited about houses for our countryside as we do about the prestige commissions of the city?

Building Sensitively and Sustainably in County Louth and Design Guidelines for Single Houses in the Countryside by Philip and Delphine Geoghegan are available from Louth County Council, County Hall, St Alphonsus Road, Dundalk, Co Louth.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author