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Building techniques from the past: ‘We wanted to use a thousand-year-old technology to test a contemporary idea’

Designer Joseph Walsh and architects O’Donnell+Tuomey used corbelled method of stone construction to build Stone Vessel at Walsh’s family farmlands

“It’s a pavilion in solid corbelled stone – the first time in 1,000 years in Ireland,” is how designer and maker Joseph Walsh describes a daring new project in collaboration with architects O’Donnell+Tuomey.

Celebrated internationally for his freeform furniture and sculpture, which is now collected in museums all over the world, Walsh has just completed a new building in Fartha, the family farmlands near Kinsale, Co Cork.

The Stone Vessel is the most ambitious to date, sparking ideas about contemporary building construction and more. It also highlights the growing reputation of the Fartha campus as a centre of excellence and home to big collaborations.

Developed from sketches and scale models with O’Donnell+Tuomey, with whom Walsh has collaborated for more than a decade, it draws from the corbelled method of stone construction used in prehistoric tombs and ancient Irish monasteries and chapels.


Like the Passage House, which was completed at Fartha last year in thatch, wood and stone, the Stone Vessel is an experimental structure, celebrating local craftsmanship and skills. The stone was excavated from quarries on the site by Ian Scannell, a local builder with long experience of restoring buildings on the farm.

Walsh explains that his now annual Making In seminars, which are held in September and draw together world renowned creative voices, “in a celebration of making” led to the idea of having some physical manifestation arising out of these gatherings. Working with the architects, the idea of a “cluster” of buildings, called Rambling Houses took root, interpretations of traditional methods of making, using Irish vernacular materials and skills. The decision was made to make one a year for three years.

Recently completed, the second pavilion, the Stone Vessel is a faceted structure, chamfered at its corners and sharply angled with an east-west orientation. “We wanted to use a thousand-year-old technology to test a contemporary idea, to stretch old ways of working to search for something new,” says John Tuomey. “It’s a shrine-like gathering house and within this solid shape, we wanted to hollow out a softer interior, an acoustic space, a curvilinear cave-like containment”.

The masons who had worked on the Passage House were immediately enthusiastic, given that their usual tasks are mostly in restoration. According to Walsh, “for us it was a conversation, getting craftspeople talking. We needed people to tell us how to make this a reality”.

Standing inside the building, he shows me the beautifully decorative oil lamp pins and hammered copper cups made by local blacksmith Mark Keeling for candles.

“It feels quite grand, but it is a small space and the shapes inside have nothing to do with those inside. The idea is to provoke people to do things and have confidence in and understanding of our built heritage. As John and I got into it, we realised this undertaking would be monumental.”

It was indeed a mammoth task. As word spread, 21 masons became involved, arriving from Donegal, Sligo, Athlone, Tipperary, Cork, two from the UK, three from Japan and a woman mason from Brittany.

Work began in March last year and it took the masons working six days a week for nine months to complete.

What made it even more interesting, were the different methods of construction used. Hammer and chisels were used by the Irish, while master craftsman professor Hiroyuki Tsujii of Kanazawa University in Japan, patiently demonstrated at the site Japanese methods, which involved manipulation of boulders entirely by hand.

The sound of hammers and chisels all working in tandem on the site resonated throughout the summer.

“I drew pencil sketches of the outside, of the form, and what the masons wanted was a line to follow from the top of the scaffolding to the ground, so every stone was cut and measured up against a piece of string. It takes a lot to build a small thing,” says Tuomey. “And getting a chance to do this, they are making something, in the words of Kate Tempest, ‘brand new ancient’”.

For Walsh, “we did it not knowing how to do it, and found the answers through doing it”.

There is growing awareness of using stone as a building material as opposed to the customary brick, concrete and glass with new stone buildings in London, Geneva and Palma, the latter used in affordable government housing schemes.

“It is a marvellous material to work with and we should be using it more,” argues Tuomey. “But these experimental structures are not really intended to be pointers towards future construction. They are thought experiments in people’s hands and what they can do is not asked for enough.”

With two buildings now complete, the third building in the Rambling Houses space is already under construction. It will be a sunken hedge theatre, from Walsh’s observations of the space hollowed out of the earth after excavation.

“From corbelled stone vessels and now a sunken theatre — it has grown into something that has its own momentum. The theatre, circular and sinuous in form, will be a performance space with different moods, different feelings where people can gather, have picnics — it will be a beautiful place for the future,” he says.

This is a big year for his studio, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. On April 8th, the first film of a documentary series by acclaimed Irish film-maker Pat Collins will be premiered in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Summer will see the opening of a brand-new gallery space at Fartha, with an exhibition showcasing recent and archival work.

Later in the year, at Paris Design Week in September, Paris+ par Art Basel and Design Miami Paris in October, Walsh will present at the Centre Culturel Irlandais a cultural exhibition focused on the studio’s processes — three monumental outdoor sculptures in bronze and ash and an original exhibition with ceramic artist Sara Flynn. In the meantime, the latest Making In seminar, which has a theme of Circle, takes place on September 7th.