Monday 28 August 2017

The Magnificent Seven: the Donegal Churches of Liam McCormick

In April 2015 I went on a road trip to Donegal to try and get into all seven of Liam McCormick's churches, with sunny weather on my side, in two days. I failed my mission entering six of them. At least it gives me an excuse to go back to Donegal. 

McCormick designed more than thirty churches including three in England.with his first Church design dating from 1947 (Church of the Lady & St Michael’s Ennistymon Co.Clare) to 1988 St Joseph’s Surrey, UK. Huge liturgical shift occurring around the Second Vatican Council 1962-65 (Ellen Rowley ‘Admitting the Light’ The Furrow, Vol. 60 No.9 (2009), pp.502-506).

The life of Liam McCormick crosses geographical and religious borders and although a good friend of John Humes he consciously kept his political opinions private. Born in Derry, he grew up as part of a small middle-class Catholic community in the fishing village of Greencastle, Co. Donegal and where he lived for the large part of his life with his office in Derry city. Like his grandfather, McCormick was elected Lord High Sheriff for Derry city in 1970-71. He was a boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry from the age of ten. It was at St Columb's that McCormick met many of the clergy who were responsible for his later church commissions. After completing second level he graduated with a Diploma in Architecture from Liverpool in 1943 and worked for two years in the City Surveyor’s office in Derry designing air-raid shelters and housing projects and then spent a year as an architect to Ballymena Council (Simon Walker ‘Historic Ulster Churches’ QUB, Belfast, 2000, p.185).

Another St Columb's boy Frank Corr, also studied architecture in Liverpool and after graduation the two of them established Corr & McCormick. While in Liverpool his year went on many trips including the World Fair in Paris in 1937, being exposed to modern style pavilions by the likes of Le Corbusier. 

Seven of these churches are in his home county of Donegal, built in the landscape he knew best. A landscape which at the time had little or no concept of Modernism. Taking his influences from multiple sources it was his straightforward approach of simplicity and honesty of materials which made him stand out. 

St Peter's Church, Milford (1955-61)
St Patrick's Church, Murlog, on the outskirts of Lifford (1960 - 64)
External mosaics by Oisín Kelly

Our Lady Star of the Sea, Desertegney, near Linsfort (1963-64)
This is my favourite of the Donegal churches. It was difficult for us to find as nobody we stopped to ask for directions had heard of it until we struck gold with a French woman who worked at a petrol station deli. After architecture sailing was McCormick's big passion. This church was one of his favourites as he could sail past it in his boat Diane. It's curved walls and roof form gives it the appearance of an upturned boat. 

Church of St Aengus, Burt (1964-67)
The best known of McCormick's buildings and voted Building of the Century by a national poll. Burt won the RIAI Triennial Gold Medal in 1970. 

Nearby Grianán was the inspiration behind the circular form of the church.

St Michael's Church, Creeslough (1967-71)

St Conal's Church, Glenties (1970-74)

Donoughmore Presbyterian, Liscooley (1975-77)

In an interview with Maev Kennedy of The Irish Times in July 1978 McCormick acknowledges that where modern architecture has failed is in its over-dependence on utility and function. He said that modern architects have learnt a lesson from earlier failures: 'We no longer believe in the omnipotence and validity of functionalism as such, but seek in our work the synthesis of a rational approach and artistry.' 
As far as McCormick was concerned: 'Churches are important buildings, and not just religiously. Often a church is the only real architecture people will experience. It is important that they be right and correct.' 

I can't recommend enough getting your hands on this compendium of eight books by Carole Pollard on the career of one of Ireland's greatest. 

Monday 1 May 2017

Concrete & Shopping

During my trip to Rome last year I made a point of visiting Valentino's new flagship store in the historic Piazza di Spagna. It was not for the textiles it contained but for the tectonic quality of the space. This haute couture building which officially in July 2015 was designed by David Chipperfield Architects in conjunction with Valentino's creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli is Valentino's largest store yet at 1,470 (1,865 including basement) square metres providing a whole new boutique experience. Upon entering the shopper is greeted by extremely sculptural marble columns and altar-like display tables defining the entrance. The massive 6-metre atrium and two marble staircases reinforce the feeling that one is in a monumental space. 

I couldn't of had less interest in the clothes and the sales assistants could sense this, telling me to make sure I saw the staircases. They must have been used to people coming in with their gaze skirting beyond the clothes and mannequins. The marble staircases are so beautiful, almost as if they rose up from the earth. Every sleek surface beckons you to touch it. The grey Venetian terrazzo with Carrara chippings oozes luxury with simple black leather armchairs and timber tables complementing the cool oyster and pearl tones of the walls and floors. The palette of colours is completed with suspended oak shelving and brass fixtures for the full length mirrors and rails. This wall treatment stops at door height with uplighting to soften the lines. Internal doors have a sculptural quality with flush pull handles. This store is the perfect stage to make the clothes sing. A new attraction for this ancient city. 

All images taken by author

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Concrete proof that brutalism is beautiful ( first published in Sunday Times 5 March 2017)

In the 2015 British dystopian thriller High-Rise, Tom Hiddleston caresses a concrete pillar in his new concrete-walled apartment before taking to his concrete balcony to sunbathe naked. The film, based on a 1970s book of the same name by JG Ballard, creates a world where the rich live on the top floors of a high-rise apartment block and the working classes live on the lower levels. Before the storyline descends into chaos and violence, the beauty of brutalist architecture shines through.

The release of High-Rise coincided with speculation about the future of the 1970s Central Bank building, as Fitzwilton House and the AIB Bankcentre in Ballsbridge and Hawkins House in Dublin city centre all faced demolition. Despite the curiosity and nostalgia aroused in younger and older generations about this form of architecture - characterised by huge forms and unadorned concrete - many of these buildings remain undervalued and under threat.

English architects Alison and Peter Smithson are believed to have coined the term “brutalism” in the 1950s, influenced by “béton brut” (the French for “raw concrete”) — used by Le Corbusier in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, its meaning in English has made it a target for denigration, as if it were a synonym for “provocative” or “crass”.

Brutalism challenged traditional notions of what a building should look like by showing its construction and not disguising the materials. The key features are “raw”, unfinished materials; bold geometrics and massive forms defying conventional proportions; and expression of different functions, services and structure. The key to a love of brutalism is celebrating its raw honesty in an era of faked brickwork, stone and marble with cladding.

True Brutalism

Even though brutalism’s movement was short-lived, falling between modernism and post-modernism, it is hard to define. Dr Ellen Rowley, editor of More than Concrete Blocks: Dublin City's Twentieth-century Buildings and their Stories, explains that not all brutalist buildings were created equal, and for every great building there was another that undermined the movement.

“There’s true brutalism and then there’s derogatory brutalism,” she says. “The former is about roughcast exposure of materials and often even mostly handmade buildings that set out to be expressive and often irrational. The latter is about over-scaled, prefabricated, bombastic buildings.” The most celebrated examples of brutalist architecture in Ireland are on university campuses and owned by institutions with budgets to maintain them.

In 1966, architectural critic Reyner Banham described brutalism’s aesthetic as “a violent revolutionary outburst”. The endless possibilities of its “plasticity” allowing it to take on the imprint of other materials. These include timber marks (think of Trinity College Dublin’s Berkeley Library); rope (the external finish of St Fintan’s Church in Sutton) and a ribbing effect (Connolly House, North Strand VEC).

Celebrated bunkers

In Ireland, most brutalist monoliths are civic buildings and housing projects, which were usually commissioned by local authorities. These were built from concrete that was functional, affordable and had become readily available with production in Limerick and Drogheda from 1938.

They include the dormitory block in Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College, designed in 1955 by RKD Architects, and the 1972 water tower and administration building at University College Dublin Belfield, by Andrzej Wejchert.

It is hard to imagine walking through the grounds of Trinity without the arresting site of the concrete Berkeley Library, designed in 1967 by Ahrends, Burton & Koralek (ABK Architects).

In Belfast, meanwhile, the Ulster Museum extension displays raw concrete harmonised in tone and colour with the existing Edwardian building.

Why the bad rep?

In 1982, ABK produced a prize-winning project for the National Gallery’s Hampton extension in London. It was described by Prince Charles as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. The design was discarded and replaced by the Sainsbury Wing extension in 1991.

While in Europe brutalist buildings replaced earlier ones destroyed in the Second World War, in Ireland Georgian buildings were often wilfully knocked down to facilitate the brutalist aesthetic. The ESB headquarters replaced a Georgian terrace on Fitzwilliam Street, for example.

Sam Stephenson won Dublin Corporation’s competition in 1968 to design the new civic offices at Wood Quay, comprising four monumental granite-clad blocks linked by a glass atrium.

After construction began, the remains of a Viking city were found beneath the site, as well as a long section of the medieval city walls. There was an unsuccessful public campaign to halt the development — and the site’s destruction has tainted Irish brutalism ever since.

Brutalism’s functionality made it the perfect fit for cash-strapped European countries seeking to rebuild urban centres after the war. The aesthetic of choice for many low-cost housing projects in western Europe, it became a symbol of poverty.

Unfortunately concrete does not age well in Ireland’s damp climate. As these blocks fell into disrepair, they became bywords for antisocial behaviour and poor urban planning.

In Ireland, schemes such as the 1960s St Michael’s Estate, in Inchicore, and Ballymun towers shook people’s faith in high-rise social-housing.

Contemporary brutes

Brutalism is not synonymous with cheap or crude. Dublin’s Grafton Architects won an award for the world’s best new building in 2016 for its concrete university campus in Lima, Peru. Brutalist but not brutish, the building was described as “modern-day Machu Picchu”.

There is a homage to brutalism emerging in young Irish architectural practices such as Lid Architecture (Canal House, Galway), Broadstone Architects (Heytesbury Street extension), Gottstein Architects (extension Ormond Road ) and ODOS Architects (extension at Carysfort Road in Dalkey). Polished concrete floors or terrazzo are making a comeback. Once the preserve of schools and hospitals, concrete is finding its way into homes.

The future

Many great British brutalist buildings are listed, including Trellick Tower in west London — which is said to have inspired Ballard’s novel — Battersea Power Station and the British Library. In Ireland, brutalism lives on the brink.

Some examples face the wrecking ball — such as Fitzwilton House, AIB Bankcentre and the former Bord Failte headquarters on Dublin’s Baggot Street — as developers realise they can profit by replacing unpopular concrete buildings with shiny new ones. The future of what remains looks bleak as long as Dublin city council and other local authorities refuse to add 20th-century buildings to their records of protected structures.

Brutalism is a democratic, civic- spirited form of architecture. It radiates optimism with a celebration of man-made materials, at times defying gravity. If architecture is music then brutalism is atonality, a sound that does not conform to tedious tonal norms. Preserve it.