TRULYA FAM­I­LY­HOME

Ar­chi­tect Ruth O’her­lihy lives with her hus­band Chris and their two chil­dren in the sen­sual, mod­ernist house that her grand­par­ents built dur­ing the war, says Mary O’sul­li­van. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Tony Gavin

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - MY FAVOURITE ROOM -

Al­though it's the big­gest pur­chase most of us make in our lives, we're of­ten vague about what we're look­ing for in a house. A de­cent liv­ing room, sure, a cer­tain num­ber of bed­rooms, yes, but of­ten it's only af­ter we've bought and lived in our first house that we re­alise what el­e­ments are re­ally im­por­tant to us. And these el­e­ments change over time, as our needs change. Some, like light, can be in­cor­po­rated later; oth­ers, like lo­ca­tion, can't.

Ruth O'Her­lihy is keenly aware of the qual­i­ties nec­es­sary in a house and of the way these qual­i­ties evolve. She's an ar­chi­tect and so it's her busi­ness to know these things. But with Ruth it's not only pro­fes­sional: it's per­sonal, too. Ar­chi­tec­ture goes way back for her — not only are both her par­ents ar­chi­tects but her grand­par­ents were, too.

Ruth and her hus­band, Christo­pher Gif­ford, live in Me­an­der, a very spe­cial house. It's the house her grand­par­ents, Alan and Mairin Hope, de­signed and built in 1939 and in which Ruth’s mother Gabrielle was brought up. It has long been recog­nised as a lead­ing ex­am­ple of mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture in Ire­land.

Liv­ing in the house is an in­ter­est­ing ex­er­cise and ex­pe­ri­ence for Ruth; she's known the house all her life. It's a trea­sured house, not only be­cause of the fam­ily con­nec­tion but also be­cause of its age, its de­sign and how it re­flects the ar­chi­tec­ture of the time.

How­ever, as Ruth points out, she has a young fam­ily and they can't tip­toe around. It's owned by Ruth's mother and her sib­lings, and when Ruth un­der­took to live in the house, she and Chris had to re­flect on their de­ci­sion.

“The chal­lenge of liv­ing here is very in­ter­est­ing. I'm very de­ter­mined not to be a cus­to­dian of a mu­seum. We're anx­ious to live vig­or­ously here, to be a force rather than a shadow, be­cause I think so of­ten peo­ple can live in houses that have a his­tory and sit in a cor­ner and put the fin­ger in the wall to keep the wa­ter from com­ing in.” Ruth warms to her theme: “You have to be de­ter­mined to make some­thing of it your­self — that you're not an ar­chiv­ist but that you're liv­ing your life.”

Ruth has def­i­nite ideas about ar­chi­tec­ture; this is prob­a­bly helped by the fact that the ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice she's in­volved in — McCul­lough Mul­vin — un­der­takes a lot of pub­lic projects and so is in­ter­ested in the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing build­ings as re­search en­gines in terms of ma­te­ri­als, ideas and space. The prac­tice re­cently won the RIAI Best Health Build­ing Ar­chi­tec­ture Award 2012.

But it's also per­haps be­cause Ruth's been study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture all her life.

‘I’m de­ter­mined not to be a cus­to­dian of a mu­seum. We’re anx­ious to live vig­or­ously here, to be a force not a shadow’

“It al­ways in­ter­ested me, hav­ing both a mother and a grand­mother who were ar­chi­tects,” she says. “All sense of bound­aries about what might and might not be pos­si­ble were dealt with al­ready by the fact that my grand­mother had gone to UCD and grad­u­ated in 1939 — one of the few women to do so at the time. I grew up with it all around me.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from UCD her­self, Ruth worked in Europe be­fore join­ing McCul­lough Mul­vin in 1999; she's now a di­rec­tor, along with Niall McCul­lough and Va­lerie Mul­vin.

She met Christo­pher through her other great pas­sion — mu­sic. “We're both singers and we sang in Christ Church Cathe­dral Choir. He came to teach there 11 years ago,” she says. “Chris is a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian; it's what he did his de­gree in.”

How­ever, his main work is now with wine com­pany The Corkscrew, in Chatham St. “He still does a lot of mu­si­cal work, but he was al­ways also in­ter­ested in wine and he started to study it,” Ruth ex­plains.

When the cou­ple mar­ried, they lived in a house they had bought in Kil­main­ham and their first child, Daniel, was born four-and-a-half years ago. They had al­ready moved into Me­an­der when their baby daugh­ter, Rachel, was born.

Me­an­der is a two-storey, flat-roof, de­tached house. It is con­structed of block-work and is clad out­side in cedar­wood. That's the pro­saic de­scrip­tion: the over­all ef­fect is mag­i­cal, given its wood­land set­ting. The house is sur­rounded by ponds and un­usual plant­ing, a paradise for Daniel just as it was for Ruth when she was grow­ing up; her par­ents had built their own house on her grand­par­ents’ two acres of ground.

One thing that par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ests Ruth about the house is the fact that it was built as the Sec­ond World War started, so ma­te­ri­als were scarce. “A lot of the house was made out of very or­di­nary ma­te­ri­als. For in­stance, the win­dows were a job lot,” she notes. One of the up­stairs win­dows is ac­tu­ally a glass door that opens on to a sheer drop. That was all that was avail­able.

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