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
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.