The Birr school that’s an ar­chi­tec­tural ex­em­plar

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY GEMMA TIPTON

St Bren­dan’s Com­mu­nity School in Birr, Co Of­faly, has just been awarded a re­search and restoratio­n grant from the Getty Foun­da­tion, the first-ever build­ing in Ire­land to re­ceive the ac­co­lade

We need more homes. We need more schools. Lis­ten­ing to Govern­ment apol­o­gists, it’s tempt­ing to see these as in­tractable prob­lems, or is­sues for that over­whelm­ing (yet neb­u­lous) en­tity known as “the mar­ket” to solve. But, did you know, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Ire­land was in a dark eco­nomic hole, un­lit by mem­o­ries of booms past or pros­per­ity to come, univer­sal free sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion was in­tro­duced? Along­side this, a vi­sion­ary build­ing pro­gramme saw com­mu­nity schools, of oc­ca­sion­ally shock­ing modernist de­sign, spring­ing up around the coun­try.

If Ire­land once had a bad rep­u­ta­tion for un­der­valu­ing its Ge­or­gian her­itage, we are at grave risk of do­ing the same thing to­day with some of the mar­vel­lous ex­am­ples of mod­ernism that took root from the foun­da­tion of the State, and con­tin­ued for a few decades, to flour­ish. One such, St Bren­dan’s Com­mu­nity School in Birr, Co Of­faly, has just been awarded a grant from the Getty Foun­da­tion’s Keep­ing It Mod­ern scheme, to re­search its restoratio­n and preser­va­tion.

The grant alumni list is pres­ti­gious. Last year, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower Arts Cen­tre in Ok­la­homa, USA; and Wal­ter Gropuis’s Bauhaus build­ing in Des­sau, Ger­many, re­ceived awards. In 2016, Eileen Gray’s south of France Villa E-1027 headed the list. The Syd­ney Opera House has also been so cel­e­brated. The Birr school is the first build­ing in Ire­land to re­ceive the ac­co­lade, along­side this year’s awardees, in­clud­ing the Gate­way Arch in St Louis, Mis­souri by Eero Saari­nen; and the Salk In­sti­tute in La Jolla Cal­i­for­nia by Louis Kahn.

St Bren­dan’s, de­signed by Peter and Mary Doyle, isn’t at first, sec­ond (or even third) glance beau­ti­ful. It’s a series of in­ter­con­nect­ing glass-sided, for want of a bet­ter word, “sheds”, that could be small in­dus­trial or agri­cul­tural premises. The steel-framed struc­tures have cor­ru­gated roof­ing, with breeze block and brick gable ends. So what were the architects try­ing to do? And why might such a build­ing still mat­ter to­day?

In an in­ter­view with Shane O’Toole (pub­lished in The Ar­chi­tec­ture of Peter and Mary Doyle, Eblana Edi­tions, 1990), Peter quotes one of the teach­ers at the then-new school an­nounc­ing: “My fa­ther has got a trac­tor shed like this.” Peter adds that it’s “a valid com­ment”. “I would say,” he con­tin­ues, “she is aware of the sources for this build­ing. It is not an unkind re­mark. Her as­so­ci­a­tions are con­fused, cul­tur­ally, be­cause she thinks a school should not look like a trac­tor

shed. And that is the prob­lem of not hav­ing a univer­sal lan­guage.”

The “univer­sal lan­guage” he’s re­fer­ring to is a hangover from ear­lier eras, when ar­chi­tec­ture, sculp­ture and art con­formed to the same ideals, and shared sym­bols, be­liefs and pat­terns. But the way he makes his ar­gu­ment re­veals an­other prob­lem that modernist ar­chi­tec­ture faced in Ire­land: the architects may have trav­elled (Peter Doyle worked with Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, be­fore re­turn­ing to Ire­land), but Ir­ish peo­ple at that time were gen­er­ally less mo­bile than they are to­day, both in phys­i­cal, prac­ti­cal terms, as well as cul­tur­ally: nei­ther Ryanair nor the in­ter­net ex­isted. And there’s a cer­tain ar­ro­gance in Peter the ar­chi­tect’s lan­guage, the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that it’s the pub­lic’s fault for not be­ing au fait with the new ar­chi­tec­tural think­ing he es­pouses.

“Do you not think peo­ple have a right to ex­pect that dif­fer­ent build­ing ty­polo­gies should be im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able for what they are?” probes O’Toole. “No,” replies Peter, flatly. “The only way you can de­sign a build­ing is not to give it su­per­fi­cial sig­nals to the pub­lic . . .”.

Time proved the Doyles right, as St Bren­dan’s went on to win the RIAI Gold Medal in 1990, a highly sen­si­ble ar­chi­tec­tural award, in that it is only ad­ju­di­cated af­ter a build­ing is a decade old; but to a pub­lic less well-versed in be­ing blasé to the shock of the new, St Bren­dan’s was a hard one to swal­low.


Su­per­fi­cial sig­nals are one thing, but build­ings do reg­is­ter in­tent. In art gal­leries, shock­ingly new work is tamed by be­ing housed in his­toric ed­i­fices, while post-in­dus­trial gallery build­ings con­tex­tu­alise art as a leisure in­dus­try it­self. Looked at this way, old-style schools with im­pres­sive en­trances, and darker class­rooms with high win­dows, im­ply learn­ing as part of a long tra­di­tion of think­ing in par­tic­u­lar, time-honoured ways; while brighter, more open or more in­no­va­tive de­signs open up an un­der­ly­ing vein of pos­si­bil­ity, of think­ing dif­fer­ently.

Cur­rent prin­ci­pal Ming Lough­nane was one of the first teach­ers to work at St Bren­dan’s. It had opened in 1980, though the Doyles’ de­sign had been made for a De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion ar­chi­tec­tural com­pe­ti­tion in 1974. Lough­nane had come to teach at the Con­vent of Mercy, housed in one of those nar­rowwin­dowed Gothic-style build­ings for just 250 stu­dents. That and two other schools amal­ga­mated to cre­ate St Bren­dan’s, and the stu­dent com­ple­ment tre­bled. “First im­pres­sion,” re­mem­bers Lough­nane, “was that it was a vast site, long drive­way, tall build­ing . . . By com­par­i­son with the con­vent, the lay­out is to­tally dif­fer­ent and con­ducive to good learn­ing and sub­ject spe­cialisms.”

She de­scribes a sys­tem of dif­fer­ent sub­jects across dif­fer­ent blocks, and a de­sign that was cre­ated to be added to as needs changed and the school ex­panded. Be­tween each block is a gar­den space with out­door seat­ing. “There’s cherry blos­som, camel­lias. And we’ve had spe­cial projects – grow­ing veg­eta­bles, rear­ing chick­ens in a coop built by the wood­work stu­dents.”

John McLaugh­lin, Gary Boyd and Aoib­heann Ní Mhearáin, who col­lec­tively put St Bren­dan’s for­ward for the award, had re­searched the build­ing when they were work­ing at the Cen­tre for Ar­chi­tec­ture Ed­u­ca­tion in Cork. “We were teach­ing a year where stu­dents de­signed schools, and we took them to this build­ing,” says McLaugh­lin. “It rep­re­sented our shared con­cern and in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture that’s not about a beau­ti­ful ob­ject. It’s about ar­chi­tec­ture that’s more driven by its so­cial agenda than by be­ing a beau­ti­ful thing. I’m not say­ing it’s not beau­ti­ful,” he adds. “But I’m think­ing of the so­cial role of ar­chi­tec­ture.”

McLaugh­lin and Boyd cre­ated the Ir­ish Pav­il­ion for the Venice Ar­chi­tec­ture Biennale in 2014. Their Mak­ing Ire­land Mod­ern project tracked how the new Ir­ish State be­gan to de­fine it­self through in­fras­truc­tural and other build­ing works. These in­cluded such iconic projects as Ard­nacrusha and Busáras, as well as qui­eter schemes, like St Bren­dan’s, where util­ity, func­tion and (very) lim­ited bud­gets trumped any ideas of el­e­gance. St Bren­dan’s was one of three schools de­signed by the Doyles and is, ac­cord­ing to McLaugh­lin, “to be the finest, ar­chi­tec­turally. Like many of these schools, the build­ing needs to be re­newed to bring it up to con­tem­po­rary stan­dards, par­tic­u­larly en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards”.

There are also so­cial, prac­ti­cal and eth­i­cal is­sues at play. “These build­ings had an open­ness about the way they were con­ceived that we thought was very valu­able, and quite un­usual,” says McLaugh­lin. “Architects have a very strong ten­dency to fix the de­sign. But this tries to stage so­cial en­coun­ters.”

“It’s a dif­fi­cult build­ing to en­gage with be­cause it’s not a mon­u­ment,” says Boyd. For him, the project is twofold. “It’s look­ing at an im­por­tant build­ing in the his­tory of the Ir­ish State and of Ir­ish ar­chi­tec­ture, which was about democratis­ing cul­ture; but it’s also look­ing for­ward to the fu­ture, how these build­ings con­trib­ute, and how they can con­tinue to do so.”

For Boyd and McLaugh­lin, the en­vi­ron­ment is an im­por­tant fac­tor too. “We have this kind of port­fo­lio of works in Ire­land,” ex­plains Boyd. “And the so­lu­tion seems to be to tear them down and build other things. In terms of sus­tain­abil­ity, we need to look at how to pre­serve and work with them. The most sus­tain­able build­ing is the one you have al­ready.” Still, there are is­sues with in­su­la­tion, and some re­me­dial wa­ter­proof­ing is needed. “Our glass is about 40 years old,” says Lough­nane. “So draughts are a prob­lem. I wouldn’t change a thing about the lay­out, but we have three tall glass atri­ums, and if we could get a sec­ond glass wall in each, it would cer­tainly deal with our en­ergy is­sues.”

The build­ing it­self, she says, “has a very calm­ing ef­fect on stu­dent be­hav­iour. Ev­ery hour one thou­sand peo­ple move, and it’s seam­less. Then there are so­cial ar­eas, flooded with light, and in­ter­nal court­yards for the kids to sit.”

From trac­tor shed to light-filled palace of learn­ing, the Getty award shows that beauty is not a fixed con­cept, and that we can still learn a lot from a pe­riod of ar­chi­tec­ture that re­flects a State de­ter­mined, at one point, to in­vest in its chil­dren. It’s a way of think­ing, and an ar­chi­tec­ture that we should be fight­ing much harder to pre­serve.

It’s a dif­fi­cult build­ing to en­gage with be­cause it’s not a mon­u­ment . . . It’s look­ing at an im­por­tant build­ing in the his­tory of the Ir­ish State and of Ir­ish ar­chi­tec­ture, which was about democratis­ing cul­ture

Far left and above left: St Bren­dan’s Com­mu­nity School in Birr, de­signed by Peter and Mary Doyle (left) re­ceived this year’s Getty award, along­side the Salk In­sti­tute in San Diego (above), de­signed by Louis Kahn , and the Gate­way Arch mon­u­ment in St Louis (right), de­signed by Eero Saari­nen

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