To be invited to participate in the Biennale is one of the highest accolades for an architect – to be asked to curate it, set the theme and organise the gigantic assemblage into a coherent whole, is simply stratospheric and lifts the reputation of the organisers into the top most rank.
This year’s show is entitled ‘FREE SPACE’ and runs from May to November. It is curated by Grafton Architects who have established their international reputation with new university buildings in Milan and Lima. Grafton is the creation of two remarkable women, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell who are recognised as among the most important female architects of our time. Critics have marvelled at the bravura, confidence and muscularity of the architecture of the quietly spoken, almost excessively modest pair
. Views of the Boconi building in Milan (Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan, Italy).
Yvonne Farrell is, of course, from Tullamore (Clara Road and St. Philomena’s Convent School) and acknowledges the formative experiences of growing up in the town on her subsequent career. She sees architecture as an essentially collaborative process produced by the entire team at Grafton, which includes her fellow director Ger Carty from Walsh Island. The Offaly tinged firm is now engaged in work in London, Toulouse and Paris but in particular have two important projects in Dublin, the redevelopment of the former ESB offices and the new City Library in Parnell Square. Early sketches suggest that these will be exciting additions to the capital city.
The Biennale exhibition which is spread over three different locations around Venice has fifty five national pavilions and individual projects/presentations by one hundred architects. All are stimulating and I wish I had the space to discuss them in detail, but would single out just one entry that appealed to me. For the first time ever, the Holy See was invited to participate and responded by commissioning seven well known architects to create seven chapels (or contemplative spaces, as the more secular might call them) on the island of St. Giorgio and each is delightful yet profound in its own way.
The scale of the whole exhibition can be overwhelming and I would not be the first to observe that while architects can be fluent in their visual presentations, the impenetrability of the language used to describe their projects can often be daunting. The Irish Pavilion is devoted to an exhibition entitled ‘FREE MARKET’ which is a study of the market square as a place of social, cultural and commercial exchange in smaller Irish towns. Fifty examples are cited including those in Edenderry, Portarlington and Mountmellick. This entry has attracted a lot of attention and has featured in reviews in the international media, attesting to the universality of this seemingly Irish typology. Regrettably, while offering comprehensive surveys and a degree of analysis, no case studies are supplied of successful transformations. Indeed, the only example given is that of Dungarvan in which the sole change would appear to be that of providing a better quality of paving under an otherwise unaltered carpark.
As the controversial pedestrianisation of both Emmet Square in Birr and O’Connor Square in Tullamore has shown, the role of market squares and the approach necessary to converting them in whole or part to public spaces is a lot more complex than the Irish entry suggests. I believe that such initiatives can only be realised in the context of well laid overall plans which consider, traffic, parking, land uses, retail needs, urban design, architectural conservation and a myriad list of other issues which can justify their future scale and nature. Standalone building projects just don’t work.
These minor quibbles should not diminish our pride in the prestige which Yvonne and Shelley have brought to Irish architecture and to their own roots. In a commentary on the Biennale, the distinguished architectural critic Shane O’Toole has written of how Irish architects of the past ‘would have been amazed to learn that less than half a century after we ‘joined’ Europe, Irish architects have resolutely clambered to the top of the international architecture mountain range, and that Shelley and Yvonne have planted our flag of values at its very summit’.
Department of Finance, 7-9 Merrion Row, Dublin 2: top left.
Right: University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru, won the RIBA’s inaugural International Prize last December
How marvellous it would be if they were commissioned to design an important building here in Offaly! The imminent redevelopment of the Harbour in Tullamore would present an excellent opportunity here in Offaly!