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March 16, 2003

Tom de Paor: Young Architect of the Year, 2003

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Text © Shane O’Toole. N³ photo © Frank McDonald. Ballincollig photo © John Searle. Clontarf photos © Dennis Gilbert | VIEW Pictures. All other images © de Paor architects. First published in The Sunday Times, March 16, 2003, as “Designer with a dream”.

“Love architecture for its silence,” says Tom de Paor, “in which lies its voice, its secret and powerful song.” He is quoting what he calls “the bible” – a 1957 book, In Praise of Architecture, by Gio Ponti, the Milanese architect, writer and publisher. In the original Italian, Ponti’s joyous hymnal was called Amate l’Architettura – Love Architecture – a title de Paor prefers.

“Love architecture, both old and modern,” it begins. “Love it for its fantastic, adventurous, and solemn creations; for its inventions; for the abstract, allusive, and figurative forms that enchant our spirit and enrapture our thought. Love architecture, the stage and support of our life.”

De Paor, one of the brightest talents of Irish architecture, has every reason to love architecture. On a stage in London last Thursday he received the 2003 Young Architect of the Year Award (YAYA). Now in its sixth year, the award – sponsored by Corus, formerly British Steel, and Building Design, a weekly newspaper for architects – aims to celebrate the best talent emerging from the next generation of architects. The jury was looking for “imaginative and powerful forward-looking ideas that are practically and aesthetically resolved and which generate a sense of excitement.”

Worth a modest £5,000 but a great deal more in prestige and recognition, the award is open to architects worldwide, aged 35 years or under. Of the four other 2003 finalists, three – Fat, Piercy Connor and Urban Future Organisation – are London-based; the fourth, Patterns, comes from Los Angeles. Although UK entries are particularly encouraged, previous YAYA winners have come from Switzerland and Slovenia, as well as Britain and Ireland. Last year’s winner, Plasma Studio, is an Argentinian-German outfit based in London. Also settled in London and now well established on the British architectural scene is Dubliner Niall McLaughlin, the first winner of the award.

When McLaughlin won five years ago, he expected a lot. “It gives you and other people increased expectations,” he says, “and nothing happens.” Norman Foster said to him later: “I bet you expected you’d get lots of work, but didn’t.” True, says McLaughlin. “It doesn’t introduce you to clients.”

De Paor, 35, already knows how it goes. He has been collecting plaudits for more than a decade, since he and Emma O’Neill won a national competition to build a visitor centre at the former Royal Gunpowder Mills at Ballincollig, County Cork. Few of his contemporaries have amassed anything approaching the range of his experience, which includes a stint as architect-in-residence at the National Sculpture Factory in Cork.

De Paor burst on to the international scene at the Venice Biennale in 2000 with N³, his enigmatic peat pavilion. “N³ was the end of my architectural apprenticeship,” he says. “It was a masterpiece, in the old sense of the word – the apprentice’s final piece of work. Although it was done quickly, it was very, very intense. I was sore after it, sick for a year and a half.”

A year later, he cut a dash in Tokyo, when representing Ireland in the New Trends in Architecture in Europe and Japan exhibition, and won himself a small commission in Niigata prefecture. “Tokyo was a revelation,” he says. “I understood after that that you can do whatever you like, so long as you do it well.”

His A13 Artscape – a project linking a series of open spaces along three miles of the A13 arterial corridor in east London – has been rolling along at its own pace for the last seven years: Holding Pattern gave rise to a concept album by Tipper in 2001. He has made books and a series of art posters for construction hoardings – both in collaboration with Peter Maybury, the designer and typographer – and plotted a short film, Minus, which goes into production this summer.

De Paor’s Clontarf pumping station – an angular, clanking, copper-clad bunker at the end of Vernon Avenue – will be finished within three months. Idest – or IE, to give it its trade name – a gritty, bent-tube lamp standard he designed for Clontarf, has been licensed for production by the London manufacturer, Urbis.

Although architectural projects in Ireland have taken rather longer to get off the drawing board, de Paor hopes to have 15 houses – including residential studios in Donegal and Cork for the artists Willie Doherty and Eilís O’Connell, respectively – on site by the end of the year. “We’re getting a lot out of our system right now,” he says, mentioning houses in Galway, Kildare, Dalkey, Ranelagh, Dublin’s Strawberry Beds and inner city. “They are all buildings in the round,” he says, “autonomous objects intended never to be extended. After Ballincollig I spent ten years adjusting other people’s work.” N³ was only his second stand-alone building. He needed others.

“I’m looking for a certain temperature. I know when a project’s cooked. You just know when something has achieved more than the sum of its parts – when, no matter which way you cut it, it comes out the same and there’s no more to do except build it.”

De Paor’s work may look different, but belonging to a tradition is important to him. “I was educated by Group 91, who believed in critical regionalism,” he says. “Their real achievement was to have regained the ground that was robbed by the importation of corporate American architecture. They gave us the 1930s we never had. Busáras, the masterpiece, had already been made, but Group 91 filled in the gaps. They’ve sold out now, most of them, because modernism is cheaper and easier. Modernism’s premise always was: love the machine. I’m not interested in modernism. It’s a curse, a post-colonial rage. The best always departed at the moment when functionalism was done. There are always weak architects. Gropius was one. Mies wasn’t a modernist, he was a consummate eroticist. Le Corbusier didn’t have a modernist bone in his body. Lubetkin, a brilliant modernist, ended up farming pigs.”

De Paor is still a critical regionalist “and, after that, a Baroque Catholic.” He names Michelangelo, Gaudi and Le Corbusier as old architects he loves. And, after that, he believes in emotional intelligence – the aesthetic adjustment to order that he calls “felt” geometry, “which comes from your stomach.” He mentions the pyramids and the Pantheon, round towers and Gallarus oratory, Etienne-Louis Boullée’s unrealised cenotaph for Newton, James Turrell, field patterns and – without batting an eyelid – the stealth bomber.

“You can spin architecture out of anything,” he says. “If you believe in the ruin, you believe in the plan.” He grew N³ out of a convoluted narrative – a tall tale or shaggy dog story – about St Nicholas. Telling stories is important to de Paor, to the conception and development of his work. He has been accused of talking too much.

“I don’t want to sound like a Rose of Tralee contestant, but the most important thing about architecture is that it’s about people, so it’s about love. Ideally, you will have a client who’s more intelligent than you. Then all you need is to have a site and just listen. Fall in love with it. Love architecture. It speaks all languages.”

It cuts both ways. Love must be reciprocated. “Love modern architecture for its young and zealous practitioners in every country,” advised Ponti. “The future, the mystery of unwearied creation and of human hope lies in their hands. Love modern architects – there are no other architects for you – but be ruthlessly demanding of them. This is the true way of loving them. Love them demandingly and without indulgence.

“Give them work.”

For text reproduction rights to the article above, contact The Sunday Times Syndication Website