Text © Shane O’Toole. Photos © Dennis Gilbert | VIEW Pictures. Drawings © O’Donnell + Tuomey. Composite version of the pieces published in Building Design 1648, October 29, 2004, as “Celestial vessel” and The Sunday Times, March 27, 2005, as “Seeing the bigger picture”
The years when architecture had to struggle to distinguish itself from mere building now seem so yesterday, darling. Today, the architectural avant-garde resembles nothing so much as the world of fashion, such is its superficial pursuit of endless celebrity and global branding. Nobody seems to mind too much about architecture’s increasingly short shelf life. It is as if, in an era obsessed with youth and afraid of ageing, architecture – one of the most enduring measures of society’s aspirations – must deny its fundamental nature.
Depth, permanence, memory: nobody uses words like these in polite architectural circles anymore. Well, almost nobody. O’Donnell + Tuomey is an exception. Its architecture operates in a territory that is open to interpretation, seeking something evocative and suggesting psychological associations. “Architecture is the alphabet of giants,” said GK Chesterton. “It is the largest set of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of man.” O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Lewis Glucksman Gallery in University College Cork (UCC) makes use of symbolic associations to stimulate emotional responses in the viewer.
We should not be surprised then, beside the River Lee, to sense nautical connections: from one approach, we walk out, above the landscape, across a stone pier; from the other, we ascend a gangplank; to enter, we pass beneath what might be the curved hull of a ship. Alternatively, we can read the gallery as a tree house, investing it with the magic of childhood. If, on the other hand, we are simply puzzled by what we see, perhaps the sharp-edged, interlocking windows on alternate floors might provoke our curiosity to solve this Rubik’s cube.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was looking for an architect to insert a new £100m auditorium within the shell of its art-deco theatre, designed by Elizabeth Scott in Stratford on Avon in 1932. The search, which began in autumn 2004, was coming to an end. By late February the field of 30 companies had been whittled away through several rounds of competitive interviews to a shortlist of three.
On the last Sunday of the month key RSC officials were in Cork to visit the Glucksman. As they strolled across the podium after visiting the gallery, RSC artistic director Michael Boyd sidled over to John Tuomey and said he hadn’t appreciated that architecture could have such emotional power. He had felt something similar once before, when he visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer House in Ann Arbour, Michigan.
Tuomey, who had also been in the house – which has a balcony at the top set among the trees – felt reassured. “We feel Shakespeare would have picked us,” he says. Although struck by the spiritual content of their architecture, the RSC did not. Ten days ago they appointed Bennetts Associates from London, who designed the Hampsead Theatre in 2003, as their architects.
Perhaps nothing can compare to having Shakespeare and the culture he represents as a client, but if the Abbey Theatre were to show the sort of vision one expects of a national theatre in relation to their imminent move from Abbey Street, the RSC’s loss might yet be Dublin’s gain.
UCC enjoys a handsome setting at the western edge of Cork. The campus – once the site of an ancient Augustinian abbey – is dominated by a wooded limestone precipice overlooking the Lee’s meandering south channel. Perched on the clifftop is a three-sided, south-facing Gothic quad of white limestone quarried from the escarpment. Built in 1849, the complex is the earliest major work of local architects Deane and Woodward, which went on a decade later to design the legendary Oxford Museum – where Gothic art first sought to employ the “railway materials” of steel and glass – under the influence of John Ruskin.
“When we build, let us think that we build forever,” Ruskin wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in the year UCC was built. If the promontory belongs to Deane and Woodward’s quad with its great library and Aula Maxima, O’Donnell and Tuomey’s dreamy, curvaceous Glucksman, which commands the lower ground, is its worthy pair.
It belongs because the gallery is as much a landscape project as a building. The site is a sensitive one – an ornamental garden below the campus and its rising main avenue – on what was once the river’s flood plain. Since 1972 the university’s masterplan identified this area, beside the college gates, as suitable for an unspecified cultural function. A number of feasibility studies over the years came to nothing, halted by objections from college staff who resisted the impact a substantial building would have on the garden. The last proposal, by A&D Wejchert Architects a decade ago, was for a long, low building that looked out on the river. There was a fundamental problem with a single-storey solution, however: it extinguished the landscaped grounds, replacing them with a roof.
Towards the end of 1999, Gerry Wrixon, UCC’s president, arranged a competition for a “proposed restaurant and art building”. When Sheila O’Donnell and Tuomey were interviewed they told Wrixon they would keep every tree on the site, restrict the footprint of the building to two old tarmac tennis courts that were rarely used and connect the campus to a riverside walk. (There are plans for a bridge to cross the river and connect with a new pedestrian entrance to the university.)
Taking their cue from the small tennis pavilion, they offered the college a pavilion structure on seven levels – as tall as the trees – and a landscape conservation project that would protect the setting of Deane and Woodward’s commanding set-piece. They engaged archaeologists and commissioned Patrick Bowe, an expert in 19th -century gardens, to prepare a landscape evaluation. Jeremy Williams, architect and author of A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland: 1837-1921, evaluated the architecture, declaring that, if nothing else, the Glucksman would offer the opportunity to dine out under the finest architecture in Ireland – Deane and Woodward’s.
Privately funded by Lewis Glucksman, the Wall Street trader, the gallery is seen by Wrixon as a place where “the citizen can feel like a student and the student can feel like a citizen”. It is to be a showcase for changing selections from UCC’s art, ethnographic and scientific collections, as well as visiting exhibitions, and a forum for what its director, Fiona Kearney, calls “discursive relationships between academic disciplines and art practice.”
“The site makes the project,” says Tuomey. “Our whole strategy had to make sense as a landscape conservation project. That is how the planners assessed it. The future of the landscape is enshrined as a condition of the planning permission. Our building protects it.”
They began by building between the trees – where the tennis courts used to be – a limestone pier that steps down towards the river. The café is hollowed out like a cave in the new rocky outcrop. Overhead, in the canopy of trees, high above the former flood plain, floats a wooden casket of art, a treasure house in the trees. Between these is a charged void, an open-air promenade, analogous to the curving outdoor ramp that passes through James Stirling’s postmodern masterpiece, the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (a project on which Tuomey worked for several years). Here, the ramp is uncoiled and slides by the gallery.
The architects’ site strategy crystalised early but their jump to a design was prompted by a memory and a poem. About 10 years ago, the National Museum of Ireland exhibited a Viking ship in Kildare Place, a small square in Dublin. Elevated on props and set among trees at an angle, viewers could walk beneath the hull. Tuomey recalls it as one of the most beautiful things he ever saw. Describing the Glucksman as “a celestial vessel straining over a stone terrain,” he also acknowledges the influence of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Lightenings viii – with its image of a “big hull rocked to a standstill” – which the poet chose to read when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature:
“The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down a rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.”
O’Donnell and Tuomey’s celestial vessel is a dream made real. It is also a sharp critique of the ideology that has dominated thinking about gallery space since Inside the White Cube by Brian O’Doherty (aka the artist Patrick Ireland) appeared in the pages of Artforum in 1976.
“Too many galleries have glamorous entrance halls designed by architects,” says Tuomey, “while their galleries are predetermined – internalised, top-lit, 19th-century capsules controlled by curators. The Guggenheim in Bilbao may be brilliant but it is not very subtle. The upper-level galleries are all on a tray, as if they were never introduced to Frank Gehry. In Cork, the gallery is the project. We’re getting back to the nature of the gallery.”
Italy, where art collecting began 500 years ago, became their guide. The Ducal Palace in Urbino, with its cool white spaces and stone-lined window seats, lifted above the landscape, that allow art lovers to keep their bearings in the world, was a particular influence. Carlo Scarpa’s 1957 Canova museum in Possagno was a modern inspiration: a white space with windows high up in the corners, leaving the walls to act as diffusers. They followed his lead, adding to Possagno a version of the hooded, bifurcated windows, developed by Rafael Moneo in 1993 for the Miro Foundation in Palma de Mallorca, which admit alabaster-softened light above and offer carefully framed views below.
The final ingredient was the connection between art and landscape that Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert rediscovered at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen in 1958. The Glucksman is like Louisiana, but with the galleries stacked vertically.
“The 1950s is the apotheosis of modern architecture,” says Tuomey. “After that, there’s only confusion.” He regards Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture, published in 1959, as still the best book on architecture. In many ways, with its discussion of hard and soft forms and the use of contrasting materials, it is a primer for understanding O’Donnell + Tuomey’s latest project.
There are several intriguing ambiguities about the Glucksman. From the main avenue, it registers as a landmark, yet the gallery disappears from view when approached from the riverside walk. With its tightly grouped columns and yawning 12-metre cantilevers, it draws visitors in long before they enter the building. Perhaps the Glucksman’s most unusual invention, however, is an “inverted” entrance courtyard – a space that straddles the ramp and entrance lobby but is not top-lit; instead, the courtyard is plugged, like a stopper in a bottle, by the environmentally controlled galleries stacked overhead at the heart of the plan. As we approach we are unbalanced by ambiguity, standing in the open air, within a raised volume of smooth, mica-flecked, “glitter-concrete”, with simultaneous views out underneath the gallery – doubled through their reflections in the sheer waterfall of glass enclosing the lobby – as well as views both into the gallery overhead and, through and beyond the gallery itself, to the trees lining the river’s bank.
Evoking the “arte povera” of the late 1960s, O’Donnell and Tuomey seeks to imbue the most banal of materials – raw concrete, serried tablets of limestone, sinuous angelim planking, galvanised window boxes, green glass and rough-hewn oak floors – with a metaphysical dimension.
From the lobby to the topmost gallery there are no doors. Skirtings are eliminated. Even the corners where two exhibition walls would ordinarily meet are rounded off so as not to break the end-lit exhibition surfaces. The gallery spaces accommodate difference, swelling and contracting rhythmically. Views are tightly controlled: one window is aligned on the spire of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, another on the Aula Maxima; two more on the river.
Only the spindly, slatted benches in the middle of each space disappoint and distract. It’s a small quibble. The suppression of engineering detail is transformative, lending the Glucksman the theatrical presence and balletic grace to play one last trick: to become itself a jewel-like artwork sitting on a plinth.