The title is a little dramatic, I admit. But only a little.
While 2018 was a remarkable and unique year in Irish architecture and, arguably, the world has never been more interested in what Irish architects are up to, it seems to me, back home, there are a lot of things to be getting on with in 2019.
As is normal at the start of a new year, I made a list of things to think about, things I want to work on, things I want to contribute. As is also normal, with me at least, this list grew and grew and then became the bones of, what I guess is a blog-post, so here it is.
I have identified four quarters which together make a whole plan for some work in architecture in 2019. Things that occur. Themes to think about. Things to act on.
Advocacy, Criticism, Identification, Solidarity. These are they.
These do not cover all the things we have to deal with, or think about – for example, I think Evidence is missing, but that can be a future topic.
Each of these things connects to the others too, none of them exist in isolation, and there are overlaps; work done in one area benefits the other, and so on.
And, within the various broad texts on the themes below, some information may be missing, references omitted, or work done not fully acknowledged. It is not intended, this is not exhaustive, or academic – it is a broad framework for work, emerging from experience across practice, making exhibitions, curating, teaching, writing, advocating and forming policy.
Of course, 2018 was a very unique year personally, and, working on the Venice Biennale, as part of a remarkable team of colleagues led by Shelley and Yvonne has, in a way, for me, turned architecture off and on again. Renewed and reengaged, my respect for architects has grown further, and many aspects of my understanding of them as people and practitioners has deepened.
During the Biennale, it was a rather particular experiment to work with architects with so many different points of view and experiences and to find our common language, was, in fact, architecture. Although it did, at times, require effort on all our parts to communicate with one another using it, we made it work.
Without a doubt, a lot of what I write has been on my mind for years, it is not that radical anyway, but the Biennale has been clarifying, energising. I am growing impatient, urgent, the list of things to do is long but it is surely time to tick.
I am aware that below, at times, architect and architecture may be a little conflated. I do not mean to imply or infer however that architecture and the architect are one and the same or that architecture belongs to architects.
By this I mean that architecture is a public matter, it belongs to all of us or none of us, if indeed it must be considered the remit of someone, sometimes.
As architects we have special interests in it for sure, we are masters of aspects of it, but no architect knows it all, and, the profession does not own architecture. It is not property.
Architecture is an altogether more public affair.
Architects are somewhat unique in Ireland, certainly in the arts, but also among the traditional professions, in that we do not have an independent group that advocates on our behalf.
Part of the role of such a group would be, of course, to discuss, share and question the value of architecture.
The Irish Architecture Foundation, however, is already rather busy working to share architecture with Irish citizens. It is doing some great work to challenge our preconceptions of architecture and what architects do, and for whom.
But we need something ‘other’ now too. We need that other something to be something good, something great.
This ‘other’ – which could emerge, of course, from an existing group – might examine, debate and criticise the terms and conditions under which architecture comes to exist and under which architects are asked to work.
We know it is getting harder and harder to be an architect. It is extremely challenging to attain public work or work of a scale that permits individuals to make a reasonable living. It is expensive to become an architect in the first place and costly – personally and financially – to sustain and build an independent practice.
There is evidence too – much of it anecdotal, but too much to ignore – of continuing poor working conditions for graduates, poor salary progression for everyone else and aggressive fee competition among practices of peers to obtain work that can hardly sustain any office in the first place.
The practice of architecture is increasingly, and, at times rather terrifyingly, complex in terms of legislation and liability. Doing architecture for a living now requires increased time and effort to understand and avoid the very real and present dangers that face architects when designing spaces to be occupied by humans and getting involved in construction and certification processes.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that while we are, as a profession, really good at heralding the arrival of the new generation, we are rather too quick to ignore that there are entire generations of architects who are not getting the work they need to.
You know who I mean, yes them. They are still around, you know.
Don’t we need, collective, independent thought and some radical action at this point? Otherwise, where are we architects headed? And if we do need action, surely it needs to be lead by those free of political and legislative conflicts of interest?
Don’t we need someone to sit down, understand, take apart and then put back together the system by which architects both find and are then awarded work? Don’t we need to see and hear people doing this for and with us?
The phrase justice must be done and must also be seen to be done applies. We need people to advocate for change, but we also need to see and hear people doing this for and with us. Being assured that change is happening in a room in Dublin is no longer good enough. It has to feel like it is happening in your room on a quiet Thursday morning in December. It must also feel like we can each do something. While the challenges in the practice of architecture are not necessarily of our individual making, the barriers to change can only be of our collective breaking.
Our colleagues in the UK are now moving to form unions, with many saying the first step to making changes is admitting that we have a fundamental problem with how the practice of architecture is organised and sustained.
Let’s begin. I think we have a problem in practice. Anyone for a new year revolution?
Critical debate and discussion of contemporary architecture in written, verbal and experiential, (e.g. exhibition), forms remain remarkably absent from Irish creative life.
Progress is being made. In 2019, we will see national tours of Close Encounter, from Venice and a multi-town tour of Free Market.
We have open houses, or other festivals of architecture now in Cork, Limerick, the West, Dublin, Waterford. We have had a variety of publications emerge too. Recently, More Than Concrete Blocks published its second of three planned volumes. There has been a ‘zine culture too, notably 2Ha, although the nature of ‘zines is they come and they go, they seem to resist being sustained.
Schools of Architecture now make yearbooks, publish newspapers, and Building Material has become a peer-reviewed journal in recent years thanks to the AAI, IAF and the AIARG.
Shane O’ Toole’s recent collection of writings and critiques of decades of Irish architecture is remarkable.
Much of this great work is being done by individuals who work above and beyond what is sustainable in the long term. Perhaps this is normal in the arts or creative fields, but given the reputation of Irish architecture abroad, the lack of a sustainable or sustained critical, intellectual infrastructure around the subject in Ireland is worth noting and discussing.
Architecture, at times, still feels rather invisible, once you step outside the professional or academic world we each occupy.
For example, last year was an unprecedented year in Irish architecture because La Biennale di Venezia was led and curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley Mc Namara. And, while this was very well documented by architectural media in Ireland, it did not go unnoticed that the mainstream or main arts media was, for the most part, somewhat disinterested in architecture in 2018.
There was little national coverage of the Venice Biennale in print or on television for example. Nationwide, the RTE television program, in the dying days of the Biennale, did rather save the day. This show alone placed the Biennale in people’s living rooms in a very direct and rather exciting way. I still meet people who begin a conversation about Venice by referencing the program.
Neither did any staff journalist come to the actual press launch of the Venice Architecture Biennale in Dublin. This was the press launch of the largest, most prestigious celebration of architecture in the world, led for the first time in history by Irish architects, with Dublin on the press tour for the first time in history.
Instead, we have young, brilliant, architects full of potential, optimism and ambition, relegated to the property or building sections of the national papers when their peers in other creative disciplines enjoy regular, sustained and repeated coverage in the main paper.
End of year reviews of 2018 and previews of 2019 are ignoring significant public events and tours in architecture that are already public knowledge and unprecedented. “Ones to Watch in 2019” are not featuring architects this year.
It is not that these things necessarily matter in and of themselves. But, they do give us some indication of where both architecture and the work architects do sit within contemporary Irish culture and life.
We should be all a little more worried about this I think.
Continued lack of public visibility is a symptom that architecture in Ireland is not being valued yet, at home, to the extent, it is being so abroad. The appointment of two architects as Cultural Ambassadors among five is a step forward for certain. Architects will become more visible as a cultural and creative force over the next three years.
But we need to do more.
We have not had an architecture critic in a newspaper, on a regular basis, for some years now.
Architecture, instead, remains fundamentally linked to property and development, rarely discussed as part of the social, cultural or everyday life of our citizens.
It seems to me, that generally, we remain happy for architecture to be discussed and reported on only in these terms, and mainly in the property supplements. Why though? To get work?
It is not that architecture or design does not belong in there, somehow, but it is not the only place it should be discussed and critiqued. Architecture is, as we know, a rather complex thing. This complexity should offer us many ways into the topic. Complexity should not be used as an excuse to lazily avoid many layers and potentials and impacts and meanings of architecture in favour of reporting on the lowest common denominator of development: the market, the capital, the economic value.
Architecture is being used, exploited, and, at times by necessity sure, but architects are complicit in this.
Perhaps we have a tendency to think that discussion or criticism is a bad thing because what it really means is putting in print someone did a bad building or that someone simply didn’t like it? Perhaps, Ireland is too small and we are still afraid to tell people what we think?
Good, useful, purposeful criticism is not complaining or being negative without context though.
Criticism is not a phone in show, or an outburst on twitter – as entertaining as they may be, particularly when architects from London are involved.
Criticism takes a bit more time and consideration than that. The best criticism needs to come from a point of view, a perspective, and from someone with something to say about architecture. It is informed.
Criticism is about situating, discussing and, yes, at times assessing, a work of architecture at a given time and place in a wider context of architecture theory and practice. Criticism must also consider the social, economic and cultural contexts in which said works of architecture are produced.
Contexts are vital because it means criticism can be specifically Irish in perspective while, of course, making reference to other contexts, other places.
Architecture is not universal, despite aesthetic appearances or trends. It is not the same the world over because the contexts in which it is commissioned, designed and used are culturally specific. Criticism becomes about expanding our view. It is about broadening our frame of reference and of course, placing our work with and against the work of peers in other places across time.
Criticism, of course, is also a valid form of practice in and of itself. A form of practice in architecture.
Furthermore, critical debate and discussion can deepen our professional and cultural understanding of what we are doing. We can also discuss ideas for their own sake once in a while, without having the urgency to turn everything into a solution.
Perhaps, at this stage, Irish architects and what they do in the name of architecture need questioning, at home, here, in Ireland.
Architects need to be held to account and it is not clear to me where that happens in Ireland right now. It is a case of so far so good, yes, in some sense – but is Irish architecture good enough? And good enough for what and for whom exactly? What might we be missing?
Very often, when I mention both these needs for critical infrastructure or to have moments of real discussion and debate about ideas, architects nod at me but also kind of grimace.
It can be difficult to see the relevance of it to everyday office life, criticism will not pay my bills. We do not have the time to worry about it. Sure. I hear this.
On the relevance of criticism to practice, now, I sometimes recall that infamous scene in The Devil Wears Prada, just to make the point that somehow, all things are connected.
When Ann Hathaway laughs at the challenge of picking one blue belt from another because she does not understand why everyone is so concerned about the shade as they look the same to her, she is elegantly lectured by Meryl Streep on how fashion actually works.
She is reminded of how decisions made in fashion houses, years of research, investment and human creativity and commitment, passion and artistry combined to help a designer to select the exact shade of blue.
Then, that shade of blue, influences many other designers, and, eventually trickles down to the high street and finds its way to the “lumpy blue jumper” Hathaway is wearing in the scene.
Here, Streep is making the point – albeit in fashion, which should not be conflated with architecture – that all things are connected. Things happen in rooms you are never in, during conversations in which you never participate, but which will each impact on your daily life, the jumper you wear, the colour it is. Indeed your very actions – the decision to buy the blue – are guided by things out of your control, things you may never be fully aware of.
Of course, the point in the movie is that fashion is hierarchical and opinions can be changed and influenced by those who seek to do so.
While in fashion the locus of power remains with the avant-garde and this is no longer tenable in architecture – even if many architects might wish it to be – the point is that all agents in the field of architecture are connected.
While it is not always clear, or possible to see why criticism might be relevant to the daily life of architects, I would suggest without an energetic and robust culture of debate, discussion, review, and in the absence of an infrastructure to hold work to account in a productive but challenging way, architecture may remain invisible.
Perhaps the dangerous flip side of not accepting that criticism is relevant to the practice of architecture is that we architects then unconsciously remove architecture from public scrutiny.
Such withdrawal though is not really in the gift of the architect and architecture must remain a very public affair.
When I wrote above that the press did not cover the Venice Biennale, I omitted the coverage of Free Market, the national participation of Ireland in 2018. That sextet and their interest, passion, and love of forgotten Irish towns was rather well covered by the press, and deservedly so.
Free Market placed people and some of the things that matter to those people at the center of their exhibit. By acknowledging local spatial and material potential, offering it another future, collecting individual hope, redrawing collective identity, and joining the dots of towns across Ireland on a map like a kind of necklace of national optimism, now each town feels a little less alone, feels a little more itself.
They were architects, all of them, it was architecture, all of it, for all of us, public.
For as long as I have been involved in architecture, now over twenty years, it seems to me architecture from Ireland has been generally understood to be one kind of architecture, the domain of one kind of architect or office.
This was quite definitively confirmed in 2018 with the achievements of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara as Curators of the Biennale in Venice.
Appointed to the role according to the President of the Biennale because, “of their values in architecture”, the Curators spoke often of how they both felt that they were representing not just their values, but also the values of Irish architecture and architects.
Their awarding of the life-time achievement, Golden Lion, to Kenneth Frampton, a critic who has very much influenced Irish architectural values in the last twenty years, also confirmed to the world what Irish architecture now confidently is.
But now I am curious too as to what it is not, or what else it is. I wonder what else does it have to offer?
To now recognise or advocate for other ways of doing architecture is not to undermine the brilliance of Grafton Architects and other architects who work in that vein. Rather it is an opportunity to strengthen architecture culture in Ireland generally and to offer more architects paths into and around the subject.
There is a discussion to be had in Ireland about what constitutes the practice of architecture as we close out the first quarter of the 21stcentury. We are still, remarkably, conservative in that regard.
Honestly, if you do not design and supervise the construction of buildings, you are simply left out of conversations, people talk over your shoulder at book launches, or you are politely but sympathetically asked, “when you will get back into doing buildings again?”
The same applies if you do not have a certain kind of office.
There is still a lot of eyebrows raised out there about the creative credibility of large so-called commercial offices for example, yet they all seem to be the ones quite happily designing most new buildings of scale and complexity around Ireland. They are also the biggest employers of graduate architects.
That itself is a subject worthy of some critical debate right?
None of this is really saying one way of doing architecture is better than another. It is about finding the confidence to accept that some ways of working offer certain ways of engaging with architecture but all are valid. Some are for you, some are for others.
Various ways of working, combined, may place architecture in a variety of social and cultural scales and contexts which in turn means more people may have architecture on their radar and in their daily lives.
It may also mean every architect’s office is not always chasing the same work. Diversity in approach and interest, clarity of understanding of the roles and skills of peers and some trust that we are all in this one together, may mean, eventually, more work – even new kinds of work, with and for more people.
When it comes to the issues of diversity, schools of architecture also have a role, and a case to answer. Students need to be able to talk to, engage with and hopefully identify with a much broader range of people engaged in architecture than they currently do.
People making a career in architecture need to talk more about what we do and how we do it and we need to talk about it more plainly and directly. We need to be honest. We need to share survival skills. We need to not be afraid of talking about our failures, it does not undermine the glories – it builds trust and solidarity.
And while diversity remains an issue in architecture in Ireland – gender being a particular and serious problem – the key issue is increasingly, I think, one of identification.
When young, when figuring oneself out and finding a path, one needs to see oneself, or potential selves, somewhere out there, find some role models.
I fear, in an increasingly complex world in which architecture has many ways it can operate and roles it can fulfill, students are being offered very singular, and many out-of-date, ways to operate in architecture through their education, ways which are increasingly too challenging to sustain in practice, ways in which our real world is slowly, surely, fading out of sight.
In 2014, I was in a room, and a brilliant graduate of architecture was told she was not really an architect because she was not on the official legal register. Her practice of, and contribution to, architecture is radical and brilliant by any standards.
I have never recovered from the lack of generosity in that room, on that day, and how it felt that architecture was being rather greedily hoarded, by some at least.
To define an architect as someone only involved in making buildings and willing to pay a subscription, is at best lazy and lacking imagination, at worst controlling and territorial.
I understand the logic to protect a title and “clients”, ok. I find it very difficult to accept a very public exclusion of a peer in a room of peers.
I can only see it as an act that maybe stems from wanting to exclude certain people formally trained in architecture but who do not make architecture in the traditional way i.e. designing building and therefore are somehow considered less valuable to the profession; but it is also a view that certainly wants to exclude, to use that terribly pejorative term, “non-architects” from feeling they have a stake in architecture. Those architects involved in academic practice are not actively encouraged to be part of the ‘profession’ either.
It is utterly hilarious to me to think that architects think they can claim that architecture should remain in the sole stewardship of architects while at the same time profess some anxiety about the lack of public awareness of the role and import of architecture. Doctors, a profession often claimed to be successful in clarifying its public relevance, would never dream of assuming that individuals do not have a role to play in their own health and wellbeing, nor are they threatened by the public playing this role. They invented a whole branch of medicine for this too, it is called public health.
It is baffling too why such brutal, personal, limits are set by my profession. Why does it not see, or why does it refuse to see, that us architects need all the help we can get? We all face so many barriers to practice and progress that are outside of our control every single day, do we not need allies?
Should we not just share architecture more, offer it up? If we love it, should we not just let it go?
Architects have specific training and expertise, of course, but there are many kinds of experts operating in the built environment, many expertly trained by lived-experience.
The notion that we architects are sole producers of space and everyone else are mere consumers of it is no longer tenable and is much contested. This is not least because architects also live in the world as actual people, (we use rooms we do not design every day and we rent apartments, eat dinner, attend hospitals, go to school etc.), and all of us together – us, you, me, that is, the public – consume and produce the spaces we inhabit on a daily basis.
Metaphorically, perhaps we need to throw open the doors of the house of architecture and let the public in because we assume and insist on our position in their world on a daily basis as we design for their family or medical or educational lives. This seems fair to me, not dangerous, not disadvantageous. It seems generous, it feels kind. And this kindness could also extend from one architect to another.
The word generosity was used a lot in the Freespace Biennale and it formed a key part of the manifesto written by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. What I carry with me in terms of this word, having worked on the Biennale over the last two years or so, is that architects do not expect or ask for, but really do respond to, peer support, encouragement, and direction.
Architects work at risk a lot. They take chances, often lacking public, peer and political support. Many architects around the world are struggling to survive, make work, find relevance, be their best, but, they seem to be remaining optimistic, hanging on in there.
In my experience, in a very complex and challenging scenario in Venice, generosity built trust, trust built solidarity, and solidarity built the Biennale.
We must resist, at all costs, the binary. The seduction, the comfort, the retreat, the pursuit of power in ‘them or us’, in ‘architect or non-architect’, in ‘public or profession’. It is, perhaps, no longer useful and quite possibly even dangerous, to seek to conceptually and literally build our world from these places of opposition.
Maybe it’s time to refresh the room. We can start by opening that iroko window, just a little.