New Irish Houses by Dominic Stevens
As can be expected with his commitment to research, Stevens is gathering examples of alternative ways of living in a catalog of recent Irish vernacular architecture, "built slowly, cheaply, without mortgages." His own house, built with the help of friends and students in timber frame, makes use of recycled materials from several locations.
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Light and Landscape in Ireland
Much has been written about the beauty of Ireland, and an effort to re-create the work of centuries of artists, musicians, and poets will not be attempted here. However, to put it simply, to understand the Irish landscape is to comprehend battered coastline, rolling farmland, bleak hillsides, and the light and water that continuously affect a reading of them.
The coast is inhabited by both small village ports and large industrial sites like Cork, Belfast, and Dublin. Donegal has numerous small uninhabited beaches, while cliffs dominate much of the west and northeast coasts. Much of the interior of Ireland is the typical rolling green hills one sees in postcards, but these give over quickly to flat farmland, high moors, and peat bog lands. In the west is the Burren, an ancient moonscape of an area covered in fissured limestone pavement and not much else.
People who come to Ireland for the first time are of course struck by its million shades of green but also by the quality of the light. In summer, daylight can be celebrated from as early as 4:00 a.m. and used until 11:00 p.m., while in winter, one can rely on good light only from 9:00 a.m. until about 3:00 p.m.
The fact that Ireland is so far north plays a part in this quality, as do the common low-pressure systems that dilute the light into haze, a shadowless gray that pervades the landscape for days at a time. Light, except on rare days of either blazing sunshine or absolute soul-numbing gray, is ever-changing in Ireland — flighty one minute, pouring in through every available crack in the next.
The landscape in Ireland is permeated by water, whether through its proximity to the coastline or to lakes, rivers, bogs, and marshlands. And it rains. A lot.
Stevens is quick to point out that even his specially commissioned projects have been built for "less than the standard bungalow." He uses everyday, often agricultural means of building in untried ways: one house extension used a precast concrete fencing system, rotated 90 degrees to run horizontally, in its main structural walls.
Stevens thinks about domestic architecture in terms of its functions by specific individuals within particular landscapes. The In-Between House, set in the Leitrim countryside, could have looked like that quintessential "Oirish" cottage. Instead, Stevens turns the stereotype on its head, both formally and programmatically. Using the same white render and dark roof common to so many countryside dwellings, he configures the house into a new set of geometries.
Further, the house is composed of two different types of spaces — those with a recognizable shape in which there is no question one is in a "room," and other, more remarkable "in between" spaces, where unplanned domestic life can happen. These rooms are not bedrooms, dining rooms, or kitchens but nebulous, unpremeditated areas of the house.
The Mimetic House — unlike the traditional white cottage, or the transplanted Spanish bungalows that have lately encroached on Ireland's rural landscape — hides itself in its environment in dually opposed above- and below-ground spaces. Its upper floor is wrapped in mirrored panels and is roofed in sedum, dissolving the house into its environment. Half of this house occurs below ground, buried in the landscape. In the main upper room, every other wall panel is a solid while its neighbor gives a canted floor-to-ceiling view of the landscape outside.
In this dual opposition, the Mimetic House reflects a tendency in many of Stevens's houses — quieter spaces are carved below the more public, usually light-filled areas that perch above.
Stevens works outside the mainstream of both Irish architecture and architectural culture in general. His thinking about his practice is careful, but simultaneously rational and unusual. This alternative take on both formal decisions and his practice of architecture results in ideas that may very well have some of the strongest resonance for a new, reconfigured Ireland.
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Born and educated in the United States, Sarah A. Lappin moved to Northern Ireland in 1998, where she continues to practice as an architect. She is a lecturer at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queens University in Belfast.
This article is excerpted from Full Irish: New Architecture in Ireland by Sarah A. Lappin, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.