VAN September/October 2010: Like Bread, Drink and Religion

VISUAL, Carlow

Le Corbusier contended that “museums are a recent invention; once there were none. So let us admit that they are not a fundamental component of human life like bread, drink, religion, orthography”. (1) Modern museum architecture began as recently as the 1970s with the Centre Georges Pompidou. So marked the beginning of the innovative museum of the people, located at pedestrian level in the civic realm rather than at an elitist remove: the palace on the hill. Some of the museum milestones over the past 30 years include; the Guggenheim Museum, New York by Frank Lloyd Wright (1959), Centre Georges Pompidou (1977) in Paris by Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers, Mario Botta’s redesign of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997).

Bilbao, however has gone a step further than its earlier counterparts and subsequently changed the face of contemporary museum architecture. With his design, Gehry introduced an architectural typology that unabashedly sets out to upstage the art it contains. For the first time the art experience, and thus stated function of the museum, is secondary. “The ‘Bilbao effect’ made two things absolutely clear. First, that a city, and possibly a whole region, can profit from a new museum, and secondly, that architecture had finally become emancipated from the art exhibited inside it.” (2)

This type of architecture, however, has its critics, particularly within the profession. For architect, Valerie Mulvin, “today, global architecture has fractured into nearly as many directions as art, but this does not necessarily mean innovation…[It is] less focused on making appropriate spaces and more on the creation of star events. Innovation is stifled at the lower end with endless repetitions of the successful motif. There are probably fewer original ideas floating around in the making of architecture than ever before”. (3) Feargal Harron of Kennedy Fitzgerald Architects also dismisses Bilbao, “current contemporary thinking is leaning more towards what David Chipperfield has done in Germany and what Tony Fretton has done at the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum in Denmark. In these examples the architecture is more restrained with a classical approach to modernism and the display of art”. (4)

Whether a new landmark icon or a redefined structure, there is little doubt that we are often faced with the development that “the experience of place is replacing the experience of art.”(5) Internationally, examples of now obsolete buildings being reused for art are apparent in the Tate Modern as a former power station, the Baltic in Gateshead, a former flour mill, the Lingotta Exhibition Spaces in Turin, a car factory and Ireland’s best known example would be IMMA, a former military infirmary. The successful fusion of historic heritage and contemporary purpose is noteworthy in Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum, Verona (1956-73) and Norman Foster’s Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London (1985-91).

For many architects, the challenge of architectural redefinition and reuse of defunct spaces holds continued appeal. For Valerie Mulvin, “found spaces and reclaimed landscapes provide an antidote to the perceived over packaging of purpose-made buildings.”(6) Regionally, in Ireland, the practice of redefining space is well established and includes a broad miscellany of previous functions. Thus we have former clothing factories (Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin and Void Art Centre, Derry), market houses (Ards Arts Centre, Newtownards, and Millennium Court Arts Centre, Portadown), town halls (Down Arts Centre), Customs Houses (Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork) banks (West Cork Arts Centre), yacht clubs (Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh), city liveries or estate stables (Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, and Clotworthy Arts Centre, Antrim), gaols (Basement Gallery, Dundalk and Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise), linenhalls (Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar) townhouses (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, Garter Lane Arts Centre and Galway Arts Centre) and Victorian swimming baths (Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast).   Finally school buildings are adapted in a number of instances with examples including the Model, Sligo, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, Verbal Arts Centre, and the Playhouse, Derry.

From 1990-2005, nearly 30 venues opened, with more recent landmark new builds being the most costly; Source in Thurles by McCullough Mulvin Architects, 2006 at a cost of €10 million, Solstice in Navan by Grafton Architects, 2006 at a cost of €13.5 million (hybrid of interchangeable spaces appropriate to performing and visual arts) and Visual in Carlow, 2009 by Terry Pawson Architects at a cost of €18 million. (The 3,726 sq metres three-storey building design is based on the model of the Germanic Kunsthalle, an exhibition space without its own collection).

Recently Mick Heaney wrote “after a decade of expansion that saw ever more grandiose spaces springing up in towns around Ireland, Visual was the most expensive example yet….[It could be argued that] in the depths of a recession, launching an expensive arts venue in a small midlands town now looked like an act of folly”. (7) So how are the directors of these buildings ensuring survival?

Heaney explains that the resources are rarely there to match the ‘big budget facades.’ Belinda Quirke, Director of Solstice explains; “we’ve been cost-cutting from day one. There was no incubation space for the arts to develop and now there’s a place for the local arts to work.”  Carissa Farrell, Director of Visual explains that the venue is ambitious and will compete on an international stage, but it has yet to receive Arts Council funding towards running costs. (8) Some argue that the creative industries have the potential to aid Ireland’s economic recovery and according to Seamus Kealy, Director of The Model, Sligo (re-opened in May following an extensive redevelopment programme), “the redeveloped Model is the type of arts project that can assist in our national recovery. At a time when ambition has been stilted across all sectors of the economy, we are delighted to have an innovative programme of showcasing and learning that will stimulate creativity and enterprise across all disciplines and age groups. We have a busy hive of studios on the top floor with nine artists working on their practice and creating new work from The Model”. (9) It is too early to know if this ambitious claim will be realised but the inclusion of local artists utilising studios at the Model means there is consequently a direct impact on the local economy.

In Northern Ireland, arts infrastructure development has also been significant, the Arts Council of Ireland have now met their objective to provide a dedicated arts facility within a 20-mile radius of every person living in Northern Ireland and have since shifted focus to Belfast and Derry. They contend, “flagship arts facilities such as the Playhouse and the Crescent Arts Centre promote the highest architectural design standards, support a range of arts activities, and can be major contributors to the social and economic regeneration of our towns and cities. In the past three years, the Arts Council has contributed £14m to nine completed projects, with others such as the Lyric and The Mac in the pipeline”. (10)

Comparable to the big budget developments in the Republic of Ireland, the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena (2007) has a significant presence in the town centre and is fully integrated as a sizeable extension of Mid-Antrim Museum. According to the architects at Consarc, the Braid “has been designed like a piece of jewellery, conscious that it is visible on all sides, dominating the surrounding skyline on the site it occupies. Further the architectural language relays something of the interior functioning of the building.”(11) The transparency of the glass curtain wall emphasises the presence of creative endeavour within. Provision includes a 425-seat theatre, arts workshop spaces for the making and display of art, lecture theatres, café, shop and a temporary gallery. Spaces are highly flexible with moveable partitions to extend spaces.

Strule Arts Centre in Omagh (2007) is also centrally located and its design by architects Kennedy Fitzgerald and Associates features a footbridge linking the waterfront site to a new college, existing bus station and riverside walk. It contains a 400-seat theatre, a 125-seat lecture theatre, a visual arts gallery, dance studio and café, and meets the requirement of a “flexible arts based building with a multi-functional brief.” Jean Brennan, Director of Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, explains, “in some respects we are very lucky as our town centre location means we can exploit our venue for non art-related activities such as conferences and meetings. Growing this income is becoming more important for us, as we need to generate our income targets to allow us to programme elements that may not generate income, especially visual arts. Those working in the visual arts need to start looking at ways to generate income for galleries, particularly as most local authority venues in Northern Ireland do not get arts council funding.”

According to Neil Murray of Hamilton Architects, the brief for the Crescent Arts Centre requested “multi-purpose spaces for visual, performance and creative arts – art galleries, flexible workshops, studios, offices and café are also included”. Due to the state of disrepair of this Grade B1 Listed Building, “before commencement of the project only 50% (circa 1000m2) of the existing building floor area was safe to use. Now the refurbished and extended premises provide over 2500m2 of flexible spaces. The dedicated art galleries comprise 120m2 of this total.”(12) The gallery space is arranged within three interconnected rooms, which allow for ‘narrative flow’ according to the curator Dickon Hall; “We find that the experience of the viewer is enhanced by the privacy of the space and also its intimacy; the cavernous and often bombastic, large, factory-like gallery spaces that have become almost standard since the 1960s have removed the intimacy between viewer and object.”

Considering Ireland’s size as a country, the development of its arts infrastructure over the past 20 years has been immense. It is clear however, that the sustainability of these buildings is an issue. Arts Council funding north and south sees cuts year on year. Architects and centre managers believe that variety of art forms and comprehensive representation (making and doing) is the key to survival in harsh economic times. Feargal Harron states, “flexibility is becoming a trend certainly in recent art centres that have been built in Ireland over the last 8-10 years.”(13) Centre Managers are no longer as precious about their programme elements in terms of exclusivity and costs are shared through touring visual arts exhibitions as well as the performing arts. The multivalent experience of numerous art forms and the presence of a shop / cafe within the centre maximises the potential of attracting visitors. Art has to become part of the social agenda rather than operating exclusively. The commercial elements of shopping and dining “are aestheticized by the museum site… and promoted as pseudo-cultural products”. (14)

Marianne O’Kane Boal


1. Le Corbusier, ‘Other Icons: The Museums,’ 1925, from The Decorative Art of Today, translated by James I. Dunnett, pp.15-23, Cambridge, Mass/; MIT Press, 1987.

2. Suzanne & Thierry Greub, Eds Museums in the 21st Century: Concepts, Projects, Buildings Prestel, Munich, 2006.

3 Valerie Mulvin, ‘Notes on Building for Art,’ in Space: Architecture for Art, Gemma Tipton, Ed, CIRCA, Dublin 2005

4 Feargal Harron, Kennedy Fitzgerald and Associates, Interview with the author, July 2010.

5 Gemma Tipton, Space: Architecture for Art, CIRCA, Dublin 2005 (Belting in ed Noever, p.80)

6 Valerie Mulvin, ‘Notes on Building for Art,’ in Space: Architecture for Art, Gemma Tipton, Ed, CIRCA, Dublin 2005

7 Mick Heaney, Report, Culture Supplement, Sunday Times, 11 July, 2010, p.18-19.

8 Ibid

9 Seamus Kealy, Sligo Weekender 20 July 2010

10 Response by Arts Council of Northern Ireland to Tourism Strategy for Northern Ireland to 2020 the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), May 2010

11 Andrew Cowser ‘Civic Re-branding,’ Perspective, Vol 17, No. 4 July-August 2008.

12 Neil Murray, Hamilton Architects, Interview with the author, July 2010.

13 Feargal Harron, Kennedy Fitzgerald and Associates, Interview with the author, July 2010.

14 PoYin AuYeung  “Museum Space: Privatizing Culture/Imaging Desire,” in The Meaning of Site, edited by Katya Sander, Simon Sheikh, and Cecilie Høgsbro Østergaard (Copenhagen: The University of Copenhagen, 2000), pp. 96-119.

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