Taking in the big picture

From the IAR Summer Edition

Overcoming the slow down at home, Irish architects Heneghan Peng, Grafton Architects, O’Donnell+Tuomey amongst others have looked to international competitions, but overseas projects are not without risk, writes John McLaughlin

Irish Architects have been winning increasingly prestigious international commissions in recent years and leading Irish practices are joining an elite global group building cultural and educational institutions as far afield as Lima on Peru’s pacific coast, Cairo, Ramallah, Milan and Budapest. These opportunities have allowed them to design more significant projects than might have otherwise been possible and have nurtured their practices through a dire shortage of work at home. Nevertheless the opportunities come with risks, and these can be magnified by the distances involved. Wars, revolutions and financial crises all have potentially significant consequences and behind that there is often a gruelling schedule of air travel to maintain.

The most spectacular international success was the incredible achievement by Heneghan Peng architects in winning the open international competition for the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 2002 against 1,556 other entries. When many competitors sought to rival the adjacent pyramids with iconic structures, Heneghan Peng won by modestly embedding their project into the side of the plateau that the pyramids sit on, so that the museum faces back towards Cairo. This strategy conserved the landscape of the pyramids and enabled a series of discrete interventions that structure the way that visitors will view the great monuments.

Working on such a huge project at enormous distance meant forming partnerships with large global engineering firms and relationships with local practices to enable the projects to be delivered. Henehgan Peng teamed up with Arup on structures, Buro Happold on environmental engineering and West 8 on landscape. Dublin’s proximity to London ensures that Irish practices can easily plug in to this global network. Roisín Heneghan comments that it was only when the Icelandic volcano grounded European air traffic in 2010 that some of their collaborators realized that they weren’t based in London.

The construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum forms part of a much larger reorganization of the city of Cairo. The existing Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is located in the centre of the city near Tahir Square in a purpose-built building dating from 1902. It does not however have modern standards of display and environmental conditioning. Its replacement will be a much grander affair located at the edge of the city close to the pyramids at Giza.1 Critics of the project see it as an attempt to remove Egypt’s top visitor attraction from the congestion of central Cairo to a suburban enclave. A series of new towns and city extensions have been built outside the old centre of Cairo since the 1970s and the fact that many of these were clearly intended to house the wealthy on land formerly owned by the state led to a poor perception of such initiatives.

the topography of Palestine has been exploited in the Israeli settlements with the Israeli state confiscating higher ground and giving it to settlers so that the remaining lowlands are fragmented, discontinuous and overlooked

The new Museum project was close to being tendered in January 2011 when the occupation of Tahir Square began. One of the first impacts of the crisis was a plunge in the exchange rate of the Egyptian Pound as international investors withdrew in fear of political instability. After the revolution and the resignation of President Mubarak the project was continued by the new government of Mohamed Morsi who was then ousted in 2013. In 2014 there was another election and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power. Roisín Heneghan is quite sanguine about working through such upheavals saying that the main impact for them was the delay to the project and the loss in value of the currency. Heneghan Peng has now largely handed over the running of the construction stage of the project to local firms and it is due to complete next year. Similar risks must apply to their current project for the National Centre for Contemporary Arts in Moscow (see Irish Arts Review Summer 2014) where the rouble has lost significant value since last year’s invasion of the Crimean penninsula.

These complexities have not dulled their appetite for working far from home and in 2011 they won an international competition to design a Palestinian Museum in Birzeit near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Their design was another landform building growing out of a series of terraces in a ‘cascading landscape’ inspired by the traditional agricultural terraces in the area (Fig 4). ‘As Palestine has been at the crossroads of so many important trade routes, it has been influenced by many diverse cultures, and the story of these influences can be seen on the landscape. The landscape of Palestine has been informed by both the natural landscape and its native plants, but also by a cultural landscape that is derived from plants and traditions that are not necessarily native to the region but have become embedded in and contributed to the regional culture’ they said.

The territorial division of Palestine under the Israeli occupation is widely recognized especially the notorious walls that have been erected around enclaves of Israeli settlers. Eyal Wiezman, an Israeli architect and intellectual who is Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures in Goldsmiths College, University of London has analyzed the ways that the topography of Palestine has been exploited in the Israeli settlements with the Israeli state confiscating higher ground and giving it to settlers so that the remaining lowlands are fragmented, discontinuous and overlooked. One of the most significant impacts of this for Palestinians is the way it limits their ability to move from place to place.3

Many observers were surprised that the Palestinian Museum project was able to continue through the Gaza conflict in 2014 and it is now scheduled to be completed towards the end of 2015 with an official opening being planned for springtime 2016. Project architect Conor Sreenan heard rockets while passing through Tel Aviv during the conflict but reported that the main impact was delays in moving around caused by checkpoints and that ‘it was noticeably more tense’. The Museum’s Director Jack Persekian, told The Art Newspaper ‘In Palestine we are constantly aware of the security issues, and we know all too well that in this situation everything is vulnerable. The impediments to movement around Palestine remain; for Palestinians, given the documents they carry and the places they live, this looks unlikely to change.’4 Palestinians living outside the West Bank, however, will have limited physical access to the new museum, as they require a special permit to enter the Territories, and even residents of the Territories can face multiple checkpoints. Which is why Persekian plans to finalize partnerships for roughly five satellite locations in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf, as well as in other Israeli cities.5

members of the Welfare Association’s Board of Trustees recognized the need to establish a modern historical museum in Palestine dedicated to preserving and commemorating the Palestinian past

The idea of a Palestinian Museum first began in 1997 when members of the Welfare Association’s Board of Trustees recognized the need to establish a modern historical museum in Palestine dedicated to preserving and commemorating the Palestinian past, in particular the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 – the watershed event of 20th-century Palestinian history which led to the displacement and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians. A series of conceptual changes led to a reformulation of the museum’s purpose. The museum’s name has also changed, from ‘The Palestinian Museum of Memory’ to ‘The Palestinian Museum,’ mirroring a shift in focus from memorializing the past to presenting itself as a mobilizing cultural institution that will act as an agent of empowerment and integration for the Palestinian people in a time of political uncertainty and fragmentation.6 The idea was shelved when the second intifada broke out in September 2000 but was revived in the mid 2000s, when a new team reviewed the concept of the project.

The team also began to reconceptualize the museum site itself. It was decided that a main hub would be built in Birzeit in two stages, the first to house rotating exhibitions and the second, larger building to feature a permanent collection. But the team also re-imagined how a museum might connect with other installments beyond Palestine. ‘Gradually the idea started evolving and one major component was to not just think about the museum as a location and a building, but to think about this museum as an institution that can serve Palestinians wherever they are,’ Persekian said.’We know that more than half of the Palestinians are outside of Palestine. So we started thinking of the museum as a hub with branches and partnerships in other places, particularly in places where Palestinians themselves cannot access this site in Birzeit,’ including Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.7

Embodying the museum’s unique approach, its first exhibition in May 2014 was displayed not in the museum’s physical site (which was still under construction at the time), but in public space, through partnerships and on postcards. Titled ‘In the Presence of the Holy See’, the exhibition featured images of present-day Palestine collaged and interlaced with traditional Christian imagery and archive photos (Figs 6,7&8). Prints of the images were displayed in Bethlehem’s Manger Square during the Pope’s visit earlier this year, as well as in nearby Dheisheh refugee camp. The images were later printed as a set of postcards.

These approaches to reimagining a divided homeland and reaching out to a diaspora resonate with Irish cultural history and the way that our country’s political rebirth was preceeded by a cultural revival. It seems entirely fitting that the physical manifestations of that thinking should be designed here in Ireland where a sensitivity to the heightened political and cultural readings of landscape and environment forms such an important part of our culture.

John McLaughlin represented Ireland (with Gary A. Boyd) at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014.

1 See Michael Foley: Tutankhamun to lead exodus from faded glory of old Cairo to slick new suburbs – Cairo Letter The Irish Times 30/03/2015.
2 See Abdelbaseer Mohamed: Cairo’s Metropolitan Landscape: Segregation Extreme – www.failedarchitecture.com 27/02/2015
3 See Eyal Wiezman: Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation- Verso Books London 2007.
4 See Merlin Fulcher: Heneghan Peng’s Palestinian Museum goes ahead despite Gaza conflict – Architect’s Journal 30/07/2014.
5 See forward.com/culture/190091/organizers-prepare-palestinian-museum-for-2015-ope/ – accessed 01/05/2015.
6 See www.palmuseum.org/about/the-museum accessed 30/04/2015.
7 See electronicintifada.net/content/museum-without-borders-open-palestine/13905 – accessed 02/05/2015.

London Festival of Architecture
by Frank McDonald

Through New Horizon, a programme devised for Irish Design 2015 (ID2015), ten relatively youthful Irish architectural practices will show how innovative they can be in three ‘global cities’, kicking off with the London Festival of Architecture throughout the month of June.

Selected by Dublin-born Raymund Ryan, curator of Heinz Architectural Center in Pittsburgh, and Nathalie Weadick, director of the Irish Architecture Foundation, they will join a ‘celebration of architectural experimentation, thinking and practice’ in the British capital. Ireland has also been selected by London Festival of Architecture as its ‘focus country’ this year, which will put the five chosen to represent us – Clancy Moore, TAKA, Steve Larkin, Hall McKnight and Emmet Scanlon – under the spotlight of both peers and critics.

The Irish architects taking part in the festival have had to collaborate to design two temporary structures at one of the main venues, King’s Cross, and these pavilions will host talks, performances and events with emerging talents in contemporary Irish design culture. The Red Pavilion, developed by TAKA, Clancy Moore and Steve Larkin Architects will sit on the north side of Cubitt Square, with a ‘civic façade’ and open arcade facing south that’s intended to be ‘spontaneously and informally used’ by visitors to the festival.

The Yellow Pavilion by Belfast-based Hall McKnight will be sited above a series of buried brick arches and is designed as a single room which can be entered from four corners. Inside, the architects propose to line its lower levels with 1,000 reclaimed bricks from Shankill Road.

New Horizon’s mix-and-match approach will later see A2 Architects, GKMP and Ryan Kennihan participate in the Chicago Architecture Biennial in October, while Urban Agency and AP+E will represent Ireland at the Hong Kong/Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale in December.

Emmet Scanlon, architectural adviser to the Arts Council, will attempt to wrap it all up by presenting an exhibition, ‘9 Lives’, at the Design Museum Tank in London showing an ‘extract of the life stories of nine built spaces in Ireland’, designed by the other featured architects.
‘Each has a life story, begun by someone, somewhere, with a significant architectural chapter, and then with new, ongoing contributions written, over time, by those that use, occupy, appropriate, alter and consume the spaces – the spaces are works in progress,’ Scanlon writes.

Selected Irish International projects

  • 2002 Grafton Architects won the competition for Luigi Bocconi School of Economics in Milan. This was completed in 2008 and won the World Building of the Year that year.
  • 2009 Grafton Architects won the competition for a new School of Economics at the University of Toulouse, France.
  • 2011 Grafton Architects won the competition for a new University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima Peru. Phase one was completed in 2014.
  • 2011 O’Donnell and Tuomey architects won the competition for the new Student Centre at the London School of Economics which was completed in 2014.
  • 2012 O’Donnell and Tuomey won the competition for the Central European University campus redevelopment in Budapest.
  • 2012 Grafton Architects won the Silver Lion at Venice Architecture Biennale.
  • 2013 Grafton Architects won the competition to design the Institut Mines Telecom in Paris.

Grafton Architects’ setback in London
by Frank McDonald

Grafton Architects, headed by the formidable and highly-respected Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, are not used to getting ‘no’ for an answer. Usually, when they put forward daring plans for new university buildings, either in Ireland or abroad (Milan, Toulouse, Lima) the projects sail through the planning process.
Not so in London, where Grafton’s competition-winning scheme for a £55 million (€76 million) ‘flagship building’ at Kingston University – one of those re-invented English polytechnics – has been thrown out by the planning sub-committee of Tory-controlled Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, in southwest London.

The university planned to replace its current Town House building, a ‘temporary’ structure dating the mid 1980s with a new, sustainable landmark building, fronted by an attractive landscaped area. The site is on a key gateway to the town centre and had been identified in the borough area action plan as suitable for a landmark building.

Unlike in Ireland, where decisions on development control (ie planning applications) are made by officials, England’s local government system confers this role on elected members. As a result, decisions may be influenced by the personal prejudices of councillors – irrespective of what’s recommended by professional planners.

Although Grafton had the full support of Kingston’s planners for the proposed six-storey building on Penrhyn Road, opposite Surrey’s old county hall, it is clear that they didn’t square it with councillors. Even planning sub-committee chairman Richard Hudson (Con) scathingly compared it to concrete-hulk World War II flak towers.

The view taken by most councillors was that the building would be too large and overpowering for the site, and it was rejected by ten votes to two. The decision came as a ‘huge disappointment’ to Kingston University vice-chancellor Julius Weinberg, particularly as the project had won majority support from staff, students and neighbours.

‘We commissioned award-winning architects, consulted widely and tried to accommodate much of the feedback,’ he said, adding that the height and footprint had already been reduced. ‘We set out to create something for everyone and to create a landmark building that would help put both the university and the borough firmly on the map.’

A revised scheme is now likely, as there is no appeal against the decision. ‘The university remains committed to working in partnership with the council to make Kingston the best place to learn, live and work. We will now need to reconsider our options to see how we can ensure this transformational project happens as soon as possible.’

Shelley McNamara said Grafton were ‘extremely disappointed’ by the planning refusal. ‘One council committee member said it was one of the best designs he had seen since he joined the planning committee but it did seem, in the end, to be a matter of personal taste. We are reviewing the situation now with the university to see what way we might proceed.’

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