Architects: O'Donnell & Tuomey Architects
Location: Derry, Northern Ireland
Project Year: 2009
Photographs: Dennis Gilbert, Alice Clancy, O’Donnell & Tuomey Architects
The brief is for an Irish Language Cultural Centre in the city of Derry for An Gaeláras. An Gaeláras is a community cultural resource centre established primarily for the preservation and promotion of the Irish language within Derry and the surrounding areas. The building brief included shop, café, performance space, back stage facilities, start up offices, teaching spaces, boardroom offices.
The site is a long rectangular plot, with one short a 15m public street frontage facing onto Great James Street and with three other sides built up against boundary wall conditions. It is a restricted site in an established urban context of streets and terraced houses. The site lies just inside Clarendon Street Conservation area.
The proportions of this façade reflect the established vertical proportions of the historic town houses in the area. The 75mm timber boards used to make the formwork for the concrete refer to the dimensions of traditional brick coursing visible along the street. There was an existing substation located on the site which had to be relocated on the site to allow access from the street. This occupied one third of the ground floor front façade.
Analysis of Brief
Given the cultural, educational and broader access aspirations of the briefing document, the design approach was to develop the public interface of the project, by extending the pavement into the building and gathering the various functions around a courtyard at the heart of the scheme. The building is thought of as an open house for Irish culture, with windows overlooking street and courtyard, with ease of access and circulation for visitors and staff. Although the site is tightly contained by blind boundaries on three sides, the design seeks to open up the interior of the plot to daylight, to maximise the potential for visual interaction with the street and to exploit available views to the city walls.
The emphasis is on natural light, natural materials, natural ventilation, with internal courtyards and roof gardens giving identity and character to the new building. The idea is to create an active, interactive place for performance, learning, cultural activity and work. It was clear from the brief that much of the accommodation should ideally be located on the Ground Floor, in particular the café, shop and performance space. The teaching spaces and offices could be located on the upper floors.
The clients aim was to establish a flagship Irish Language, Arts & Cultural Centre, creating a vibrant and innovative building which will be easily recognisable from the Derry City Walls, and reflective of the vibrancy and creativeness of the Irish language. This project would attempt to marry a social economy ethos of small business incubation with the promotion of cultural activity in the community and the development of an ever growing Irish language arts sector.
Originally working from inappropriate and inadequate premises at 34 Great James Street the clients aspiration of the new building at no 37 Great James Street was to increase both the scale and range of Irish language activities currently conducted within An Gaeláras and locate all this activity under one roof in a purpose built cultural centre maximising the efficiency through a professional, sustainable approach.
An Gaeláras is designed for public life and community involvement. Its inwardness is not an anti-social reaction or a defensive strategy. The intention is to enhance the appropriation of collective space by locating the focus of the architectural project within the organism of the building, to find home territory embodied inside the experience of the structure rather than expressed through exterior representation. The landlocked site is contained on three sides with one narrow end facing the street. A continuous terrazzo floor connects the footpath to the building interior, minimising the barrier between outside and in.
The central court is thought of as an outside room locked within the form. A glass roofed board marked concrete trapezoidal courtyard is carved through the four floors of the building, with stairs, bridges and platforms crossing and overlook the skylit volume. Each floor level is associated with one of the functions of the Irish language institute; culture, enterprise, teaching, and administration. The nature of the site prevented any light or view from three party walls. Light spills into the central court through the inverted rooflight and the different functions of each floorplate are made legible by the complex overlapping geometries of the structure.
Environmental aspects include GGBS cement and a natural ventilation system combined with passive measures such as high thermal mass and insulation. These result in low energy consumption, reduced CO2 emissions and low annual heating bills.
It was clear from the brief that much of the accommodation should ideally be located on the Ground Floor, in particular the reception, shop, café and performance space. With offices, staff facilities, teaching spaces and boardroom located on the upper floors. The upper floors are served by lift.
Method of Construction / Materials:
The external street façade and internal courtyard structure are boardmarked concrete, cast against a formwork of horizontal timber boards. Glazed screens to the façade and courtyards are powdercoated aluminium. Walkways, stairs, balustrades and handrails are painted steel finished in red oxide colour.