“The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise / Were all at prayers inside the oratory / A ship appeared above them in the air. / The anchor dragged along behind so deep / It hooked itself into the altar rails.”
These words by Irish poet Seamus Heaney have had a profound impact on the work of architects Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, who cited the poem as one of their inspirations for the Glucksman Gallery – an exhibition space commissioned by the University of Cork in the early millennium. Named for its patron Lewis Glucksman (a Wall Street trader and philanthropist), the Glucksman Gallery was completed in 2005 and nominated for the Stirling Prize that same year. Thanks to its outstanding site-specific design, the building has since become one of the most celebrated works of contemporary Irish architecture.
Located at the gateway to the university campus, adjacent to a limestone escarpment in an ornamental garden on the bank of the River Lee, the brief required a building that would be sensitive to its green surroundings. Indeed, previous proposals for development had been rejected due to environmental concerns. O’Donnell + Tuomey’s solution was a vertically-orientated building with a small footprint to minimize disruption to the natural landscape. They assured the President of the university, Gerry Wrixon, that the footprint of the building would be restricted to the area of the two existing tennis courts on the site, and that they would not cut down so much as a single tree.
The resulting building comprises three levels of open exhibition space which host temporary shows as well as providing as a home for the university’s permanent art collection. It also houses lecture facilities, a café, and a shop. At ground level, a limestone podium leads visitors to a glass lobby which provides access to the galleries. This podium also continues past the building to the river, connecting the campus path with a riverside walk to establish a physical link between the university and its environment. The podium, which the architects describe as “both landscape and building, plinth and pathway,” recalls the architectural promenade of James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, a project which O’Donnell + Tuomey worked on before establishing their own practice.
Their time working under Stirling had a formative impact on their careers. Having met while studying at University College Dublin (where they both later became Professors), O’Donnell + Tuomey joined Stirling’s office shortly after qualifying. Despite leaving after just a few years to establish the architectural partnership O’Donnell + Tuomey (with great success – they were awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 2015 and have been nominated for the Stirling Prize five times to-date), their work continues to embody ideas incubated in Stirling’s practice. They inherited, for example, his “passion for a richness of color, material and texture,” qualities which continue to characterize their designs, not least that of the Glucksman Gallery.
Each of the building’s architectural components are differentiated through the use of contrasting materials. Nestled amongst the trees, the steel frames of the galleries are wrapped in Angelim de Campagna timber (a sustainably-sourced hardwood) to reflect the building’s natural context, while the window frames use galvanized steel to reduce the effects of weathering. The interlocking planes of the upper façade sit on a concrete platform which is raised above the ground on piloti. The platform features dramatic cantilevers twelve meters deep which, Tuomey explained, “allowed us to place the galleries close up against the trees without damaging their roots.”
The concrete platform is composed of granite aggregate, sandblasted to reveal flecks of mica which allow it to glisten as it catches sunlight. The transparency of the glass lobby below helps to separate the mass of the galleries from the ground, thereby reducing the impact—both physically and conceptually—of the building to the landscape. The limestone podium, meanwhile, references both the geology of the site and the traditional limestone buildings of Cork.
The galleries feature large windows which draw the surroundings into the exhibition space, inviting visitors to reflect on the formal qualities of nature alongside the artworks on display. As Kenneth Frampton observed, “this space constantly compels one to shift and adjust one’s attention, ever divided between the stability of culture and the volatility of nature”. Several of the windows are carefully aligned to frame specific views, namely the river, the university and the city. According to Tuomey, this was intended to place the viewer within a wider context: “you never forget that you are in the world no matter where you are.”
As with the majority of their projects to date, O’Donnell + Tuomey have been content to allow the program of the Glucksman Gallery take precedence over its architecture, in keeping with their belief that “the event is what happens in the building, not the building itself.” For instance, the expansive windows of the galleries flood the exhibition spaces with natural light – a pleasant spatial experience but one which poses challenges for both curators and conservators of art. Light-sensitive works could be easily damaged by the sun’s rays and the spaces are too bright to show film work. To solve this problem, O’Donnell + Tuomey created ‘close control’ galleries (so-called as their environmental conditions could be easily regulated) located in the core of the building. Enveloped by the larger galleries around the periphery of the building, the close control galleries are shielded from sunlight by the interior walls, allowing for a greater diversity of exhibition content.
The architects have repeatedly referred to the Glucksman Gallery as a “celestial vessel,” alluding to Heaney’s aforementioned poem. Tuomey described the imagery of the poem as a “direct visual reference for us in our idea of the building – a ship straining above a stone terrain.” The parallels are clear: the smooth curve of the galleries’ timber cladding bears a strong resemblance to the hull of a ship, and the structure sits on a base of limestone. Another, perhaps more direct, source of inspiration came from a visit to an exhibition of a Viking ship in Dublin. The ship, suspended amongst the trees to allow visitors to walk beneath, was described by Tuomey as one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen.
 Heaney, Seamus. “Lightenings viii”. Nobel Prize. Accessed 16 August, 2016. [access]
 O’Donnell, Sheila and John Tuomey. O’Donnell + Tuomey: Selected Works. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. p.160
 “Glucksman Gallery University College Cork”. O’Donnell + Tuomey. Accessed 16 August, 2016. [access]
 “The Story Behind the Architects”. RIBA. Accessed 17 August, 2016. [access]
 Ibid. Tuomey. p.58
 “Glucksman Gallery”. O’Donnell + Tuomey. Accessed 16 August, 2016. [access]
 Lappin, Sarah A. Full Irish: New Architecture in Ireland. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. p.210
 Ibid. Tuomey. p.59
 O’Toole, Shane. “Seeing the bigger picture”. The Sunday Times. 27 March, 2005. p.18
 Tuomey, John. Architecture, Craft and Culture: Reflections of the work of O’Donnell + Tuomey. Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 2008. Craft, p.30