Bricks and Strings.

Three Buildings by O Donnell + Tuomey

On a former timber-yard in an historic part of Dublin’s brick-city, where road development tore the built fabric apart, O’ Donnell and Tuomey have made 47 homes inside a red, dense and solid brick form. The architects employ a remarkable, radical and relevant piece of urban-nostalgia as people are literally put before profit in an effort to avoid the dominant “living over the shop” model as it continues to fail in Dublin. Instead the housing gathers around a new public space, shared rooms connect to the street and in a move so shockingly obvious that you begin to wonder how it ever got to this point in Dublin, actual front doors with doorbells and flowerpots are once again put at street level.

In several ways, in this project the architects look back in order to look forward, not least in their use of brick. Dublin is a city of brick houses, mostly two to five stories high. So to make brick homes in a city of brick homes seems appropriate, a way of fitting in. O’ Donnell and Tuomey, having asked the oldest local neighbours how best to make a street, then looked around the city and to the Georgian brick-terraced houses. The architects describe their approach to the form and façade of the Timberyard as a search for a 21st century Georgian, a hole in the wall building, the challenge being that housing requires a great deal of windows and by using brick in such a context, the architects wished for the building to be urban and solid and robust.[1] So windows are staggered or slid away from each other on each floor with a quiet rhythm and order apparent if you look for it. Double-height deep cuts made in the brick walls and formed into recesses with brick ceilings for outdoor living give the building a depth and scale that allow the individual homes to add up to more than the sum of their parts – the building feels urban and of its city.

In Dublin, the architects admit they never considered using any material other than brick and so too in their Lyric Theatre in Belfast, something “a bit sharp and a bit brick” was just what the city ordered.[2] Described as the “rocks in a stream” plan, the project has three main rooms organised as distinct three-dimensional, acoustically isolated volumes with those working and visiting here being invited to flow in and around the circulation spaces between.[3] The building is built on a steep slope and formally responds to both this stepped condition and to its city location between the grid of Belfast streets and the sinuous, winding River Lagan. The brick form bends and moves to adjust itself, to bed down for the night, opening or otherwise. An Ibstock Heritage red blend brick is used and in a similar way to how brick is used in Timberyard, the building, proposed by the architects as a “house for Lyric”, quietly hums in harmony with the neighbouring brick terraces and streets with brick specials made to ensure a continuity of surface at points of formal change. The inside rooms have been carefully placed to heighten the spatial sensation of moving in and around, over and under the main auditoria, rehearsal and workshop rooms but here, brick is used inside the building too. Brick builds up and encloses those three rooms, brick rugs on the floor mark out key destination points on the route so, as you move and climb up through the building, you look outside to brick streets and walls while moving along and between brick streets and walls on the inside. Inside is outside is inside is outside, brick by brick by brick. This is a new kind of brick-based social engineering, albeit a gentle kind, as this house of theatre seeks a sustainable social and psychological connection for its occupants from the city of Belfast in which it now so very much resides.

An interior and exterior exchange helps form the concept for the almost-baked new Students’ Centre for the London School of Economics due to formally open in early 2014. Here the surrounding streets and lanes are gathered up and into the building that nestles into a challenging, already densely built site both on plan and in section. The form of the building tilts forward and back and steps in and out to dodge established rights-to-light of the neighbours and let light and air into the fantastic variety of rooms to be provided. Commissioned via competition, once again the architects read London as a city of bricks from the off, here making a solid, tilting and folding brick surface, cut or stretched thin to pour or sieve light into the building as required, a product of its place. To realise this building in brick was an architectural, structural and technical challenge requiring the architects to fully and utterly commit to the drawing, making and assembling of brick. Hundreds of drawings were made for the hundred or so special bricks alone, which were hand-made and hand-used with reference to a highly specific almost step-by-step set of brick assembly drawings provided by the architects. After much research, Coleford paving bricks were used in colours matched to the original competition paintings, bricks that would allow and then resist the standing water that would linger on the ledges formed from the stepping in and out of the bricks on this remarkable brick façade.

So rarely now in contemporary architecture is the material so inherently part of the built idea beyond what the material may sensationally deliver in and of itself. In the work of O’ Donnell and Tuomey the bricks are indeed sensational in and of themselves but like you would hope for a brick, they add up to something more than just surface or shape, more than the sum of their parts. The brick is used with the aim of making buildings belong to where they come from, an idea perhaps that some would argue is old-fashioned, nostalgic, irrelevant in our global, all-access world, but perhaps they are those rushing to seek their next addictive, material thrill. These bricks make making matter, the rooms formed from and within them enabling as much social and personal connection for an individual with their place and their city as is possible in this process.

[1] Conversation between Sheila O Donnell, John Tuomey and Emmett Scanlon 28.11.2013

[2] Interview with Sheila O Donnell and John Tuomey. The Architects Journal, online, http://vimeo.com/50517661

[3] Conversation between Sheila O Donnell, John Tuomey and Emmett Scanlon 28.11.2013

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O Donnell + Tuomey – architects

Denis Gilbert – photography

Timberyard, Dublin – 2009

Lyric Theatre, Belfast – 2011

LSE Student Centre, London –  2014

All images courtesy / copyright of photographers and architects.

This review was originally published in Architecture Today / Brick Bulletin Winter 2013.