Clancy Moore.

Interview.

Andrew Clancy and Colm Moore are quietly, modestly but very, very deliberately making good architecture in their shared attic-studio, close to the river in Dublin city. A new practice, they are already firmly part of the Irish architectural family, winning several design awards, and last year were shortlisted for the competition for the new West Cork Arts Centre, coming very close to the top of a pile of over 220 entries. There is a precision and focus in each individual project, which taken together, add up to way more than the sum of their parts. Each project is allowed to be its own thing, to have its own specific identity, its own view. Yet somehow there are consistent concerns in all projects, that of the site and place in which their project will exist when complete, the individuals experience of that material and physical project, the way buildings are made, by the people they encounter who make them. To engage with their work is to engage with the House of ClancyMoore, each project a room in that house, each full of light, and air, full of people, their voices. Andrew and Colm, took Emmett Scanlon on a tour. 

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How long have you worked together? 

We have been working together in various capacities both within another office and undertaking competitions in collaboration with friends now, for almost ten years.

We formally established our own practice, Clancy Moore, four years ago.

When you began your practice, how did you go about figuring out how you would work together?

I suppose we established our practice based on conversation. When we began we were both living in different cities, Andrew in Paris and Colm between London and Dublin. So the practice became about a conversation between us both and in some ways those two cities. Our working process developed form this dialogue. Every project begins with a conversation sometimes vague, sometimes specific or detailed. We try to develop a sketch quickly to focus this discussion, a sort of conversation piece. This sketch now generally takes the form of crude model, something direct and inarguable. These cruder studies are distilled and tested against the plan repeatedly as we move through the project stages.

For us it took time to learn how to work as a partnership and also to develop a way to work, as this is inextricably linked to your practice, the nature of the work you wish to produce. We think this idea of method, process and practice is often overlooked in architecture education.

You are one of many practices set up in the last 10 years in Ireland. There are a lot of architects working in Dublin and across Ireland in small, independent practices as a result. Has it been a good time to set up a practice here?

Famously we have, in Ireland, constructed more in the last ten years than we have in the history of the state yet the last ten years has also seen a lot of construction but very little architecture. Interestingly a good deal of the practices established in the last decade are actually of the generation ahead of us. When we began in university for most people graduation meant emigration. However we emerged from study into a privileged situation, which meant that for the first time, graduate architects were fully absorbed into the industry of construction. The comfort of this position meant that few in our generation had the time to be critical. We learned a great deal very quickly during this time but had little space to develop an independent attitude or agenda.

We benefited greatly from the generous attitude of the previous generation of architects, through their teaching, professional advice and work gifted to us! This sense of not being isolated, of a professional community, is important and initially seeded our engagement in a broader culture of architecture. In this spirit we established a shared studio space in Dublin city, in the interest of pooling resources both physical and intellectual. The result of this has been fruitful and ongoing dialogue and collaboration in practice and teaching between a large number of young architecture firms.

You teach architecture in several schools? Although many young practices teach, few engage at so many levels in so many schools? Why have you elected to do this?

We teach in three different schools at present, and are involved in several others in an external capacity. Paradoxically teaching is learning, for us it is about asking questions, a continuous investiagtion in much the same way as practice. In this situation outside of experience the students are at least our equals and the questions common cultural concerns. With just five years teaching experience, the standard duration of an architectural degree, we are novice educators, recent graduates. Our intention in teaching together in multiple schools of architecture is to understand the common ground outside of orthodoxy or agenda in adavance perhaps of concentrating our energies in one place. Inevitably each school, each studio, has its own culture. Engaging in these divergent dialogues continues to contribute to the development of our own studio practice. The reciprocal also exists; our teaching approach has grown out of our own working process where we seek a reduction of extra-architecural abstract thought, to perception and the inarguablitiy of the actual. A belief that good architecture is walked through.

There is a further enjoyment of engaging at a scale beyond that of our practice. Our first experiences of working were with a much larger firm developing significant structures within the city fabric, multiple housing and offices, civic buildings. Our design team included the city’s adminstration and the ambition of many projects was at the scale of the city. Teaching preserves this ambition and keeps it keen in a practice operating primarily at a domestic scale.

We might return to the idea of the domestic later – it seems an inevitable discussion in the new architectural practice in this country, the role of the domestic project, yet somehow we also don’t talk about it enough. But you refer to the “inarguability of the actual” and that good architecture is “walked through”. Do you mean that good architecture is considered, from the beginning as something that is physically felt and experienced? How does this emerge in your work – say for example in your Church project off O Connell Street in Dublin.

Yes, physically and emotionally. We talk a lot in the studio about how a space should feel and design by reference to familiar experienced spaces or our memory of them. We are interested in the idea of tuning a space to the appropriate atmosphere through proportion, structure, material, light and an understanding of its inhabitation.

In our view the role of architecture is not to create strong foreground figures or to seek to impose feelings, but rather to establish frames of perception, to act as a background to the lives of those who use it. In this we are not interested in novelty or fashion, these sensations are fleeting and ultimately meaningless in the context of space that may exist for many years. Rather we are interested in the capacity of space to focus human experience, to bring out or sensitize us to the conditions of the place where we are building.

Perhaps more simply put we are interested in good rooms, the Church of St Thomas & St George being a good example of this – a good room, intensively used, at the scale of the city. One issue with making an intervention in this room was the power of the space itself, its sense of completeness and material integrity, the dark shallow brick running from inside to outside, the tall vertical emphasis, the focus of the alter and the beguiling almost miniature and intimate scale of the interior. Our instinct was that the necessary intervention should be ambiguous or imperceptible upon entering so as to avoid any interference in the strength of the existing experience. Our strategy was to attach the brief to the entrance of the church, extending the threshold, drawing those entering into the plan beyond our intervention before becoming readable as an addition. This move was primary with the accommodation being provided in the poche between entrance and the fabric of the church.

We developed a work methodology for the project based on the experience of space, one that involved large scale physical modelling and testing on site, visiting the site many times and working very closely with the craftsman, who contributed greatly to the project, to develop full scale mock ups of the timber walls. The choice of timber, walnut, was made for its tonal similarity to the brick. We were very clear that the timber should be solid and not veneered for its feeling, so that it retained its integrity when chipped in future daily use. It was cut to the same dimension as the brick work with the joints at all corners being finger jointed to expose the end grain and create a further dialogue with the existing fabric. The interiors were lined with cork to provide a further layer of insulation and flexibility of use as children’s and community meeting rooms. Everything else, lights, handles and the entrance door were fabricated in brass.

I am, as you know, also interested in rooms, the idea of them…it is interesting you use the room to short cut your own explanation of what you are doing…somehow, a room cuts through a lot of rhetoric in architecture, it is where architecture as an art and architecture as a pragmatic endeavour are reconciled, it is also where the architect and the person the space is being made for or will be used by are confronted with one another…what is, in your view, a room? Are there rooms that you seek out again and again to assist the development of your own?

Yes, considering the room moves the discourse from the objective to the subjective, from an abstract architecture to a figurative one and references a cultural dialogue of continuity documented through centuries of tradition. Architecture in its essence has a very direct concern – that of how we can manipulate space to support occupation. Our infatuation with the room is born in opposition to the contemporary orthodoxy of spatial continuity, to remove every articulation between spaces, between inside and outside. We operate in a temperate climate where a sense of comfort and cosiness, of inner seclusion, the experience of the interior, are important. In this sense the room has a power for its sense of isolation and completeness, the sense of itself – its mood, its character. In this context the room is the basic element of architecture – a discrete and contained space that supports and facilitates comfortable inhabitation, simply made with walls, floors and ceilings, and with punctures in these for access, air, light or aspect. A high degree of sophistication is required to resolve these concerns using a grammar of the interior that we are only beginning to investigate in our work, one of lining and furnishing. The room’s inhabitation and occupation are analogous with the character of it’s owner, furniture, furnishings and personal collections turn the space into a very personal intimate document.

The rooms we seek out are not necessarily in the cannon of architecture and not always real, often they occur in art, in literature, or in memory. We often return to two complimentary thoughts, Goethes comment that the larger window bonded the room too closely with the outside, and a line from the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh – “Through a chink too wide comes no wonder”.

Talk about lining and furnishing more specifically in your work? Like in the Kerry House for instance? That is interesting because you make a very strong, very modern room, but you are also working with very strong existing rooms in the house….is there a way in which this strategy works with a domestic room, the domestic life…

This project starts with the original house, a traditional square plan house of the medium size, and its position on a man made hill at the centre of an elaborately planted, deceptively ordered, romantic landscape. The garden is really just beautiful.  The original house was made with a series of internalised rooms, and was complete in a way. So making an addition to this was difficult. We developed a strategy of elaborating the threshold between the reception rooms of the existing house and the garden wrapping the house in a notional forest of columns, a sort of ruin, creating deep verandas to the south and west of the main living spaces and a series of indoor and outdoor garden rooms for eating and entertaining.

We came to the idea of linings in an attempt to tune the atmosphere of each room. In the new accommodation of bright rooms a veneer of Silver birds eye maple was chosen for the infill panels, its thinness contrasting with the quite massive concrete columns. It’s light grey tone reflects the green of the garden and its pattern mirrors the accidental and beautiful marbling of the cast in situ concrete creating a shimmering that softens the ensemble. A good deal of these panels disguise storage and a back kitchen lined with walnut deep in the plan. A further lining of a green velvet curtain is capable of enclosing a new room around the suspended chimney breast, banishing the garden at night. This curtain is the most powerful.

In the darker existing rooms, more used in evening and night time, the linings are more articulated, and warmer – walnut timber, red curtains, holding shadows and highlights in corners and niches, they are not infill, but fully make the room.

Lets continue with the domestic – it is fertile ground for a young practice. It is fair to say the recent economic boom, especially in domestic building, house refurbishment and extension has helped support the establishment of new practices in Dublin and across Ireland. There is also the idea though that once you start doing this work, it is hard to break out of it if you wish to, to take on larger projects or projects simply of a different brief. You have done other projects, but are you concerned about getting future work?

Given the restricted access to public work in Ireland it does seem a standard rite of passage for any practice, extensions for family and friends, family extension!

Fertile ground for ALL – workhouse, schoolhouse, arthouse, playhouse, church house, public house -the house is the root of all architecture, as Kahn put it, with the room at the beginning best slimming tablets. In fact consider Kahn’s larger projects, the first Unitarian church, the Exeter library, projects in India & Bangladesh, were all completed in the last decade of his life while during his career he reputedly prepared designs for fifty houses. As he was completing these massive public buildings he was also constructing the Korman House. So Kahn was an architect of houses regardless of type.   And for us the house is both foundation and touchstone, to be constantly returned to. On consideration our designs for ‘public’ use have all been domestic in some sense, a gallery for art designed as the big house in the town, a house of four artists studios in a parkland, community rooms in a church. In a sense these are all ‘domestic’ so perhaps we will be designing domestic buildings for our entire career.

Do you think architects in Ireland are valued in the same way as in Europe? Do you have colleagues abroad? Do you think there is enough being done to develop architecture in Ireland now?

 In a sense architecture is an adolescent in Irish culture, self conscious and sensitive it maybe hard to criticise. This is a problem, the lack of a critical voice in the discourse at the moment, which is not limited to Ireland. In the defence of local critics they have spent the last decades trying to sell architecture to the public. Due to the sales pitch the capability of the wider public to engage in complex thought about buildings, simple things, has been painfully overlooked. Why can’t people analyse buildings as well as the latest release of i-phone software. We see only faint praise, no critic.

While the trait of property as opposed to buildings, even homes, is still firmly engrained and being re-enforced in the Irish psyche. Architecture has been proffered by the broader media as adding value, commercial not spiritual!

This is particularly evident in the procurement of public buildings in Ireland where the primary criteria for assessment are turnover, prior experience of the building type, and level of insurance. This means that in practice there is no possibility of younger or smaller firms getting to design a school say. This in effect has created a cycle of larger firms getting most of the work in these areas, to the detriment of the overall quality of the built environment in this country, and further erosion of the image of the profession. In general a practice has to build itself up using private clients, competition and work abroad before being eligible for public work. This contrasts greatly with the situation in other European countries, Belgium being a good example, and in this there is certainly not enough being done.

 Are you optimistic about the future? Do you have a view on what the architectural landscape of Ireland is going to be over the next ten years?

 To be an architect is to be inherently optimistic, it is not possible to practice or teach without feeling that…

 You were shortlisted for the second round for the West Cork Arts Centre. I was on that jury, I think what most impressed the jury was the intense interiority of your project, it was very concerned with its own insides…I have some questions about that project,,, where does the concern for the interior world come from? I guess what I am getting at, is is this domestic breeding ground of young architects actually really good for their development, as so much of this work is so highly specific, mainly about internal relationships, both physical and social…

 Returning to your previous question we thought of this project for an arts centre in a small town in the west of Cork as a big house, similar to those that sit at the heart of many small Irish towns. This analogy was important to us in ambushing the perceived straight face of the art institution. The design focused a suite of rooms on half landings around a generous central public staircase, a simple raum plan, providing a sense of openness through diagonal views between spaces while preserving a quality of enclosed rooms appropriate to contemporary art practice and exhibition. The staircase was the public throughfare through the building to be used by staff and visitors.   In our mind all of the rooms were interchangeable, like the rooms of a Georgian house, their scale and structure could facilitate all uses.

Perhaps Ireland has no great cultural legacy of public space, maybe the parlour or the public house, little else. We are only learning to use our parks now. In Dublin the most powerful public spaces are the harbours, piers and informal bathing spots that line the bay, Victorian infrastructure mostly. In this regard we are not quite European. Then we consider public buildings in our city, City hall – a big house, the Dail – a big House, the national Gallery………Dumb perhaps but the complexity of the house cannot be underestimated, and it is not always domestic. Public does not equate to physical openness. In this regard perhaps we are more interested in City Buildings, buildings that outlive function, our city’s Georgian fabric for example.

All photographs by Alice Clancy, copyright photographer and architects.

This interview was originally published in A10 in August 2010.

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