Donaghy and Dimond’s office is on Francis Street in west Dublin city centre, not far from Christchurch Cathedral. Francis Street, in many ways, is a wonderful old street, a rich mix of life and inhabitants, a busy thread which necklaces schools, churches theatres, pubs, antique and music shops, an array of homes and apartments, businesses and industries – in part at least, a text-book perfect model for dense, rich, city centre living. Along this street, behind an ordinary shop window, visually open to and from the street, is the architect’s office, just one of the other neighbours, nothing special, not screaming to be noticed. The office feels like an old Irish kitchen where you could drop in to talk about anything, [or just stare at the neighbours as they pass]. One can hear the noise of children running and giggling around the living rooms upstairs [Wil lives above the office with his family]. One can see through the open door to the green-grey garden out back, further evidence that real life is never far away from this architectural office, traditionally a forum focussed on an abstract and conceptual reading of the real world. All this combines to loosely set the context for this group of architects who are, in a direct and modest way, just getting on with their work, heads down but eyes up, making their strong contribution to the built-world. Their window reminds you that architecture could engage more with the ordinary life of the street, and that maybe staring out the window is, actually, a really good thing to spend your working day doing. What seems radical, [in part, but not only] about this office is that they seem genuinely more preoccupied with watching the world, than whether the world is watching them back.
ES Will and Marcus, when was the practice established? You studied together – was it always an ambition that you would work in practice together also?
MD: There was no conscious plan to work together but we might have shared interests when studying. We were asked by the City Council to collaborate on a feasibility study for renewal of an urban space, Weavers Square, in 1999. I was working on my own, Will was thinking of moving on…
WD: There was definitely a common direction, not explicitly stated, an enquiry into what makes for enduring architecture, an openness about the role of the architect…
MD: We started working together laying a woodblock floor and panelling the walls to make our workspace.
ES: Do you have a “vision” for the practice? Some people are very certain about the work they want to do, and this affects the kind and size of office they have as a result?
WD: No, I don’t think we have a vision. And we are open as to the kind of work we do, though I think we wouldn’t have an interest in developing beyond being a small to medium-sized practice. The key factor being probably an intimate knowledge of every project and a direct relationship with clients in which we can provide a personal service. We like to spend time with our clients and understand their requirements, and ‘camp out’ on the site, get a sense of its grain and experience its particularities.
MD: The practice is not ‘visionary’ but we have ethics about the way we work with people, materials, and places – these values mean that the practice has grown slowly, in a considered if not always, deliberate way. We try to feel our way into situations with all our senses and this puts scope on the type of practice we have.
ES When you began to practice together, was the work a progression from the work you had been doing in the other practices, or was it a case of wanting to move away from that work, to establish and cement your own way of thinking?
WD: Working with O’ Donnell and Tuomey was a formative and engaging experience, it was less a question of moving away (there is a continued working relationship) as an urge for self-definition. To see what would happen if we followed our own noses. We had no clear agenda beyond apursuit of quality and an interest in the making…
MD: We had both worked in the building industry at various times during and since our formal education, the floor laying was perhaps the first cementing of our thinking. I had worked in New York as a carpenter before working with Paul Keogh and then working as a sole practitioner. As we were both residents of The Liberties (10 and 20 years) we shared an interest in the local development of the city and as a practice we have an interest in local ecology.
ES Can you talk more about this interest in the local? Does it affect your work in both urban and rural settings? Do you need to get to know the local in a new or unfamiliar place as part of your work process?
MD: Local is seen by some as a pejorative term. I don’t think I’ve ever actually felt myself to be local anywhere in some senses and thus perhaps am used to the need to get to know a place, by trying to being aware. There is an apprehension about the unfamiliar that can raise awareness, if one looks and listens. By contrast, the very local can be unfamiliar and ultimately unknowable. If we pick up enough to start working with then more is uncovered as the project evolves and all of this locates the work.
WD: Yes, I think we do need to understand the place in order to work in it. There is a strange reality about enduring buildings. Most buildings need to be special for their clients but then they should feel inseparable from their setting, like they are meant to be there, which requires a certain ordinariness. This is the hardest part to achieve. For the building to belong in its setting, whether urban or rural, to find that thread of continuity you need to do a lot of foraging. I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to work without a context, say, if we were asked to design a prototype. If there were to be no context I think you would need to invent one.
This interview originally appeared in A10 in 2006.
All images copyright the architects / photographers.
ES You both teach in University, both in degree years, showing a significant commitment to education– how does this impact on the practice or influence your thinking?
M: Do we teach? Albers maintained that the more that was being taught the less could be learned.. Sometimes, maybe we are catalysts where we can prime students to explore…often moving out into territory that we couldn’t chart. One can help people establish bearings from which to set out their own work. This is a reciprocal process where both parties learn, as with practice there are cycles of discovery and sometimes innovation born of these discoveries. We have both taught construction in University.
W: We don’t teach, I think our main role is to encourage a sense of curiosity, for students to follow their own lines of enquiry in the subject. The remit of the architect being so wide-ranging, the student’s interest may lie in a diversity of spheres and should be allowed to chart an individual direction. There is sometimes an amount of un-learning to be done by the students and by ourselves, to open the mind to possibilities…
ES Your work seems, in essence, “slow” – it feels careful, sifted, essential, rooted in the ground, the landscape, in ritual, in detail, in its craft and in the process of making – could you respond to this?
M:Slow in fact as much as essence!
Still, these are relative terms whereas we work with concrete things on their own terms now. Things set out at their own pace. There are a lot of lousy things being built very fast around us. We don’t retreat from the economic imperatives that drive the demand for instant results, but try to savour the process and raise the result. Ritual makes me a bit uneasy…building should be positive but it violates the ground, I am tentative, thus maybe I’m sifting and waiting in the long grass looking for the right cut, the point at which to make the graft. Lest we be miscast, we can be fast too. Mostly we make spaces in time for people to use them…
W: It is sometimes literally slow, for all sorts of reasons. Whilst we don’t encourage this it can open up new avenues. If the gestation of a project is gradual, whether by design or by default, opportunities sometimes materialise, or insights are gained. Richness can come out of this. So if there are delays hopefully there is a pay-off. We do tend to build projects in our heads several times while drawing and modelling them but are conscious of the dangers of over-elaborating. Quality is always the main drive and for us less is more, in the sense of the desire to do less, but well.
ES By slow, I meant also that the work feels like it is grounding itself in its own terms, be that into the site, into the clients life, one material into another – the composure of the work is palpable, it seems relaxed, not hurried, showy or frantic – these are abstract terms too, but I would suggest they are good qualities for a project to have. Do you think this is born of the process or your inherent interest and constructional sensibilities?
W: I’m not sure you can separate the two…inevitably our particular concerns inform and direct the way we work. What I find interesting is that the seed of a project might derive from one of a range of explorations, something inconspicuous gleaned from a historical map, the way the ditch was made on the boundary, the distant view of a landmark, the way the wall must meet the ground or the rainwater is gathered. Each could have equal value at any stage of the project’s development. It is the non-linearity of the process, like a melting pot into which different ingredients disappear, precipitate or coalesce, sometimes without order. There seems to be a degree to which the process follows its own course before it comes back under our control.
ES Does your interest and knowledge of construction effect how you work, the drawings you make, the way you engage with contractors on site etc. to realise the work?
M:I don’t know that we have a particular knowledge of construction, but we have an approach which takes things back to first principles if needed and doesn’t take construction for granted. We tend to detail by hand as supplement to production drawings…
WD: We are learning to be more open-minded about accommodating the changes that occur during the construction process. However much you try to incorporate facility for change into the design process change always seems to come from unexpected quarters, and is more likely to happen, the more the numbers of agents involved in the construction. What is sure is that the contractor’s personal expertise, skills (and limitations) become a physical, indelible part of the project. We have been fortunate to have worked with contractors who are open to the challenges of non-standard construction and whose workmanship has made a positive contribution.
ES Ireland has changed radically in the last 10 years, with many architectural practices finally having the opportunity to realise a number of projects over a sustained period of time – what have you observed during this time?
WD: That there is some fine work being produced now, but that this is often frustrated by lack of infrastructure to support it or the absence of a shared vision at the level of local authorities and management. This is essential to allow good design to self-perpetuate, to inform what goes on around it or even at a basic level to ensure its own long-term survival. Over the last ten years there have only been a handful of practices making consistently good work. More clients are now beginning to acknowledge the value of good design and are prepared to invest the extra time and perseverance that are usually required to realise these kinds of projects.
M:I see a change where people have the will to pursue work of good quality if offered the option to do so…I think the public has an appetite for more than their professional and regulatory servants dish up to them.
On the wider scene the patrons of the public realm don’t seem to have grasped the potential of the developments taking place around us to reform our world in an assertively positive manner … there is no holistic view of the world offered by those who plan and develop our environment…developers and regulators compare densities and keep digging and piling behind a hoarding of area action plans and schemes to rebrand city quarters, to be noho, etc.
ES Where do you see the architect lying in this process however? Do you think there is a responsibility on the profession to engage politically with the issues that affect them [as other professions do] ? We are aware of the poor planning, misjudgements, rushed plans, focus on the headline rather than the slow release…but do you think architects should confront this?
MD: Architects have disregarded this terrain and joined the orgy of unit building. Much of the profession is happy not to challenge the status quo. It starts with the acknowledgment that there are consequences of building that extend beyond the developer’s private brief. These things are civic responsibilities of the individual architect whether pursued by critical practice or political engagement at a professional level. Too many take an acquiescent self-interested line and the public lose out. It is personal and political.
ES Many of your projects look at the domestic and concern themselves with house and home – in a way, your office feels like a big front room of a house – is this territory you seek out?
MD: At work we sit beneath the old range in Will’s kitchen! Domestic work is a function of having started small and not having many commercial contracts. We have been fortunate to have had committed domestic clients with the vision, resolve and enthusiasm to support our efforts to accommodate their needs. It is demanding working this closely with people but the intimate nature of this type of practice can be revealing and rewarding if focussed on the potential of these projects.
W: The territory sought us out rather than we it. Having said that we feel comfortable in it. Domestic work at best tends to engender a total commitment of clients, though you also have the expectations and emotional highs and lows that come with this… Whilst we are now beginning to work in other sectors such as education we would hold the domestic scale as a constant touchstone, thinking at the scale of habitation, room and furniture…
ES What are you enjoying about working on the non-domestic projects? Can you approach them with the same level of intensity and interest? What happens to the process?
WD: making spaces that are more ambiguous, tailored less to individual whims and more to the collective environment, the opportunity to impact more at the scale of the street, the greater proportion of input by others and the challenge of coordinating this into a coherent whole.
ES You have done a number of projects in rural contexts – I know your personal connection to the landscape is strong – the musicians’ house for example is an extraordinary site, romantic, beautiful, sensitive and challenging as a result. How did you begin this project? How do you act?
MD:We were introduced to this project and the clients by Steve Larkin who came to work in the office and is himself a musician. He had made earlier drawings of the site. We met the clients here. They had cardinal points to which they referred; wind; water; mountain; sun and, in the middle, music. They also had a load of old slates that they had been given as wedding present. We visited the site in the wind and rain, sketched where there was shelter and were taken in for tea and counsel by the original owner of the land. We had a pint in Bunbeg, bought crabs from a trawler, picked mussels at the Gweebarra. and ate them at home with my brother. Going back there later the wind had died and there were larks in the sky over the site.
WD: Then we made a site model and started working on it.