The Kevin Kieran Award was established by the Arts Council in partnership with the Office of Public Works to honour the memory and work of architect Kevin Kieran, the first architectural advisor to the Arts Council. The award was established to continue the work that Kieran began in nurturing the work of emerging, practicing architects. It is an award of two parts; the first, a significant bursary from the Arts Council of E50,000, awarded over two years, enables the architect to conduct new, original and critical research in an elective area of contemporary architecture. In 2005 Dominic Stevens received the award and his sensitive and perceptive research, which is both built and theoretical, is being compiled in a book entitled “Rural”, to be published in Spring 2007.
Steven’s lives and works in Leitrim, and, for the most part he works as a sole-practitioner or in collaboration with his partner Mari-Aymone Djeribi. His research interests lie in the reality of the Irish rural condition, in the potential of a “neo-rural” architecture of the Irish countryside. He is sceptical of the nostalgic and romantic idea of rural Ireland, a landscape to be protected at all costs, a place where change, for the visitor at least, must be vehemently opposed[i]. He argues that landscape is, and always has been, man-made. His recent contribution to the 2006 Venice Biennale proposed the widespread inhabitation of the Shannon-Erne River flood plain. This unique landscape could be farmed supporting new homes and life, the infrastructure of shops, cinemas etc., wittily moving from place to place along the River, from settlement to settlement, new life symbiotically reinventing the River as a contemporary conduit of communication[ii]. The buildings of man should “no longer be hosted by the landscape, rather becoming an operative part of the landscape in which it is sited”.[iii]
In 2005 Stevens acted as architect in residence for Roscommon County Council, and ran workshops, lectures and exhibitions, discussing a new vernacular architecture, one comprised of buildings built slowly by their occupants, without mortgages.[iv] For Stevens, the accessibility of architecture depends on its economic accessibility, “it is essential for society, and for the individual householder that architecture is not seen as a luxury item”, he writes, “that design is not a thing priced only for the rich”.[v]
He has long been interested in everyday domestic life and in both the architect’s understanding of this life and the role architecture, as a discipline, could or should play in its design and organisation. In 1999, in his book “Domestic”, he warmly warns, “the ideas in this book are ordinary. They are not for special people with important projects”, and “the things that make a beautiful, lovely house are ordinary”.[vi] The thesis is simple and profound – we all have ordinary lives, we all have this in common. If architecture can allow us to celebrate this ordinary life, so architecture becomes relevant to us all.
In 2006 he completed his “Mimetic House” built for the artists Grace Weir and Joe Walker, and in many ways, it is a clear and tangible example of Stevens’ developing theoretical positions, winning an Architectural Association of Ireland award in 2006. The house sits in the middle of a richly textured, marshy field in Co. Leitrim, just outside the town of Dromahair. The house is unorthodox and challenging in its appearance as one-off-houses in the rural landscape go. In our collective memories, we have an idea of what a house should look like, and our memories inevitably reference traditional and vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture, [particularly its visual appearance], developed over time, out of tradition, out of ordinary social and cultural values relevant to those living and working on the ground. It emerged from a deep understanding of the local environmental conditions and material availability. With our values changing radically, with new traditions, technologies and living patterns emerging, the traditional vernacular aesthetic feels thin and shallow when applied to new buildings, a nostalgic irrelevance to contemporary life. It is a hand-me-down jacket that will never quite fit.
The appearance of this house in fact evolved from the ground up, from the architect’s ambition for a house, once again, to actually become part of the landscape in which it sits by first understanding it and then responding to it, in a contemporary way. It is built as a house of two parts – a concrete, semi-interred series of sleeping, working and washing chambers below ground and a glass clad, open-plan living space on top. The glass room is a pavilion in the round, and must, by this logic, resist the divisive formalities of the sub-urban front and back garden. Instead a loose, informal rock-road brings you to the house and down into the landscape, grasses allowed to grow up to, around and under the house itself. The glass room tilts out and up in varying ways, so the ground but not the sky is reflected. In some lights and locations, the form disappears. The house dissolves and recedes back into the landscape, in a dynamic and delicate way, shifting minute by minute, depending on the light, the rain, the time of day. Season by season too, the landscape itself will change, lush lime meadows becoming bare, copper-gold bark and marsh, adding another vein of richness to the life of this house. You can see right through the house, the landscape uninterrupted by its presence. “The house doesn’t alter the landscape in which it sits, rather, the constantly changing landscape alters the house” [vii], writes Stevens. The house develops a rhythm with the landscape and the climatic environment, and enables the occupants to connect, everyday, with their surroundings in a radical and meaningful way. Furthermore, the site will retain its practical, life-supporting role, providing fuel and food into the future for its occupants.
Curiously, the house looks new and old at the same time, settling itself further into the landscape. It is made of glass yes, and the form is clearly new, but the reflections dematerialise the glass, and as glass does not weather or age, it could reasonably have been on this site for some time already. The lower chambers are clad in larch, rough cut, rough sawn, greying and aging elegantly into the ground. The tilted, planted roof is happily growing a little wild in places. The main entrance to the house is under the glass room, cut down and stepped into the ground, a “ravine”, and the retaining wall to one side there is made of old, recycled car tyres, reinforced with rods and concrete where needed. Architecturally, Stevens’ constructional detailing is direct and honest, exploiting modern materials such as the glass where required, but simplifying and reinventing the method by which the glass is held in place to the timber stud structure that supports it. It is carefully, economically made by the hands of local men and looks it. Within contemporary architecture, too often concerned with an image driven, super-human, systematic perfection, this is both courageous and refreshing.
Stevens appears to enjoy the detailing that emerges from the pragmatic requirements of construction on site; he enjoys what happens on the ground. It is an open-minded process, a way of thinking about building that is accepting of individual spirit, circumstance or suggestion. This open-minded process supports an open-ended architecture, an architecture that is accepting of individual spirit, occupation and inhabitation. The open plan main room is large and potentially flexible, renewable, changeable and useable, over time, as times changes, with key services and utilities grouped in moveable boxes. The ground-based rooms offer privacy and security and individual virtual and physical connections and views to the world when needed, at work or rest. The upper room is an extraordinary venue for the theatre of public and private domestic life. The landscape that permeates, and is filtered through this open house is like an energetic supporting cast member to the drama unfolding, rather than a passively observed two-dimensional backdrop. The house is designed for the dual-life of the occupants, part urban, part rural, a common contemporary scenario. The house though, seems intensely and enthusiastically occupied and full of life, as changing and diverse as the surrounding landscape, but a home supported and stabilised by it. It is a home made for “those instants when this process of dwelling, suddenly coalesces into something more perfect than reality can ever hope to be, a tiny shard of utopia” [viii]. It is also – consistent with Stevens’ own thesis – a house built for the same cost as a typical one-off bungalow.
His current research almost complete, Stevens will soon begin the second stage of the award, a building commission from the Office of Public Works[ix]. This part of the award allows the architect the opportunity to work on the more complex buildings that the Office of Public Works manages on our behalf. As access to such projects can be somewhat elusive at this stage in a career, it is, in Irish architectural practice, an unprecedented and unique opportunity. It seems entirely appropriate that this unique Irish architectural practitioner will soon avail of it.
This review was originally published under the title “A New Rural Order” in the Irish Arts Review, August 2007.
All images courtesy / copyright of photographers and architects.
[i] “Neo Rural Architecture”, Dominic Stevens, Building Material, the journal of the Architectural Association of Ireland, Spring 2005, pp4-7
[ii]FLUIDCITY, Dominic Stevens, Venice Biennale 2006. The Irish Entry to the 2006 Venice Biennale was commissioned by the Irish Architecture Foundation and was curated by FKL Architects. Dominic Stevens Architects was one of 9 architectural practices chosen to represent Ireland at the event.
[iii] “Neo Rural Architecture”, Dominic Stevens, Building Material, the journal of the Architectural Association of Ireland, Spring 2005, pp4-7
[iv] “Life in Ireland”, Stevens + Djeribi, exhibition and installation at the Dock Arts Centre, Carrick-on-Shannon, June 2006.
[v] Extract from Dominic Stevens text submitted as part of the Architectural Association of Ireland awards 2006.
[vi] Domestic, Dominic Stevens, Chapter 10 “The house in an ordinary thing”, Mermaid Turbulence 1999
[vii] Extract from Dominic Stevens text submitted as part of the Architectural Association of Ireland awards 2006.
[viii] “building, dwelling, thinking”, catalogue text installation, part of the utopias project, Eigse Arts festival Carlow June 2006.
[ix] For details of the Kevin Kieran Award refer to www.artscouncil.ie. The next call for applications for the award will be made in late 2008.