You may have read or heard somewhere that Ireland is in a recession. For architecture this is indeed serious, as the production of architecture – at least in its built form – depends on client commissions, and the existence of commissions vitally depends on the availability of client money. So the picture appears bleak, with talk of several further years of the country enduring a new kind of poverty, a built one, with an almost total stagnation of publicly commissioned buildings. Specific to boom-time Ireland however, architecture became horribly bound to construction, a haggard industry now tarnished with greed and scandal and national dissapointment. Architecture is in danger of being marginalised again, it is seen not just as a luxury we might do without in times of austerity, but as something we must dispose of, linked as it is to the socially and economically destructive construction industry. Here we go again. Same old, same old, you might say.
Yet in the middle of nowhere, where a lot of people live in Ireland, under a wet-grey sky near the south east corner of Ireland sits this house by Steve Larkin in Bog West, an in-situ cast concrete and lime-plaster home, fimly anchored in the middle of an ordinary field on existing stone yellow and brown stone walls. This is a house loved into existence by private heroes, our national ambassadors for, and sponsors of, contemporary architecture.
Moving through a deep, thick threshold, a result of the stone walls, structural walls and a further depth for built-in storage, the ground floor entrance space which works in plan like a corridor is stretched in its horizontal and vertical dimension and being brightly lit from above it feels like a grand, social entrance hall. It is lined in scented douglas fir veneer panels on one side and grey painted storage on the other. Behind the fir lining are bedrooms, two of which have shutters which open these rooms up to the sky light, allowing occupants to playfully communicate with the hallway, ideal one imagines for a child’s imagination. This lining is also thick, tricking you into feeling the bedrooms are deep within the house, so although on the ground floor looking to the access road they feel protected and private. A step up onto a window ledge to get out of the bedrooms onto individual patios also make the rooms feel secluded. Each patio leads to a garden space, to be planted as an orchard, surrounded by those yellow stone walls.
Upstairs the house is one room and many rooms, intimate yet expansive as huge timber windows frame views to the local and distant landscapes. All living is upstairs and here the house pivots around a fireplace and two rooflights or occuli which are at the pinnacle of a steeply sloping white boarded ceiling.
The work of Steve Larkin is, much like this concrete house on those stone walls, anchored in a long tradition of Irish architecture, an ambition for all building to resonate with site, place and people, a deep interest in material and craft and assembly. However, there is emerging and certainly in the work of Larkin, a desire perhaps to thoroughly abstract and compose the elements of domestic life but not at the expense of actually allowing life to happen. This house is better and more complex in real life than in photographs and appears to be thriving on the real-life diet being fed to it by its hero-occupants. This house is enthusiastically occupied with wet clothes, books, guitars and drum kits, but the built-architecture supports and welcomes this in a mature, confident and hopeful way. This is the radical position that Irish architecture now seems to occupy, being at is best, when it might be considered to be, by some at least, at its messy, aesthetically compromised worst.