There is a moment, when the scale of any natural landscape becomes too immense for the individual to feel anything but overwhelmed and undermined. Yet at this moment, we can achieve an extreme sense of self, a moment of acceptance of the fragility of the body, and the endurance of mind and memory. Architecture can be a device to better negotiate this territory, it can facilitate a better intellectual and emotional understanding of the relationship of an individual plot to the greater ground. In these hermitages, architects BatesMaher have carfeully begun to explore the idea of architecture as negotiator, building as broker, solitary space as a kind of collective condenser.
Situated in a valley between the grey-green Comeragh Mountains and the bleak-black Slievenamon, in County Tipperary, the retreat centre of Glencomeragh House openend to the public as a house of retreat and prayer in 1990. The land around here is lush, rich farming land, the fields richly textured in endless shades of gold, emerald, amber and brown. Three of the four hermitages, have sunk their sand-blasted, concrete feet into the Mountain, the retreat lands being bounded by a small river to the South, [where the fourth hermitage lies], mature woodland to the West, and the long view to the valley and black mountain to the East. Usually, the three hermitages are approached from below, linked together by a stepped and raked circular concrete path. They hang out together,over a wild flower meadow, newly sown, each building casually hugging its own collection of mature birch trees. The form of each kicks its way around the cluster, using it as a vertical anchor and a natural shelter for entrance and terrace. As you approach, each building is the same sublte, golden hue and folded form, yet each made distinct by claiming a private view of the valley. The front door is very broad, and as thick as the external wall, and heavy too, passage from inside to outside considered significant and worth taking time over. The arc traced by the door is made visible by sweeping the sandblasted concrete path into and out of the hermitage.
Comeragh Mountains, Tipperary.
Tom Maher, Kevin Bates – architects
Ros Kavanagh – photography
2005 – occupation
This review was originally published in A10 in 2005.
The external face of the door is clad in the same alternating smooth larch and rough douglas fir as the entire hermitage, and when you push the door open, it dissolves as an independent element, because it literally feels like you are folding the façade, inviting the entire valley to rush in, to speak with the interior of the hermitage. It is an extraordinary, moving moment. The door opens, the first view of the so-called ‘sacred-space’remains hidden; it is a wedge shaped cut, three sides of which are glazed into the interior of the hermitage. This space offers another individualised reading of the landcape, as by its nature, the glass refracts and reflects images of the valley, capturing moments of it, allowing fixed and careful study of the particular. Its limestone floor, hauled out of the ground, will, it is hoped, be slowly populated by seedlings from the flower meadow, and one can imagine the simple pleasure that might be had watching this process unfold, welcome visitors in this reclaimed ground. From the concrete sandblasted floor, you step onto white timber boards, and the main space folds out, wide and back to the valley outside.
From the large eye-window, you view the other hermitages, active in their contemplation of the land, and you can safely digest the immense scale of the place. By now, a sophisticated transition has occurred, with door, yard-cut, and occular window, subtly prompting the individual to disconnect from, and reconnect to, the external, communal world. The character of the interior though is somewhat unexpected. Concevied as a direct contrast to the rough exterior, the shiny, white, plaster interior – though accomplished in its detail – fails to assert itself to the point where it demands a kind of monastic, frugal, minimalist occupation. Neither do the materials employed, in themselves, provide the tactile, emotional or psychological intensity one might expect in an interior purpose built for introspective thought. The space is built for comfort – a distinct client requirement – and it is even permitted to withdraw fully from the prayer community activities should you wish. Fully equipped with internet and tv access, could it be that, even at a basic level, the principle of “getting away from it all”, could mean the individual getting away from ‘them’ all? Neverthless, the way in which the landscape is filtered in and out of these rooms, ensures that the connection the individual makes to the place – and to oneself – endures.