• Monday , 23 September 2019

Cork’s Miesian marvel: Dundanion Court

In 1975, the RIAI announced it was to award the Medal for Housing for the period 1968-1970 to Dundanion Court, to much acclaim and attention. Dundanion was unlike any other private housing development in Ireland at the time.[1] Comprising of thirty-six largely identical homes, built around two courtyards, it was a bold and rare break from the speculative housing norm of the 1960s. Arguably its legacy of functionality, social integration and landscape were ground-breaking then, and are as valid now as when it was conceived over fifty years ago.

The site, situated in the leafy Cork suburb of Blackrock, was once part of the demesne of Dundanion House. The house and lands were the home of the architecturally famed Deane family (i.e. Deane & Woodward, and Sir Thomas Deane) and contained mature gardens and many trees which were incorporated into the Dundanion Court scheme.

Designed in 1964 and completed in 1968, Dundanion was to be quality housing for a new generation of emerging professional and business people who were adopting new technologies and approaches. High-quality hardwood was chosen for internal joinery, cedar and brick was used for external cladding and for internal linings. White Carrara marble slabs were used for kitchen worktops and polished dark Irish limestone mantle shelves were installed. Aluminium horizontal sliding windows were imported from the USA and polished cast aluminium handles were used on doors.[2] The material palette of brickwork, timber, and stone was applied in a simple manner and the design concept represented the combination of an informed set of ideas relating to architecture, materials, and space that the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe pioneered in the United States.

The land for the project was leased for development by Daniel Hegarty (Housing) Ltd. to a design by the architect Neil Hegarty, who worked in the family business.[3] Hegarty became part of a circle of Cork architects, such as Paddy Mac Sweeny and Frank Murphy, whose talents pioneered modern and innovative design standards in Cork. Hegarty began studying architecture in 1956 in the newly established and short lived, School of Architecture based in the Cork School of Art, and after a year at Oxford, England, he qualified in 1962.

While a student, Hegarty visited the Brussels World Fair in 1958 and saw the buildings of Pier Luigi Nervi in Rome while competing with the Irish Olympic sailing team. At Oxford, he was able to watch the construction of St Catherine’s College by Arne Jacobson (now a grade 1 listed building). The year following graduation, Hegarty travelled to the USA. He was given a list of architecture to visit on the east coast by his friend Gerald McCarthy, who was then working with Kevin Roche at Eero Saarinen and Associates. He visited the great American buildings of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn. He spent an afternoon with Philip Johnson in his residence, the ‘Glass House’, at New Canaan Connecticut, and met John M. Johansen, architect of the American embassy in Dublin, in his home close by to Johnson’s.[4]

Dundanion Court was designed in the year following the visit to America. Hegarty was strongly influenced by Mies and Jacobson’s design principles, particularly the Lafayette Park in Detroit, designed by Mies with Ludwig Hilberseimer as the landscape architect. This design success is largely owed to the collaborative approach and integration of the landscape. As at Lafayette, Dundanion’s design employs a rigorous use of space, balancing economies of design, construction, and materials, yet with the added extravagances of solid materials of hardwood and stone.

Another approach that Hegarty identified with was that of Span Developments [UK]. Span built homes in the south of England combining modernism and human scale, building in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Span’s architect, Eric Lyons, was critical about the modern movement’s poor treatment of landscape and, like Hegarty, he had a strong interest in community and engaging people with carefully planted external spaces:

‘the core ingredients are simple, even modest: an invisible boundary between landscape and building design; the provision of attractive shared spaces and architectural design that allows the homeowner to be part of the shared space or be separate from it.’[5]

To ensure the visual connection between buildings and open spaces, Hegarty was determined to solve the problem of how the common parts of Dundanion could be successfully maintained and managed. The resulting sense of community, helped by participation in a residents’ society, and the care of communal spaces, can be considered both an aesthetic and social development in housing, particularly in Ireland at the time.

The interface between public and private space was carefully considered also. The entrance and garden doors are recessed to add detail and rhythm to what could be otherwise stark terraced blocks. The courtyard door recesses provide movement between the courtyards. Even half doors were installed to the garden entrances, evoking an Irish farmhouse. Importantly, the existing trees were maintained and used to deliberately create external space and maturity within the landscape.

Neil Hegarty’s interest in housing and community led him to become the Cork City Architect. When asked about the construction process behind Dundanion Court, Neil noted the large amount of time and workforce that had to go into the installation of the quality finishes in the scheme, as well as the high tolerances required for the installation of windows and internal joinery. On the first floor, the finished cedar ceilings were installed even before the partitions and door frames.[6]

Today a new generation is attracted to Dundanion for the same reasons as Lafayette Park or Span Developments. Largely due to a resurgent interest in modern design, and even ‘retrospective modernism’. Moreover, there is an increasing desire to live in places with identity. Currently, the scheme is home to engineers, architects, designers, and artists that value these as homes rather than the generic housing developments with little regard for social integration with landscape and place.[7]

Fittingly, Dundanion is recognised as part of the Record of Protected Structures (RPS), ensuring its importance and survival.[8] Yet unfortunately, it is increasingly in danger of becoming a specimen or pigeonholed as an anomaly as one of a meagre few mid twentieth-century listed buildings. The stories, ideas, and providence of these projects are equally as significant now and their lessons ever prevailing.

Notes

With thanks to Neil Hegarty and family for assistance with this article.

[1] Spalding, T. (2010) A guide to Cork’s 20th Century architecture, Cork, RIAI Southern Region.

[2] RIAI, Irish architecture awards/Silver housing medal winner. Available at: https://www.irisharchitectureawards.ie/silver-housing-medal/winner/dundanion-court.

[3], [4] & [6] Dundanion Court (2010) History. Available at http://www.dundanioncourt.com.

[5] Simms, B (ed.), (2006) Eric Lyons & Span, London, RIBA Publishing.

[7] Barker, T. (2015) ‘Sixties Architecture at Blackrock’s Dundanion Court’, Irish Examiner, 10 January. Available at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/property/features/sixties-architecture-at-blackrocks-dundanion-court-306322.html.

[8] Cork City Council (2004), Record of Protected Structures. Available at http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/places/registerofprotectedstructures/cork_city_dev_plan_vol21.pdf.

National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (2009), Dundanion Court. Available at http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/niah/search.jsp?type=record&county=CC&regno=20868042.

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