In May 2019, Professors John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell, of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects, will retire from teaching at University College Dublin. This, after forty years of continuous engagement with the staff, student, and studio culture of the School of Architecture Planning and Environmental Policy.
On March 28th last, they were invited to give a public lecture on their practice and teaching as part of the UCD Masters of Architecture Lecture and Masterclass Series. John and Sheila elected that this event would serve as their farewell lecture to UCD. In front of a packed room of students, colleagues, alumni, friends, and those curious about architecture, John and Sheila discussed forty years of work, practice, and teaching. What follows is the introduction made by Emmett Scanlon, curator of the lecture series and Assistant Professor at UCD.
This is the second of three lectures in our Masterclass series and it is indeed a special one.
If this were some court of law and I stood accused of inventing a lecture series, simply to have an excuse to hold our speakers, O’Donnell + Tuomey captive in a room so that I could stand in it and say things about them, I would indeed have to plead guilty. For this is – partly – what is going on here.
When making this trio of lectures, which aim to elaborate upon the relationship between the practice and teaching of architecture, it seemed that O’Donnell + Tuomey, would not only have to be part of it, but they would have to be in the thick of it – not the first or the last of three speakers, but right in the middle. For they have individually, and more recently as a duo, been at the heart of our school and at the centre of architectural gravity here in this University College Dublin for forty years.
And this year, many of you may already know, marks the last year that O’Donnell + Tuomey will, on a weekly basis, show up and share, and turn up and teach, in Richview.
And, what are the rooms we draw, we discuss with students, we imagine and finally we get to build, even for if not to stand in them from time to time and say things out loud about those – and more importantly to those – who both made, and have often been, the difference?
In fact, this is one of many things I have learned from O’Donnell + Tuomey and in an effort to communicate something about who they are as teachers, colleagues, and as architects, I give you not one, but five things these architects have taught me.
1: Leave a little room
In 2011, when teaching, I casually mentioned to Sheila I was getting married. She was far more excited about this than I was at that time. I was tired. It was Friday afternoon.
She though, organised a drink to celebrate, took us to town, painted a watercolour of a tree, handed it over in a crisp brown paper bag.
She was the first person to talk to me about the act of standing in a room and declaring a commitment to another human that I ever recall.
She told me her story – which is John’s too of course – and with words she painted a picture of romance and ritual and rooms; always, always that room.
O’Donnell + Tuomey seem to respect the room. Rather radically it seems to me anyway, in 2019, they also appear to consider it more than enough to begin and end their architecture with rooms, to form entire buildings from them.
They do not, also, seem to buy that line that architecture is some background to our lives or some neutral, passive framework against which we project our living. Their architecture is confidently and resolutely part of the action, their rooms stages for our everyday dramas yes, but when required, every bit of those rooms is encouraged to play its part in the human activities that are going on within and between them.
You need look no further than the wonky, happy handrails in their Lyric Theatre in Belfast that implore you to giddily, skippily climb to the show on top, or how in that housing on Cork Street they made people their own, individual, unique kitchens; these architects conducting their orchestra of the ordinary to the point where washing up is acknowledged as part of the rhythm of family and social life, while noting that no two people do the dishes humming the same tune.
2. Everything counts in large amounts
In 1997, I was a student and we were about to go and do an entire thesis year in Cork. John was teaching with Shelley McNamara. John pointed to my shoe during his introduction and he said the plan of Cork was like my sole, a city of islands, a river divided.
I recall even then the ambiguity of the word sole, both the surface of my shoe, but also the more spiritual connotation, as if he just knew by looking at me I was from Cork or as if he actually believed a city plan could contain and reveal some of life’s mysteries.
Their work, you see, is a work of continuity. They join dots, they look back at precedent or buildings that have come before, yes to look forward and to project, but somehow also a little left and right – a bit sideways.
Their buildings, although often setting new standards, or becoming new precedents in themselves, like that brilliant brick bravura in the LSE in London, read like they are just happy to be part of some endless architectural relay, with no real finish, just another lap to be run ahead, another brick baton to be passed, hand to hand, across the slow time of architecture.
When talking with students they read around and into the drawings and models or thoughts on the wall and table as they encourage students to seek a projects biography, as if each project, each building has some story to tell.
It is not some imported, out of context, narrative they seek, which may please the crowd but tends to thwart real ideas with sensation and with dogma – but stories, stories that are open, open and of people, people with possibility, and in every case, the plot twist in an O’Donnell + Tuomey design studio, is that each and every one thing is revealed as an echo of, or companion to, almost every other thing besides.
The first time I ever heard that optimism was an essential requirement of being an architect was when John said it in the Red Room. He pointed at the wall then he looked us in the eye then he pointed at the wall.
4. (Just like) starting over
Sometimes, to change and to make things actually happen you just have to start. Start before you plan too much or talk yourself, or allow others talk you, out of doing anything at all.
5. Forever, more
A culture of anything is a delicate and fragile thing, not least a culture of architecture. Culture emerges from within and then depends on a people. A culture needs people to tend to it, to contribute to it, to advocate for it, to represent it, to believe in it, to adopt it, to desire it, and to annoy it or it will fade away.
If perhaps, in this list of five things, the titles of which are all songs, we wish to acknowledge O’Donnell + Tuomey’s greatest hit, I am happy to argue that it is their sustained and relentless contribution to the culture of architecture in Ireland that is the track we will play over and over for generations to come.
We know their personal and professional success. They are the most awarded architectural practice in Irish history. They have won the RIBA Gold Medal. Sheila was just named architect of the year in London in the Women in Architecture Awards – we could go on here, and, you really couldn’t make it up.
These things, while obviously important – not least to keep the architects themselves going – are not necessarily what builds a culture though.
I think what builds a culture, at least in reference to O’Donnell + Tuomey, is their consistency and focus and the secure sense that each time they act, or turn up, or talk, or write, or make a book – their hearts, and heads and hands are in it. You never doubt it. You never doubt them.
What helps make a culture is their commitment to the infrastructure of culture, where, it seems to me, they are unique in that they have sought out and brought in great architecture to buildings for cinema, for theatre, for visual art, for photography, for dance, for opera.
As they do this, as they make spaces for culture with their architecture, what they are also doing is placing architecture and architects directly within the wider community of arts and artists in Ireland and the consequences of this, as a kind of slow release dawning of the cultural importance of architecture to Ireland, should not be underestimated and must be rightfully attributed.
What sustains a culture is O’Donnell + Tuomey’s capacity and initiative to not just get commissions and make buildings – tough work if you can get it – but the collateral that emerges from these processes: the exhibitions, the books, the films, the drawings, the exquisite photographs of their buildings in use. They always seem to have something else to share, more than is perhaps typically required, but never more than is actually needed.
What sustains a culture is loyalty and commitment to not just an institution but to the people in it. Here, I completely mean that we, in UCD, have been lucky to have O’Donnell + Tuomey among us for so many years in active service, leading, sustaining – sometimes annoying – but always debating the culture of our school, of learning, of education.
I cannot speak for the University but I can perhaps speak for our school when I say that on the ground, where it may matter most after all, among thousands of students and staff the impact factor of O’Donnell + Tuomey may be impossible to accurately measure.
Last November, I walked at 6am down an empty Corderie in Venice, a room John and Sheila know well. I did so, alone, to say goodbye to an exhibition, but more in a way to remember and thank, through touching each exhibit in turn, a community of practice and a network of relationships with people that built up, across place, for and through architecture.
The first human voices I heard that day echoing down the aisle, happened to be that of John and Sheila, projected up on those massive screens, telling an unlikely story of their exhibition, building connections between Venice and Galway and China.
I sat on the lagoon-green bench. I thought about this day, knowing it was soon. They are not really going anywhere I said to that screen. They are forever there, forever here, forever more.
Architecture has seen to that.
The UCD Master of Architecture Lecture Series, established in 2019 by Emmett Scanlon, is a free series of events and all are welcome to attend the lectures whether directly involved in architecture, education or not.
A key aim of the lecture series is to share the work and practice of architects and students in education with a broader audience. UCD Architecture is therefore pleased to offer a series of public talks to which all are welcome to discuss, consider and debate ideas in architecture, ideas which inevitably impact and enrich our individual and collective daily lives.
The UCD Master of Architecture Masterclass Series is supported by Dublin Port Company as part of the Dublin Port Perspectives Program. The lecture series is presented in association with the Architectural Association of Ireland.