Architecture Ireland interviews Shane Cotter of Architectural Farm, a Dublin-based practice who were Highly Commended in the ‘Best Emerging Practice Category’ in the 2014 RIAI Irish Architecture Awards.
AI: Shane, can you tell me how Architectural Farm began?
Shane Cotter: Like most small practices, it became formalised out of necessity. We are a husband and wife team, so it was always something that we wanted to do, but timing forced our hand as we had to find work for ourselves. We started four years ago with small jobs for friends and family, but the practice quickly grew legs and became something else. The name ‘Architectural Farm’ came about from the idea of working as a collective—different people coming together to work on competitions and ideas.
AI: How would you describe the practice in three words?
SC: That’s a terrible question; impossible to answer! One word we would use is optimistic; we start each project with a sense that there’s something there for us. Open would be another word; we are open to other influences; working with the clients. Any project you do is a collaboration. The final one would be ‘committed’; we’re committed to architecture and love what we do.
AI: Can you describe your work method?
SC: We don’t have a dogmatic way of doing projects or a defined process. We take each building and project as it comes but we always look for that element that can lift the functions, diffuse the joy or light into the project. We try to draw through the atmosphere of the existing house. There’s usually something there that we try to hang on to. Our designs usually evolve rather than appear on a page. We work with models, hand sketching; there’s no prescribed way of getting to the end-product.
AI: Site and place takes on an important role in your work, do you think it’s vital for the success of a project?
SC: You just can’t ignore it. It’s the starting point. You don’t have to be slaves to context, but it is part of what we do. We try to draw through the atmosphere of the building through the project. We often work at the rear of houses, which can differ visually from the front; so we try to bring the materiality of the project, the timber panelling or brick of artisan houses, through to the new project. Context is unavoidable.
AI: What were the main design intentions for the extension in Blackpitts?
SC: These were tiny artisan houses and there was a lot privacy issues, a very tight grain. You could feel being overlooked. So initially it was the idea of responding to that—privacy, connecting to the garden, and lighting a tight space. The idea of these solid elements, and light as the cracks between, became an important element of the project. The solid elements were addressing the issue of privacy, and rooting the project in the garden, while the cracks in-between were to get light in. The idea of getting some height into a small space makes it feel so much more generous. There was a small family moving into that house, so we treated the building like one big space working together. We ended up with this very geometric structure, but the difficulty of adding a two-storey extension to a project is trying to break up that scale and not to totally domineer the back of the house.
AI: Do you think the ‘Draw’ programme influences your work?
SC: I think it goes back to what we think as a practice. It was developed with ourselves and Michael Carroll of MC Designs who was fundamental to it. From our point of view, we love sketching and drawing; it really influences our work. In terms of the children, it’s vital to engage with the public. Every second year we go to the Venice Architecture Biennale and notice the children who are brought around being taught about architecture. I think in Ireland there’s a huge lack of that. The IAF are doing great things with programmes such as Spaces for Learning, but it’s an important part of what all architects should be about. So I don’t think it influences our work, but I think it influences our practice. For such little time, you get so much out of it. We can all do a little bit.
AI: What made you enter the Best Emerging Practice Award?
SC: We had work like Blackpitts and the Draw programme, so we felt that there was work there that we were extremely proud of. We entered to see where we would sit with our contemporaries. Being Highly Commended is a huge confidence boost and encourages us to keep pushing our work and testing it, and to do things that are important to our work. It’s nice to get a pat on the back; it means a lot. Where it goes from here is what is important.
AI: What is architectural practice for you?
SC: There’s obvious things like BCAR that are forcing the profession to evolve, but there’s enough discussion about that. The role of architect, and protection of the name in 2007 has made an impact as well. It’s important though to keep engaging with the profession and with the public.
AI: How would you like to see your practice evolve?
SC: We love what we do, finding new life in existing houses, but it would be nice to grow beyond the backs of people’s gardens, to bring things more to the public realm. An interesting question would be how emerging practices can do this by getting to build schools and designing on this level.
AI: So what’s next for your firm?
SC: I think re-engaging with the Draw programme in Dublin would be beneficial. We’d like to push that again. We’re working on some interesting listed buildings at the moment and engaging with the idea of commercial projects; so I think our firm is already evolving. We’re optimistic about where we’re going. These are exciting times is all I’ll say!