John, can you tell me how your practice began in 2010?
I had been working in urban regeneration since I had returned to Ireland in 2004 but at heart I am an architect so I wanted to go back to the practice of making architecture. I had already been teaching for several years but wanted to make time to do more, so in 2010 I took the plunge into practice and teaching.
Do you think starting your firm during the recession was beneficial?
Yes – it was a real opportunity to think about what to do and to define the parameters of the practice without too much external pressure. After the intensity of the tiger years the slowdown was a good time to pause and rethink. I got a lot of inspiration from my teaching colleagues. I was also able to make time to write about architecture which is something that I had wanted to do for a long time.
How would you describe your practice in three words?
Research – design – reflect.
What made you enter the Emerging Practice Award?
A number of talented people have joined the practice since we started, and they contribute hugely to the conversation around the work. We saw the award as an opportunity to articulate our approach and to set out a position for a practice founded on strong conceptual design. In preparing our entry we discussed and defined our shared understanding of what we do, so in a way it became a way of reflecting on our work.
How do you think that you can utilise the award to your advantage?
We saw that the main potential was in the award itself, which recognises an ideas-based approach to architecture. We are interested in architecture as a creative practice – as a vehicle for ideas in the world. The opportunity that it gives us now is to articulate the importance of this approach and to carry that forward into the next phase of our development.
So in general, what is your work method?
We think about architecture in a wide context of social and material relations. We begin with an open-ended research process that allows us to find the conceptual points where we can engage with the project. Then we design our way into it – in dialogue with the client. It is a process of questioning, and we often explore several alternatives simultaneously. We usually have several versions of the same project pinned to the wall at any time. We test these against our initial position to select the clearest solution. Afterwards we reflect critically on the work, so that the lessons feed back into subsequent projects.
What influences your work?
We are generally interested in the questions that were asked a century ago about how architecture can help people to live in the present time without compromising the past or the future. The modern architects and designers who addressed these issues are a huge inspiration. We particularly admire the Irish pioneers like Eileen Grey and Patrick Scott.
The title of your project that earned you your recent award was Theory in Practice. Having curated exhibitions, contributed and edited publications, and engaged in third-level teaching, how do strike the balance between academia and practice?
Theory and practice nurture each other and it is difficult to imagine doing either one in isolation. This is why we called it Theory in Practice – we wanted to emphasise the importance of concepts in design itself. Since the origins of the profession, architects have written books, curated exhibitions, and designed buildings – it is only recently that society began to consider these as distinct activities. We are very fortunate that in Cork Centre for Architectural Education (CCAE) where we teach, architectural practices are engaged to deliver units in the final year. Our group is titled Performance and we have been exploring adaptable housing and urban resilence in Cork City for a few years. This research work in turn feeds into the design work of our practice, for example, our entry for the RIAI/DoE&S Primary School competition in 2014 was an exploration of the same principles of adaptability through an educational building.
So what role do you think architecture plays in education?
The practice of architecture is fundamental to the education of architects. Other areas obviously contribute – and in my own education I particularly enjoyed the structures lectures by Professor de Courcy, and the theory course taught by Dr. John Olley, however I needed to be taught by practicing architects how to translate these ideas into buildings.
The award process has given us an opportunity to think about where we want to go in our practice, and it coincides with some new commissions. We are designing exhibition spaces for NUI Galway and the new Irish Design Centre in Dublin, and we have been commissioned to design some houses for private clients. We want to extend the ideas that we have explored in our first projects – to explore and consolidate their language and expression.
John McLaughlin Architects are – Irene Brophy, Fiona Harte, Tara Kennedy, John McLaughlin and Tomás Prenderville. Gary A. Boyd collaborated with John as co-curator/designer of the Pavilion of Ireland at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014. Both Gary and John have co-edited the recent book, Infrastructure and the Architectures of Modernity in Ireland 1916-2016, published globally by Ashgate.