Architecture Ireland interviews Robert from ‘Irish Architecture Awards – Best Emerging Practice’ winning firm Robert Bourke Architects.
AI: You started Robert Bourke Architects in 2010, how did it begin?
RB: If we go right back, I graduated from Trinity College with a four year degree in structural engineering, after which I went into Architecture in Bolton Street for two years. I took a year out in Berlin, and then completed my ‘Part 2’in East London University, after which I stayed on, working for a small London practice called Gumuchdjian Architects. After five years in London, I decided to come back to my home city and took an eight-month contract with Seán Harrington Architects, where I worked as site architect on the York Street social housing project. That same year the economic crash happened, much to my shock. I had always intended at some point in my career to set up on my own. I hadn’t really planned to do it so soon but because I had no choice, I decided that this was the time. So the practice began from working out of my bedroom, to eventually moving into a shared office with Ailtireacht, then moved across the road to Strand Studio where I a group of architects, including Steve Larkin, Clancy Moore and Garbhan Doran. It was a great set-up, but the space itself could get very cold—during one winter we all had to move home due to the temperature. Regardless, that whole environment was fantastic for everyone, and certainly myself. So I decided to set up my own version of that, and found our office on North Great George’s Street two years ago, agreed a reasonable rent, and imported the furniture from the old office. That’s how it happened. The practice didn’t develop by plan but grew organically.
AI: Do you think starting your firm during the recession was beneficial?
RB: It was essential. The mood of the recession was one of taking any opportunity you can, and maybe it was also the right climate for working more with ideas. There was the time to spend focusing on producing quality work rather than trying to keep abreast of multiple projects that had to be churned out quickly. In recessionary times you have a lot of time to put into each project. Things like the A Space for Learningproject would never have been possible if we had set up during the boom. It was worth it.
AI: How would you describe your firm in three words?
RB: That’s a difficult one, but I think if I had to choose three they would be: engage, discover, and create.
AI: What made you enter the Emerging Practice Award?
RB: I always liked the idea of the award, and I think it’s a fantastic initiative, but I never felt ready to enter it until this year. I think the sort of work that we’ve made in the last year has started to go beyond the work of a typical start up practice, i.e. house extensions. It’s also thanks to the opportunities offered by the Irish Architecture Foundation, such as the A Space for Learningproject, Place Shapers as well as my previous background in London, working on a school building, that has made me pursue education. It was those smaller, more experimental projects that are now leading to commissions where we can finally put our ideas into practice. That, and winning the Learning Pavilion competition, made me feel that we had a wide enough variety of work to enter the competition. Winning is really an honour. We are still in disbelief but we are very happy and hope that it will stand to us in the future. Ideally, it would lead to larger and more ambitious projects!
AI: How do you think that you can utilize the award to your advantage?
RB: We know from experience that work comes in the most unusual ways, so we will continue to try to get the most out of every project. You make your own luck, and so we don’t have a set plan. We wouldd like to publicize our work more and see where that leads.
AI: So in general, what is your work method?
RB: The investigation side of things is very important and takes various forms depending on the type of project. The more conventional way would be simply to survey a house and talk to the client to see what their needs are, but in the case of something more unusual like an urban design project or a playground or an outdoor classroom, our investigation would be tailored to better suit the people for which we are designing, the brief, and what we would hope to get out of it. It can take various forms, workshops or a simple discussion. We then test it through this iterative process of forward and backward investigation, communicating with the various people involved—the client, planners, and contractors—in this way we try to get the most out of a project.
AI: How do you think that client and community engagement influences your projects?
RB: It is absolutely vital. It enables you to make very informed decisions in the design process. We don’t assume we have all of the answers and by embarking on this process of investigation and engagement things can emerge that you never anticipated. I think in the right hands this can become something much more responsive.
AI: What influences your work?
RB: I think training to be a structural engineer gave me a sense of pragmatism and an appreciation of the economy of design. Then after studying architecture and discovering the great architects—Kahn, Siza, Aalto—I developed an admiration of the contextual material nature of their work. During my two years in University of East London, where Peter Salter was head, there was a great emphasis on experiment and craft, and at the same time, social engagement—going out into the community and devising very weird and wonderful experiments to provoke a reaction and get a response. It was that sense of experiment that I think is now feeding into our own work.
AI: A recent project for you, the Learning Pavilion, will become an outdoor classroom for Skerries Educate Together National School in Skerries. What were the main design intentions behind this?
RB: This was an open competition. It was a blank site, a rectangular field at the back of a standard school building. Our initial idea was to provide a contrast to the regularity and blandness of a typical Irish school, and to create a wild and organic, found landscape. We were conscious of spending all of the budget on a single extravagant pavilion and instead wanted to make a relatively modest structure to keep the wind and rain off the heads of students in order to use the rest of the money to create this landscape of hills, paths and an amphitheater. It was about a master plan rather than a single sculptural object. Flexibility was important, a simple open rectangular space that can be used in all sorts of ways by its users.
AI: So what role do you think architecture plays in education?
RB: I think that the quality of our built environment affects us profoundly. Architecture is critical in education. It can’t be underestimated.
AI: Currently you’re a tutor in UCD. Do you think that teaching influences your work?
RB: It’s a wonderful way to engage and discover architecture with a large, talented group of students. This was my first year of tutoring, and so I almost had to discover how to teach. It’s very liberating because you’re engaging with students who really know their stuff and who are very capable. It’s very stimulating.
AI: What is architectural practice for you?
RB: It’s a very individual thing, but for us it is about engagement and discovery. We love to build, to make things, as well as work on theoretical projects. The role of the architect is definitely evolving. It is a very old profession but the core skills that we have are still very unique to architects. I think they have many applications and are being used more and more cleverly these days. The architect has potential to not only provide a design service but also to see the potential in things. In that way we create new opportunities for projects, and not have to wait for clients to come to us. There’s no reason why architects can’t be more entrepreneurial.
AI: What’s next?
RB: Keep doing what we have been doing over the last few years, continue to make the most of every opportunity and try not to compromise.