Sandra O’Connell, talks to Orla Murphy and Laurence Lord of the Free Market team, which represents Ireland at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.
This year, Ireland’s national pavilion Free Market will take a red-hot Irish topic to the global architecture showcase that is the Venice Architecture Biennale – the myriad of challenges facing smaller Irish towns. Once the economic and social hubs of rural Ireland, small town marketplaces have undergone fundamental change in recent times, while their function as places of exchange and congregation has diminished. The Free Market team believes that this is a universal development that will resonate with the large international Biennale audience (over 260,000 attended in 2016): “While we are putting the lens over Irish towns, we are also recognising the universality of the theme,” explains Orla Murphy, “the need to preserve towns as distinct urban forms in an era of increasing urbanisation is a big global issue.”
The six architects and designers who are delivering the 2018 Irish Pavilion share a deep interest, knowledge and passion for Irish towns. “It is an issue that has brought us together as a group, although the topic has been bubbling away in all of us for some time,” says Orla Murphy; co-curator Laurence Lord adds: “The call-out from Culture Ireland started a conversation among us and the Free Market project came out of this conversation.” While this is the first time all six are working together as a group, they have collaborated in different formations in the past. Jo Anne Butler and Tara Kennedy were part of the community-based Commonage project, which developed a series of architectural interventions in the County Kilkenny market town of Callan. Miriam Delaney, an architect and lecturer at DIT’s School of Architecture, has carried out extensive research into the historic development and mapping of Irish towns, and also collaborated with Laurence Lord and Jeffrey Bolhuis on the RIAI’s 3Twenty10 research competition in 2010. Laurence Lord and Dutch architect Jeffrey Bolhuis both lecture at the Cork Centre for Architectural Education. Jeffrey Bolhuis also teaches at TU Delft and brings an important international perspective to the team. Architect Orla Murphy, who teaches at UCD, has produced the acclaimed book and animated film Town on the potential of Irish towns. Orla Murphy, Laurence Lord and Jo Anne Butler also all live in rural towns.
How does the team work across their different geographical locations? While they “communicate through the cloud,” they get together at least every couple of weeks for long planning and design sessions. “We all have different roles but it’s a very collaborative process,” says Laurence Lord. “Everyone has input and we all learn a huge amount from each other.” They believe that for small practitioners collaboration is a great way to take on big projects, with Group 91 and their award-winning urban regeneration of Temple Bar being an important precedent. Orla Murphy and Laurence Lord also wish to acknowledge the support of past curators of the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale – including Gary Boyd, Elizabeth Francis, Tessa Giblin and John McLaughlin – who, they say, have all been very generous with information and advice.
Early on in the process, the curators had to agree on the towns that will be part of the Free Market project. They have chosen 10 that demonstrate a range of characteristics of rural market towns, including two border towns that are preparing for the effects of Brexit – Ballyshannon in County Donegal and Castleblayney in County Monaghan. “Market towns are about exchange,” says Orla Murphy, “and exchange is particularly important for border towns.” Other challenges experienced by the selected towns are the donut effect from out-of-town development that can suck the life out of town and the under-use of public space because of the dominance of the car. “However, many of the towns are also extremely resilient and in other ways function very well,” adds Laurence Lord. The curators say the towns were chosen to reflect “the generosity, humanity and possibility in the common spaces of Ireland’s market towns.” This approach resonates deeply with the Freespacetheme, selected by Venice Biennale curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. The Free Market project proposes to reclaim Irish towns as places of interaction and community and suggests ways to re-imagine the shared urban territory of the small town marketplace.
To develop these ideas, the Free Market project is firmly grounded in research and the team has partnered with collaborators from a very broad landscape including local authorities and people who live and work in market towns. “Local Authorities have responded very positively to this project, such as Monaghan, Cork, Laois, Limerick and Mayo County Councils. They can see what we are trying to do and are very open to the discourse,” says Orla Murphy, and adds, “great support has also been received from the RIAI, Cement Manufacturers Ireland, TileStyle and the Heritage Council.” Five Irish schools of architecture – UCD, DIT, CCAE, WIT and QUB – have come on board as key research partners. Together with these academic partners, Free Marketwill launch a fellowship programme for students who will invigilate the Irish Pavilion and learn while in Venice. The schools of architecture are planning trips to the Venice Biennale and the curators are delighted about a forthcoming RIAI Members’ study trip in late October. Orla Murphy, Laurence Lord and theircolleagues see huge potential for the research to continue post Biennale and are planning an Irish tour of Free Market in 2019. This will travel to three of the towns, as well as a research symposium with the RIAI.
This is the first time an Irish Pavilion has focused on ‘towns’ and the Free Market curators argue that towns as distinct urban forms have been underrepresented at the Venice Biennale, where urbanisation is the big theme. So how will visitors to the ancient merchant city of Venice experience Ireland’s market towns? Ireland’s pavilion returns to the same location as the last two (2016 and 2014) – a tall and large space at the end of the Corderie, the former rope-making factory in Venice’s historic shipyards and armouries, the Arsenale. The Free Market team recognises the strong competition from the hundreds of national pavilions and plans to create a “deliberate pause” for visitors as they make their way through the long exhibition galleries. “The end-location of the Irish Pavilion offers a natural pause, but we also want visitors to linger and experience the different pace of the Irish town,” explain Orla Murphy and Laurence Lord.
To create an Irish town experience, the exhibition will focus on a phenomenological approach, including the “sounds, colours, textures and materiality of towns – it will be an immersive experience.” The curators also want to share with visitors “some of the under-represented stories and particularities of towns through storytelling and writing.” According to Orla Murphy, one of the key exhibition pieces will therefore be “a type of newspaper” where stories can be drawn together in celebration of the important role played by local newspapers in Ireland.” Even in the digital global age, “local newspapers are where you find everything out.”
Central to the exhibition will also be “an architectural aspect” that deals with the issues of vacancy and unlocking the potential of Ireland’s towns as great places to live and do business.
The towns chosen are deliberately not towns that have already seen a lot of positive architectural development – such as the award-winning urban regeneration projects of Clonakilty and Westport, who both have municipal architects. “We thought it would be more important to look at the everyday town, that may not be so much part of the public discourse – yet every one of our ten towns is special for unique reasons and has a unique DNA,” says Laurence Lord, adding it is important to understand local voice and place.
The Free Market team wants to unveil the architectural expertise that can transform towns by bringing an interdisciplinary approach to the public realm, explaining that “architects are trained to have the overview and solve problems holistically.” The curators hope that their project will demonstrate how through good design intervention towns can be developed to be the best version of themselves.” “Towns aren’t stuck in one place and time, they are able to develop and architects working with local authorities and the community can help to explore the best way forward for public space in towns,” conclude Orla Murphy and Laurence Lord. free-market.ie
The Free Market Towns are: Athenry, County Galway; Ballinrobe, County Mayo; Ballyshannon, County Donegal; Bunclody, County Wexford; Castleblayney, County Monaghan; Kilmallock, County Limerick; Kilrush, County Clare; Macroom, County Cork; Mountmellick, County Laois;Templemore, County Tipperary.
The Venice Architecture Biennale takes place from 26 May to 25 November, 2018. Ireland’s exhibition at Venice is an initiative of Culture Ireland in partnership with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The RIAI is a supporter of the Irish Pavilion.