Ireland is an island synonymous with landscape. On a par with our reputation for lush greens and rolling hills is a less brandished visual identity. Within our vernacular architecture at least, the tendency of the recent past has been towards a dichotomy between built form and landscape. Pattern books and checklist design regulations have scattered the country with ‘bungalow bliss’ – the result of unquestioned societal aspirations and rhetoric – while delivering a sanitised notion of the formerly rural fabric. Yet concurrent with this tradition, a small number of architects have worked beyond such base ultilitarianism in order to further explore the relationship between architecture and landscape; Dominic Stevens and Robin Walker amongst them.
A student of Mies and Le Corbusier; a modernist, complicated by his classicist tendencies, Walker spent a sizeable part of his working life on writing and designing one-off housing. Perhaps his best-known project in this idiom is Bóthar Buí. Here the purposeful overlap of exterior and interior promote an active engagement, avoiding a deterministic approach to ‘space’. Strikingly timeless, Bóthar Buí was built using local materials and labour; three modern blocks were added to a site where the aged existing cottage and botháns sat. Walker founded a microcosmic cultural space, visited by the likes of Louis Le Brocquy and Seamus Heaney, singular in its specific relation to its context, but aspirational in its formulation and consideration of ‘place’, specifically the Irish landscape
Reflecting Walkers phenomenological interest, specifically in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Stevens points to our nostalgic memory of the countryside as a key component in the consumption of rurality (“What Becomes of Rural Ireland?”, Dominic Stevens, 2004). In Stevens ‘Mimetic House’ in the stark rural surrounds of Dromahair Co. Leitrim, playful details bring a building so atypical that it could almost appear flawed at a passing glance. It mirrors its surrounds through varying angled glass shards around a large multi-functional upper floor, while nestling below the rugged farmland to provide a cavernous, practical concrete mass. This dialectical relationship engages the ‘Mimetic House’ with its context, diffusing a metamorphic glow, changing as its environs do, by the minute, day and season. This similarity with Walkers own home at Bóthar Buí, is perhaps the most pertinent. Here context dictated the design, separating the topology of the site, creating a flowing ground plane, and forming a juxtaposition of intimacy and space, interior and exterior, much as Stevens has done.
Though starkly different in technique, structure and form both projects begin with the same aspiration for appreciating the given landscape. They examine the symbiotic contextual process as opposed to attempting a brash reorganise in order to fulfill a pre-conceived notion of what the Irish vernacular is, not what it could be.
To Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology argued that objects are not just considered in terms of a single aspect of their appearance or value, but for their entire connection with their environment and other matter within; that connection being the object’s influence on its environment’s ever changing state and how it is influenced, in turn, by its surroundings. Bóthar Buí and the Mimetic House, as places rife for inspiration, achieve this through playful tactility with their environs. Here, landscape becomes more than the narrow view from a well-placed window, but a base through which architecture may thrive.