Thursday, 28 March, saw architects and educators Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey deliver – to a full lecture theatre – a talk about their work both in practice and academia, exploring their beginnings, their comprehensive portfolio, and the decorated path that has brought them to where they are now. This event was followed by a one-day workshop with final year Masters students the next day, entitled ‘No Ideas but in Things’.
The lecture, divided into five parts, was an impressive testimony to the breadth of their work, from their larger university, civic, and cultural facilities to the smaller, subtler, but no less rich and dense residential projects that over the years have assumed a central position in the DNA of Irish architecture.
However, is was when discussion floated briefly over their installation at last year’s Venice Biennale, Folding Landscape, that students could gauge the tone for the workshop that was to follow the next day. A modest structure assimilating scaled elements from two projects – their competition entry for the Shanghai Opera House and their ongoing artist’s residence in Connemara – it was, in a way, a document of the common core threads that weave through and tie together certain values of their work. Unique and unsuspecting as the piece was, it was when the lecture turned to this seemingly simple addition that the pair offered perhaps their clearest expression of the fundamentals that underpin their studio. In speaking about the steps through the centre of the installation to peer through a window in the Arsenale, overlooking the water of the Rio della Tana – and noting the frequency with which people engaged with the steps – John stated that ‘people do exactly as you invite them to do’.
While this may not be a position that can be enjoyed frequently by everybody practising in the profession, it is this notion of offering an invitation to experience – be it through a physical space or a method of learning – that has been a staple in the way John and Sheila have conducted both their architectural and academic approaches.
And so, this is how the workshop could be considered: an invitation. Not just a call to continue with our individual projects, but an invitation to draw, create, and think with the well-considered simplicity that is a benchmark of their own work.
The two architects instructed students to select moments or spaces in the development of their projects to study more acutely and represent in a single drawing. At a point in the semester when one could risk falling into an automated rhythm of seeing through the scales from site strategy to details, this workshop encouraged us to stall for a time and critique the craft of material and context, through a particular lens.
During the morning, through a means we saw fit – be it a plan, section, perspective or axonometric, and using any material of our choosing – we were asked to rework specific moments within our projects in such a way that the rooms, views or thresholds we elected to re-examine would contain the central tenets of each respective design.
The afternoon, then, involved students considering their designs at a larger scale, interrogating specific relation with surroundings, and, again, drawing the project in such a way that the particular essence of the proposal was illustrated in a single depiction.
Far from being a matter of focusing on solitary moments, these were studies in a representation’s applicative potential. Sketching and drawing with precise abstraction, we were rethinking, re-imagining and re-configuring ideas that could be inducted within the core of our projects, not only in terms of material and physical quality, but in overall theme and intent.
This was an opportunity to re-energize projects via subtle re-considerations. The suggestions given by both Sheila and John during one-on-one discussions – whether angling a window one way instead of another, querying which way a door should open, questioning the placement of a seat in a room – were offered with the typical profound simplicity for which they have been known to work and teach throughout their careers.
Greatly appreciated by all who partook, John and Sheila’s workshop was well timed and deftly managed, taught with a guidance that was slight and subtle yet significant and consequential, giving each project a second wind to progress into the next stage of the semester.