By Michael Hayes
Two recently completed Irish projects reaffirm the value of brick in architecture – the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and Rathmines Leisure Centre. While each have been inspired by unique conditions, the architects’ choice of brick expresses qualities associated with one of the world’s oldest building materials. In a modern context, the semantics of brick speak of a long tradition and humane craft and scale that is backed up by its practical properties of durability and reliability. Architecture Ireland has discused these issues with architects John Tuomey (The Lyric) and John Winslow (Rathmines Square)
The Lyric Theatre is built to match the sloping Belfast brick streetscape. Ibstock’s ‘Heritage Red Blend’ has been chosen to sculpt the three principal volumes housing theatre, studio and rehearsal space. This external brick cladding extends internally, reinforcing the massing of forms through a series of permeable public spaces. Simultaneously providing a functional role, the material itself forms an integral layer in the assembly of a high performance acoustic and thermal mass. For example, within the studio space brick has been chosen to internally clad a 6-metre high warehouse performance space, creating a dynamic, robust and vibrant theatre environment. The possibilities of brick as an individually crafted object are exploited to the full in the Lyric Theatre. Brick specials that have been hand-cast are used throughout the building in response to the carved angles and spatially complex spaces created by the site specific design solution. ‘Terre de Rose Pavers’ manufactured by Wienerberger are used as flooring to define the main areas of public congregation in the foyer and bar spaces, extending the colour, texture and intimate brick character beyond the walls.
For Rathmines Square the context of 19th century brick terraces, Carnegie Town Hall and the Library building made brick seem an obvious and respectful choice. Two brick types are used: Firstly, the predominantly red ‘West Hoathly’ stock brick from Ibstock was used generally, including as a paver to the roof of the swimming pool. Its mottled multicoloured texture finish is sympathetic to the diversity of the local bricks, particularly the traditional ‘Dolphins Barn’ brick, which was often ‘made’ on site. The ‘West Hoathly’ brick, which originates south of London, is formed in a similar labour intensive manor, practically using the same method and machinery today as it did 100 years ago. The second brick is a smooth cream glazed brick by Ibstock. Selected to contrast with the former, it is predominatly used where the building meets the ground, helping to deal with any unwelcome graffiti and recalling the way the Victorians used glazed bricks as decoration around door openings.
Rathmines Square also provides a lesson in approaching this material. While considering emerging technical developments, the architects stress the importance of traditional design methods such as large-scale sample panels and mortar experiments. In practical terms, good brick layers have been appreciated as key, but how many and where they are deployed on the site warranted serious thought, critical for obtaining a consistent appearance. In Rathmines Square the majority of the public elevations were completed by just three or four men.
Article as seen in Architecture Ireland issue 258