2001 – O’Donnell + Tuomey: Letterfrack Furniture College, County Galway





Text © Shane O’Toole. Drawings © O’Donnell + Tuomey. Photos of Letterfrack © Dennis Gilbert | VIEW Pictures. Model photos © Gerry Hayden. A composite version of pieces that first appeared in The Sunday Times, April 1, 2001, as “Exorcise regime”; in Irish Architect 169, July/August 2001, as “Connemara Interrota”; and in Irish Arts Review, Autumn 2002, as “Redemption in Letterfrack”.

Some buildings have savage histories. Histories that can leave a place – the bare walls having absorbed too much sadness and absorbed it all – in need of a kind of architectural exorcism, a project of redemption.

For almost a century, troubled boys were brutally chastened and subdued in the former Industrial School at Letterfrack, County Galway, until in the words of the poet Richard Murphy:

Podded in varnished pews, stunted in beds
Of cruciform iron, they bruise with sad, hurt shame:
Orphans with felons, bastards at loggerheads
With waifs, branded for life by a bad name

These days, the tragic atmosphere that pervaded the buildings of St Joseph’s reformatory for so many years is being gradually dispelled. The buildings belong to Connemara West, a community-owned and managed rural development company that was established in 1971. The complex is home to Letterfrack Furniture College, which is part of the Galway Mayo Instutute of Technology; to furniture technology, conservation and restoration facilities; and to a range of community services, including Connemara Community Radio which broadcasts for 10 hours each day.

Letterfrack was a poor, neglected area until James and Mary Ellis, a Quaker couple, settled there in 1849. James Ellis had retired from a successful worsted manufacturing business in Bradford, in northern England, at the age of 56. His concern for the distress caused by the famine in Ireland – highlighted by Quaker famine reports from Connemara in 1847 – led him to purchase the lease on an estate of almost 1,000 acres, mostly bogs and mountains, in remote Letterfrack.

Although there were few Quakers in Connacht at the time – the nearest Quaker meeting was in Moate, County Westmeath – his intention was to become a resident landlord, to provide work and to try to alleviate the appalling conditions.

Employing 80 men, he drained the bogland, planted thousands of trees and constructed walls, gardens and roads. The country crossroads with a few houses was soon a village with a shop, a two-storey school and meeting house, a dispensary and a temperance hotel, along with cottages built of stone and slate roofs for his employees.

It is tempting to speculate on what other remarkable things might have happened had the Ellises remained in Letterfrack for longer than eight years or if their work had been continued by others of their persuasion. But when James Ellis’s health failed in 1857, he sold out to John Hall, a supporter of the proselytising Irish Church Mission Society, and moved back to Yorkshire with, as Mary Ellis wrote, a “feeling of the much we have left undone, and the darkness which exists there, where nature looks so fair.”

In 1882 Hall’s estate was purchased by the Archbishop of Tuam, who asked the Christian Brothers to establish an industrial school there. Designed by William Hague to accommodate more than 100 boys, St Joseph’s opened in 1887. Forming three sides of a square measuring 50m each way, the building was made up of three dormitories, a band room, five classrooms, a kitchen, a refectory, a washroom and a laundry. The former Ellis home became the Monastery. A row of cottages served as workshops. In later years a recreation hall was added.

Orphans, beggars, the homeless and truants were sent to St Joseph’s, as were children found guilty of minor offences. Few remained past their 16th birthday. Along with normal school subjects, boys were given grounding in tailoring, carpentry, shoemaking, knitting, poultry care and mattress weaving. The trades of wheelwright and blacksmith were taught. The boys worked the farm that provided most of the school’s food and fuel.

After the institution closed in 1974, the mountain areas of Letterfrack became part of Connemara national park, in the Twelve Bens, and the community board bought the imposing but dismal school buildings. “There had been no intervention on the site for 100 years,” says Kieran O’Donohue, director of Connemara West. “We had to find some way of owning it that would protect it for the future.”

They invited several architects to consider what the complex might hope to become, rather than what it then was, before appointing O’Donnell + Tuomey in 1994 because, says O’Donohue, they were “very good at articulating the historical sense of the site’s development and what should happen in that landscape now – what our contribution should be.”

In a recent essay called Reading the Site, published in the Architectural Association of Ireland’s journal Building Material, John Tuomey identified the creative value of “the careful gaze” in coming to grips with the interpretation of the phenomena of place. “We begin by thinking like archaeologists might do,” he wrote, “metaphorically prodding the ground, searching for traces of what made it the way it is and sifting to unearth clues to inspire its further transformation. Our ambition is to build something completely new that feels like it was already there before we started, as if we had discovered the scheme rather than designed it.”

One of the options was to demolish the bleak building. However, at a series of public meetings the community decided that it should be kept. It was felt important to retain aspects of each different layer of the site’s history. Nonetheless, the first move was to strip the school of some of its forbidding formality. The path leading straight as an arrow from village to front door is gone, replaced by a softer, more circuitous approach. Later, the entrance porch will be demolished and the front door moved to one of the gable-fronted ends.

“We want to let some air through the building,” says John Tuomey. “Memories linger in staircases and corridors. So our plan is to take them all out, together with the internal partitions.” The old school will be reduced to a structural shell and opened up to its surroundings. Window cills will be lowered to let people look out. The grim exercise yard, echoing with neglect, will become an academic garden, overlooked by the library and cafeteria.

This metamorphosis will be central to the next phase of the works at Connemara West, due for completion in 2005, by when student numbers will have increased from 100 to 240. The work of the past two years has been mostly new-build. But already the old school is not so dominant. Drawn into the greater whole and having an altered relationship with the village, it is beginning to acquire a kind of anonymity in a dramatic landscape dominated by Diamond Hill, the westernmost of the Twelve Bens.

Nature seems big in Letterfrack, and so is the spirit behind this complex. The community is starting over. Standing in the courtyard, there are faint echoes of another west in the barns that form the new entrance courtyard – the American frontier towns of the pioneers, contemporaries of the Ellises. High Noon. Mad Max meets the Missions. O’Donnell + Tuomey’s buildings always possess character.

The workshops are pulled forward of the school and bent, like wind-sculpted Connemara trees. They “lean away from the wind and towards the complex,” says Tuomey. “They lean north to let the light in. The structural timber frames make the furniture workshops feel like places where joinery details should matter.”

The architects say they had to beat the system at every turn. Before they teamed up with the celebrated conservation engineer, Chris Southgate, several engineering firms declined to get involved with designing the timber superstructure of the machine hall and workshops. Then they discovered that builders would not travel that far.

It was a big day in the village when the skeletal timber structure was erected.

The workshops and the machine hall beyond them are among the most interesting sheds around, harking back to Germany in the early 1920s, to Hugo Häring’s Gut Gerkau farm buildings near Lübeck and to Erich Mendelsohn’s Steinberg Herrmann hat factory at Luckenwalde. That was a time of new building types, before the clarification of modern movement orthodoxy – a time when the search for an identifiable mode of expression in modern architecture was linked to a curious overlaying of symbolism.

Rising out of the black bog below and resting on a ground beam against the hard shoulder of better land, the giant concrete piers of the workshops and machine hall appear as the willing haunches of powerful beasts of burden. Yet the heavily articulated joints in the concrete legs lend a mechanistic edge to this reading. And the free-standing concrete chimney possesses a cold heart.

O’Donnell + Tuomey has operated in this territory many times before. Tuomey calls it “the emotional charging of space, the question of character in architecture”. It is central to their work. Ten years ago, in an interview about their Irish Pavilion – originally built for an exhibition in The Netherlands and subsequently re-erected in the courtyard of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, to mark the opening of the Irish Museum of Modern Art – they described setting out to provoke an emotional response with their work: “We work with associations, seeking something that might be evocative. So you are in a territory that is open to interpretation.”

Many connections can be made between Letterfrack and the Irish Pavilion, which was built to heighten the experience of viewing Brian Maguire’s prison paintings. That was an uneasy, disquieting, psychological space, one with a troubling emotional quality. Here, the concrete, “charnel-house” chimney, rising out of the black bog below, may act as a kind of emotional lightning conductor.

The timber structure, the cross-braced frame containing a stairs, the red-oxide steel, the tin shed in the landscape – all these motifs first emerged in the Irish pavilion (1990-91). Gradually, this language was developed and added to at Blackwood Golf Centre (1992-94) in Clandeboye, County Down, where, in addition, small, metal-clad boxes appeared to burst out through the walls of the building. The big roofs, bent as if by Atlantic gales, are a faint echo of Tuomey’s laboratory at Abbotstown (1981-85) in County Dublin, designed while he was at the Office of Public Works. From the unbuilt University College Cork satellite campus (1995-99), on the site of a Magdalen laundry, come the courtyard with its diagonal disruption and, of course, the chimney.

There are echoes, too – in the giant concrete piers of the timber workshops and machine hall – of James Stirling’s pilotis legs for Queen’s College, Oxford, a project “quoted” by Tuomey in his degree thesis a quarter of a century ago, before both he and Sheila O’Donnell went to London to work for Big Jim. The bench-room roof recalls Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester University engineering building, designed with Frank Newby (for whom Southgate, Letterfrack’s engineer, once worked). According to Tuomey: “All our lives we want to build Leicester, every chance we get!” The square room, with its north-lights angled to the meridian, is something we have seen from O’Donnell + Tuomey before, in their 1977 entry for the IDA competition for an advance factory in Roundstone, also in County Galway. It connects.

Nobody in Irish architecture makes connections quite like O’Donnell + Tuomey. But then they learned at the feet of the master, Stirling (who, with his lecture to the 2nd Iran International Congress of Architecture in Persepolis in 1974, re-opened such possibilities for architecture). About twenty years ago they called their competition entry for a suburban housing project in the flat plains of County Kildare, Urbs in Ruris. Recalling Stirling’s 1978 Roma Interrota project (a revision to the Nolli plan of Rome, described in AD as “a triumph of modernism and self”), perhaps what we are seeing here, is the beginning of a gradual evolution or revision of Letterfrack itself. A kind of Connemara Interrota, where the entire oeuvre of the leading architects of their generation, both built and unbuilt, can inform the reconfiguration of the town. Time will tell.

To date at Letterfrack, all superfluous detail has been stripped away to produce architecture more direct than anything seen before in Ireland. Tiny slits of shielded light are admitted where the roofs change pitch. Internal wall and ceiling linings are sheets of orientated strand board or birch-faced plywood, simply butted together. Externally, there are no fascias, soffits or even gutters – except at entrances, which are protected by short lengths of large, clip-on box guttering, left open at one end to form a water spout.

Materials have been chosen for a texture and character that seems close to the harsh landscape. Stones from the nearby beach inspired the unpainted, heather-pink lime render. Steel is painted rust-primer red. Weathered green-oak sidings are dun – “bog brown, like the side of the mountain,” says Tuomey.

Yet, for all its expressive power, for all of the undoubted character this place exudes in abundance, one also feels a profound absence – particularly in the empty library, its lid raised to peer at the mountain: in the weight of the concrete trestles; in the surreal way the timber-lined walls and ceiling merge; in the blood-red steel. Boys who died here were buried in the hill above in unmarked graves. It seems right to pause a while in this place, to remember and reflect, before moving on.

Over the next five years, the magnificent sheds will be extended. In an echo of the pioneering Ellises, the village will be enlarged to provide new housing. And, in what Tuomey describes as “the unspoken part of the brief”, the lingering melancholy that dogged the school will be exorcised.

“We don’t want to leave ghosts in the old building,” he says. “We have to take the old building with us.”


O’Donnell + Tuomey: http://www.odonnell-tuomey.ie/