So the boom was a disaster for Irish architecture? Think again


Louvain is what we always called it, using an anglified pronunciation of its French name and reeling it off with Paris, Rome and Salamanca as beacons of Catholic education on the continent in darker times. But really, it’s Leuven, a small university city in resolutely Flemish-speaking Flanders, where French barely gets a linguistic nod.

The Irish College, founded in 1607, still exists, but now it’s the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe. More than 20 years ago, Fás trainees were let loose on its Flemish brick facade, each one with his or her own technique for repointing mortar joints. The resulting mishmash is not a good advertisement for them, or us.

More recently the 17th-century building was renovated by Murray O’Laoire Architects, who are no longer trading. Some of their interventions were surprisingly insensitive; the old chapel was savagely secularised for use as a lecture theatre, stripped of its altar and other fittings, though curiously not the holy water fonts.

A more positive view of Ireland is being projected in Leuven by an exhibition of some of the best contemporary architecture produced in the decade from 2001 to 2010. What it shows is that hackneyed images of ghost estates do not convey an entirely accurate picture of what happened during our frenzied building boom.

Six members of Leuven’s Stad en Architectuur (City and Architecture) group came to Ireland to see many of the best buildings for themselves, and they were impressed by what chairwoman Petra Griefing called their “simple yet idiosyncratic architectural language, with the emphasis on materiality, spatiality and social context”.

Stad en Architectuur decided to “put the spotlight on Irish architecture” in collaboration with critic and curator Shane O’Toole, selecting 40 projects that featured in the Architectural Association of Ireland’s annual awards “to give a representative picture of the dynamic Irish architectural scene of the past 10 years”.

The Irish Times