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Lost in translation

Kester Rattenbury



The outside of the Howth house puzzled me the moment I saw it on O'Donnell + Tuomey's website. After the exquisite, semi-ruined resonance of the Hudson house, or the lovely, cranked shed of the Letterfrack building seen against the mountain, Howth looks perky; politely wilful in its toned down curves. It seems both at variance with, and deferential to, its unremarkable suburban neighbours. The last thing I was expecting.

[18mar2005]

O'Donnell+Tuomey. Howth house. View from the rooftop towards the Howth's bay.

Even from photos, its clear that O'Donnell + Tuomey's buildings have a special relationship to their site. They call up some form which expresses something not previously quite visible about the place – its history, its formal desires; the specific relation of the client to the site, or the imaginative troubleshooting which can change its public meaning.



O'Donnell+Tuomey. Howth house. Sketches.

This process is described (including by them) as a kind of archaeology. It's been much discussed in their haunting Hudson house, its cave and courtyard forms discovered from the ruined basement of the site. And many of their buildings –from the Hudson house and the Ranelagh school to the Howth house and the Letterfrack shed– actually tunnel or scrape the desired shapes out of the ground.

But this is also an archaeology of the air – setting up resonant forms to claim the natural spaces of the site's air-rights, like raising a barn. The views of, and from, the Hudson house –with its strong echo of the Irish towerhouse, its courtyard and cave– recover not a real history but a formal possibility. In the Centre for Research into Infectious Diseases, in the flat, heavily landscaped campus of University College Dublin, the building –designed like a studio (Ozenfant's, in particular) rather than a business park type laboratory– is thrown up above its neighbours to catch the hidden view of the sea. Though one's reminded of the gatehouse of a vanished country estate, this is more of a built premonition; a presage of a bolder form the university might yet take.


O'Donnell+Tuomey. Howth house. Skethes.

[...] Elsewhere, the relation to site also includes visual things which are not always about how the building looks – like the specific experience of yourself in relation to a view, as at Howth. It includes the symbolically functional: the way in which the site's meaning or history can be recuperated – the imaginative troubleshooting of O'Donnell and Tuomey's adjustments to the offhandedly symbolic, dull hierarchical buildings of Ireland's terrible, repressive institutions. The work at Letterfrack dissolves the symmetry, re-orientates the circulation, reclaims a relationship with the geography, remakes the circulation to invalidate the axial planning –leaves just one of the entrance gateposts– and will cut the cills down so that for the first time in a hundred years the inmates can see out of the windows. This is architecture as osteopathy – and pretty much unphotographable.

But architecture is generally purveyed for critical consumption by photos, and in this, most visible part of architectural activity, O'Donnell + Tuomey's recognition and creation of hidden or potential forms is their greatest gift – but one which may draw the viewers attention away from the work's wider scope.

Kester Rattenbury
Excerpt from the book Archaeology of the Air, navado press 2004. We thank the editor for allowing us to publish this text.
Kester Rattenbury was trained as an architect at Oxford Polytechnic; she did a PhD on the way that architecture is covered in the press. She went on to become an architectural journalist, writing extensively for UK and international magazines and newspapers. She won Arts Council funding for her book This Is Not Architecture, which explores the relationship between architecture and the way it is represented in different media. Other books and publications include Architects Today (with Robert Bevan and Kieran Long), the tourist guide to the London Eye: The Essential Eye, essays in Architecture and Film and Cedric Price: Opera; Architects Today. She teaches at the University of Westminster in London where she co-ordinates and helped set up the new Centre for Experimental Practice ExP.

> BOOKS REVIEW: FRANCISCO SANIN: ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE AIR
> FILES: CARLINI AND VALLE: DUBLIN CONVERSATION

> O'DONNELL+TUOMEY
> NAVADO PRESS

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