The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland Conference 2020: a success

Image Credit: Eoghan Smith

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell discusses some of the stand-out takeaways from the event and speaks to Excellence Award for Architecture 2020 winner, Eoghan Smith.

The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) Conference 2020 was uplifting and optimistic. Drawing in speakers with a plethora of experiences and motivations, rather than a conference about what Irish architecture is, it was a conference about what Irish architecture should be; sustainable, thoughtful, and for people. The annual conference was held on Tuesday, November 24th, and, like so many facets of our lives this year, the conference was held online. Hosted by Architect and broadcaster Róisin Murphy MRIAI, the conference was split into seven sessions discussing themes of Climate Change, the Future of Cities, Housing Innovation, and Architecture and Diversity. Key speakers included the revered Dutch Urbanist Jan Gehl, Professor Ricky Burdett CBE, German Architect Anna Heringer, DOCOMOMO Co-Founder Wessel de Jonge, and David Mikhail, Stirling Prize Winner. Each speaker was accompanied by panellists to discuss the talk, their own work, and to pose questions. 

As part of the conference, there were addresses from the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’ Brien. Their engagement was welcomed by the RIAI but their input jarred with their hopes for the future when compared to the succinct autopsy of why Ireland is the way it is by Claire McManus, the RIAI Housing Spokesperson. She asked why all houses are built as though they have been stamped by the same cookie-cutter, with no emphasis on verges, the street, or trees? Deducing that all ills return to the developer seeking the cheapest option, Mc Manus explained that the cheapest option returns the smallest houses and the most minimal spaces. Adapting the minimum standards won’t help unfortunately – Mc Manus believed this would only serve to create a new collection of cookie-cut builds.

McManus pointed to three direct examples of how Irish building can be easily improved. Referencing the Goldsmith project discussed by Mikhail, she wondered whether a loosening of certain regulations in specific cases would lead to more thoughtful and considerate architecture. Next, McManus explained that architects are needed in local authorities. She used the towns of Clonakilty and Westport as examples and echoed the sentiments of Burdett. Burdett used graphs and maps to show the direct impact that local authorities and proper governance can have; “positive impacts through public sector”. Finally, McManus pointed to the issue of planning. The majority of planning offices have no architects or designers to consult, and in turn, planners themselves have no formal design training. Our current national building prerogative seems to result in mundanity and sprawl. Until these issues are solved it is difficult to see how our architectural landscape will be able to improve.

The conference concluded by announcing the RIAI prizes for 2020. Prizes included the RIAI Future Award Winner, which was awarded to Jane Larmour, of Arigho Larmour Wheeler, and Thomas O Brien, TOB Architect, both graduates of the UCD School of Architecture, with O’Brien now also as Design Fellow in the school. UCD graduates Darya Protsenko, Jeff Berry and Aisling Mulligan were all selected for exhibition by the RIAI. Other prizes included the RIAI Rising Star in Architectural Technology Award and the RIAI Student Award for Sustainable Design. The RIAI & Architecture Ireland Student Writing Prize 2020 was awarded to UCD Graduate Gary Hamilton.

The RIAI Scott Tallon Walker Excellence Award for Architecture 2020 was awarded to UCD Masters of Architecture Graduate 2020 Eoghan Smith for his project titled: “Constructive Assembly: A building for the Irish Citizens Assembly as a symbol of participation and exchange in the city”. Speaking to The University Observer, Smith explained: “This thesis began with an interest in the areas, and institutions in Dublin which have stimulated the social and cultural life of the city - and a concern for the increasing exclusion of such venues from the city as a result of more and more homogenised patterns of land use and development. The project proposes an architecture for the Irish Citizens Assembly - one of our country’s most important institutions for civic participation - in which inclusive, deliberative dialogues in the democratic process are facilitated, and celebrated through its architecture”. Mirroring the musings of McManus and the place of the public sector in creating place, Smith explained: “The thesis questions the role which government and its buildings should play in encouraging civic participation; exploring how they can foster an inclusive and participatory relationship with the city. To give form to such a building, I drew from buildings and structures symbolic of public gathering in our cities as my starting point - where the assembly of structure becomes symbolic of the assembly of people: from tented, tensile structures, to stages, bandstands, theatre canopies, market halls, and stadia. I ask: how should we imagine places in the city in which citizens feel they have a contribution to make? We belong to the city, but how can it belong to us?”

It is clear the work taking place in UCD’s School of Architecture in Richview is reflective of and building towards the sustainable aspirations of the RIAI. “The thesis studio this year decided to take on many of the issues surrounding climate change, and the responsibility of the building industry in tackling this” Smith explained. “My interest in this subject lay not only in the serious environmental threat which this poses - to which the built environment contributes significantly - but in the socio-cultural effect of the destructive, economically oriented building activity which is going on across the city today... Having grown up in Dublin, I wanted to contribute to the city's future - and I hope this will not end with this thesis”. 

In his opening address, RIAI President, Ciaran O'Connor bemoaned the paltry media coverage of the Pritzker Prize awarded to Grafton Architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. If it was the National Soccer Team or a prize for literature, every paper and magazine would have written about it O’Connor said. The apathy shown towards such talented and successful women, representing Ireland and creating places of beauty internationally lays bare the sometimes forgotten place of architecture within Irish society. However, from the wisdom of Gehl to the inspiration of Herringer and the bright future of Smith, we can rest assured that Irish architecture is something to be proud of and only growing stronger.