Nicola Brandonisio’s apartment window opens to a large-scale concrete building in Cork’s city center called Sample Studios. Being a researcher at Tyndall National Institute his mind is always preoccupied with data and research progress. “I like to start the day feeling calm and happy considering the amount of work I have to do during the day, but I look out the window every morning and I see this giant ugly building. It really depresses me,” says the young researcher.
On the busy desk of Marcus Mulvihill at the glass building of Cork City Hall erasers, pencils and numerous pencil-drawn sketches make the visitor mistaken it for an artist’s desk. Asked why not completely switch to a computerized design, Mulvihill smiles and says that he finds drawing on paper “more pleasurable.”
That is the story of Cork. A city that has its fair share of unsightly buildings but also has architects who draw her pretty structures on paper in hope of passing them by in real life one day, looking just as they envisioned them to be. But right now the old Sample Studios unknowingly ruins a beautiful morning for a young researcher, every day.
Ironically, Sample Studios is now a semi-operational art studio that is going to be completely closed in the unknown future. The artist residents of the former tax office have tried to give it a better look by drawing graffiti on the building’s old entry and parking walls. The building has or used to have a white coat of paint as dark patches have emerged upon its concrete surface.
Sample Studios is not the only building in Cork that has aged badly and Cork residents find it a “depressing site” to look at. If you go to St. Patrick Street on a Sunday afternoon and ask everyday people to name the least aesthetically pleasing buildings in the city you’ll get a long list of answers: Gardner House on South Mall, the Fire Station, Garda Station, the library- this last one might surprise you since Cork Library has competed in the category of People Choice Awards for Architecture at Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland’s (RIAI) annual Architecture Competition in 2016.
City architect Marcus Mulvihill blames fear of change for the functional, simple designs of some of Cork’s buildings. “I think the reason why there are so many white, bland designs in Cork is that we’ve become a developer-driven society and most people are in fear of doing anything that isn’t standard and normal. So we stick to the most neutral designs as much as possible.” Mulvihill thinks that regrets and what ifs after every project are an inseparable part of a city architect’s job. “You’re strongly encouraged to stick with the average and mundane for the sake of a quick and easy fix,” says Mr. Mulvihill.
Looking at the history of Cork architecture one can find stories of hope, ruined beauties, and risings from the ashes. Cork Opera House has such story in its long history. Originally called “The Athenaeum”, the building was built in 1855. Irish architect Sir John Benson along with his British colleague C.J Phipps were the designers of “The Athenaeum”. Their design follows a style that is close to Neo-Classical architecture. Renamed to “The Munster Hall” in 1875, it became known as the “Cork Opera House” we all know today in 1877.
Burnt down in 1955, the beloved building stood there burnt, ugly and looking disheveled for almost a decade, only to regain its beauty in 1965 thanks to one of the most famous – arguably the most creative as well – Irish architects Michael Scott. The building got a modern makeover in the 20th century when it was renovated in 2003. Cork-based architecture firm Murray O’Laoire Architects designed a huge shiny facade for it that has connected all three floors of the place together from a visual standpoint. The exterior changes were fundamental: stone entrance, tower-like components, and wooden doors. The building is currently going under development again.
The English Market is another old building that is going to get a new look. Mulvihill and his colleagues at Cork City Hall envision a glass ceiling for the tourist-favorite spot. The Victorian style designed market has been around since 1610. However, the “covered market” we all know today was built in 1786. Just like the Opera House, English Market is a survivor of fire (1980 and 1986 fires) and has been restored twice. Both restoration processes remained loyal to the original Victorian architecture of the market.
The market is also getting a new neighbor as construction work on the site of the former Cinema Capitol is almost finished and a new modern building with a chocolate brown clock on its top has emerged in its place. Wilson Architecture is the firm behind the design of the soon-to-be five-storey retail and office complex. The sharp contrast of modernism and tradition between the two neighbors is an interesting sight to look at. It is like watching tradition gasping for air while Capitalism swiftly inhales oxygen into its massive lungs.
Irish architecture has gone through many styles and movements. From towers and castles in the medieval Ireland to the reasonable forms of Palladian architecture in the early 18th century, architecture in Ireland has come a long way. Cork is a city that has at least one structure from most architecture movements. Cork City Hall that has been designed by Jones and Kelly in the early 1930’s keeps the light of Georgian architecture bright, while English Market originally designed by Sir John Benson is a constant reminder of Victorian architecture. Traces of 1950 to 1970’s modernist movement such as the controversial Brutalist architecture can still be seen in the old houses at Douglas and Mayfield.
It is true that Ireland has lost some of her most talented architects such as Michael Scott and Andrew Devine (who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright). However, there’s still place for creativity and art in Cork’s buildings while there are architects like globally- recognized John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell who are still alive and working today. They do not like the idea of specifying their style, in their own words they like to design buildings that are “strangely familiar”, (novel but free of intimidation).
University College Cork’s Lewis Glucksman gallery was one of their projects. Finished in 2005, the building stands on the edge of the college. It is raised among the trees in a series of twists and turns and has a calming view of both up and down the river. O’Donnell and Tuomey decided not to worry about measuring the space between the trees and let the building stand free among them as to create an illusion of turning. It is as if the Glucksman plays a mediatory role between two places: the campus and the city. It turns to keep an eye on Cork but turns to the college again. The gallery’s café has also a unique feature, in that it appears interconnected with the surroundings outside the building. As in most O’Donnell and Tuomey Avant-garde projects the concept behind Glucksman is also open to interpretation.
There is no doubt that bringing art into architecture requires a great amount of funding from the government. Dublin-based architects Marcus Donaghy and Will Dimond of Donaghy + Dimond Architects, learned this fact the hard way as their artistic vision for West Cork Art Center (Uillinn) won the favor of jurors at a 2009 international competition but encountered many difficulties to come to life as the country hit the recession and the promised funds could not be delivered on time. Even today, the digital illustration of their design for the Uillinn appears slightly different from the actual building.
As the aftermath of the recession, the homeless crisis started to worsen in the country and is still ongoing today. Does that mean designing artistic, beautiful buildings would be wrong when there are so many people that don’t have a simple roof over their heads? Marcus Mulvihill does not believe that there’s any correlation between the two issues. Calling them two separate issues this architect thinks that building beautiful buildings does not have to be more expensive than building ugly ones, “if you do everything in a proper way.”
But it might not be as simple as that. Some architects strongly believe that the government contracting system (GCC contracts) is limiting the control of architects over the final outcome of projects. Mulvihill confirms this argument and believes that after the architects are done designing the buildings; contractors take over and might sacrifice the artistic aspects of the building for delivering a low-cost project in order to increase profit margins.
The reflection of buildings in Cork’s River Lee fools the daydreamers as a watercolor painting. Construction workers talk and laugh together after a long working day. The shadow of art dances on some buildings and dies little by little on others. That is the story of Cork City and her buildings.