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Cork’s teen architects draw plans for homes of the future

Cork's teen architects draw plans for homes of the future

Ushered by the Sacred Heart nuns of Mount Anville, we babbled along for 14 years in tightly choreographed tweedy rivers over golden oak parquet, passing under William Dargan’s soaring Gothic arches, in and out of the heavily ornamented Scottish baronial halls. 

I don’t remember taking in the architecture and stately detail. The only thing the 19th-century industrial palace seemed useful for was flying leaps off the eight-foot limestone windowsills to a gym mat when the sisters were enclosed for tea.

The high Victorian “big schools” have developed a Harry Potter-driven glamour more recently with their ancient quoin stones, encaustic tiles, and beautified deities guarding every corridor. 

Another generation of children, were herded from the protective, cottage-core surrounds of rural national schools to be ingested by the brutalist facades typical of the mid to late 20th-century secondary school. It was, for many, an overwhelming, oppressive experience where anything might happen to you in the yawning concrete and glass spaces conjured by adults for adult control.

One thing these later institutions (largely denominational) did offer — was light. It might have been single glazed (we boiled under solar gain, or froze from October) but even the most corporate bunkers in the international “modern style” were brighter, purpose-built and more flexible than the heritage mausoleums manipulated to educational ends.

Prefabricated components and bold new ideas made a school building a high-profile challenge for an architect, providing the wider communities with cultural and social centres out of class time too. 

The development of the architecture of schools has paralleled and sometimes pioneered the evolution of wider built design, delivering some worthy enough with their impressive open-plans and progressive spaces, to be considered for protected status.

Thom Mayne declared: “Architecture is a way of seeing, thinking and questioning our world and our place in it.”

Any Irish secondary school building provides a lively, provoking venue to introduce the principles of design to a new generation.

The National Architects in Schools Initiative, coordinated by the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF), is in its ninth year. In 2021/2022 the vibrant programme ran in 70 schools all over Ireland catering to 1,750 interested Transition Year students under the guidance of 41 RIAI architects, together with architectural graduates and teacher-facilitators.

The inviting language of the accompanying handbook (part of an inventive online folio of tools for the young designers) states: “The buildings and spaces we use every day affect our lives and it is your right as a citizen to have a say about the design of the built environment. By participating in this project, you too can have a voice in the design process.”

Children having a say in their surroundings? Put some light scaffolding on my mind.

The Architects in Schools exhibition is at INM, Turlough Park in Castlebar, Co Mayo and continues until June 30. 

With the themes of Home, Community, and Sustainability, professionally guided workshops offered 12 hours of experiential classes, where the teams explored the design process in Irish and global architecture, allowing youngsters to both express and develop their own ideas. 

Utilising excursions, drawing, model-making, photography, and more, students were encouraged to constantly re-imagine the spaces around them, fostering a new appreciation of the relevance of the built environment through which they move; 2D and 3D modelling allowed the participating young designers to present and reflect on what they had learnt from the process, connecting with architecture as design and an art form.

Architectural studies fosters multiple life skills and segues with many senior cycle courses including art, maths, sciences, and construction studies. The handbook accompanying the project invites students in: “What can I design? That part is entirely up to you! You could design a room, a building, a public space or an installation. You could redesign your school or propose a new use for an empty building in your local area. Your design might not be a building!”

Sketching, exploring, working alone and in teams on design briefs for permanent and temporary spaces, the surroundings they probably just drifted through, came into sharper focus.

Themes jump to life in the mind-altering discipline of journaling — circulation, materials, symmetry, and scale. In the growing Climate Crisis, it’s a motivating challenge for these designers to set out a new vision, integrating sustainable green materials and the radical new technologies needed to construct and run both homes and cavernous, public spaces.

Bishopstown Community College is one of three schools featured in the short film “Architects in Schools: The Student Voice” — part of the Architects in Schools 2022 exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland — Country Life, in Turlough Park, Castlebar. 

A collaboration between the NMI and the IAF, the exhibition displays the design work carried out during this year’s initiative in a fascinating trail through the RIAI award-winning lakeside galleries. It focuses on home design principles informed by current concerns about the environment and its effect on rural Ireland, further influenced and anchored by elements of the National Folklore Collection.

Students at work in Bishopstown Community College.

Students at work in Bishopstown Community College.

Many projects turned out to be highly personal.

TY student Mikolaj Wujek explains: “I wanted to design my dream house and this design is very practical for me. It’s everything I need and manages space very well without expanding outwards too much. I was inspired by the Moroccan riad houses. The entire house is built off the pool in the middle. I wanted to design the model in a way that anyone could jump into the pool no matter where in the house they are.

“The design is a two-storey house with a courtyard in the middle. There is a wide entrance that lets you see into the courtyard. At the end of the courtyard there is a door which leads into the main section of the house. This part is three storeys tall with a staircase leading up. This section is a storey higher than the rest so you can step out onto the roof. The roof allows you to circle around the walls of the house and lounge in the sun.”

Could Mikolaj see a future in architecture as a career? “I was always interested in architecture, but this programme has made me look into it much more. I’ve never really had the chance to do anything related in school until the programme which was great fun.”

Student designer Jack Sullivan also found the course to be an awakening, placing climate concerns and construction costs at the heart of his work. “My design is a practical design I feel because houses these days are unaffordable, I based my design on the Cube Houses in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, which are compact and affordable. I choose this project because the price of a house is currently not affordable or sustainable. The model building was great, and it was interesting to see something you come up with, come to life.”

Could Jack, like Mikolaj, see himself having designs on a career in architecture or a related field? “It has shown me that there are jobs out there, so I would say — yes.”

Kevin McAuliffe, Wood Technology and Construction Studies teacher, watched the confidence of his students soar: “Overall it was a fantastic experience. We had 13 students who took part in the programme, a mix of girls and boys. For the students to work with a real architect, who brought so much knowledge and experience, was really special. Majella [the architect] worked with the students over a number of weeks and each week the student’s interest in architecture grew.

“I was surprised at how unique and individual all of their designs and models ended up.

“They really got to express their own ideas and make their dream home or room. Two of the participating students now want to go on to study architecture which shows the impact and value of the Architects in Schools programme.”

Majella Walsh, of Cork-based, Litema Architecture and Design, was inspired by the creativity, critical thinking, skill and lively debate amongst her hard-working team. “Students were asked to design their future home. These ranged from an inward-looking courtyard home based around a pool, to an orange home hidden in a forest, to a security-conscious homeowner’s yellow home on stilts.

“There is always a sense of surprise in where the students’ initial design ideas will lead to, and the variety of directions that individuals take. Students themselves are sometimes surprised as their ideas develop into an actual model. Working as an architect I am always inspired by new ideas, and other people’s enthusiasm for new buildings and materials. While working with TY students you become aware of the interest and direction that the future generation wants to take in architecture.”

  • Architects in Schools is funded by the Arts Council, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Education and Skills. See architecturefoundation.ie. The exhibition at INM, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo, runs until June 30. Entry is free, see museum.ie.