Jeremy Till

A Review of O'Donnell and Tuomey Architects' Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork.

Adolf Loos once said that he was proud that his (and by implication other great) buildings could not be understood in photographs. It is a pity that he was later caught retouching a publication of his works, but the point remains that the best buildings are often those that can neither be captured in photographs nor properly summarised in words. The Lewis Glucksman Gallery is one of those buildings. One needs to visit it or, second best, read the plans and sections with the intensity a conductor brings to a musical score in order to extract the full potency of the work.

The building sits in a key position close to the entrance of University College Cork. On two sides it has a civic role in addressing the University and City beyond, on the other two a completely different, almost picturesque, role in settling into an important mature landscape. Somehow the architects dissolve this tension between city and park, artifice and presumed nature. The architecture of the gallery is full of such contradictions: it uses everyday materials such as galvanised steel and mdf, but manages too appear luxurious (but not decadent); it has a truly astonishing cantilever, but this feels as if it should be there (rather than being a gestural shout); the walls of the gallery which by tradition should be orthogonal have bends in them (and accommodate art seamlessly); it occupies the tight footprint of two previous tennis courts, but inside has a Tardis quality through the continuity of route and space; it employs none of the classical tropes for beauty, but looks astonishingly good ; the galleries have a feeling of concentrated internality and yet one is always connected to the outside; the detailing is under complete control but never fetishised - and so on. It is the resolution of these apparent contradictions that gives the building such intensity and allows one to read it at many levels.

To understand the experience one follows a ”promenade architecturale”. There may be a precedent in Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Centre at Harvard, but beyond the similarity of programme and the idea of a dragging a main route through a University through the heart of the building, the likeness runs out. At the Carpenter Centre the effect is to turn the visitors into voyeurs; at Cork it is to democratically open the building up to anyone. Here the route cuts straight beneath the underbelly of the galleries over. Above, the architects have created a completely new spatial type, carving a block out of the solid mass of the galleries overhead to create an upside down courtyard which is open to the elements on the underside but surrounded on all other sides; one looks up through this extraordinary inside-outside space to the galleries beyond and are implicitly welcomed in.

From the entrance one either descends (guided by cold steel handrail) into the stone-clad earthbound lower floors, seemingly cut from the raw landscape, or rises (guided by warm timber) to the galleries above. Here one is nudged but not cajoled on a route upwards until at the top, just when one thinks one has reached a cul-de-sac and will have to retrace one’s steps, a small staircase releases the tension and spins one back down. Along the route are incidents and placements that are beautifully judged, adding variety but never invasive.

What is really remarkable about this building is that the more one looks, the better it gets. What is equally astounding is the sense of control that the architects have brought to the project, as if they could precisely predict the spatial and material effects. Thus those strange projecting windows in the galleries, with disjunct top and bottom. In drawings they may look like a fashionable twist, in place they achieve the double continuity of holding the galleries together at the higher level and reconnecting to the outside as one walks into the bottom half that cants out towards the park.

 For me to have mentioned two giants of twentieth century architecture is not incidental. This building comes out of a deep understanding of the possibilities, in particular phenomenological, afforded by architecture but is completely of its own type. Miles Davis once said that what most artists do is to make simple things complex, but what great artists (and of course that included him) do is to make complex things appear simple. This is one of the rare buildings that fits that definition of greatness. 

First published in the Architectural Review, 2005 as 'Effortless Artistry'