By David Burdon
With two international Scholars undertaking this year’s Lethaby Scholarship there was always a chance of an overseas visit as part of the program, and (with a quick visit to my native Sydney being a rather remote possibility) the Scholars recently headed to Ireland to meet with a number of conservation professionals.
Our first visit was to Queen’s University in Belfast, where we were met by former Scholar Roisin Donnelly to discuss some of the challenges faced in repurposing older educational buildings for current student requirements. The new “Graduate School” at Queen’s University has been inserted within an existing Victorian building originally designed by William Henry Lynn.
The building had suffered in the mid-twentieth century when the original double height space was compromised through the insertion of an additional floor at ground level. Although it doubled the effective floor area, this work obstructed a view to the splendid ceiling that greeted the visitor upon arrival. Through a series of careful interventions, the new work has met client requirements by providing a number of new spaces within the building, yet also returned a sense of the original wonder to this dramatic space.
Moving south, our focus soon turned to one of the chief glories of Irish architecture – plasterwork – under the tutelage of one of the modern masters of this trade, George O’Malley. In Dublin we were fortunate to inspect some of the fine neoclassical plasterwork by Michael Stapleton that had been repaired at Belvedere College, one of the city’s finest interiors, and in Longford we were treated to a full inspection of the incredible plasterwork in the rebuilt cathedral after a devastating fire in 2009. Longford cathedral is a testament to the skill of the modern craftsman using traditional techniques and it was a real pleasure for the Scholars to meet some of the people whose skill had a hand in this work.
One of the key features of the Scholarship is the breadth of experience that it affords, from small individual details of buildings right through to the challenges facing entire historic cities. An important visit during our trip to Ireland was to Londonderry (colloquially known as Derry, or “the Maiden City”), where we were able to meet with a representative from the Walled City Partnership, an organisation that focuses on Heritage-led regeneration by preserving and enhancing the architectural and historical character of the city. This work recognises the role of an individual building as part of a wider streetscape, and as such the conservation and restoration efforts have been beneficial not just in relation to architectural quality but also in terms of economic and social regeneration and crime prevention.
Meeting also with former scholar Mary Kerrigan, we were able to have a tour around the whole city and learn about its history right up to the present day. It was thus a fitting way for us to finish our visit with a walk across the new Peace Bridge, built in 2011. This bold new structure is helping a city to rediscover itself and embrace a waterfront that has previously been home to loading docks and carparks.
Driving over 1000 miles in just over a week, we managed to experience a great deal of both Northern Ireland and the Republic, from the Giant’s Causeway to a Guinness. A real highlight however was a visit to the incredible Newgrange, probably the best known Irish passage tomb. This large mound structure is approximately 80m in diameter, and dates to c.3200BC, making it older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids. For SPAB Scholars, this truly was an ancient building!