Ireland is making a big impression on the international stage in terms of architecture; from the Grand Egyptian Museum to the University of Milan, we’ve left our mark on some of the world’s most renowned structures. caught up with Hugh Campbell, Professor of Architecture at UCD, to find out how this small island is making such a big impression around the world.

Hugh Campbell, Professor of Architecture at UCD

“It was an overnight success that took 30 years, in a way,” Campbell says. “We have a lot of great architecture practices here, and a very strong reputation internationally.” Architecture aside, the Irish are well connected globally. There’s more of us off the island than on, with huge cities like Sydney, London, New York and Boston all filled with first, second and third generation Irish.

It was an overnight success that took 30 years

But our architectural reach began here, says Campbell, with two Dublin-based firms: O’Donnell & Tuomey and Grafton Architects, both firms having ties to UCD. “These firms got jobs to reinvent Temple Bar in the 90s,” he says. “This was significant because they were placing modern architecture in an historical setting.” Their work transformed the heart of Temple Bar. Grafton Architects worked on Temple Bar Square, notably the retail and housing building that forms its backdrop. O’Donnell & Tuomey built the beautiful Gallery of Photography.

This project developed an international reputation for Irish architects, Campbell explains. A number of years later, in 2008, the University of Milan was completed by Grafton Architects. “This was a really big project,” Campbell says. “It won World Building of the Year, and led to Grafton Architects lecturing all over the world.”

Gallery of Photography

Since then, both firms have won awards on the international stage. “They’re chameleons of architecture,” says Campbell. “They adapt to the environment incredibly well. A lot of the time you will see a new building go up that just doesn’t look right in its environment, but these guys are brilliant at getting a sense of the area and bringing something new that fits in with what’s already there.” Both firms are still relatively small, with just 20 or 30 people. But their reputation has exploded since the Temple Bar project.

It’s definitely more popular as a university choice these days. We used to have two courses in the country, now we have five

Heneghan Peng are another firm from Ireland, though much younger. “They take a different approach,” says Campbell. “They target big international competitions to find work.” This led them to building the Grand Egyptian Museum that overlooks the pyramids. “They’re very active,” Campbell says. “They produce really high-quality stuff, and they’ve been rewarded for it.” He says three years ago, at the Stirling Prize Awards, the Oscars of architecture, there were six firms shortlisted, and three of them were Irish.

So is it simply down to the quality coming out of our universities that has given us this reputation internationally? Well, it’s not that simple, Campbell says. “It’s definitely more popular as a university choice these days. We used to have two courses in the country, now we have five. So there’s more people qualifying. Irish Design 2015 was a huge help too. Television shows have helped as well, so there’s more of an alertness to it,” he says.

He says it is a more precarious profession now since the economic crash in 2008, meaning there’s less opportunity here now than there was. “This has led to many moving abroad for work,” he says. The Irish have an international reputation in a lot of fields, and this is down to the diaspora.

You can see that the architecture community wants to serve society with sustainable, energy-efficient and carbon- free constructed buildings

“I’d say there are a number of concrete reasons for Ireland having an international reputation within the architecture world,” Campbell says. “But, without getting too political on the matter, you could say the procurement process here is amplified and forces many abroad. Sadly, it will be 20 years before the young talent here get to build social housing. Most will go to London, and that’s sad because we should be capitalising on the young talent we’re producing. They have the most up-to-date knowledge. And this isn’t the case Europe-wide.”

He says there is a lack of trust in youth here, not just in architecture. “It’s that idea of ‘you need X amount of experience to do this job’,” he says. “But these graduates are more than capable, and they’re showing that in the other countries they go to.”

Universita Luigi Bocconi

He says there are a number of trends emerging in Irish architecture. “You can see that the architecture community wants to serve society with sustainable, energy-efficient and carbon- free constructed buildings,” he says. “Younger people are far more environmentally conscious than older generations. And they want to build housing. We have a massive housing crisis here, and young architects are finding new ways of prefabricating houses. We should be capitalising on this, but we’re not.”

Ultimately, he says there are a few reasons for Ireland’s international explosion onto the architecture stage. It began with the success of a few small firms in the 90s, developing some of the world’s most beautiful museums and universities. As technology advanced, the exposure to architecture developed that interest further leading to more taking up the discipline in university. Social and economic factors have since forced many young architects abroad, where they have only enhanced this brilliant reputation of Irish architecture. Hopefully we’ll see many of them return home to show Ireland what we’ve been missing.

All images (except Hugh Campbell) copyright to Brunetti

Patrick studied English, Media and Cultural Studies and now works as a freelance journalist. He writes about social and cultural issues, football and a bit of technology, as well as some fiction. He's confused by the world but finds solace in the smooth rhythms of Marvin Gaye.

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