In Conversation: Sheila O’Donnell + John Tuomey with Kenneth Frampton

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects, are noted for their expressive form-making, designing buildings that reveal the integrity of their construction and their relationship to the physical and historical context. The pair sat down with architect and critic Kenneth Frampton, a long-time friend, in October 2014 for a dialogue on the evolution of their practice. The lively conversation covered establishing a firm in Dublin and their vision for Irish architecture, creating mobility in static forms, and bringing the rigors of traditional craft to contemporary work.

Sheila O’Donnell, Kenneth Frampton, and John Tuomey


Kenneth Frampton: I started to think about influences on your practice — for example, Brutalism, particularly James Stirling’s Brutalist influence; Louis Kahn; and the Italian Rationalists such as Rossi. To me, these influences came together in the National Photographic Archive and Gallery of Photography buildings of 1996. Do you think that that those buildings bring those strands together?

John Tuomey: I remember you came to Dublin to see those buildings in 1996 or ‘97. The two buildings are across the square from each other, one for a rotating gallery and one for a fixed archive and school. That development was slave to the idea of a new public realm in the Temple Bar neighborhood, and when I look back on it now, I think that the stable focus of our practice would always be in civic space.

National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar, Dublin (1996) | Photo by Hélène Binet

I don’t think we had found an independent voice yet in the Photographic Archive; we were processing all of the things that we had been studying. Those two buildings compress as much as we could into as fierce and tightly controlled space as possible. I think we flexed a bit more freely after that.

Frampton: The density of the Photographic Archive building, and the way the different elements are brought together, is still very impressive.

Tuomey: I had an idea of that building that it should have such an incredibly compressed, interlocking density that it would sink in a bucket of mercury. Maybe out of that comes some idea about presence. The building has to have presence.

Sheila O’Donnell: It does. Having presence was a huge part of the intention. The building sits on a funny site, where you couldn’t approach its big, arched facade straight on. We were very conscious that it would be experienced in perspective. We felt that the facade had a kind of symmetrical formality, which was undercut by the fact that you never saw it symmetrically.

You’re right that many of the influences that you mentioned were ones we were very consciously thinking about: the plan having a kind of rationality and a rigorous order that maybe comes out of the Italian Rationalists, and the weightiness of Kahn.

Frampton: I was looking today at two of your publications — the 2006 Selected Works and the 2014 Space for Architecture — and thinking about the way and the speed at which your work has developed. You’ve had the good fortune to have a continuous, unfolding body of work.

Monographs Selected Works (2006) and Space for Architecture (2014) | Courtesy of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

O’Donnell: Writing Space for Architecture was interesting because we chose to write the book ourselves rather than ask others to write about our work, so it was our look back over our 30 years or more working together. Writing and reflecting makes you see connections or a kind of linearity in your work. One of the things that we felt strongly about when we moved back to Dublin from London — at a time when postmodernism, as a shorthand word, was at its height in London — was a need to go back to basics. We were somewhat critical of the way many architects, from our perspective, had started using historical references in a motif-like way rather than going back to the essence of what was interesting about the buildings. So we consciously thought that we should look at the tradition of our vernacular architecture and we were influenced by how Italian Rationalism had responded to Italy’s traditions. We saw this return to Dublin as a kind of third education, having had our first one at University College Dublin and our second one in London. But now we were going back to basics. As you know, the thing about architecture is that it takes so long. You don’t learn quickly. You learn slowly, through making.

Tuomey: You’ve just said exactly what I was thinking. Two things keep you mobile: one is teaching — we’ve taught our whole careers — and the other is building. We haven’t built a lot, but we’ve been building every year. We work on one building, finish it, work on another building, and finish it. It’s a precarious life to work from one to one, but it means that we’ve cleared our heads by building. Those architects who have either stopped teaching or have not been able to build haven’t moved along. Through these acts, you think it out and then you leave it behind and move along.

Frampton: I find your Letterfrack Furniture College building to be very interesting. It’s probably the most tectonic building you’ve ever done, in terms of the relationship between the concrete pier system and the timber roof and so on. There’s an amazing image of it in relation to the original foundation building and the landscape and mountains behind. It’s also a very impressive work topographically.

Tuomey: In a way, our “grown up” work starts with the Ranelagh School and the Letterfrack Furniture College. I’m glad you picked it out, because I think it’s the beginning of our position taking, rather than position rehearsing. We came back to try to remind Ireland that it was a European country, and we were damn well going to make Dublin into a European city. That wind carried us through the ‘90s, and then we got fed up of singing that song.

GMIT Furniture College in Letterfrack, County Galway (2001) | Photo by Dennis Gilbert

O’Donnell: It’s actually our most rural building, and our only building in recent years that isn’t on a ludicrously constrained site. But the technical response wasn’t the only subject of interest to us. Another was the relationship with the historic buildings, and our feeling that we were being asked to transform a place that had a very negative history, as a reform school, into something new.

The concrete chimney in the new building is aligned at the same height as the chimneys in the old building, which were the dormitories where the boys slept. Then the distance between the two chimneys of the old building is the same as their distance from our new chimney. In that way it’s always being anchored back to this piece of the past.

We were also interested in responding to what we perceive to be important about that landscape: the material of the mountain, the shape of the trees. On the one hand, the structure is rational. The reason that the roof plane steps is to bring light in through those cracks in the roof. But then it also expresses an asymmetric structure, which relates to the way the trees bend in the wind. Because the site wasn’t constrained — except maybe socially or psychologically — we could make something that is both rational and engages with all those other factors at the same time.

Frampton: It’s an object that’s very linked to the landscape, and in this regard I think it’s an exceptional work.

Tuomey: We were trying to let the wet ground run through, making a damp-free building without a damp-proof course — it’s a floating building. The constraints were a very limited budget and a very inaccessible site. So we developed a principle where the trades didn’t meet: site drainage, one contractor. Concrete structure, second contractor. Carpentry, third contractor. Joinery, roofing, fourth and fifth contractors. Those trades were not on site at the same time, so it happened in layers. I feel frustrated that we haven’t had the chance to develop that method beyond that building because I think we got onto something there.

Frampton: I want to discuss the Glucksman Gallery. The thing that intrigues me about that building is your use of, and your capacity to use, materials. To take that form and to clad it in wood is very audacious, technically, apart from the question of the spatial and plastic energy of the piece.

Tuomey: We think that some other quality comes out of the crafting of the building itself beyond the lineaments of the design. So we jump over the main contractor and talk to the sub-contractors. I always tell them, “All I want you to do is the best work you’ve ever done in your life. When you come to site in the morning, everything you do is going to be as well as you can do it, but also the best you’ve ever done.”

Glucksman Gallery at the University College Cork | Photo by Dennis Gilbert

The guys who bent the timber around the Glucksman said it couldn’t be done. I told them that actually it can be done, because boats do that. I knew that if slatted vertically, we’d just have a barrel where we wanted a form. But that meant a knee here, a shoulder here, and another guy with a gun driving in the screws. Then this man moved his knee, and this man moved his shoulder, and the three men shuffled down the scaffolding. And because we didn’t want to end on a half board, we started the cladding in the middle of the building and clad it from the middle up, and from the middle down.

That part of life, where the architect is holding hands with the actual workmen — we’ve been able to do that. We’ve been able to do that from Sheila’s beginning with the Irish Film Centre right through to our building at the London School of Economics. We wouldn’t be happy without that, and we haven’t been happy where we haven’t been able to do that.

Frampton: Your “cat’s cradle” concept explained in Space for Architecture is very nice — it is both metaphorical and physical. You were talking about constricted sites, and the Irish Language Cultural Centre is inserted into a gap in Derry’s Georgian streetscape. Your sketch in the book shows the organic conception of it through these three valves that end in performance. I suppose that building is the first cat’s cradle, other than the Killiney House.

Tuomey: I took the term “cat’s cradle” from Auden’s predicament of the double life of the poet. In his book Early Auden, Mendelson categorizes this dilemma as a choice between the civil and the vatic life. The poet feels driven to to pronounce about the world, but there is another, inward aspect to poetics, which is within the world of poetry itself. Auden refers to this as being mesmerized by your own cat’s cradles, rather than being all the time publicly oriented. And I think that there is also an inwardness to our architectural activity — that in a way, buildings are in conversation with other buildings, or with the culture of other buildings, as much as they are with the client and with the site and with the program. And a “cat’s cradle” is a tricky little game of geometry played in the air, requiring practice and skill. Probably that little rectangular site in Derry, 15 meters by 50 meters, didn’t expect to turn into a kind of jack-in-the-box style building, but something was in our mind about getting mobility into static form.

Irish Language Cultural Centre in Derry | Photo by Dennis Gilbert

O’Donnell: That’s right. And it’s interesting because it’s actually a rectangular site whereas the other cat’s cradles are on triangular ones. But it’s very narrow and had no light or access on three sides and then obstructions, including a substation, on the fourth. We felt that we had to drive our way past those obstructions and into the site, which is what set up the geometry. We were trying to turn those obstructions into a positive force rather than a negative impediment.

We also needed to bring light down the middle of the building because there was none from the sides. It’s a very narrow site, so we wrapped accommodation around this rooflit court. The combination of the wish for a certain kind of movement and the requirement for a dynamic circulation all led to this skewed court. I suppose you could say that the geometry wasn’t in the site; the geometry was in our way of analyzing or conceptualizing how you would move through it. You come around the substation and then get started on what we call the pinball movement. It sort of built up its own momentum that went right through to the back of the stage.

Diagrammatic plan of the Irish Language Cultural Centre | Courtesy of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

Frampton: I’m totally surprised to hear that it was a rectangular site. It’s the amazing drawings in Space for Architecture that sucker anybody into thinking that it’s not rectangular.

O’Donnell: We’ve brainwashed you into thinking the site had some funny angles in it.

Frampton: The LSE brings us to this question of craft. The stairs are within the cradle typology, so to speak. But what’s amazing about the building is it’s a tour de force in perforated brickwork. You had a lot of nerve to go ahead with that idea, and then to get someone to build it must have been quite a game.

O’Donnell: It was. What you said is true, that the stairs wrapping around fits into what we had been working on regarding movement, circulation, and the cat’s cradle. The form and the expression of that building arrived upon us in a rush. Sometimes competitions are amazing in that way, because you’re doing something very quickly and intensely. The LSE is quite different from anything we’ve done before. It felt inevitable and yet really quite frightening. We sent everyone else home one weekend to get our heads around what this building would look like.

Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the London School of Economics | Photo by Dennis Gilbert

It’s odd because it is, in a way, very extreme looking. But it’s also quite ordinary. When walking past, it seems like a piece of brick London wall. I think it was Kester Rattenbury who wrote that she walked past the building without noticing and then came back and said, “Oh yes, here it is.” On the one hand the building is alarming, but we also think it feels steadied in its place. It was a leap out of the known into the unknown.

And yet we always knew it was going to be brick. So we were trying to work within the bounds of what we thought would be possible with brick, without knowing exactly how it would be possible. It was only after the competition that we worked out that the brick-coursing would be horizontal, that it would be corbelled rather than trying to slope planes of brick.

Tuomey: We worked in model, building up layers of cardboard like you would do in a contour model. We adjusted the layers for the rights to light, because we didn’t want a New York-style setback building. When we looked at the model, we realized that’s exactly how brickwork gets laid: horizontally. We could set one brick back from the next, from the next, from the next, just like cardboard in a contour model.

Cardboard study models for the LSE Student Centre | Courtesy of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

That, then, required a brick that could withstand freeze-thaw water conditions on all of its surfaces. We couldn’t use the existing bricks, from the demolished buildings, which we had hoped to use, because they wouldn’t withstand the freeze-thaw. So we had to build in what we call an engineering brick. But we didn’t want a hard-edged building, we wanted a soft building; Sheila had been doing watercolor studies for the texture of the building. We thought then of using a paving brick, a brick that’s used on the ground, for the whole building.

We found this company near the Forest of Dean that for hundreds of years had been making paving bricks by hand. Every two years the company goes into the area of the forest that they own and they dig up clay. They make a wooden mold, like an old-fashioned shoemaker, for every brick and then they slop in what they call a clod of clay. Can you believe that? There are four men that are like pizza chefs — they lump the clay in their hand, slop it in, cut it off, pack it down, and shove it in the oven. We were amazed. The LSE is 175,000 bricks. Each guy makes maybe 500 bricks a day, and every one of them was made like that.

Instead of looking for a brick to match the paintings, we gave them Sheila’s watercolor studies. They used different kinds of sand to finish the bricks so that we had seven colors. The bricklayer had to sort his specials on site in order not to have a block of orange, for instance. The work that tradesmen can do, still, is so impressive — and it’s there for the asking.

Watercolor drawing for the LSE Student Centre by Sheila O’Donnell | Courtesy of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects


Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey founded Dublin-based O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects in 1988. The firm has developed an international reputation for cultural, social, and educational buildings, particularly recognized for adeptness at weaving extraordinary new structures into constrained urban sites. The pair were the 2015 recipients of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. For more on O’Donnell + Tuomey, view their 2014 Current Work lecture.

Kenneth Frampton is an architect, critic, historian, author, and the Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.