Seven Themes
Niall McLaughlin


Sacristy, Carmelite Monastery

©Niall Mclaughlin

What I want to do is talk about the work of the practice in relation to a number of themes which have developed through working on individual projects. I think it's important for our practice that we don't begin with architectural theories and then try and prove them through building. We see theory as something which is a reflection of experience. And therefore what I'd like to talk about is ideas that have come fiom building something once, seeing how it went, and then trying to do it better next time. There are a number of themes, that's seven of them, which I'd like to raise: One has got to do with light. The other has got to do with the idea of place — the history of a place and ideas that come from the stories that could be told about that place. The next one is to do with materials and making and the sense that architecture should come from the way in which it's made; and the materials which you make it from have something to tell us about how they should be used. We've recently become interested in the idea of buildings as being like metabolisms or eco- systems. They are sort of, in themselves, systems which are connected to other systems. And that has been a lively area of study in the practice recently. And the theme of landscape is very big in the practice. When I use the word 'landscape' I mean in relation to urban and rural landscapes. But first of all the idea that there is space in the landscape which the building takes its place in, and also it can change the space of the landscape. But also the idea that landscape provides metaphors for buildings and it's possible to develop the organisation or the order of the building in relation to landscape metaphors. And finally, the idea I'd like to talk about, and one that has been part of almost every project we've worked on, which is the notion of collaboration. To me that means that if you collaborate with people in designing a project, whether they're clients, artists, craftsmen or consultants, you broaden the design base of the project. Collaboration with clients means that, if they feel they‘ve been fillly included in the process of bringing the building about, they tend to be more accepting of the architectural language, the architectural expression. But I think, more importantly for an architect, I find collaboration to be a way of ambushing my own imagination, by having somebody else who comes from somewhere difi‘erent from me, throwing ideas in and asking for those to be considered. It means that I'm unlikely to produce something which is lazily thought through, which is an imitation of something I've done before, or seen in a magazine before. So for me, collaboration is a route into originality.


Bloom Exhibition, RIBA, London

©Niall Mclaughlin

The first of these subjects which I‘d like to discuss is 'light' and I would refer to this slide of the Sacristy in the Carmelite Monastery in Kensington which is in central London. Just as a piece of background on this project, we were invited to come in and work with the monks to do some refurbishment to existing buildings, one by Goldie, a Victorian architect, and the other by Giles Gilbert Scott who built a church in the 1960s which replaced an earlier church by Pugin which had been destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War. It was interesting, when we got involved in this, that the monks are a contemplative order and they have a very inward-looking and private monastery which is in the centre of one of the busiest parts of London. So although they're right in the middle of a big metropolis, they have this very secret world and they're very unused to intrusion. So we had to find some way of collaborating with them and talking to them about the relationship between their ideas, religious ideas, and our ideas which were architectural ideas, and how they could be brought together. One of the themes that we used in relation to this was the theme of light. The Sacristy which is the space we‘re looking at in the first slide, is a space which exists between the altar of the parish church and the domestic space of the Monastery. And you must understand that the monks' world were a refectory, the monks' cells and so on are their everyday habitual domestic space. So profound change occurs in the monks' understanding of what's happening. They come from everyday habitual space and they go out onto the sacred space of ritual. And so this Sacristy is, in a sense, an air lock between two completely difl‘erent worlds. It is literally between two buildings at the bottom of a light well but also it's between two difl‘erent versions of the world, the everyday and the super-natural. And what we wanted to do was to express this, using light. And the ceiling itself becomes a kind of vessel for holding light and for enveloping light and for reflecting it, so that it does different things within the room. The first thing is that the room is bisected by a line of light, which means that to go fi'om the Monastery on to the altar you literally ford the line of light. In addition to that, the folding baflles of plasterboard and white surfaces capture the light and they make it very very static which gives you a still sense to the room. And in the middle of the room is a counter where the monks lay out the vestments. On difl'erent days of the church year the vestments are difi'erent colours: green for an ordinary day, turquoise for a feast of honour, purple for Advent or Lent, black for funerals, gold for Easter, etc. Sacristans come in in the morning and lay down the vestments and it changes the character of the room. What we wanted to do is to make it that the only direct light that comes into the rooms falls onto the vestments. And the vestments are facing the sky on this counter and in a sense that's housing the light. Everything else is muted and illuminated by reflected lights. And all the curtain materials which we've used are very very quiet. But when you come in, you see that the room has invested itself with a particular day and before you've even thought about it you've a sense of what church day it is. The second project which is related to light is the project which we call Bloom It was done with the artist Martin Richman and it was in Gallery One of the RIBA building. We were asked as part of an RIBA exhibition to collaborate with an artist and we worked with Martin Richman. Martin himself works with artificial light. What we did was to talk about the qualities of the room as it exists. Every time I've been into Gallery One - it's the first floor room which overlooks Portland Place - every time I've been in there, it had the blinds down, it's got screens up and it's fiill of drawings. So one rarely thinks about the room and its position in a city. So what we wanted to do was make an installation which uses light but which also reminded people of the room itself and its relation both to the building and the rest of the city. We were amused by the fact that the RIBA building, which is a very elegant piece of architecture, has a kind of closed casket-like quality which suggests the propemess and formality of a professional institution. What we wanted to do in some way was to open up not in a particularly overt fashion. lhad read in Christopher Woodward's 'Guide to Rome' that if you want to see Michael Angelo's beautiful ceiling in the Palazzo Famese, you can't actually visit the building itself but you have to stand outside in the square and at dusk, as the lights come on, the ceiling's illuminated and you get this wonderful vicarious experience of the ceiling. So what we did was to begin with this idea, an idea that a professional institution is not a building that people necessarily go into, but somehow you could illuminate the interior as seen from the street. So what we've done is to put a field on the floor. The existing floor of the room is a wooden floor bounded by stone. We've left the stone surrounds but we've taken a rectangle of the wooden floor and laid a bed of Daz detergent on it. And on top of the Daz detergent we've put 220 ultra violet lights. And on top of each of the ultra violet lights we've put what we call cosy cloches, things that come in flat packs and are used by gardeners for keeping frost ofi‘ plants. So the idea is that each cloche has got an ultra violet light beneath it. The ultra violet light at midday is invisible because ultra violet is invisible in direct sunlight. But as the day changes towards dusk, the ultra violet becomes more and more visible. And as it becomes more visible, it causes the phosphorus which is in the Daz to phosphoresce and the Daz stops to grow. You might remember that Daz has that bluey whiteness. That comes fiom phosphorus. so what we have in a way is a kind of garden, a kind of abstract garden which changes from midday, where the ultra Violet light is invisible, through to dusk, when the balance of natural light on the exterior and artificial light on the interior cause the feel on the floor to go everything from pink to mauve to turquoise to white, through to midnight when the ultra Violet is the only light source and it's blasting out invisible light up and down Portland Place. And what we've done is to put these mirror ingots right up on the ceiling, so if you're walking past you see the strange blue light coming out of the building. And people looking up can see on these mirrored ingots - they've been specially angled so that when you look up you see these mirrored ingots on the ceiling and you can see the plan of the floor reflected in the ceiling and you get this kind of indirect or vicarious View of the installation, even if you don't go into the building at night. One of the very nice side effects of this, although there were complaints, all six floors of the RIBA building for a month, the building was fill of Daz detergent which in itself became part of the installation. So that was purely about the way light changes space, the way in which light reveals space and alters our perception of it. It was for us primarily a sensual experience. The next subject which I want to come onto is the way in which the history of a place, or the stories that were told about a place, can help the practice to develop an architecture which is particular to our place. The first place I want to talk about is the Carmelite Monastery. Now we've discussed the Sacristy in relation to light. But we were asked to design a chapel in the existing Victorian building. And it is a Grade 2 listed building so we couldn't make substantial changes to the architecture of the building itself. But the chapel had to turn what was an existing garden room into a space for prayer. We were interested in how it is that sacred space gets its status. How is it that when you walk into a room, if I walked into it a year ago it was a sitting room next to the garden; if I walk into it this year it's a chapel. What's changed, what's given it that significance? Now we began to use paintings to talk to the monks about religious ideas, and the way in which, in paintings, religious ideas are often communicated by elements of architecture. For example, in the Annunciation genre of paintings, Our Lady is visited by the Angel. And this is a well known genre painting describing a well rehearsed religious event. But it's interesting that the significance of the event is very often described by the architecture. Our Lady, being a human and a woman, is inside the house, she's in the domestic interior; and the Angel is in the garden, and therefore being the creature from beyond, a creature from the outside, is kept in the garden space. And in the painting there's often a very strong division between the architectural element as the loggia, as a kind of in-between space to suggest the gap that exists between the natural and the super-natural world.

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