The Atrium

Dining Hall, Trinity College, Dublin: De Blacam and Meagher

The interior of the Dining Hall at Trinity College in Dublin was severely damaged by fire in 1984. The exterior of the rather neat classical building built in 1760 by Hugh Darley survived relatively unscathed, and much of the panelled refectory was saved, but the atrium needed completely rebuilding. De Blacam and Meagher conducted the restoration work and also made two notable interventions. The first was the rather extraordinary decision to construct a full-sized replica of Adolf Loos’s Kartner Bar in the former Senior Common Room above the Dining Hall. The second was to insert a somewhat timeless structure to support and organise the atrium. This elegant three-storey timber installation is composed of an exposed frame, which supports a series of long screens. The sequence of balconies provides access to the different levels, while the long timber shutters can be closed to allow for privacy and acoustic control. The rhythm of the structure has a direct relationship with the size of the timber beams, which are necessarily large to accommodate the great span and the vast weight that they have to carry. The simplicity of the structure is complimented by the robustness of the elongated shutters, which are smooth on the atrium side and show the frame and diagonal bracing on the balcony side. The effect of the tall timber structure and randomly open shutters is quite dramatic, and somewhat reminiscent of Shakespearian performance spaces. The structural rhythm of the interior appears to be completely appropriate to the simple classical language of the building especially the open ceiling of the atrium.

From forthcoming ReReadings Volume 2


Title: Discharge/Recharge
Location: Bergkamen, Germany
Former Function: Apartment Block
Date: 2013
Architect: Office for Subversive Architecture / Christoph Rodatz

Buildings are often taciturn; they can be secretive, reticent and unforthcoming. They can be solid and impenetrable and it can be difficult to understand the nature of the structure. The interior can be awkward too; walls can be much greater than simple partitions. The organisational method can mean that, by virtue of a circulation system that discourages interaction, spaces that are immediately adjacent to each other are hidden, inaccessible, and uncommunicative. Gordon Matta-Clark questioned the relationship between the spaces in a building, when with just a chainsaw; he cut holes into the body of the structure. Projects like Conical Intersect, which was literally a conical shaped aperture cut through two townhouses in Paris, immediately established a relationship between the previously separated adjoining spaces, and also provided a view into the street outside.

The Office for Subversive Architecture, who operate somewhere between art and architecture, also produce massive scale installations using complete buildings. The consistent aim of OSA has been to develop untraditional approaches to reinterpretation of the architecture in the city. Their projects deliberately cross boundaries between art and architecture, varying from minimal or moveable installations to the construction of actual buildings and urban or spatial strategies.
One such project is Discharge/Recharge, which was part of the 2013 Urban Lights Ruhr Festival. This installation, which was completed with artist Christoph Rodatz, was an architectural performance of light and sound that focused upon a tower block in the centre of the city of Bergkamen. The building, which was simultaneously a landmark and an eyesore, had been unoccupied for 15 years and was due to be demolished at the end of the project. The tower was painted black to ensure the total absorption of light, an act which was also symbolic of the obliteration of its life. At nightfall it became the screen for a laser projection performance. This exhibition depicted the narrative of the building’s structure. It showed where the great elements of construction were hidden behind the facades, the hollow three-dimensional nature controlled by the surrounding walls, how the leaves of the floor-plates lay one above another, the position of the stairs that linked the individual apartments together, where the rubbish shoots were positioned, and ultimately it simulated the process of destruction. A radio station positioned on the top of the tower simultaneously broadcast interviews with former inhabitants; it told their stories of occupation.

The evocative and dramatic project made visible the previously concealed structural nature of the building, it showed the complex arrangements of elements and it exposed the system that organised the occupants. It revealed the story of the tower block.

From forthcoming ReReadings Volume 2

Hasselt University – Faculty of Law: NoA Architecten

Any understanding of the past is determined by the manner in which the information about the pervious age is interpreted. All histories are partial; all contain an act of translation or decoding. It is impossible for the historian to provide anything other than their own opinion; that is, to narrate their own interpretation of the events. When a building is reused, an element of narrative uncertainty or mnemonic ambiguity is always introduced. The story of the building is always open to interpretation and the designer can exploit that uncertainty.

When NoA Architecten were approached to convert the former prison in Hasselt into the new home for the University’s Faculty of Law, the sense of irony was lost upon them. They relished the ambiguity that this created, and immediately referenced W.G. Sebald. He had explored the notion that a building or place contains the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; that appearances can and do lie, deceive, and distort. The academic Mark Richard McCulloh discusses this: “Sebald weaves the fabric of his narrative out of intertwining digressions on the present and the past, out of the strange threads of perception, memory, and dream, and, finally, out of the experiences of travel in a here and now that is alternatively mundane, lyrical, and uncanny.”

The buildings, which were organised into the traditional prison panoptican, were built in 1855 on the recommendation of the then inspector general of prisons, Edouard Ducpetiaux. A hundred prisoners could be accommodated in back-to-back cells. These were spread out in four wings around a central octagonal base, which housed the observation post. The occupants had no idea whether or not they were being observed, and it was impossible for them to experience or even understand the complete building. It closed in 2005. The labyrinthine nature of the organisation of the buildings ensured that the prison itself had the quality of existing very much as a separate world behind the great containing wall, as an independent city within the actual city of Hasselt.

The solid brick prison wall, which was part of the collective memory of the city, was a symbol of exclusion. The architects were aware of this strange connection that this barrier had with the local consciousness, and felt that it was important to reverse this meaning and create a new connection with the city, to construct something welcoming out of that which was once impenetrable, to ensure that visitors instead of feeling intimidated, felt privileged.

The form of the original building dictated the organisation of the new elements; it informed the position of the large spaces and the smaller ones. The existing composition was uncompromisingly precise and the architects were able to use this structure as a guide to the placement of the new elements of the faculty of law. The building became a small, bright and open town, with several entrances and exits, squares, streets, courtyards and an unexpected roof garden for which the prison wall acts as no more than a parapet. The individual cells were preserved as study rooms. Particular marks decorate the walls, these are the ghosts of the lines that counted out the almost innumerable days and thus preserve the memory of the former function. Glass rather than solid doors were installed in these intimate spaces. The interstitial spaces, the gaps between the rooms and the walls, the places where surreptitious activity may or may not have once taken place have been preserved. These intermediate spaces are for conversation, for collaboration and for romantic collusion. By utilising the form and structure of the existing structures, a radical transformation of the buildings has been completed without losing the memory of the previous use, but also without invoking the true ghastliness of the experience.

Extract taken from forthcoming ReReadings Volume 2

The Factory by Ricardo Bofill 1975




The Modernist adage that Form Follows Function does not generally apply to building reuse projects. The form of the building already exists; the spaces are defined, the walls are in position, the roof is place and the relationship between these elements and the immediate context has long been established. Of course it is possible to change all of this; walls can be demolished, new elements constructed and fresh relationships established, but, the essence of the building will still exist. The character of the place will still be present. This is the charm of the remodeled structure; it retains the character of the original programme and inhabitants, and combines this with the needs of the new users; thus adaptation is always a delicious compromise between the two.

The vast complex of a disused cement factory on the outskirts of Barcelona was in the early 1970s, converted into an office and a home for the architect Ricardo Bofill. This extraordinary and romantic project was the vision of the young architect who had not only grown up in the construction industry, but had come of age in a country just emerging from the oppressive years of the Franco regime. It was an extraordinary time in Barcelona, a city with a vivid and progressive attitude that had nurtured such artists as Gaudi, Picasso, Miro and Dali, but in that critical post-war period also saw the rise of Brutalism. So the sight of the almost surreal complex of concrete structures, did not daunt Bofill, but apparently actually filled him with a ridiculous kind of magical hope.

The uninhibited cement works was immediately adjacent to the site that the architect was constructing the Walden Seven housing complex at about the same time. This uncompromising multi-level building-city is candidly monumental; it contains 18 towers, 446 apartments, bars, shops and two swimming pools. It actually overshadows the factory and this contrast of scale between the two structures reinforces the sculptural quality of both.

The cement factory had been abandoned and was partially in ruins, and so the adaptation process began with further demolition. This removed much of the detritus and additions that had accumulated over the years since the original construction. This defined a series of distinct spaces, which were little more than cleaned, thus the memory of the structure’s former use, the industrial aesthetic and the spatial quality is preserved in the raw concrete walls. Small additions, such as new walls to complete spaces, openings to allow for light and access, and vast amounts of greenery completed the project. It then came to the problem of how to occupy this vast edifice; distinct spaces had evolved form the process, each had a particular and definite quality. The occupiers considered the nature of these new volumes while also contemplating the activities that would happen within them. Thus a symbiotic solution was reached; one which accentuated the conditions and character of the building while ensuring that the users completed tasks in the most sympathetic surroundings. So, for example, the original factory hall was transformed into the conference and exhibition room, and with reference to the ceiling height of over 10 meters, it is called “La Catedral”. Slightly distinct from the office in the upper part of the factory is Bofill’s own home. It has the same raw quality, but is a perfect cube with a series of arched windows. The decoration is sparse yet as equally uncompromising as the building; simple very long white curtains hang from the ceiling and the floor is made from untreated timber.

Bofill did not necessarily embark upon the process of remodelling the concrete factory with a preconceived idea of how the finished project would be; rather through a process of discovery and recognition he allowed the form of the building to evolve, and the manner in which it was occupied to emerge from that.

Extract from forthcoming ReReadings Volume 2