The dreary grey facade of the Arts Building, usually set against a rainy Dublin sky, lies in stark contrast to the aesthetics of the Arts, Humanities and Social Science students that traverse its concourse. Constructed in 1978, the building has been almost exclusively referred to by its colloquial name, “the Arts Block”, a phrase which quite accurately captures its stiff and blockish essence. While the dull tones and unfinished aesthetic of the Arts Block’s Brutalist architecture are in total opposition to its neighbouring neoclassical buildings, it is more subtly in opposition to the youthful and conspicuous fashion that arts students have become rather infamous for donning. Some arts students have quite the reputation for standout fashion on even the blandest of college days, but is this helped or hindered by the uninspiring walls of the Arts Block?
“Brutalism quickly became synonymous with low-cost, socially progressive housing and community developments, since its structures tend to serve functionality and efficiency rather than beauty.”
The phrase “Brutalist” is used to describe the rigid, monolithic, concrete structures that emerged as part of the post-war architecture of Britain in the 1950s. The term was coined by architects Alison and Peter Smithson, having been derived from the French phrase “béton brut”, meaning raw concrete. The architectural style is characterised by its unfinished textured surfaces, its zealous use of poured concrete and its geometric patterns. Brutalism quickly became synonymous with low-cost, socially progressive housing and community developments, since its structures tend to serve functionality and efficiency rather than beauty. Thus, it became associated with socialism and communism, and took off in what was once the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, where thousands of Brutalist concrete apartment buildings still litter the peripheries of cities.
The Arts Block is largely considered an eyesore by staff and students alike, especially when its architecture is compared to that of its neoclassical counterparts which delight tourists on Front Square. While it would have been pastiche for its architects, Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek, to attempt to replicate the older buildings that surround it, an architectural nod towards the style of its predecessors may have helped the Arts Block to harmonise with the campus and evade some of the criticism it suffers. The Arts Block isn’t only lifeless on the outside, but aside from the mish-mash of colourful couches and booths, it’s lacklustre on the inside, too. The building was erected to cope with an ever-increasing student body; due to the social change of the 1960s and 70s in Ireland, the student population grew significantly and the campus simply didn’t have enough room to accommodate this boom. The building was designed purely for functionality and to fit as many facilities into it as possible while using the space efficiently. The layout was intended to prioritise natural light in classrooms and offices, leaving bathrooms and corridors without light, although it is evident that many seminar rooms missed this memo and are today lit by crass fluorescents rather than sunlight.
“Whether an accurate representation of students’ styling abilities or not, fashion has become a notorious – and somewhat comic – aspect of Arts Block life.”
Although the lack of natural light has led to the Arts Block becoming a maze of lifeless classrooms and corridors lined with cold concrete, the space is brightened significantly by its students. Whether an accurate representation of students’ styling abilities or not, fashion has become a notorious, and somewhat comic, aspect of Arts Block life. Even if you turn a blind eye to the clothing around you, acquiring a recognition of classic arts student stereotypes is difficult to escape: Doc Martens; a black leather duster coat; flared jeans; layered chains; inexplicably tiny beanies for soft boys; and fuzzy bucket hats for E-girls. Pair these pieces with micro fringes, brightly dyed hair, nose piercings or experimental makeup, and you’ve got yourself an arts kid.
Lorna Mugan, the costume designer behind Normal People, has said that she sent an assistant to Trinity to study the particular fashion of the students in order to capture it accurately in the show, and capture it she does. Marianne and her friends don sophisticated bohemian looks that would not be out of place if seen on the Arts Block concourse or the benches outside its doors. To say that these looks are recognisable, or that some pieces are ever-present — I’m looking at you, Docs — is not to say that they are unoriginal or form some kind of art student uniform. The uniqueness of this style, its adaptability and habit of playing with gender roles through androgynous looks suggests that a certain creative freedom is allowed in the Arts Block, which is exactly what makes the characteristic image of an arts student so unique. While today’s students may look back on their college days in twenty years time when they’re sat prim and proper in cushy business jobs and balk at the trends they once bought into, for now they are free to embarrass their future selves by making as many trendy mistakes as they please. Within the blank walls of the Arts Block is the perfect place to try, and fail, and to test out the varying aesthetics and identities of your early twenties before settling down for the safe stylings of your middle-aged self.
“The blank concrete serves as a backdrop for the costumes of its main characters, its insipidity allows for trends to change and colours to clash.”
Although the building itself may stand out in comparison to its equivalents on campus, serving as a reminder of since-condemned architectural trends, and although the hallways are dark and the classrooms dreary, the aesthetic of the Arts Block is redeemed by its inhabitants. The blank concrete serves as a backdrop for the costumes of its main characters and its insipidity allows for trends to change and colours to clash; the likes of which you’re less likely to see in the bright and airy Hamilton. The clashing colours or stark monochrome of an arts student wouldn’t have the same effect in a light and pretty space as it does in a space that yields to whatever walks through it. The Arts Block may be reviled for its unappealing aesthetic, but it’s that very aesthetic which makes for a space that bows to the will of the students, allowing them to express themselves with freedom and creativity, free of any inhibitions that may seize them outside of its walls.