Architecture and knowledge

By K.A. Oliver

According to Guillaume Apollinaire, “A structure becomes architectural, and not sculptural, when its elements no longer have their justification in nature”. With adroit handling, new architecture, and its space, should yield a delight, foment awe and foster an awakening. Can a pursuit of convoluted spatial interaction, which seems all too prevalent in contemporary architects’ abstract, often idealised conception of spaces, satisfy the raw reality of their buildings’ subsequent lives? The constellation of built heritage in Trinity epitomises the college’s prominent historical reputation as a distinguished patron of fine buildings.

Staggeringly, it seems that College may maintain this eminence, as Trinity’s Long Room Hub has been shortlisted for World Building of the Year 2010 in the forthcoming World Architectural Festival (WAF) in Barcelona. Taking its name from the iconic eighteenth-century library, The Trinity Long Room Hub is an advanced research institute for the arts and humanities. Thus, the Hub facilitates Trinity’s strategic development of research in the arts, humanities and social sciences through the fuller exploration of College’s research collections and the creation of a community of scholars across a range of disciplines.

The Trinity Long Room Hub was established formally as the Trinity Research Institute in 2006, and in 2007 received a substantial start up grant of €10.8 million from the Irish government and the European Regional Development Fund within the context of all-island humanities consortium Humanities Serving Irish Society’s bid to the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions Cycle 4 funding line.

The manifestation of this farcical edifice is undoubtedly meant to convey a valiant verification of College’s commitment to postgraduate research and collaboration in the arts – certainly a worthy assertion. The preliminary brief for this innovative “space of ideas” established an exigent task for architects McCullough Mulvin. Given the sensitive nature of the environs, the proposed site was almost non-existent.

This initial constraint not only determined the principal form – tall and narrow – but also governed the integral structural fabric. The building is effectively draped on a steel bridge-like structure, supported by two concrete piers, and spans 34m over the services of the Edmund Burke Theatre. This skeletal core has been exposed throughout the building and is perhaps most notable in the precarious handling of the north-east corner immediately above the entrance.

The facade – inspired by the beehive, cells under attack, and the rigidness of a cliff’s surface – is to be interpreted as a mask which simultaneously conceals and reveals the ceaseless movement of the academic mind, a sort of cell membrane for knowledge and learning.

In an attempt to nestle in the site between the Arts Building and the 1937 Reading Room, this granite-clad installation exudes a taut disposition through a wantonly expressive idiom, achieved principally though the frantic ordering of recessed fenestration. Walnut panelling abounds in the four floors of the interior which host the Long Room Hub’s administration, office space for visiting academics, two seminar rooms and a double-height, communal ideas space. The fourth floor is devoted entirely as a reading room – the panorama of college crafted in this space is unquestionably superb.

Substantial voids of precious space penetrate the various floors in a weak attempt to articulate internal zones. Perhaps appreciated by some as a benevolent bequest of light, is this a somewhat over-generous gesture in a building with a predetermined, limited capacity? A primary concern of the architects seems to have been the resolution of a backdrop to the 1937 Reading Room. As a consequence of this desperation to finally hem in the precinct that is Front Square, McCullough Mulvin appear to have overlooked the ungainly association of the Long Room Hub’s composition within the context of Fellows’ Square itself.

It would be unfair to be overly critical. The height of the Long Room Hub was determined by a reverence by the architects for Thomas Burgh’s library and the retention of a vista between the Provost’s House and what was once the Fellows’ Garden has been appreciated. Further, McCullough Mulvin deserve praise for delivering a facility, on a limited budget in a short time-frame, and for managing its construction in a non-obtrusive manner in the middle of a university campus.

These achievements do not necessarily spawn good architecture. The opportunity to create a dynamic spatial dialogue between the old and new has been neglected. Should incongruous juxtaposition of form and overlaboured initial design concepts be celebrated over a building’s ability to serve its purpose?