A Scrum of a Building - The Observer

March 2023
Text Rowan Moore
Images Nick Kane

There are architects who talk in metaphor and symbol, who will tell you with varying degrees of credibility what this or that aspect of a building means; that, for example, an airport’s sweeping roof signifies flight, or that the glass wall of a parliament speaks of democracy. There are other architects who focus on the mute qualities of construction, who take pride in the ways brick or concrete or timber come together, and mostly don’t ask them to deliver messages.

Níall McLaughlin, trained in Dublin and based in London, does both. His past projects wax poetical – a boatlike chapel in Oxfordshire, for instance, and a modern gothic tower for a historic palace in County Durham – but they are grounded in the stuff and work with which buildings are made. His designs involve a high degree of control over detail, so that missed beats and duff rhymes don’t creep in. He thrives on singular and significant commissions and on clients who back him to achieve them. So his works include that chapel and palace, the new library for Magdalene College, Cambridge, that won last year’s Stirling prize, and a music pavilion built to house a treasured harpsichord for another Cambridge college, Trinity Hall.

McLaughlin’s latest project, the International Rugby Experience in Limerick, at first seems unlikely. Visitor attractions such as this don’t usually have much time for architects like McLaughlin, whose built-to-last masonry might get in the way of their immersive, interactive electronic magic. Their designers prefer neutral spaces – black boxes that can be reprogrammed at will – with at the most some external architectural flourishes to draw the punters in. But this new building isn’t just focused on thrilling visitors about things oval-balled. Entirely funded by a charitable foundation of the businessman and racehorse owner JP McManus, who was born in Limerick, the Є19.45m (£17.3m) project is to be “a new hub for the local community”.

Its spaces can be used for such things as exhibitions, screenings, presentations and weddings, while local makers can sell their creations in its shop. The ambition is that the experience’s hoped-for 100,000 visitors in its first year will help revive the centre of the city, which like so many has been drained of the energy and wealth that shopping used to bring. So it aims to be civic as well as entertaining, and local as well as international. McLaughlin’s design accordingly makes it look as much like a town hall or a library as a visitor attraction.

On the outside, the building is dignified, substantial, meaty – a brick tower fused to a lower block that matches the parapet height of surrounding Georgian buildings. Two high arched openings make a portico, above them a balcony from which a trophy might be brandished, should either Ireland or local team Munster win such a thing. On top of the tower is a high glazed loggia that looks like a place where you might want to be. The composition has all the elements of a palazzo pubblico in a medieval Italian city, with some informalities and asymmetries that stop it getting too ponderous. The solid-looking masonry is offset by big openings. Repeating vertical brick fins catch the light on their leading edges, and make shadows in the spaces in between.

Inside, the meatiness continues. There are brick pillars, walls and floors. There are concave concrete vaults whose pinkish colour is close to the brick’s red, and a staircase in sheets of steel the colour of iron oxide. There is a unity of colour and tone across the different materials that makes them cohere, to all seem part of the same body. There is little by way of plaster or plasterboard or other methods of domesticating the structure and covering it up. External materials come indoors. What you see is what you get.

It’s now a castle, sometimes also churchlike. As on the outside, though, lighter touches stop the spaces being too solemn. Walls and vaults are in places delicately scalloped and lightened, such that they seem exhaled as much as constructed. Diagonal views through forests of masonry give glimpses of daylight and the city beyond. Contrasting volumes – high, long, wide, narrow – are put together with slightly reckless abandon. You don’t know what’s coming next.

Through all of which the rugby experience works its way. Designed by the London-based agency Event, who have also created attractions based on the Titanic in Belfast and at the Guinness storehouse in Dublin, it is structured around the five world rugby values of passion, discipline, integrity, solidarity and respect. In one room you are surrounded by screens showing inspiring global stories of rugby, played at every level, from grassroots to international. Interactive devices allow you to test your skills at kicking, running and scrummaging. The voices of players tell the secrets of their success.

The journey is vertical, thanks to this being a constrained urban site, rather than the horizontal layout you might get in an out-of-town location. Your legs, if you’re not going by lift, have to do some work. There’s an alternation between the virtual and material, between Event’s digital screens and devices and McLaughlin’s world of gravity and touch. Sometimes there’s daylight, sometimes electronic glow. The whole ensemble is labyrinthine and clamberable. It’s possibly not the arrangement that a purely commercial operator would have chosen, and is more rewarding for it.

Finally, having ascended through light and darkness, and through illusion and substance, you reach the appealing-looking loggia visible from the street. Here a panorama of the city unfolds, with its spires and towers and houses, its river and surrounding hills. The brickwork, hefty elsewhere, here becomes a series of slender pillars, tapering into narrow edges to reduce their apparent size. Overhead is a sculpted vault of gothic complexity, filtering light from openings above. It’s an element that in a building funded by a public body or a corporation, rather than McManus’s foundation, might well be lost to cost-cutting – arguably superfluous but definitely good to have.

In exhibition mode, this room contains person-high totems on which you can find images of legends of the game. These can be removed, leaving the space clear for events and ceremonies. It’s a lovely place, the view of the city giving a sense of belonging and command, the symmetry and lightness of the structuring creating balance and repose after all the intricacies downstairs. It encloses lightly – not so much as to obstruct the scenery, but enough to make you feel secure.

McLaughlin, as I mentioned, likes a metaphor. Here he won his clients over with the idea that the building’s construction embodies a coming together of forces similar to the game of rugby. In the sport, as he puts it, players form “structural bonds for a split second”. In scrums and rucks and lineouts “people come together to exert maximum force”. In his building, those pillars and vaults visibly work as a team, combining (in this case permanently) to hold it all up.

This analogy could, in truth, be a bit cringe. You certainly don’t need to know it to enjoy the building. But it is vindicated by the enjoyment of spaces, materials, construction and light that the architecture provides. It’s a physical building, you might say, for a physical sport. These are qualities hard to find in projects more constrained by budget and function. If slightly clunky symbolism is what it takes to achieve them, so be it.

Go to Observer article here.

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