An interview with Níall McLaughlin MRIAI on his first five years in practice - Architecture Ireland


That moment between the complexities of the past and an unknown future


There were quite strong movements in the School of Architecture in UCD at the time I was doing my thesis; there was competition amongst students to get allocated to certain charismatic teachers and to go with their ‘programme’. I didn’t want to do that. I’d been taught quite intensively by Robin Walker in fourth year. He had a way of focusing on certain students and tutoring them intensively. I was rather obsessive about pencil drawing, and I think he liked that precision. He’d come to my desk with his big cigar, and he’d smoke and design buildings in his head while I drew them. I suppose that initiated for me a lifelong discourse between the apparent absolutes of the system that Mies laid down, and the fact that, for me, somehow it wasn’t enough. Robin once gave us a forty-five-minute lecture about the corner detail at Lakeshore Drive: a steel I-section wrapped in fire-proofing, then wrapped in steel, then glazed with this kind of ‘curtain’ of I-sections. That was a huge problem for him in the way that he thought about architecture; the desire for the whole system to be completely transparent and logical, and that wasn’t.

Then, in the summer after fourth year, I almost accidentally spent a
lot of time looking at Brunelleschi. In particular, I spent a week in the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. This represented another term in the equation; outside that incredibly exacting Miesian discourse where all the rules are so consistent, except when they’re not – and then there’s no answer at all. My attraction to both approaches left me feeling a bit stuck. I didn’t want a tutor in fifth year who would lead me off in their direction. I picked a tutor called David McHugh, who was very good at sitting down with you and turning out whatever your problems were that day. He didn’t come with any strong agenda; he was a thoughtful person who you could reflect with.

I designed a scheme in Chapelizod: a cadet training school for the army. It’s funny that I’ve ended up doing Oxford colleges because I look at my thesis and it had a dining hall and a chapel and an entrance; it had grounds and parkland and a quadrangle. Although it wasn’t an Oxford college, it really was.

I’m not someone who is consistently vocational; always relentlessly pursuing ambitious goals. I tend to have phases of it, and that was one of those phases. I was in this project. I produced this huge, forty- or fifty- drawing presentation, all hand-drawn. There was something obsessional about it, but my whole time in UCD wasn’t like that. I had years where I was doing other things, like reading or partying.

I wasn’t always the focused, diligent, ambitious student. That’s kind of been true most of my life. I tend to have moments of ‘switch on’ or ‘switch off’. 


And how was your thesis received?


I don’t remember much about that. I remember I had been up for four or five nights. I remember my girlfriend Eileen helping me pin up. When I stood up, I was so shattered that I couldn’t speak. At my final crit! Chris Cross was there. He said something quite interesting, he said: ‘I can see that you’re going to be successful, not necessarily because I know whether you’re talented or not, but because anyone who is capable of putting that much dedication into a task will have success.’ It wasn’t a full compliment, but I found it quite telling.

I remember Cathal O’Neill was very positive about the drawings. He said to me after my crit: ‘Niall, whatever choices you make next; stay away from money. Stay away from money and stay close to architecture.’

That’s my memory of my thesis. I don’t know what I could take forward from it, except that it was the first time that I felt this extraordinary surge of confidence; that I knew what to do and that my idea of what to do was good enough.

I wasn’t part of one of the movements in the school, you know, groups of six students around this or that charismatic teacher. I wasn’t really on the radar until my work popped up at the end. It's probably been in my nature all my life that – although I’m a sociable person – I quite like standing outside situations and not feeling as though I’m part of a set or a ‘scene’. Not minding the crowd but feeling that I’m happiest just a few feet apart; being ‘there’ but not being in it. It is slightly in my nature to both suffer and relish that ‘apartness’. That’s probably been consistent in my teaching and in my practice in various ways.


What year was that?


I matriculated in ’79 and I went straight through; I finished in ’84. I didn’t take a year out.


What were your ambitions, then, when you were leaving? What did you want to do?


I was probably a bit lost. I’d gone straight from school to university, learning an amazing new subject, and I went five years straight through without a year out. I was immersed. The school at UCD at that time was very self-sufficient; it had its own ways and seemed like a kind of paradise. And so, finishing and leaving it, I’d love to say that I left with a strong sense of direction, but I didn’t know what I would do next.

One of the fifth-year tutors, John O’Neill, asked me to work for him. I was there for about six months. It was just me and him in a basement; he was a really nice guy. I detailed a little retreat and community centre down in Kilkenny from top to bottom. I sat every day doing working drawings, you know: A1 sheet, 1:20 section, pull off the details.


That’s a great education in detailing, straight out of college?


I’d failed technology in second year and had to repeat it that summer. I was in one of the big empty studios in Earlsfort Terrace, by myself, for six weeks, producing a working drawing every one or two days. From being bad at something, and not very interested in it, I had this sort of Damascene summer in the studio where I fell in love with construction detailing. I loved making the drawings, I loved building the building in my mind.

Shane de Blacam had an amazing respect for working drawings. He had this sense that they were a kind of philosophical proposition. He spoke as if the authority of the architect was communicated through working drawings. He didn’t say this, but it always struck me – when I’ve used Ordnance Survey maps, if you get lost using one, the problem is you. They are such models of accuracy and clarity, it must be you. I had this dream of a working drawing like that; one that someone would look at and go ‘well, I know the architect knows what they’re doing, so I’d better go and think about this’.

In those days, there were a lot of people teaching in UCD to whom detailing really mattered. We had a technology studio every week; we’d do working drawings of complex bits of construction. So it wasn’t a problem for me to go into John’s office and make working drawings. And the whole time I was producing them, I knew that, if I drew a steel I-section, in a few months’ time someone would be lifting it and putting it in place. It was a magical feeling.

Apart from that, the rest of that summer, I’d love to say I was plotting the rest of my life, but really we were going to festivals and concerts and partying. We were just getting over a very long fifth year.


So you were there for about six months?


Yes, then I got the knock. It was Scott Tallon Walker; I was being recalled! Mies comes knocking on your door and says ‘where have you been for the past six months?’ It was a bit like that.

I went in to be interviewed by Ronnie Tallon. He said to me, ‘I give a young boy like you a job, I expect you to stay for the rest of your life. If you leave here, don’t darken my doorway again.’

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