Touted in glossy journals and international architectural biennales, these designs and proposals are indeed seductive, offering to a jaded public a tangible image of a future that is possible today. Such images fit perfectly with the current fetish for computer designed personal projects from running shoes to toilet bowl brushes. While few of these architectural proposals have been realized (and then often with disappointing results) claims of the seamless transition between the digital image and the computer controlled factory, offer a tantalizingly complete conceptual process for architecture of the digital age. As the look of architecture is synchronically collapsed with the tools of its production, architects have made grand claims to regaining the authority and control lost during the industrial revolution.
Paradoxically, while the computer promises to empower the individual designer, the complex web of economic, political, and cultural entities woven through digital lines threatens to stretch the areas of the architect’s influence to points of ineffectiveness. Without careful control, projects can quickly become lost in a sea of horizontally linked nodes of information. As such, the computer monitor can be seen to present a seductive tabula rasa which effaces the shifting realities of the increasingly international digital economy and political arena. What is missing then from this singular focus on new formal properties of architecture, is a diachronic inspection of the cultural and social transformations wrought by new digital economies into which architects are now being asked to situate their work. How is the physical landscape being altered by new patterns of industrial production and domestic dwelling? What is the influence of the architect in the increasingly global world of construction? How does the concept of the architectural site negotiate between the local and the internal, especially when dealing with public buildings?
In direct contrast to the hollow gloss of digital formalism, a new project in Dublin by the young firm of Bucholz | McEvoy Architects with BDP Dublin acting as architect of record, is testament to the profound questions and possibilities of architecture in the digital age. Their project for the new Fingal County Hall building on the outskirts of Dublin deftly exemplifies the negotiation that the discipline of architecture must perform between local interests and global demands; between traditional building functions and new governmental roles; and between regional building practices and international resources. Won in a competition in March of 1996 and completed in the Fall of 2000, Bucholz | McEvoy’s 11,000 square metre project proclaims with elegance and sophistication the new position of Dublin in the world economy. It is also a culmination of the global education of the two partners, Merritt Bucholz and Karen McEvoy, who established their office in Dublin after extensive work in offices in Paris and in New York. Merritt Bucholz was educated at Cornell University and Princeton University, while Karen McEvoy received her training at the University College Dublin.
In the last twenty years, no single European country has been more visibly transformed by the physical implications of the digital economy than Ireland. Once considered the most impoverished of European nations, Ireland has now one of the highest per capita incomes in the European Union. Most international computer companies, including Apple Computers, Hewlett Packard, SAP, CISCO Systems, Intel, Dell and Gateway have chosen Ireland as the site of their European headquarters, drawn by the open market of the European Union, a strong educational system and the English language. This explosion in the Irish economy has fuelled an exponential growth in the size of the capital city, Dublin. In the now familiar suburban pattern, new factory complexes and corporate headquarters are matched by housing developments and shopping centres that continue to expand the periphery of the city.
In an attempt to regain control over this new digitally propelled landscape, the city of Dublin redistricted the city in 1992, creating four new administrative areas. For each new administrative entity a competition was held to design a new county hall. Bucholz | McEvoy won the competition for Fingal County in part on the clarity of their computer generated representation, utilized to demonstrate technical bravado in service of the site. By situating the building back from the main street, their competition proposal began by respecting the chosen site, the town park, located across from the local castle ruins. This initial move established the space necessary for the prominent new civic structure, with the park’s mature grove of trees, including a 150-year-old Himalayan cedar, providing a mediating screen through which their technically sophisticated building could be accessed. As such, Bucholz | McEvoy’s proposal recognized the tensions of institutionalizing a large new administrative system made necessary by recent economic changes, while respecting the traditional streetscape of the local area.
To their credit, the building completed in the summer of 2000 differs only slightly from the original competition proposal. Unlike many winning competition entries – whose end result is nearly unrecognizable from initial intentions, especially pervasive in digitally-generated proposals – the clarity of the Fingal County Hall parti established the structural organization required to materialize the final building. At a quick glance, the plan for Fingal County Hall is diametrically opposed to the geometric gymnastics typically associated with digital design studios. Here, three parallel bars extend from an arching central volume terminating in curved ends. The three fingers provide the required office space, while the central form provides the primary circulation and lobby space of the building. The County Council chamber anchors the main volume in the curve nearest to the main street, with the dining area and executive offices at the other end.
The elegance of this plan provided the framework through which Bucholz | McEvoy could realize architecture befitting the new digital economy of Ireland. Designed and built in international collaboration with RFR engineers of Paris, and Gruppo Bodino of Turin, the entrance glass wall incorporates the longest spanning cable truss of its kind yet constructed. The quadruple height atrium lobby enclosed by this glass wall creates, at the point of entry, the visual connection to the primary functional spaces of the governmental building, while the cantilevered staircase cascading down into the lobby provides the obvious means of access. Seen from the street, especially at night, the extensive curved glass wall, 18m high by 35m long, makes the activities of local government visually assessable – homage to the historical coupling of democracy and glass, but only now fully realizable through transformations in engineering and manufacturing wrought by computer technology. No vertical columns interrupt this space to support the glass wall, structured back to concrete floor slabs at each of the three levels through a complex tension-cable system: in essence a suspension bridge structure rotated 90-degrees that provides an uninterrupted horizontal view to the park from each level of the atrium.
In addition to this primary wall, glass is used throughout the building to provide consistent visual exchanges between the workings of the interior and the exterior town it serves, and to ensure adequate natural light levels, unusual for bureaucratic agencies, too often associated with fluorescent-lit office slab construction. The public wall of the council chamber, located on grade, is sheathed in glass, transforming visitors to the park into active participants in the staging of democracy. The terracotta panels used by Bucholz | McEvoy act as ballast to the walls of glass on either side of the front elevation, anchoring the corners through a rich contrast in materiality and texture.
The plan, with its multiple bars, requires an extraordinary amount of exterior wall surface for a single building. Using a flexible palette of materials, orchestrated through theme and variation, Bucholz | McEvoy create an exterior wall system that is simultaneously flexible, synthetic and able to articulate the divergent activities of the building’s programme. Aluminum and glass sun-shades offset potential solar gain, while offering detail and scale to the building. Staircases are sheathed in glass and aluminum, while copper is uniquely used to cap the dolphin-necked profile of the roof above the atrium.
Yet it is in the potentially banal spaces of the office bars where Bucholz | McEvoy’s sensitivity to the needs of the building’s users is the greatest. Here, a modular exterior wall system of operable screen vents, windows and solar shades is designed to maximize the control individual employees have over the internal climate. Large motorized BMS-controlled windows provide ample ventilation during warm days while an ingenious pair of slender vertical casement slots allow fresh air to permeate the space on the days of wind-driven rain so typical of the Irish climate. Each office bar is kept narrow, allowing air and light to move across the room, aided by an in-situ concrete ceiling that is sculpted to maximize the flow of air across the space. Custom light fittings designed by Bucholz| McEvoy, recessed into this concrete slab, provide a dynamic and indirect lighting scheme that animates each floor of the three bars. (These light fittings are used throughout the building, one of a series of unifying elements designed and deployed by Bucholz | McEvoy.) The diverse fenestration system allows fresh air to always enter the space independent of the exterior climate, thus obviating the need for air conditioning, or indeed any mechanical ventilation of any kind.
Because Bucholz | McEvoy used computer models and studies to design the climate control system of the project, they could take full advantage of the relatively temperate Irish climate. In an age of heightened sensitivity to the global ecological consequences of building design, Fingal County Hall is a local civic building embodying an international perspective, for a city now deeply embedded in the global economy. Using digital technology as a means not an end, Bucholz | McEvoy are able to orchestrate the design and construction of a technologically sophisticated building, without digressing into the fetish of technology. In the end, Bucholz | McEvoy also circumvent limiting nationalistic demands regarding the Irishness of civic architecture. By asking fundamental questions of the local site, climate and economy, rather than accepting ready-made stylistic and typological answers, Bucholz | McEvoy embody in their building the optimism and energy that marks the new Irish culture of the digital age.
David Lewis is a partner in the firm of Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis and Assistant Professor, Cornell University.