Full Emptiness / Kevin Donovan

First published in Architecture Ireland September 2011 / Copyright Kevin Donovan

At the new Wexford County Council Headquarters, there is no monumental stair, no ceremonial dais. There is no great timber door with brass furniture, no singular progression to a great council chamber at the building’s heart.

Many of the great civic centres of the 20th century rely on a meaningful transformation of an existing, noble architecture that is remote in time, place or imagination. Kahn at the Dacca National Assembly and Le Corbusier at Chandigarh both achieve their intriguing monumentality by fusing Eastern and Western references with emblems of their own personal cosmologies. Abstracted classical references have been frequently deployed to incorporate, as in the case of de la Sota’s Gobierno Civil at Tarragona, weight and gravitas and at Kenyon’s Newcastle Civic Centre a lighter and more joyful democracy. Each of these buildings is laced with honorific incident controlling the hierarchy of access and event. Accessibility is delicately moderated in the ceremonial articulation of element and detail.

The building at Wexford achieves its strength in the opposite way. Entirely wrapped in a taut glazed environmental flue, it assumes a singular form that can appear both monolithic and diaphanous, of both ground and sky in its wide landscape at the edge of town. A glass panel in the building’s flank slides above a continuous limestone floor giving fluid access to a central void, three storeys high and longer than broad, that seems ineffably familiar. Clarity dawns as you move through; this is a street, like so many in Wexford, where buildings are staggered on either side of a place of exchange, where the space is loose and open-ended with a vista, where the views of the sky are framed, where the claim to territory is staked by a change of material, or the shift in scale at an entrance. The street is a vehicle of democracy; it is shaped by six departmental ‘houses’ of equal size and importance, each with its own court, each small enough to be humanely lit and ventilated, each with its returning internal stair, oak-lined and intimate. The...

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