Full Emptiness
First published in Architecture Ireland September 2011 by 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 council chamber is contained in one of these houses. A well furnished room with a good acoustic, it makes few claims to primacy in the hierarchy of the building apart from a view over the landscape it governs.

Traffic between these ‘houses’ and communal areas (the restaurant, the car park, the roof garden) enlivens the street and the two public stair towers, contributing to their very particular atmosphere. The fine materials and elements of the street are seamlessly jointed to form a single, wrapping surface. Windows and doors are pushed flush to the line of the street wall and notional plinths for desks are let into the stone floor, the material changing but the plane continuous. This imbues the place with tautness, lends the void a strongly figural character and heightens the action of the body in space. There seems to be a corresponding effect on the consciousness of the occupiers, employees and clients alike whose actions on the day I visited seemed thrown gently into relief against the relative muteness of the architecture. The scale of the stone module, the cantilevered rooms and the exposed concrete ceiling register in the pace of the occupants’ movements while the acoustic ensures a civic tone in conversation.

Thus, there is a double transformation at play. The first is the reimagining of the vernacular street in the architectural language of Modernism. This is then retransformed through the compression of detail to make an architecture of surface rather than articulation. The space is fluid not hierarchical, pluralistic not honorific, and the action of the individual defined by a sense of civic decorum rather than architectural prodding.

Pugin exhorted architects to develop the nobility of their buildings by thinking of them as ruins. One can easily imagine that, many years hence and after a final transformation the six stone houses of the Wexford County Council Headquarters, services and glazing effaced by time, will continue to civilize their hillside site above the River Slaney.