Public Service
First published in Architects Journal July 2011 / Copyright Stephen Best

Public service: In choosing design over big names, with Robin Lee Architecture Wexford has secured an original civic hub by a major new talent, writes Stephen Best. Photography by Andrew Lee

In 1549, the Council of One Hundred in Vicenza took a risk. They held a design competition and appointed a relative unknown, Andrea Palladio, to rebuild the collapsing town hall. At its best, this is what the architectural competition system can produce: original works emerging from a design method developed from first principles, rather than an assembly of previous successes.

The most recent addition to this stable, and perhaps the last we will see for a generation in Ireland, is the Robin Lee-designed Wexford County Council offices, a new 11,500m2, £36 million building perched above Wexford Town overlooking the magnificent river Slaney estuary.

Like other enlightened county councils, such as Kildare, Wexford eschewed the ‘safe pair of hands’ approach to procuring public architecture. It looked beyond the typically dull buildings produced by narrow finance-dominated prequalification questionnaires, and instead prioritised design. According to client representative Matt O’Connor, this decision was inspired, in part, by the success of Keith Williams’ Opera House, carefully stitched into Wexford’s town centre.

In 2006, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland ran an open design competition for Wexford County Council. The relative unknown chosen was the fastidious Lee and his then firm NORD LLP, a young Glasgow-based practice. Its design was chosen from a shortlist of six, culled from almost 100 international entries.

Set on high ground a mile out of town, the new building forms part of a public-service campus for 3,000 people, which includes the regional hospital and recently built Department of the Environment. The approach route is at first unpromising; a wide, soulless, traffic-engineered entrance road is squeezed unceremoniously between a stained concrete retaining wall and the hospital’s drab mêlée of mono-pitches. But then unexpectedly, the road drops away to reveal the most magical view.

A modernist pavilion sitting on a limestone plinth atop four broad terraces, the building’s prospect could almost define the picturesque. Its panoramic view stretches from the broad estuary, rimmed with a necklace of dark green woodland, past a stage-set of gently rolling hills, before terminating on the distant horizon, broken by the purplish silhouette of Mount Leinster and the Wicklow hills beyond. It makes a truly breathtaking setting, in which the building commands the landscape and urbanises the suburban context.

In a council headquarters civic building like this, the problem of the dichotomy between public and private is handled simply and clearly. The building comprises six brightly lit open-plan departmental blocks, pushed to the perimeter of a large public room and separated by four external courtyards. Its low horizontal form, expressed as blocky massing behind which lurks a ghostly assemblage of heavy geometric shapes, rises in parts from a two-storey datum to five stories at the entrance.

ou could argue the building’s suburban setting and modernist glass cloak is more closely associated with the contemporary business park office. Yet there are clear differences which suggest a timeless quality. It doesn’t aspire to flash populist moves by leaning or bending to the will of a computer logarithm, it isn’t brightly coloured in the latest stripes or zigzags – and that is its strength. Instead it celebrates the familiar, asserts calm, simple control and repays attention; this is not a one-liner.

Wrapping the perimeter completely is an insulating double-skin facade, a glass membrane which extends a metre above the parapet to greet the sky like a delicate crystalline crown. This diaphanous veil also dissolves in sunlight, as if by magic, to reveal in sharp focus six stone monoliths – the individual departments – only to disappear again behind a mask of cloudy reflections; a subtle play of light and shade, form and illusion.

The entrance in the north-east corner, beneath a hovering three-storey stone cube, is minimal. Narrow framed glass doors, supported on umber anodised frames, make the finest of thresholds. Inside, a double-height lobby leads to the cavernous, 85-metre long, 6.3-metre high foyer, the building’s ‘civic forum’.

Offset around this gently shifting spine are eight two-storey free-standing objects. Self-contained buildings in their own right,they each house one of the six departments and two public staircases. Lee likens the scale and proportion of this massive hall to a tacit memory of Wexford’s Main Street, or the rhythm and texture of a classical Roman forum.

Yet, in a move that is counterintuitive to both these noble tropes, the roof is clamped shut. Instead of opening to the sky, a heavy concrete slab darkens and compresses the space. This is a masterly move, which endows the building with a strong sense of place, an effect that transcends the ubiquitous shopping-mall atrium motif and heightens the civic nature of the building.

Cast into the roof on its south side is a pair of narrow rooflights, which illuminate the main reception desk. These, in collaboration with bright laneways between each building, conspire to create a poetic play of light and shade. A constantly changing sculptural vision that unconsciously draws your eye from inside to out, past the departmental reception desks to the carefully framed Slaney beyond, it reveals a fascination with the local.

The materials palette is small, toned down and high quality; Lee admits this is partly a result of the timely tender, in 2007. The floor and external walls of each ‘building’ are clothed in a musty Blue Kilkenny limestone surface, an exquisite stone lining which acts as a kind of minimal panelling system that reduces the impersonality and sheer size of the space.

Elsewhere, the soffit is pale-grey exposed concrete; the seating, designed by the architect, is soft black leather; and the six low intimate reception areas, cleft into the corner of each block, are made of warm oak planks, as are the two public stairs. The timber is inset with full-height glass windows held in polished stainless steel frames, in the spirit of Mies van der Rohe; close attention to detail is asserted throughout. The executive architect, Arthur Gibney and Partners, must also be commended here.

Way-finding for the typically disorientated public almost becomes superfluous in this building. Materiality does much of the work. In the main foyer a hard stone mantle around each block denotes privacy, while the luscious warm oak staircases are naturally inviting.

Simple, clear architecture at this level is a rarity, particularly among young architects. Who, when confronted with their first major commission, isn’t tempted to throw every idea they ever had at it? But not in this case: Lee appears to have side-stepped many of the pitfalls. He shows unusual maturity in his use of materials, restrained palette and monolithic form, suggesting comparisons with the New Art Gallery Walsall by Caruso St John Architects, another breakthrough project.

As well as the rich palette, meticulous detailing and luxurious craftsmanship abound. There is none of the usual compromises or clumsy forgotten junctions. The building is sumptuously plain and enormously tactile; every joint meets perfectly or is separated by the finest shadow detail with distant echoes of Dom Hans van der Laan’s austere, yet beautiful 20th-century convent at Vaals in the Netherlands. It is an essay in controlled, no surprises architecture where nothing is left to chance, and its spatial dynamics are not enslaved by the detail.

As with any architectural project, there are imperfections. In this case it’s the urban design. The council offices and adjacent Department of the Environment, despite the green-field setting, appear incoherent; neither is located or has a landscape design which suggests cognition of the other. Each is self-contained, an independent island that demands, bizarrely, two parallel entrance roads at the front door. There is a missed opportunity where four lanes of tarmac, separated by a narrow planted sliver, remove any sense of shared public space or commonality at the heart of the campus.

Critics of the competition system often argue that it indulges architects who play their own game by engaging in convoluted narratives or pretentious imagery. This building does neither. Its strengths lie elsewhere, in its sense of familiarity that invites people in, and its ability to mediate the spectrum between universal Modernism and the particularities of place. Like Vicenza town hall, this is a civic building that is disciplined yet beautiful. Packed of poesis and reason without reducing the work to meaningless repetition or diminution, the Wexford County Council offices is a building full of rigour and vitality.

Lee is a craftsman architect with the eye of a jeweler. Let’s hope that, in this world of belt-tightening, it is not forgotten that the system of open design competitions has the potential to uncover extraordinary architectural talent.