St Mary’s Church Kilkenny
St. Mary’s Church has been converted into the Medieval Mile Museum. The project combined sensitive restoration and contemporary design to an exemplary standard. The medieval building required some extension for the display of artifacts in a controlled environment; the project became an experiment in the use of archaeology to help define an architectural solution. The chancel had been reduced in size; the nave had aisles; archaeology revealed the presence of extant foundations under the earth. New elements were replaced on these, amplifying the spatial complexity of the structure and developing a sequence of internal views. The new elements are made of timber and lead- lead’s soft malleability a foil to Irish grey stone and sky. The project worked with the nature of the building, providing a new stone floor, repairing materials, leaving exposed a large section of the original timber roof which acts as a focus in the plan.
The approach to the work was based on very careful survey of every part of the building – the team found that the roof was a great and intact early 17th century structure. Walls were examined for frescoes (a small piece of fresco - a red leg - was discovered on one of the columns); the fabric was analysed to try and date the various sections – most of the internal plaster at the lower levels was gypsum and so was stripped, exposing columns, decorated stones and blocked windows. There was an initial project to remove the 20th century interventions after careful record with drawings and photographs; it was only when this was complete that the full majesty of the space was revealed (many decisions had to be taken before that with an idea in our heads). Some things were idiosyncratic realities; when the floors were installed in the space the ceiling at the crossing was removed to provide headroom; the wall separating the Monument room in the North transept from the rest of the church was built in the heaviest concrete and the monuments were literally cemented into them.
Archaeology was used in the exploration - internally to determine original floor depths (the original base of the aisle columns was revealed around 800mm below current floor level). Externally, we asked the archaeologist (Claire Walsh) to see if she could find the original external walls of the nave aisles and the extent of the chancel- the excavation revealed new tombs, the base of the original great medieval tower, which fell in the early 19th century, and a line of aisle walls to North and South.
In developing the scheme for the church, most attention was paid to careful conservation of timber, plaster, slates and stone; every single piece of original fabric that could be conserved was conserved and kept. The new work built on the survey knowledge and historical consciousness of the place, trying to create interventions which were ‘of’ the church, which were contemporary in nature but which grew from its character- like moss or lichen on a stone. As a part of this, the church was taken ‘as found’- elements which were there were left there- there was little attempt (apart from the removal of the 1950’s floors) to recreate a perfect original- the building had evolved and that evolution was respected and new changes would be seen as simply more evolution within that tradition.
One example of this was the ‘hole’ in the ceiling at the crossing; this area- where the plaster ceiling was forensically pulled back - was left in situ, revealing the most dramatic part of the roof timberwork - it plays a remarkable visual role as you move around the finished building. Another was the Monument wall; the monuments in this were so deeply embedded that it was considered unwise to try and extract them and the wall was retained. The sides were cut down to allow passage and the side towards the crossing re-used to hang further monuments, creating a strong visual display element and an intriguing spatial complexity. The floor was also renewed in Kilkenny limestone laid to a pattern like the patterns of old tombs found on church floors; filled with services it was seen as a singular intervention in its own right, set away from the old walls and turning up to form a ramp in the South transept; glass floors were provided to show the archaeology below
In its original form, St Mary’s had acquired depth and complexity in monuments and nave aisles, elements which were later shorn off, the aisles removed, the chancel demolished - a shape expanding and contracting, already through a violent cycle of change. To add to the church, the low walls of the areas which had been removed were re-harnessed as foundations for new extensions on the site of the original, reconstructing the North aisle and chancel to the original plan but a different materiality of timber and lead. The lead was used for its quality of material weight, density and colour - it had affinities with the stone, varied when wet and in sunlight, but had a malleable quality – and an intensity of detail - which was quite unlike the stone.
The new elements restore something of the spatial complexity of the original building and release a dynamic series of fixed and moving views through windows, screens and old arches. The new chancel room overlooks the town, re-establishing its dominant form in the urban landscape; the space beneath it becomes a tomb-filled undercroft observed through a glazed floor; the room is visible through the original East window from the nave; rooflights in the aisles are directed down through the floor to levels of archaeology below.
The project - about observation, looking at and looking through, being still and moving - a gaze and meditation on the past, using archaeology as a generator of ideas - is unique in Ireland in its relationship between new and old fabric - part of the office’s ongoing exploration the relationship between the past and contemporary architecture.
McCullough Mulvin has experience in every kind of project at large and small scale. Its particularity is based on a will to make original and interesting architecture, singular works of their place and time. There is no issue of scale and no house style, more a consistency of exploration. The practice is collaborative, experimental and open.
Our approach is founded on an investigation of the idea of place. Whether this is a city, a site, a history, or a story - using that germ like a landscape to make timeless contemporary structures which play with forms in nature.
The practice is unique in combining Grade 1 conservation skills with cutting edge contemporary design - making innovative projects that fully integrate old buildings and new architecture. This work is sustainable in nature and at the forefront of 21st century debate about the re-use of old fabric.
McCullough Mulvin combines architectural practice with parallel studies in art, literature and film.
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