Butler Gallery, the new contemporary art gallery in an existing stone almshouse
McCullough Mulvin Architects
The project was to make a new contemporary art gallery for the Butler Gallery in an existing stone almshouse - a two-story H-shaped stone block located in the centre of a walled garden. The site’s deceptive simplicity masks deep layers of history which influence its form and character; density - different ways of moving and looking - came from the brief and found a willing engine in the existing building.
The brief sought three types of gallery space - a large gallery for temporary exhibitions and two types of gallery for permanent collections, as well as a café, storage space, a shop and an Education space for children. The building plan which - like many Irish things - had to be looked at twice to understand, was completely symmetric, but mirrored - not centred; there were two staircases, two identical wings.
The architectural response encompassed - Russian doll-like - the nascent possibilities within the building itself, then the connection between inside and out, and the relationships between the almshouse and the walled garden. Unlike a country house, the almshouse’s simple undecorated nature and the rhythmic increment of cellular rooms supported a more radical process of intervention aimed at enrichment of the basic form, a (substantially reversible) layer over the existing which left many rooms essentially unchanged. Spaces were excavated from cellular rooms in all three blocks, but not in a way that reflected the symmetry of the plan; the North wing became a double height temporary gallery; two rooms were connected in the central block to form a café space; two rooms in the South block made an education space and lecture room. Secondary linkages were formed by opening walls on one or the other side of the chimney breasts, creating new circulation routes within galleries. Difference is cherished; some spaces are contemporary in concrete and plaster, some restored in lime plaster with a pentimento of original surfaces; others lined out, an inner surface cut around window embrasures.
By contrast, the exterior of the building is only slightly altered, with two metal boxes alone signifying transformation - these contain a media gallery as well as stairs and WC’s; internal rooms echo the forms and shapes of the garden enclosures - they are without hierarchy - a chessboard of possible art spaces, some enclosed, some in the open air. This implicit flow of space created a celebration of liminality; new ramps are built pinwheel fashion on the front and rear elevation, creating new circulation routes. Old materials are cleaned, left to be themselves, the new is matched against them - doors and the art boxes in sharp primary metal; the new ramps and walkways in the garden in smooth concrete.
A section of the perimeter wall towards the river was removed after archaeological and historic analysis, opening the new gallery to the city for the first time. A giant Potemkin-like concrete ramp cut into the slope - the most significant intervention of the project - with secondary ramps toiling up and around an archaeology garden and art display space.
The project is about contemporary art in nature, history and the new dialogue needed to advance subtle yet radical architectural interventions into existing buildings. The Butler is an essay in sustainable design - energy sustainability without compromising the historic character, in the exciting re-use of existing structures - and a form of cultural sustainability in creating an art space in the context of a monastery garden.
Making shelter has to reckon with the recalibration of architecture; space can be simple, beautifully proportioned, open-ended, well-lit - or a gritty version of ‘found’ imprinted with time. It can also be something in between, subtle modulated spaces with drama in circulation and sequence. Finding the grit in that particular oyster is the stuff of architecture; designing in and around existing buildings - managing the awkward geometries of older things - can profoundly alter the balance.
The old building was already a piece of contextual art - a pure geometry astride the asymmetrical context of monastery walls. In the history of architecture, this would be definitively a Neo-Classical object, but the garden also covers the remains of a monastic cloister; there are underground walls everywhere; the plan of one institution lies suggestibly beneath the other - already a phenomenon of layering, of crossed ideas.
The scheme reversed the closed mirror geometry of the plan, using small intensities to turn it inside out and bone it like a side of meat. The central dividing wall was removed or penetrated. Important functions - the temporary gallery on one side and two metal-clad boxes slightly angled to one another containing new stairs, lift, WC’s and a media gallery on the other - were placed at either extremity with circulation running over and back between them. This revised, disturbed context released space for new things to happen against a slightly de-natured version of the past. The relationship between the almshouse and the garden - the implicit outdoor rooms created by the projection and recession of the elevations - were developed to become a series of unique spaces made by vegetation, walks and single facades.
The project opens up a quarter of Kilkenny city heretofore inaccessible to the public, new traces and songlines will develop out of the route from John St. to the river Nore and over the gallery and its garden straddling and engaging with the historical foundations of the city.
McCullough Mulvin Architects is a Dublin-based practice working internationally and in Ireland. Our projects express a deeply held ethos that the purpose of architecture is to explore place and time in context. Our work is based on sustainable principles of designing for people and respect for our material culture - which may sometimes mean not building, or building less. A particular expertise is in making carefully crafted new interventions to existing fabric, where our understanding of history combines archival research with years of judgement of individual site conditions. This is evident in a portfolio of work which balances the materiality of fine old fabric against appropriate contemporary interventions. Recent work includes: Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, Ireland (nominated EU Mies van der Rohe Award 2022), Thapar University Learning Laboratory in Patiala, India (DETAIL Reader’s Prize 2020) and Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, Ireland (nominated EU Mies van der Rohe Award 2019).