North County Dublin has a special character- the ancient plains of Fingal unfolding along the Irish Sea in a series of intimate bays, named rocks and inlets; the Romans made their only foray into Ireland on the shore here. The land is good; the traditional occupation market gardening- nowhere so much as in the town of Rush, where a peninsula cut by a straggling main street leading to the harbour generated a gridded landscape of vegetable plots, now overlaid by a suburban sprawl which owes its particular form to the network of fields it stands on. You can still step onto the earth and pick up a cabbage; low verdure is plentiful, reflecting the natural curve of landscape.
St Maur’s Church dominates the village green on the Western edge of the town; the church stands on the site of an 18th century chapel but looks irreproachably Victorian, pink surrounds and grey stone walls ( once rendered against the wind driven rain off the sea), Gothic windows and tower; it was deconsecrated and served as an arts centre until 2007, when the local authority, Fingal County Council, commissioned McCullough Mulvin Architects to transform it into the town library.
The process of the work combined a careful investigation and conservation of the existing structure with a particular concern for the rescue of ordinary materials, and making a distinctive modern intervention into it to hold the new facilities. The old is equally valued; in theory old and new, equally cherished, gain by proximity to one another- as much about tones and the way light falls on surfaces as formally made rooms and structures. Minimal repair was taken as the approach; the roof was repaired using natural slates; the Gothick ceiling carefully cleaned down, the monuments pieced together, windows re-leaded, the typical wood-grained doors and lobbies conserved, the value of ordinary, even humdrum, elements of religious life taken as valuable in themselves- an absence of excluding judgement regarding the building as found.
Buildings of the Catholic religion in Ireland are usually of the 19th century and usually carry with them the emotional baggage of an oppressive past- some real, some imaginary, a particular local sensitivity that links the hardness of these finishes ( and a particular range of colours- pink and Virgin Mary blue ) to a perceived hardness or inflexibility of religious expression. In the approach to the work, this energy was transmuted, the elements imperceptibly adjusted, a game played out between intense religious origins and the new civic requirements for seating space, bookshelves and a gallery area.
The essential geography of the existing building – the cruciform plan providing a route from the main West door to the altar- highly symbolic as the image of crucifixion and the way of the cross- was re-utilised; the main entrance remains as the library door with the chancel retained, but with some brickwork construction exposed, making a highly coloured space at the focus of the building- the same focus as in the original space, intensified, a found space for art. The main body of the interior was painted white on a lime plaster base, uplit, luminous, space and the detail of space covered in a single surface. In one way, it has become a ghost of itself. One –arbitrary- hole is cut into the ceiling plane, revealing the private structure of the roof zone, now turned to a service chamber- revealing a strange additional light into the volume of the church – in a manner the hand of God through the diaphanous layers of Gothic vaulting. The confessional cubicle became a music listening booth.
The intervention is formed as an undulating walnut plane which fills the nave running across the floor and up on both sides; the shape is barely contained, pushing tensely against the shell of the existing building. On plan, it ( and that of the main desk running aross it ) is like a clump of seaweed, a reference to the marine location ( when opened, the foundations were built entirely on sand ); in section, it forms an inverted U- with two galleries, one narrow, the other – wider- supporting a meeting and performance room. The section plays on the memory of galleries in Penal chapels, galleries this church never had, with their rows of faces close to the altar as in a small theatre. The space between the galleries, taut and formed like a city street, deforms the route from entrance to ‘altar’, forcing it to meander, glimpses of a coloured termination lost and found again- a central chandelier a reminder of the orthogonality of the plan. A screen in the art space repeats the geometry of the intervention on a smaller scale. Secondary functions were located in the network of sacristies and side chapels
Existing buildings always play a double game- and reveal what is unexpected; the work to make the intervention revealed- despite exhaustive tests before the contract began- an archaeology of walls belonging to an earlier 18th century chapel- change challenged by a hidden weave in the fabric; the walls were carefully excavated and incorporated into the project, visible through glass in the floor near the entrance.
Externally, the concreted over churchyard became a garden, strips of concrete inset with names of the town and the library interspersed with drainage channels planted with grasses and vegetables, the spirit of the graveyard- and the towns agricultural basis- extended for a new generation.