A version of this piece was published in the Irish Times
Stood with your back to the sea you would have seen an “uninspiring” existing two storey house on a derelict state — “two small windows, a door facing the wrong direction; dark; sat right back into the hill; nothing of any significance or value” says Shane Birney recalling his first visit to the Donegal site where his Derry-based practice where commissioned to design a contemporary family house. But turn around one-hundred and eighty degrees, and in the distance, just beyond the point where Drongawn Lough greets Lough Swilly a vast panorama unfolds, that in the western half-light of the Donegal sky is a view as beautiful as any.
The dramatic view posed a question: “how do we do something that this site, that this view deserves? How will this house fit with the existing landscape?” Quickly followed by the question: “how, in an area where the majority of new houses are traditional in design can we do something modern?” Shane is passionate about the answer to this question.
“You can have a traditional Irish house be that modern or not but the things that people say are traditional are not traditional at all," says Shane. Their recently completed house for a private client in Donegal is an example of what can happen when an architect and client are willing to explore the liminal space between the two. In Shane’s sights are the PVC barge-boards; fake timber cladding; stuck on cornerstones and the mock-Tudor design-by-numbers architecture that gets passed off as the traditional Irish cottage — for ‘cottage’ think ‘bungalow’ and for ‘traditional’ think anything but the rich vein of centuries-old heritage of Irish residential architecture, that if you look hard enough, can be seen dotted across the rolling hills of Ireland’s pastoral landscape. “We’ve got a thing that has become stylised and there is no resistance to that; there is no thinking about it.”
Shane Birney Architects have taken the ‘resistance’ to Fahan Co. Donegal where, with a simple, beautifully conceived, modern house they have taken on what Shane calls the “you’ll not get that around here; we’ll never get that passed” attitude. You’d be forgiven for detecting a hint or architects-arrogance about Shane’s mission — his modern and contemporary way or the highway — this is anything but. “It's not the client's fault”, there is a humility, a graceful air about Shane. He is not interested in forcing his ideas onto people, nor is he interested in sitting back and allowing the all too common ‘emperors new clothes’ attitude to architecture to prevail. “it’s our fault as a profession, it’s what we’ve fed people, so it’s what they are used to.” He’s referring to the uncontested all-to-familiar narrative arc of: buy a site, pick a plan out of the book, the same plan as the house on the opposite side of the road, and without pause for thought build said ‘traditional’ house with the above-mentioned plastic materials. “There’s not enough people fighting that in Donegal — it’s such a beautiful part of the world, it deserves better.”
As important as the view from the site is the starting point for the scheme was the view from the lough shore back towards the site. Spending time walking the shores of the Lough, looking back at the strata of the millennia-old gently undulating hills, gave Shane a better sense of how his desire to do something very much rooted in the modernist tradition might sit with ease in the surrounding prehistoric landscape. The result is the antithesis of the shy and reclusive existing house. A series of carefully proportioned glazed rectangular forms open the house up to views across the bay while the eaves create strong horizontal lines — a simple, and when viewed from the lough, very successful layering of forms that makes reference to the geological strata of the surrounding hills.
“The planners were really helpful," says Shane, despite what people might think, “they are not anti-modern design they just wanted something that had a relationship with the landscape’.” Remarkably the scheme was passed, without a condition, by the planners within 6 weeks and has also created quite a bit of local interest. The practice, Shane tells me has had 15 new commissions from local people who have seen the scheme and realised that it is possible to do something like that in Donegal. “It isn’t people who say we want a house and here’s a plan, it’s people who have now seen that you can do something different, that the planners are open to things.” While there have been obvious benefits for the practice Shane would rather focus on the benefit that good design — be that ‘modern’ or PVC-less-traditional’ — can bring to the local area.
Shane has detected a new-found willingness among many of his clients to think differently about what kind of designs they might want. He wonders if this is the result of the likes of Dermot Bannon promoting more contemporary design ideas through the media. “Whether you love him or you hate him, he’s changing peoples ideas, opening a door, ” says Shane, “if you go down that route” the modern and contemporary "or you decide to go down a different route it’s opening the door for the conversation which makes it easier. People are beginning to ask: can we do that?”