7 April 2010

An Off-The-Pitch Incident


Architects ∕ Buildings ∕ Home Made

The Seven Heads are a series of headlands in County Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland. A walk along the Seven Heads brings you through the village of Meelmaan (also spelled Meelmane), which is little more than two rows of 6 or 7 houses facing each other as the road slopes steeply towards, and abruptly ends at, the edge of Broad Strand. You will see this striking cottage there.
Meelmaan Cottage

It is difficult at first to put your finger on what is odd about this cottage, especially when you are standing there beside it. Fortunately, the local walking guide tells you what you’re looking at:

” … Some of the old houses have been renovated or knocked, and new houses built. Meelmaan has the unique distinction of a number of cottages with roof ridges which parallel the steep downward slope of the road, so that the gable at the top end is some five feet higher than that at the bottom. It has been suggested that if children had their bedrooms in the attics, they would move from the lower end to the higher end as they grew. It seems that the same unsung artisan was the author of most of the village houses, and ruins showing his original feature also remain. One hopes that those refurbishing the latter for holiday homes will retain this priceless feature of design.”

The remark at the end of this quote about renovations in Meelmaan is perhaps more pointed than it might first appear, when we look at what has in fact been built in recent years.

Pitch Perfect, Pitch Imperfect

The new holiday homes, with their inauthentic, non-artisan aesthetic, are indeed less interesting and even more soulless, but on what grounds can we make an objection to them? Surely the needs, materials, skills and circumstances of the present day are just as contingent and worthy of authenticity as the conditions that prevailed in the old days? These concerns come to mind in the aftermath of Slab’s recent intervention in the renovation of the Hejduk Tower, a renovation which paid little heed to the spirit of the original design. When I contacted an architect friend about ‘the petition to save the Hejduk Tower from defacement’, as this site put it, she replied that she would happily sign not because she is a fan of Hejduk, which she is not, but because (in her words) she knows ‘how it feels when people mess up your design with crappy add-ons – though most of us just have to live with it and hope that the building design is robust enough to take it’.

My point here is a general one about the idea of saving a certain kind of built environment: if change must come, given that buildings age and must be renovated, then does there come a point when the thing that you are trying to save has stopped existing anyway, just as the circumstances in which it was built have also stopped existing? What exactly are we trying to save when we try to save valued buildings?

Slip Sliding Away