A moment of clarity in Irish rural Architecture, a comparison to Japanese houses…

Sometimes, things are so obvious that you still cannot see them even when you are staring right at them. Sometimes you may even see the answer but do not truly understand what you are seeing…

I recently purchased ‘Measure and Construction of the Japanese House by Heino Engel (ISBN:978-0-8048-1492-8 (excellent book btw) and came across the following paragraph:

“…residential architecture [Japanese] is not a particular craft or art to the Japanese, but is just a part of daily life of which everyone has sufficient knowledge to be his own architect. Consequently, the professional architect, as he emerged with the introduction of the West’s new materials and constructions, is as recent as he is little respected, and he is not at all necessary for the design of traditional residences”

Sound familiar? Although separated by thousands of miles, the same can also be said of traditional, Irish rural architecture. What cottage would have been designed by an architect ? Every person designed and constructed their own house, using the materials that were at hand; stones from the fields, odd pieces of timber salvaged from wrecks, mud, reeds. The Irish rural concept is exactly the same as the Japanese where Irish houses followed a similar format, were built using the same methods and using similar materials. There are obviously big differences concerning the modular system of Japanese houses and their construction method but the same concept of using materials that were ‘at hand’ still applies. The size of the dwelling is also a big similarity, cottages were designed to the barest minimum in order to fulfil basic tasks such as sleeping, cooking and eating – you won’t find a wasted inch in either a Japanese or Irish dwelling.

Let’s now take this a stage further… my wife was recently talking about the role of architects in Ireland (she’s not an architect but I have worn her down over time) and that as discussed above, architects were only employed for Churches and civic buildings and as discussed above had little dealing in the design and construction of residential architecture. There was often resentment from the populace over the collections required to construct the magnificent churches to God that were designed by architects. Maybe this feeling still continues that architects only design big, expensive projects that are superfluous to requirements.

So where does this lead us today ?

If you see the rural design guides published by counties such as Mayo (and the excellent book on the Cork design guidelines) you can see that the traditional forms of Irish rural architecture are still recommended; in summary the ‘traditional’ characteristics of the recommended form would be:

* Narrow depth of plan; traditional cottages would have been a single room deep. It is therefore recommended that a maximum depth (front to back) of house should be approximately 7.0m

* Simple forms – Irish rural housing has a basic vocabulary of simple forms; the use of fussy bay windows, complex shapes wouldn’t have existed.

* Traditional detailing – windows would follow a similar format of having a vertical emphasis rather than the picture windows prevalent in the 70’s

If you look at the Mayo County Council Rural House guidelines however, you’ll also see that high quality, contemporary architectural design that is sensitively sited, scaled and detailed will not be precluded.

Over the last few blog posts I’ve been promoting the use of an architect in your projects, so where does this leave us if the general consensus is that the architect isn’t required and anyone can design their own buildings ?

Let’s head back to Japan for a moment; although the architect isn’t required for the purest form of traditional house; Japan is a hot bed of brilliant architects creating exceptional residential architecture; look for example at the work by Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito and Atelier Bow-Wow. These new forms of Japanese architecture still however have similarities to the past; space is at a premium so everything is carefully designed and precise, the boundaries between outside and inside are often blurred and the pure forms are constructed in bold materials such as concrete and glass.

So what should we use an architect for ?

It will be the architect that can create ’high-quality contemporary architectural design’ if you want to deviate from the traditional forms. And even if you want a traditional form the architect will understand the guidelines and will design a house honest to traditional principles without being pastiche; and if he understands modern principles of construction, the house will be economic to build and run.

0 thoughts on “A moment of clarity in Irish rural Architecture, a comparison to Japanese houses…

  1. Liked this post, which I stumbled across through Twitter; thanks. Will be talking a bit about the Mayo Design Guide at some point on my blog: http://www.ruralise.co.uk. I know it’s not really what you’re driving at, but anyone else interested in the tricky territory where modernism meets vernacular should alos look at Dulchas, based on Skye; worth a look.

    1. Thanks, it’s a topic I’m very interested in: how do you avoid the homogeneity of what is considered traditional but moving forward to something more contemporary. The Mayo design guide is heavily influenced by the one done by Cork (available on Amazon) & is worth getting.

  2. Thank you for your blog, I found it on a google search as the entire subject of rural design in Tyrone is a particular annoyance of mine. Why is it mandated to create such a boring low quality, “vernacular”? I suspect they would reject out of hand Frank Lloyd Wright’s contributions. Is there any hope for change?

    In truth architects are not consulted but the housing comes out of a pre approved catelogue of types that can be hilariously out of proportion and are just plane ugly. It put me off building there being a committed modernist currently residing in a gloriously brutalist construction in Highgate, north London.

    1. You’re welcome & many thanks. Some councils (such the one I work in Mayo) are more forward thinking and encourage contemporary design. I don’t know about Tyrone. Don’t forget that most houses aren’t done by architects, clients have little appreciation on what the architect brings to the table and are often going for the lowest price with the results as you can see.

      Would love to see piccie of your house;cthere’s done great work there (plus a lovely cemetary (took kids to see Karl Marx)

      Thanks again


  3. Just as the Japanese economy is celebrated (or used to be) for Sony, Fujitsu, Honda etc. while the generality is mediocre, so Ando, Ito and people like Bow-wow put a nice gloss on the general hideousness of most architecture here. Take a look at some of the designs on this site selling used holiday home on the Izu peninsular http://www.mimoza-r.jp/index.html Of course there are some standout designs, but the generality is awful. Anyway – I’m here in Japan, looking for someone to design a house or an extension me on a perfect site in Kerry. Might you be interested?

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