Tuesday 17 January 2017

Striking Ranelagh home is an example of outstanding architecture

With the same footprint as an average 3-bed semi, this Dublin home, on view at Open House, shows what good architecture can achieve.

Caroline Allen

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

The exterior shows the curved nature of the site;
The exterior shows the curved nature of the site;

If you're contemplating building - or just enjoy nosing around other people's houses - you're in for a treat over the next few weeks as Open House, the annual architectural feast of properties, tours and talks, takes place. The outstanding architecture showcased ranges from the newly restored Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Street Barracks to sneak peaks behind Belfast workplaces.

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One of the most inspiring is at No 6 Athlumney Villas in Ranelagh. Built on a tight, awkward-shaped urban site, it shows how sometimes a tricky plot can trigger the most innovative design. This home sits amid an eclectic range of buildings that include a 1970s office block, the small terraced houses of Athlumney Villas, built circa 1905, and the late Georgian dwellings on Ranelagh Road - all in the shadow of the copper-domed Rathmines Church.

Joseph relaxes among the rooftops
Joseph relaxes among the rooftops

"When this road was built, part of the garden of No 8 was sliced. I bought the site when it was a rubbish dump in 2004," says owner Joseph Kearney of the piece of wasteland. "I had lived in Ranelagh for 25 years previously and doodled designs on sites I passed. This one intrigued me because of its triangular shape."

The sudden death of his wife and the start of early retirement caused him to feel at odds in the family Victorian home. "More conventional sites were expensive as it was the beginning of the boom, so I approached the owner of this site - without competition - and we agreed a sale subject to planning permission."

The original architect was unable to continue due to work commitments abroad, and Tom Maher of TM Architects came on board. While Joseph admits he tended to look at the project in terms of restraints, Tom saw opportunities. When he presented his vision for the two-bed abode, Joseph saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to commission a serious piece of architecture in a footprint of 105 sqm. "It's around the size of an average three-bed suburban semi and a good deal smaller than the house I left," he observes.

"Tom regards design as a process where you continually develop your ideas right up to the build time and even beyond that," Joseph says. "He asked if I was willing to take that on. The design became even more radical as he developed it, but it got through the planning process. One of the restrictions was that it had to be built into the pointy end of the site and had to be as far away from the main house on Ranelagh Road as possible. This meant that whatever we went for, it wasn't going to be a conventional solution. You can't build a square house on a triangular plot."

The result is a curved design that starts on the roof deck with its projecting ceiling and Canadian maple interlining, and carries down to form the floor of the living room. It's an 'upside down' house with the bedrooms and main bathroom on the ground floor; the living area and study on the middle floor; and the kitchen/dining zone at the top, opening onto a triangular roof deck.

The same materials were used inside as out: Sapele or African mahogany on the flooring and copper on the roof, picking up on the dome, and internally on the ground floor ceiling. "The roof structure is part of an elipse - it curves around and under to form the ceiling of the ground floor. In effect the roof structure contains a two-storey volume of which the top floor is a mezzanine," he says. Copper features on the staircase enclosure.

Clockwise from main, the house reveals itself slowly – the Venetian corner seat is inspired by the Tortelli painting. Photographs by Ros Kavanagh
Clockwise from main, the house reveals itself slowly – the Venetian corner seat is inspired by the Tortelli painting. Photographs by Ros Kavanagh

The walls inside and out are finished in a plaster called Parex. "The idea was that with such a small space, the interior and exterior would flow into one another, just as the inside spaces flow into one another," says Joseph. Both staircases are steel, one finished in white ships' paint and the other in copper paint.

Joseph refers to the 'summer bedroom' and the 'winter bedroom.' 'Summer' opens onto the courtyard, while 'winter' is more enclosed and womblike, looking onto the street. "In the 'winter' bedroom you can look up and see the image of the roof deck because the light is reflected through 90 degrees by means of an angled mirror," he says.

The kitchen/living mezzanine opens onto the upper deck
The kitchen/living mezzanine opens onto the upper deck

Furniture is mainly mid-century reproductions such as the Erno Saarinen table and the Eames dining chairs. There's an original Le Corbusier recliner, with the odd IKEA piece. To make the most of the compact space, many of the pieces, such as the beds, are built in.

This is a house that reveals itself slowly and is full of surprises. After a long build process, eventually project managed by his son, Alexander, using direct labour, Joseph revels in the marvel that is this modern masterpiece. "I love living in it. A lot of people are quite mystified by it. It can take time to work it out."

The Kearney house can be seen on a first-come basis as part of Dublin Open House on October 15, 11am-5pm and on October 16, 12-5pm. See openhousedublin.com for more. Open House Limerick runs today, October 9; see openhouselimerick.ie; Open House Belfast, delivered by PLACE, will be held from October 21-23; openhousebelfast.org

Entry is via a courtyard
Entry is via a courtyard
The copper staircase enclosure
The copper staircase enclosure
An original Le Corbusier
An original Le Corbusier
one of two eye-catching steel staircase
one of two eye-catching steel staircase

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