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Thursday 18 January 2018

Movies: Grand designs ***

Paul Whitington

In the late 50s and early 60s, an intrepid group of young Irish architects became involved in the planning and construction of Catholic churches and parish halls for the African missions.

Frustrated by the lack of new building in Ireland at that time, they embraced with relish the challenge of effecting vast and sometimes grand projects in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and elsewhere.

Their stories and experiences form the subject of this meticulously constructed film by documentary-makers Paul Rowley and Nicky Gogan.

Using a mix of interviews and incredible archive footage of the missions, Rowley and Gogan explore this little known and surprisingly neglected aspect of recent Irish history.

Sometimes the young architects supplied plans and drawings of buildings they would never see, but many projects involved on-the-ground supervision in conditions very different than those experienced at home.

Their designs were adapted to cope with central Africa's searing heat, and were often made using whatever came to hand. One community approached an architect with the following proposition: over the years they'd made tens of thousands of concrete blocks -- could he turn them into a church?

What strikes you, looking at the results of all this work, is how attractive modernist buildings of this period tended to look on paper, and how awful once they were built.

Some of these churches have since been destroyed, and those that survive have not always weathered well, but the details of their construction makes for a fascinating story. Build Something Modern, though, could have told it better.

In one sense Gogan and Rowley bring commendable imagination to bear on their narrative, using collage, animation, ingenious framing effects and a very clever soundtrack to bring their story to life.

But they're a little too impressed with all this technique, and their film could have gone a lot further in exploring and explaining an extraordinary collision between architecture, modernism and the Catholic missions.

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