Saturday 23 June 2018

This architects home is a riot of colour

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan | Photography by Tony Gavin

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A visit to Emmett Scanlon's home reveals straight away that he's not a typical architect; for a start, his house is not minimalist and it's not monochrome.

In fact, the opposite is the case; it abounds with objects - not all designer objects at that, as Emmett himself would be the first to admit - and it's also a riot of colour. Contrasting, even clashing colour.

A look at his website will confirm that first impression. There are very few architects who, in the midst of their portfolio of building and house designs, will title a section 'Songs About Home', but Emmett does.

He also has musings about various topics, including a riff on giving generously, which starts, "Generosity in architecture requires neither eyes nor hands, it is found in the tone of voice". It goes on, "Generosity is when you pick up the phone or send an email to congratulate the other architect who got the job you require". It's not easy to be that altruistic. And it continues in that vein, with many interesting insights.

So Emmett is definitely not your everyday architect, and it transpires he really straddles several disciplines.

Like most architects, he is passionate about design, and he does design buildings, both commercial and residential. However, Emmett - who was born in Damascus when his father was serving with the Irish Army in Syria - has other related strings to his bow. He also coordinates the master's programme in the architecture department in UCD - which involves teaching and research - and he works with the Arts Council as their architectural adviser. "A lot of my work with the Arts Council is about communicating architecture to the public," Emmett explains. "It's about enabling people to engage with architects; to realise architecture is something for everyone; that it's not elitist, or for people with money."

He's passionate about dispelling the myth that architecture is only for people who can afford to employ an architect. "Architecture impacts people in their everyday lives," Emmett explains. "We all live in buildings, we all walk around cities and towns, so all of this is part of our collective right to have a say in what happens to it. So we've been working to fund local authorities and individual architects to make programmes to enable people to engage in a way that is different from the normal commission. You pay an architect to design your house, which is a very special relationship, but it's only open to a certain number of people. This is a way of broadening out the engagement with architecture."

(An example of such engagement would be the annual Open House event - run by the Irish Architecture Foundation, and funded by the Arts Council - in which certain buildings and homes are open to the public on a certain day in the year, and people get to glimpse how other people create homes and live their lives.)

Emmett has also curated several exhibitions. As part of Irish Design 2015, he was involved with New Horizon, about 10 Irish architects; he was one of the 10. "My role was to make an exhibition of the work of the other nine architects," he says. "It was called Nine Lives."

Emmett's mix of disciplines is born out of his twin ambitions for his future when, as a youngster growing up in Cork, he was choosing a career. He was interested in constructing worlds, and at the same time he was interested in interpreting the worlds that we construct. "I guess when I was a child, I drew a lot. There was this notion that architecture allowed you to draw, which I loved, and also to create worlds - a house, a room - there was always something fantastic about that, and the magic of that," he says. "And I thought of becoming a journalist, as I really like writing, too. Again, maybe it was part of the same thing. It was the opposite; maybe not creating worlds, but to understand them, investigate them, piece them together," Emmett continues, adding with a laugh, "Maybe I'm being romantic about both careers, but sometimes you need the romance to keep you going."

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He finally opted to study architecture, and he had the joy of doing his year out at an architect's firm in Rotterdam. "It was really formative, and my understanding of architecture expanded," he says. "Going from Dublin to a city like Rotterdam, which was part old and part reconstructed after the war, was fantastic. Holland was busy, and international, and it was great to see such an energetic architectural culture; to work with amazing architects from all around the world in one office."

When Emmett finished college in 1997 he notes that he was very lucky, in that it was a good time to be an architect in Dublin.

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"It was just the tip of the Celtic Tiger and there was a lot of construction," he says. "I was fortunate that I graduated out into a world that needed architects."

After a year, he got a job with top architectural firm Grafton Architects, and he stayed with them for nine years, making buildings across Ireland. In 2006, he started working for himself, and combines his architecture practice with his other work. He also set up a project in UCD called Rising Home (with architect Orla Murphy), looking at how architects can play a role in the current housing crisis. In addition, he is doing a PhD in Sheffield on the Irish home. "I believe the house, your home, is an ally in how you negotiate your everyday life; a refuge from the challenges of life," he says.

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Many architects are all about the design and the building, but maybe it's because Emmett does so much research for the different aspects of his work, he looks beyond those tight confines and places a lot of emphasis on the community life around a home. He believes it makes for happier individuals, and that's not just theory - Emmett and his partner of 20 years, Philip, have found it works in practice, ever since they moved to a house on the Northside, which they share with their two Jack Russells, Eddie and Fergus.

"What we've found since we came here is a change in our attitude. What we consider house and home has changed. For us, it's become a springboard to the wider community," Emmett says. "The houses are built around a central garden of allotments, and the way they're organised has allowed us to become part of the community, which we've found to be friendly, warm and welcoming."

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They both work in the allotments growing vegetables and, at times, flowers. "We're not farmers, but we love working there. It's about community, sharing and exchanging," he explains.

The couple had completely renovated a house in Sandymount, and were looking to move on when they happened on the house in the Northside. "We loved the house in Sandymount, but we wanted a change. Philip wanted to move to the Northside; I could be anywhere," Emmett says. "We had been invited to dinner by a friend who lived in the square, and we loved the character of the place and the diversity of the neighbourhood. There are people in their 70s and 80s living here since they were born, people who've just come to live in this country, as well as students, and it feels quite dynamic."

The house itself is nearly 100 years old, but strangely had never been lived in; it had been used as a store. It had been renovated before Emmett and Philip bought it - something which would normally put an architect off, but Emmett wasn't phased.

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"It wasn't necessarily to our taste, but all the big work had been done - all the electrics, all the insulation; it was really warm and secure. We painted and decorated," he says. "We've been living together for 20 years, so we arrived with lots of things that meant a lot. We brought our plants and we hung our pictures, and so it didn't take long for us to feel at home. Within a week, it felt like we'd been here for years."

The house comprises a kitchen/dining space and two living spaces at ground-floor level, and two bedrooms and a dressing room upstairs, with an attic converted to an office.

Emmett isn't a huge fan of doing an extension the minute you move into a house - he believes it's best to live in a space first, and he notes that it's often enough to re-work the space.

"I believe buildings have personalities. We said we'd wait and see what works and what doesn't. You can look at a compass, of course, but you need to live in a house to find out where's the best place to have coffee in the morning, or where you want to sit out on a sunny afternoon, so we're being patient," he says, which suggests they may change the design in the future.

They haven't been idle over the last three years. They've put in cork floors; they've painted walls; they've changed the kitchen. They've added their many plants and artworks - they have a fantastic collection of works by mainly contemporary Irish artists. They also have lots of 'stuff' - ornamental figures, mobiles and model dogs.

"I like stuff, not just to acquire it," Emmett explains. "I believe in the power of objects to make you feel at home and to build connections with people."

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All in all, what they've done is taken a house and created a home.

"What we've done, we've done with love," Emmett says simply.

See emmettscanlon.ie

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