Thursday 17 October 2019

'Maybe it does take a newcomer like Sarah Jessica Parker to see the beauty in something we have grown up with - and turned our backs on'

Kerry house
Kerry house
Kerry House
Sarah Jessica Parker
Roisin Murphy
Roisin's showhouse

Róisín Murphy

Our countryside is peppered with white houses with black roofs. You might spot the odd bungalow with a bit of stonework or decorative brick. But our love affair with colour is kept mainly for West Cork where the older houses are painted in bright shades. It's even spelled out in planning permissions that the finishes are to be in keeping with traditional materials - dark roof tiles and white or neutral render. Any colour, you might say, as long as it's black or white; any material as long as it's a plaster finish.

But now actor Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City is breaking with tradition by topping her refurbed Donegal holiday home with a lipstick-red corrugated roof.

I have no small obsession with this sort of tin thing. My father was in the army and we lived in houses provided to army officers at the edge of the military camp in Co Kildare. They were large corrugated metal structures that had been used to intern British army officers and German prisoners of war who landed in Ireland during World War II. And it was known locally as ''Tin Town''.

The house was really a glorified shed. Back then, it had black mould all over the inside walls. But it was huge, with servant bells and lots of rooms and presses big enough to play house in. I loved it in spite of the damp and cold.

Eventually, we moved into our own house. When the time came, like a lot of Irish country people, we built on a piece of land that already had a cottage. We were not going to renovate the cottage, we were building the shiny new ''bungalow''. The cottage would provide accommodation for dogs, hens, ducks and anything else, but certainly not for us.

Our new home was built on the brow of a hill overlooking the midlands. It had enormous double-glazed windows and walls pumped full of cavity insulation. This was the thing in the 70s, despite the fact that it breached the cavity by filling it, so that any insulating effect was null and void. The technicalities of cavity construction were new to us then. It was also fitted out with an oil-fired burner, an open coal fireplace with a back boiler, an immersion and double fin radiators, convector radiators, lined velvet curtains and wall-to-wall carpets. We were all set.

Except it was absolutely freezing. Baltic, in fact. Filling the cavity had only made it really cold. And, from a design point of view, it lacked any impact. The cottage, the tin house - both had more interesting spaces and features than our new bungalow. And like most bungalows built then, the process involved getting a set of drawings done but not an architect. So the result was, well, boring.

But it did spark something in me and I went off to study architecture after school. We were inspired to be modernists but also to avoid making too many ''statements'' in rural Ireland as the countryside was already thought to be destroyed by ''bungalow blight''.

A new generation of architects was designing incredibly tasteful housing and taught to use traditional material and forms. Loud ''architectural'' houses were considered almost as bad as the bungalow boom.

At the same time, Australian architect Glenn Murcutt built a metal house on stilts in the outback. He was using corrugated metal in an entirely romantic way and we students were mesmerised by his use of what we thought was a very agricultural material.

I realised you could make modern spaces and yet use old barns (see Urban Agency's Rustic house, pictured). Conservation didn't have to be old fashioned. And modern architecture could steal ideas from old buildings.

One of my first jobs was to design a house for my neighbour and childhood friend. She gave me almost free rein. And surprise, surprise, I designed a big, tall barn-like space with a curved corrugated roof. The Kildare planners were delighted and we got planning permission. My friend, to be fair, was very courageous and said ok. She was delighted with the big barn space but understandably nervous about the curved barn roof. The noise worried her, and a keen debate ensued.

Unlike my fellow TV architect Dermot Bannon, I frequently lose the argument with my clients. So, the roof became a tiled one, and less like a haybarn and more like a warehouse.

If I told my friend now that Sarah Jessica Parker and architects Donaghy + Dimond are embracing the Irish tradition of the metal-roofed barn, I'm still not sure that she would risk it. I remember the noise of the rain on the roof in Tin Town was extraordinary. But I also remember that after a while, we no longer heard it.

So maybe it does take a newcomer like Sarah Jessica Parker to see the beauty in something we have grown up with and turned our backs on. That and the fact that insulation is now so advanced that the corrugated tin roof can come in from the cold.

Roisin Murphy is an architect, artist, and presenter of RTE's 'Home Rescue'

Sunday Independent

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