Terry Pawson Architects - VISUAL & the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow, Ireland Print
Friday, 11 February 2011 08:36

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The new €18 million building provides Ireland with a significant new arts space to showcase contemporary visual arts and theatre of national and international importance. It will function as an arts factory for the production of new work through artists in residence programs as well as providing a new home to the Éigse Carlow Arts Festival and Visualise Carlow, which has established a significant reputation in Ireland in the last 30 years.
Terry-Pawson-visual-binet-02Courtesy of Helene Binet


Unique to Ireland, VISUAL features an expansive gallery space with a ceiling height of 12m to accommodate large-scale sculpture and installation, the scale of which has not been easily accommodated in Ireland to date.
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Located in the centre of Carlow Town in the picturesque setting of the grounds of St Patrick’s College, the new building faces onto a generous grassed quadrangle shared by the College and the town’s eighteenth century cathedral. The building formally closes the quadrangle, firmly embedding the centre in its immediate urban context and the town of Carlow at large.
Terry Pawson Architects won an open architectural competition for the centre, organised by the Royal Institute of Architects Ireland (RIAI) in 2004. The 3,726 sqm 3-storey building occupies a much larger footprint than the original competition proposal, a strategy that was made possible by the council’s approval to remove neighbouring ruined stone wall. The larger site affords sufficient space for the two characters of the centre – the gallery and theatre - to be expressed and unified within one coherent form.

Terry-Pawson-visual-binet-04Courtesy of Helene BinetThe building presents itself as an assembly of different sized volumes clad in opaque glass raised on a concrete plinth, with the largest gallery at its centre and smaller galleries and theatre spiralling around it. Designed to be viewed from all angles, VISUAL confidently asserts its architectural form to visitors who arrive on foot through the grounds of the College and to those who arrive by car from the car park to the rear.

The muteness of the opaque glass harmonises with the neutral grey of the town’s local limestone. The glass provides a blank canvas to absorb natural light in the day and project more dynamic low-level lighting at night. During the day natural light filters into the main galleries creating a calm introspective environment conducive to the production and appreciation of visual art. At night the façade is illuminated, projecting a more exuberant glowing presence for the theatre and performance space.

The entrance, located on the South elevation, opens into a foyer of cast concrete and dark timber which leads up a short flight of stairs to the galleries or left to the George Bernard Shaw Theatre.

There is a clear procession through the galleries; a Link Gallery leads to the Studio Gallery and wraps around the Main Gallery. From the Main Gallery you ascend the stairs to access the black box gallery on the first floor, leaving via a second flight of stairs to complete your route in the foyer.

The Link Gallery with its exposed cast concrete walls, louvered concrete ceiling and polished concrete floor, has a richness and robustness which contrasts dramatically with the luninescent white box interior of the Main Gallery. The side elevation is fully glazed offering oblique views of the outside world across a reeded pond along the building’s perimeter.

Terry-Pawson-visual-binet-03Courtesy of Helene BinetThe Studio Gallery can function as part of a larger exhibition but can also be isolated from the public when in use as studio space by the artist in residence, and accessed via a separate entrance.

The Main Gallery has been designed to accommodate large-scale sculpture. Measuring 28m x 16m x 12 m high it asserts itself externally as the tallest form in the building’s composition. The interior is a pure white box with backlit clerestory windows that flood the space with an ethereal light.

The Digital Gallery is a black box gallery designed to accommodate video art and installation. The George Bernard Shaw Theatre, located in the South West corner of the building, contrasts with the serene neutrality of the gallery spaces and is defined by a deep red feature wall in the foyer bar and red seating in the auditorium. The performance space is designed to ensure optimum and dynamic presentation across all of the performing arts; music, theatre, dance, as well as film and literary readings and associated workshop space.

A café is located on the lower ground floor. It opens out onto a terrace below the main entrance, bringing sociability and conviviality to the forefront of VISUAL.

Project Awards:


VISUAL & the George Bernard Shaw Theatre has been honoured in four awards ceremonies, winning:
• Civic Trust Award 2010
• Irish Concrete Society Building & Overall Award 2010
• RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) EU Award 2010
• RIAI (Royal Institute of Architects Ireland) Irish Architecture Award 2010 for Best Cultural Building.

The jury of the Civic Trust Awards, said:
“The detailing is simple, beautiful and thoughtfully considered and very much in the spirit of the concept of what a gallery should be. The George Bernard Shaw Theatre is very flexible providing an orchestra pit and raised stage area. The building has quickly been adopted by the local community for its own use with local drama groups and youth orchestras using the theatre for both practice and performance.”
Terry-Pawson-visual-binet-01Courtesy of Helene Binet
The jury of the Irish Concrete Society Awards, said:
“The success of the building is the apparently effortless use of large elements, mainly concrete, in sympathetic scale with the gallery spaces. The concrete elements have a textural scale of their own, such as the heavily ribbed slab soffits, the OSB board texture to the walls, which reads like wallpaper, smooth bands within the walls and the polished floors. The concrete walls are well co-ordinated and detailed especially at their base where no kickers were used and also at horizontal construction joints.”

The jury of the RIBA EU Awards said:
“The centre is home to one of Ireland’s biggest annual art festivals, the Eigse. VISUAL was conceived as a permanent hub for this. Midway through the design process, a theatre was added to the brief. The architect has responded with some aplomb… The building has civic presence. The glass-panelled cladding is well detailed and well handled. The cubic massing of the whole building is aesthetically pleasing and blocky. Inside, the plan is simple and legible. All in all, it is a building handsomely delivered.”

The jury of the RIAI Irish Architecture Awards said:
“The elegant sequence of interior spaces, particularly the luminous gallery, is both handsome and flexible. The external treatment is well proportioned and, while reserved, remains expressive in its urban setting”.
Terry-Pawson-visual-binet-05Courtesy of Helene Binet

Project details and credits:


Location: St Patrick's College, Old Dublin Road, Carlow
Area: Gross External area: 4,679 sqm. Gross floor area: 3,726 sqm
Project value: €18 million. Construction value: €12.7 million
Facilities include: Entrance foyer with box office and bookshop, Main Gallery: 28m x 16m x 12m high, Studio Gallery: 9m x 9m x 5.5m high, Link Gallery: 28m x 8m x 5.5m high, Digital Gallery: 10.5m x 10.5m x 6.5m high, Gallery Storage Area, 353-seat theatre, Dressing Rooms, Rehearsal Space, Control Room, Offices: 8m x 12m, Café: 11m x 13m & external terrace

Project credits:
Architect: Terry Pawson Architects
Design Team: Terry Pawson, Jeremy Browne (Project Director), Gustav Ader, Justyna Pollak,
Natalie Galland, Andy Summers, Andy Gowing, Sebastian Reinehr
Commissioning Client: Carlow County Council
Structural Engineer: Arup, Dublin
Services Engineer: Arup, Dublin
Quantity Surveyor: Nolan Ryan Tweeds, Kilkenny
Theatre Consultant: Theatre Project Consultants, London
Acoustician: Acoustic Dimensions, Coventry
Gallery Consultant: Bruce McAllister, Bembridge


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Last Updated on Friday, 11 February 2011 10:06