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A castle at the cutting edge.

On 2 September, Ireland's newest purpose-built space for contemporary art opens in the unexpected setting of Lismore Castle, the Irish seat of the Duke of Devonshire, where architects Jack Coughlan Associates have converted the derelict west wing into a striking modern gallery. Gemma Tipton talked to the duke's son Lord Burlington about the thinking behind his family's bold venture.

Rising above the Blackwater River in Co. Waterford, Lismore Castle's gothic-revival towers and turrets provide a wonderfully romantic vision of the ideal fairy-tale castle (Fig. 1). Inside, one imagines there must be ancient tapestries, stained glass and time-darkened furniture. That is true of one part of the castle, which is still a private family home and not open to the public. But now, another wing of Lismore Castle has been renovated and is being opened to visitors, not as a museum to the castle's past, but as Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland's newest gallery for exhibiting contemporary art.

Set in the idyllic village of Lismore, the castle is the Irish home of the Dukes of Devonshire, whose principal seat is Chatsworth in Derbyshire, one of the great treasure houses of England. In Ireland, the family's tradition of artistic patronage and collecting is evident in the Sculpture Gardens at Lismore (Fig. 8; open to visitors from April to October each year), which contains work by such artists as Eilfs O'Connell and Anthony Gormley.


Lismore is a village with a rich history of its own. At one time it had twenty churches and two cathedrals. Today there is just St Carthage's, a beautiful Church of Ireland cathedral, which contains a stained-glass window designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and made by Morris and Co., one of only two Burne-Jones windows in Irish churches. From the eighth century until the twelfth, the sons of Europe's wealthy and powerful came to Lismore to be educated at the university founded by St Carthage. The Book of Lismore, an illuminated manuscript disinterred from the castle's walls in 1814, includes a translation into Irish of Marco Polo's Travels, a testament to the cosmopolitan outlook of medieval Ireland.

After the dissolution, Lismore was acquired by Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1602 he sold it, together with 42,000 acres, to Richard Boyle, later the first Earl of Cork, for 1,500 [pounds sterling]. Boyle's youngest son, the celebrated scientist Robert Boyle, was born here in 1626. Lismore Castle passed by inheritance to the Dukes of Devonshire in 1753. The major part of the building dates from the early seventeenth century, but in the nineteenth century Joseph Paxton worked closely with the sixth Duke of Devonshire, the 'Bachelor Duke', to restore and remodel the castle.

The decision to create a contemporary art gallery in the west wing of Lismore Castle emerged from the family's wish to open part of the castle to the public, as well as from their long-standing engagement with art and architecture. The present duke's heir, Lord Burlington, better known as the photographer Bill Burlington, explains the reasons behind this decision to include a very contemporary element in the castle. 'Lismore Castle has developed throughout the ages, so there is no reason to stop that development at a particular point in history', he says. Lord Burlington, who has been overseeing the project, describes watching the gallery take shape: 'The wing had been empty and derelict for years, and while the rest of the castle is pretty vibrant, with the family staying and me living there, that part seemed to he disappearing. It was exciting to see life returning to it.'

It is an approach with which architect Gareth O'Callaghan (of the Cork-based conservation architects Jack Coughlan Associates) concurs. 'One of the things we held fast to in the development of our designs for the gallery was the idea of having a contemporary stamp, a contemporary identity for the space. While conservation is very important in a building like this, we're interested in involving the past within the evolving development of the castle.' O'Callaghan had the task of reinterpreting the west wing, part of a listed building, but one ravaged by dry rot and crumbling from disuse (Figs. 4). Jack Coughlan Associates are adept at understanding and working with the conservation needs of sensitive buildings, but combining the requirements of a contemporary gallery with those of a listed building brings its own issues. In addition to potential problems of access (for visitors as well as for works of art), and the preservation of structural and decorative elements, the existing building's 'feel' has to be balanced with the creation of an atmosphere conducive to looking at contemporary works.


Both O'Callaghan and Lord Burlington spent a considerable time assessing different arts spaces. 'For the past two years, at every exhibition I've been to, I've been looking at the design, at the fittings, the windows, the finishes ... rather than the art', says Burlington. So what has inspired him? 'One gallery I love is the Kerlin in Dublin. The Glucksman in Cork is a wonderful space too.' O'Callaghan also cites the Kerlin Gallery as an excellent space. 'I like it for its simplicity, its subtlety and its reduced palette of materials. It also has very good light.'

In Ireland, spaces for exhibiting contemporary art range from the converted seventeenth-century military hospital that now houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art to Cork's Lewis Glucksman Gallery, built in 2004 by O'Donnell + Tuomey architects and on the shortlist for this year's Stifling Prize. Between these two are new-builds such as the Kerlin, designed by John Pawson in 1994. Then there are the spaces that nod to Ireland's (albeit limited) industrial heritage, such as the Linenhall Galleries in Castlebar and in Belfast. There are also spaces owing their proportions and light to the country's Georgian legacy, including the Rubicon and the Origin, both in Dublin; while the Victorians make their mark felt on Belfast's Ormeau Baths Gallery, sited in a former swimming pool.

Every building for contemporary art lends an atmosphere and a qualifying mood to the art on show inside, and Lismore Castle Arts is no exception. At one end of the extreme, the crazy titanium shapes of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao swamp all but the most aggressive art works with their own extravagant gestures; while at the other, the modernism of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, creates an aloof, almost elite aesthetic, where the art on show feels removed into a rarefied world of abstract contemplation. Historic buildings lend their own stamp to the process of viewing, accommodating the contemporary sensibilities of art within an historical narrative, while also creating opportunities for both confluence and contrast.

O'Callaghan believes that a lightness of touch is necessary for success when working with a building that already has its own strong identity. 'A very neutral space is needed, with white walls, but it's also nice to have some reference to the previous history of the building'. He cites examples of spaces in New York's Chelsea and SoHo districts, where sinks and hooks remain as testament to the past lives of a space; and the gantry and crane at Tate Modern. Incorporated into the space at Lismore are the old roof trusses, a stairway, a fireplace (Fig. 3). As O'Callaghan puts it 'these are symbols of the past, they add a different layer of meaning to the space'.


Although the conversion incorporates and accommodates the past, its overall feel is very clean and contemporary. The existing stone walls have been screened off to a height of three and a half metres, and the central dividing walls have been removed, with reinforcing joists placed under the remaining parts of the chimney stacks. There are two main 'white cube' spaces, and an additional circular room, created in a corner tower that is the oldest, medieval part of the castle. This is to be used as a project room, and will undoubtedly inspire some interesting art works and installations. The gallery is approached from the gardens, through what was once an apple store. This provides two ante-rooms, before the main exhibition area is revealed as a beautifully proportioned space for looking at art. The second, smaller space can be entirely blacked out for video and film installation.

Although some exhibitions need blackout conditions, light is still an extremely important aspect of the success of any space for art. Before work had begun, the beauty of the space's proportions was hard to assess, thanks to all the accumulated debris of decades of dry rot and abandonment. But the light that flooded through the deep-set windows was immediately striking (Fig. 2). Christopher Wren once remarked that 'nothing can add beauty to light'; however, a mistake often made with art galleries is for architects to revel in the beauty of light, forgetting the disruption it can cause to installing, and viewing, art. At Lismore Castle Arts the architects have created screen panels that can mask off the windows, and provide additional hanging space, should particular installations call for it. They have also introduced light into the building from above, with the use of skylighting. 'This was an opportunity to provide interesting views and perspectives', says Gareth O'Callaghan. 'So while you can lose yourself in the art, you can also look up and relocate yourself, and become aware again that you are in a castle' (Fig. 6). Lord Burlington, however, notes that in the main, 'visual distractions need to be minimised, so that the art will speak'.


This is an important issue in a relatively small space (the total gallery area is approximately two hundred and twenty square metres, with the Project Room providing an additional four square metres), and, as Burlington points out, it is important to create a flexible environment that will be responsive to the changing requirements of artists and curators. 'A gallery needs to be a versatile space to enable curators to interpret it in various ways, and to be able to include performances as well as installations. You don't want to create a specific, or over-designed route.'

Burlington plans to invite a different curator each year to Lismore Castle Arts to programme a major exhibition. This year, the curator is Aileen Corkery, and the exhibition is a group show, including works by Matthew Barney, Richard Long, Barry Flanagan, Gerrard Byrne, Dorothy Cross, Michael Craig Martin and Richard Billingham. Meanwhile, the administrator, Caitlin Doherty, who comes from Waterford's Garter Lane Arts Centre, will be programming a series of community and outreach projects, working with local schools and groups. There are also plans for a residency programme, so that in the future Lismore Castle Arts will also be involved in supporting artists in the creation of new works. The addition of a contemporary gallery to Lismore Castle is, after all, still in keeping with family tradition.

All photographs illustrating this article are by Paul Tierney

1 Lismore Castle, rising above the Blackwater River in Co. Waterford


2 A window in the west wing of Lismore Castle, photographed before work began on the new gallery that now fills this space.


3 Coolly contemporary: the main gallery space in the newly converted west wing, which now forms Lismore Castle Arts. It was designed by Gareth O'Callaghan, of Cork-based architects Jack Coughlan Associates, who has skilfully incorporated the wing's nineteenth-century roof trusses and brickwork


4 The west wing, photographed before its transformation into Lismore Castle Arts. The wing was derelict and badly affected by dry rot, but the quality of natural light in the space was immediately obvious


5 Plan showing the positioning of Lismore Castle Arts within Lismore Castle. Jack Coughlan Associates


6 Glimpses of the castle are visble through the gallery's roof-lit corridor


7 Plan of Lismore Castle Arts: 1 Entrance from gardens; 2 Reception; 3 Gallery; 4 Round tower, 5 Audio-visual room; 6 Delivery stairs; 7 Lavatories; 8 Audio-visual room; 9 Roof-lit corridor. Jack Coughlan Associates


8 A corner of the castle's sculpture garden: Moonbean by Simon Thomas, 1990.


Lismore Castle Arts opens on 2 September. For more information, tel +353 (0) 5854061.

Gemma Tipton is a writer on art and architecture based in Dublin; her book Space: Architecture for Art has just been published by CIRCA Art Magazine.
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Author:Tipton, Gemma
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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