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Entrance hall at International Rugby Experience

Limerick has been coined the City of Churches. The third-largest city in Ireland boasts more places of worship on its main street than any other town in the country, and its skyline of spires has defined the city’s architectural language. But Limerick boasts another claim to fame as the country’s rugby capital. The city’s newest architectural landmark, the International Rugby Experience — a museum and cultural institution — expertly marries these two references. Designed by 2022 Stirling Prize winner Níall McLaughlin, the building was conceived as a “cathedral” for the sport.

International Ruby Experience as seen from the street

Located in the heart of Limerick’s Georgian Quarter, the International Rugby Experience occupies a prominent corner site on O’Connell Street, the city’s main shopping drag, on the edge of a conservation area. McLaughlin’s sensitive approach considered this context while ensuring the building’s program remained top of mind. The resulting project embodies the quiet grandeur of a civic building, informed by research of historic Georgian architecture, referencing the scale of churches and city halls.

International Ruby Experience as seen from the street

The tight urban site forced McLaughlin to build up rather than out, stacking the programs seven storeys high. From the street, the façade evokes a sculptural quality, with deep vertical brick piers and horizontal pre-cast concrete elements creating a series of recessed bays designed to complement the proportions of the adjacent streetscape. Though locals have criticized the building’s lack of windows, citing concerns about the ability to repurpose the building for other uses in the future, the balance of openings and solid wall has been carefully considered to reflect the inward-facing exhibitions.

Entrance to International Ruby Experience

Visitors enter via a grand portico off the busy main street, which forms a sheltered public space where spectators can gather on game days to cheer on local favourite Munster Rugby. Inside the brick-clad entrance foyer, a spherical sculpture designed by millimetre now hangs from the double-height space. Its function is two-fold, acting as both an art piece and a global map of rugby clubs and international teams, illuminated by glass lenses.

Double height space made of brick and concrete

Beyond its role as an interactive museum, the International Rugby Experience seeks to reinvigorate Limerick’s city centre as a community hub, complementing the existing local arts and heritage attractions. To this end, the ground floor retail space highlights artisanal wares from local producers. Visitors can get a better view of the entrance sculpture from the first-floor mezzanine, where a café broadcasts live rugby games. Throughout, handmade red bricks and matching pigmented concrete establish a monochromatic material palette.

Close-up of scalloped brick walls and vaulted pigmented concrete ceiling

Níall McLaughlin also collaborated with exhibition designer Event Communications to ensure the interior architecture and interactive installations were aligned. The six-zone immersive experience begins on the ground level, where a wall of screens evokes a locker room. Alongside more traditional exhibitions, a double-height sports hall on the second level allows visitors to hone their kicking, passing, running and tackling skills. Winking at the flashiness of sports arenas, a bold red steel stair guides visitors through the state-of-the-art experience, winding up the pigmented concrete core.

Red steel staircase leading up to the visitor experience
Staircase with pigmented concrete walls and red railings

The other spaces, meanwhile, take a more subdued approach, with a subtle interplay of light and shadow animating the scalloped brick walls and vaulted concrete ceilings, which become more complex as you ascend. “The building shows the way that the individual parts are knitted together to show a kind of strength,” McLaughlin explains.

Hall at International Rugby Experience showing canted vaulted ceiling

The experience culminates with a glazed public hall which offers panoramic views of the city, the River Shannon and the surrounding landscape. Along with a multi-purpose space in the building’s basement, the uppermost level will host exhibitions, educational programs such as lectures, and a variety of cultural and civic events for locals and tourists alike.

Upper level of the International Rugby experience showing views of Limerick

While visitors will come for the view, they might stay for the architecture. Here, a vaulted concrete ceiling complete with skylights makes for a sculptural showpiece, designed to express the game of rugby’s torsional forces. “I was trying to think about a way in which architecture could speak to the ethos of rugby. Rugby is all about people creating these very strong bonds together for an instant. It’s an extraordinarily complex thing,” says McLaughlin. This structure also serves as a metaphor for the strong social connections within the rugby community.

Upper level of the International Rugby experience showing vaulted pigmented concrete ceiling

This expressive moment is the grand finale of McLaughlin’s masterful choreography. “People often think you’re designing a building like an object. But actually, when I’m designing a building, it’s more like a novel or a movie or a play,” he explains. “Each space should be like an episode. And what you want is to make sure you’re saving something really good for the end.”

The International Rugby Experience is a New Architectural Landmark for Limerick

The building, designed by 2022 Stirling Prize winner Níall McLaughlin, is a contemporary riff on its historic Georgian context.

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