The Swiss-born Irish architect is friendly and chatty but intense. Níall Mclaughlin pays attention to what you say and chooses his words carefully. He set up his own practice at the age of 27 in 1990, soon after he completed architecture studies at University College Dublin and moved to London: “There aren’t many places where a complete outsider can set up an architectural practice and be taken in. I am very fortunate to have received the kind of reception I’ve had.”
Teaching seems to be an integral part of being an architect for McLaughlin. He has been teaching at UCL Bartlett for almost as long as he has been running his studio. Originally, Mclaughlin says he wanted to be a writer. When he was 17, however, he came across the ABK Architects-designed Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin, in front of which he experienced “something like love.” He remembers, “it spoke to me in a really clear way. Standing in the rain and looking at it, I thought, maybe I could do architecture.”
The practice had been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize three times previously: with a chapel for Ripon College in Oxfordshire, in 2013; an affordable housing development in East London in 2015; and with a teaching facility for Worcester College in Oxford in 2018. In 2022, it was fourth time lucky. I congratulated Níall Mclaughlin for his win with New Library at Magdalene College in Cambridge and the conversation flowed.
Yuki Sumner: What clinched it this time, do you think? Have you developed a winning formula?
- Níall Mclaughlin
I’m not sure if you can develop a formula, as it’s bit of a shape-shifting thing. It depends on the year and it changes over time. What would be seen as virtue in the Stirling Prize a decade ago probably wouldn’t be seen as virtue now.
We were lucky to have the kind of jury we had this year. They just wanted to come in and talk about the project as a piece of architecture and wouldn’t have any other conversations. The year when our chapel was nominated, jury seems to be more concerned about why a chapel should be on the shortlist or what message that carried.
I noticed that the painter Chris Ofili was on the jury this year – what sort of questions was he asking?
He was very, very interested in the individual experience of people in the building. So he wanted to know, what is that student doing? What is that student feeling?
The new library does offer a variety of experience — and a journey through the space. You have, on one hand, created these wonderful quiet corners for students to disappear into. At the same time, you have designed areas where students sit out on a balcony, almost as if there are on stage performing. They are highly visible to others because they are situated right in the middle of the interconnected rooms.
We nicknamed those seats you are referring to as “prima donna seats.” One of the things I’m interested in is the psychology of the reader and also the different kinds of readers.
The library is on a tartan grid system. What is not legible in the plan is that there are these three dimensional diagonal vistas, which open up when you go through the space. This rotational character can introduce a lot more variety into your experience of the space. You’re both contained and interconnected within it.
Would you say your skill is in the melding of two very different world orders? You are working against what seems to be a very rigid, formal setting. I was told that there was a condition in the will left by the diarist Samuel Pepys, dictating that the collection of books he bequeathed to Magdalene College had to be placed in a particular order inside a particular cabinet, lest the whole collection went to Trinity College. So there is this old library frozen in time next to yours, which is, in contrast, very open and has a great deal of freedom and flexibility.
It’s about the relationship between the underlying order and the playfulness. The library is a launchpad for all of these inner journeys — to go off into other worlds. For that to occur, it can’t just be a kind of a jumble smorgasbord of different conditions or situations. It has to exist within a deeper organizational framework. The building has a very rigorous organizing principle with a legible system that allows people to work out for themselves how the whole thing is put together.
You work is beautiful and elegant but — I can’t quite find the right word for it, and please don’t get offended by this — there is a certain oddness to your work?
Don’t worry, it doesn’t trouble me. I like your frankness. I think that what you sense is this kind of strange flipping occurring in the building. Are the chimneys there because they look a bit traditional or because they are part of the ventilation system of the building? Is the row of pitched roofs on the building simply emulating the roofs of the traditional buildings around it or are they also lanterns that bring light into the building? Is it an abstract, ungrounded, almost scientific, rational thing or is it an outcome of ancient practices that just continue from generation to generation?
Tell me more about working with colleges*. You have worked with a few…
Colleges are like little monasteries around the university. Students live in these colleges. Each college has its own tutors, its own libraries, its own resources. So it has to offer the right kind of homes for the students. There is a sense of institutional domesticity. It’s quite interesting because students are thrown in with people from all sorts of different backgrounds in these colleges so there is a kind of cross-fertilization that occurs there.
The Master of Magdalene College at the time was Rowan Williams, who had been the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is very quiet but speaks with incredible authority. One day, he brought me into his room and he said, you know, Níall, the winning scheme, it’s a very nice library, but it feels more like a university library to me. This is a college library – I wonder if there is something you can do, to think about the domestic nature of the college…? It was something to do with scaling down, sort of making it less singular, less grand.
They also ask you lots of difficult questions about what you are doing but you don’t have to be defensive. You can say, well, this is why I’m doing this and people will listen. In the academic world, that’s what they do, ask questions.
I don’t draw all that much when I work. I tend to think in conversation, so it’s fine with me. Like today, you’re asking me questions and that makes me think.
You also talk about teamwork. You name and give credit to Tim Allen-Booth, Project Associate, and Claire McMenamin, Project Architect, for their contributions. How do creative collaborations work in your office?
It’s not like I’m saying everybody here has all the ideas and we just mix them all together. One person might say, could we look at it that way? Another will say, let’s try look at it this way. So it’s very dialogic. It’s also about knowing people well and paying attention to them. Even if they say very little, you can tell from the quality of their silence whether they are with you or not.
Did the design change much since 2014, when you won the competition?
If you look at the competition-stage drawing, it’s very different from the final design.
One of the things I strongly sensed right from the beginning was that I wanted it to be a brick building because it was surrounded by these other extraordinary brick buildings. Something else was seeing the ancient yew trees, as old as the building next door, standing near the entrance area. I immediately thought — wouldn’t it nice to rise from the shade of these trees and go on a journey towards the light?
That makes sense. You describe that “air rises and light falls” in your building.
And when you get to the end of that journey, there would be a view over the river. I’m a reader myself. I wanted to be surrounded by books. I wanted the books to sort of be the architecture.
Did you look at other libraries?
I would look at properties of certain buildings — and how that might be amenable to them being good libraries. Some of those buildings would naturally be libraries but others might not. This comes from the idea of architectural practice being something that grows out of itself.
The level of craftsmanship in your library is impressive. It feels solid. You have designed something that would last for hundreds of years, as per the brief.
Alvar Aalto said that architecture was like cooking. We could say also it’s like gardening or even like a surgeon performing a surgery. Architecture is a practical activity which, when it’s conducted with sufficient grace, is capable of being profoundly meaningful in a way that cooking or gardening or surgery or other things can be, to people. Thinking and making should be seen as a unified activity.
You talk about using pieces of timber for window treatments on the exterior façades, which will eventually turn silver from weathering and look more like stone. Do you think that such a long-term thinking is now vital to the survival of architecture? I mean, every building is potentially a ruin, right?
I am interested in the relationship between timber and stone. Some archaeologists say that the absolute distinction we have between timber and stone might not have been as clear to the Neolithic people. If you look at the history of architecture, you see this thing, of transformations back and forth between timber and stone throughout.
A nice way to think about what you said about all buildings being potentially a ruin is how you can save a building from being a ruin by constantly performing operations on it. It’s a process of ongoing repair and alterations. Over time you would get a dialogue between different sets of intentions, creating a sense of temporal depth.
I read that you took your students to Orkney in Scotland and got them to draw together and reflect on what Neolithic settlers might have done building things together, to gain the understanding of architecture as “an embodiment of communal processes subject to endless renewal.”
Something happens when you start to build in the same place over and over, because the act becomes symbolic. What’s new becomes the representation of the old. It is a form of history making. Or, to paraphrase the archaeologists, people began creating a deeper time horizon. You are investing a time into an activity today that won’t yield benefits until next week or next month or next year. And this mutual investment in building activities become the thing that brings people closer together.
What you are talking about reminds me of the performative aspect of the old tradition you find at Ise Jingu in Japan — the constant renewal of shrine buildings. The old ones are removed as soon as their replicas are built. They go through this cycle every 20 years. So nothing is old at Ise, yet the tradition itself is very old. You took your students there one year too.
Yes, I had the opportunity to meet the chief architect from Ise through my teaching partner Michiko Sumi, who is Japanese. When I asked the chief architect what architecture is, he said that that architecture is a knowledge held by a community. That’s completely performative, isn’t it? It’s what I am interested in.
Your Auckland Castle Faith Museum in Durham, which is currently under construction, has a roof detail similar to the crossing of rafters you find at Ise.
Yes, it does. The crossing could allude to a Shinto shrine, or a Roman temple, or even a Christian chapel, as in the stone-crossed finials you see on St McDara’s Chapel on an island off the coast of Galway in Ireland. It’s skeuomorphism, a representation of a representation of a representation. Older forms of material practice are represented in newer forms of practice to create some sense of temporal continuity.
The architectural practice is in a constant flux between the fantasy of the past or a fantasy of the future or both at the same time, but it’s never about the present. Every building is a projection in time.
*The University, as in the University of Cambridge or the University of Oxford, is a confederation of Schools, Faculties, Departments and Colleges. As well as being a member of the University and of an academic Faculty/Department, students also belong to a College community, an arrangement that offers pastoral and academic support for each individual.
Yuki Sumner is an independent journalist and curator. Sumner is set to curate the Japanese pavilion for London Design Biennale 2023.
Portraits by Edmund Sumner.
Yuki Sumner speaks to the Stirling Prize-winning architect about the New Library at Magdalene College and the ideas that animate his architectural practice.