“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light” – Le Corbusier (1923)
“No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple” – John Ruskin (1886)
The above quotes represent two fundamentally divergent opinions on how one should build. A conflict between simplicity and ornamentation, the straight line and the curved. It is no secret that the principles of John Ruskin and Le Corbusier often oppose each other in theory and in practice. These beliefs are no better embodied than within the Museum Building and the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin. To many, both buildings in their quiet, academic surrounds, seem as far away from each other in design and execution as possible. However, some fundamental principles common to both nineteenth century pre-Raphaelites and twentieth century modernists are upheld between both. Yet one is often held as the jewel of the campus’ crown and the other is either indifferently accepted by most, or outright despised, much to the dismay of those who know it to be one of the finest modernist buildings ever produced in Ireland. The truth of the matter, is that these buildings are as inextricably linked and integral to each other as the nature that surrounds them.
Admittedly, on first view, both the Museum Building and the Berkeley appear diametrically opposed. However, The exterior composition of the Museum Building, built in a style which has been variously described as Lombard, Romanesque, Venetian, Renaissance and Cinquecento, was lauded for its submergence in the contemporary. Similarly, the Berkeley was praised during its construction for its bold adherence to the modern, brutalist style. Both fitted perfectly into their larger European movements and their exteriors originated from a principle of truthful architecture. The honest nature of the muscular action of the human hand on the material is key to the prospering of the imprecise, irregular charm that develops in the richly ornamented exterior of the Museum Building. The brothers, John and James O’shea and an unknown “Mr Roe” hand carved all the Portland stone sculpture that adorns the façade of this ostentatious box. Today, many still prefer the handmade object to the machine, to know the process is integral to our appreciation. How does the Berkeley respond to this? For the exterior and interior rendering of the Berkeley, Paul Koralek placed a retarder on the shuttering of the concrete molds used for casting the slabs that compose the building. Through this, the impression of the wood used to make the structure remains on the surface, expressing the honesty of the manufacture.
There are, however, obvious and undeniable contrasts between the exterior compositions of these two structures. The façades of the Museum building echo Charles Barry’s philosophy of letting the windows rather than the classical orders be the determining features. This means that the impression left is that of a single flat surface with windows punched out of it. With the Berkeley, no two elevations are the same and the use of fenestration is markedly different to its neighbour. There are a variety of dramatic and expansive window forms that contribute to the form of the building, most evidently on the western elevation. On its northern front, however, it is reticent and closed, a foreboding curtain wall undercut by a deep expressive portal that offsets the uniformity of the composition. This is important, for while the Museum Building delights in its repetitive forms and symmetricality, embellished through its ornamentation, the form of the Berkeley is one of irregularity and differing juxtapositions of shapes. This does not cast them apart however, but rather allows them to work together. The Museum Building’s brief required it to pay respect to its classical neighbours, Burgh’s Library and Darley’s New Square, a feat it achieved by avoiding some of the more controversial points of Gothic and instead relishing in its somewhat restrained use eclectic flares. In this way it was, as the contemporaneous magazine The Ecclesiologist said, to “give life and variety to a mass of [college] buildings now so peculiarly sombre and heavy”. When the Berkeley arrived, it too revered its classical environment as well as its eclectic neighbour. The result is that the simplicity of the northern elevation of the Berkeley does not attempt to detract from the Museum Building, as it can express its unique forms elsewhere. The string course and division of space correspond to each other as they loom above the granite plinth. Thus the opulence of the Museum Buildings exterior composition is rendered even more conspicuous through its juxtaposition to the Berkeley.
There is a give and take to The Museum Building and the Berkeley Library. Both are steeped in history, literally, as regards their surroundings, and technically, in terms of their construction methods and materials. Through their exterior composition and use of materials the two building have become iconic symbols of their collegiate environment and reference each other with such subtlety and style that many may never even notice. Ultimately they are structures that expressed their own time. Their methods are opposed, but their principles rhyme. They both believe in the truth of architecture, and the importance of presentation, but one expresses it through the glorification of craft and nature and the other expresses it through simple and honest materials, revealing the effect of the manufacture of construction. Thankfully, neither pandered to anything but their own beliefs and the result is that we have two of the finest buildings in Ireland’s architectural heritage within the same shadow.