Askeaton Contemporary Arts

Berlin-based Irish artist Adrian Duncan was resident in Askeaton throughout March 2014. His project focused on building patterns around the Iandscape. Through sculptural and research-based activity, he explored the aesthetics of “Bungalow Bliss”, the 1970s movement of pre-designed houses that dot the landscape in Askeaton and beyond - Adrian writes about his work here.

 

The work that came from the residency period at Askeaton stemmed from research I have been carrying out on a particular period of domestic construction in rural Ireland - from the early 1970s to late 1990s. This sustained wave of home building was triggered by a number of cultural, economic, educational, and political shifts in the modernising Irish state during the 1960s; but what began this period of building in earnest was the publication of Jack Fitzsimons’s Bungalow Bliss in 1971 — a small, handsome, hardback catalogue of house designs. The designs in the book were chosen by a potential home owner and ordered off Fitzsimons himself, either over the phone, or by post. The drawings were then posted to the purchaser for a small fee, then put through the planning process, and built. The book was re-written, significantly expanded, and re-published regularly throughout the seventies and eighties to a twelfth edition released in 1998 and reprinted to 2001. Then Bungalow Bliss went out of print. It sold over a quarter of a million copies, and the houses influenced by this catalogue - often built alongside public roads leading out of country towns - became the rural vernacular, however contested. At one stage in the early 1980s there were over 10,000 of these types of self-initiated and self-built homes being erected across the landscape every year. In September 1987 the Irish Times journalist Frank McDonald wrote three highly critical and inflammatory articles in the Irish Times thus coining the term “Bungalow Blitz”. However, these well-researched and at times pompous articles then also triggered a prolonged and heated debate in the Letters to the Editor section in the Irish Times that highlighted a certain Town / Country binary; which itself opens up into a far more complex range of relationships with the land in certain parts of the Irish countryside; and these relationships in turn suggest different currents and versions of “Irishness” that seemed to exist at the time.

 

The forms of decoration and upkeep to the front of these houses was what I wanted to look at during my time in Askeaton, particularly the cladding patterns that regularly appear on these houses – cladding designs often considered inauthentic and ugly. I was also drawn toward the coloured plinth detail that runs across the base of the external walls of these houses – particularly the almost Constructivist graphic quality that they have. This plinth is a basic construction detail (the damp proof membrane is brought up from under the floor slab here) but it is also a place for the self-expression of the dweller, outward toward the public road.

 

My work throughout the residency was mostly sculptural. I worked through a number of different materials, shapes, proportions (and words) over the course of the month – from sand, cement and pebbledash (disastrous), to small hardwood timbers, glue, and foam (better), to scaffold and softwood timber. Playing with these cements and renders – which are new sculptural materials to me - and by trying to rehearse the render and ‘stone’ cladding patterns that were once popular on these bungalow bliss types of houses I became increasingly drawn to the stone work on the the large stone edifice in the middle of Askeaton – Askeaton castle ruin.

 

This castle sits on a small island within the river Deel, a tidal river that ebbs and flows expansively through the town. The theatricality of the restoration works being carried out on the castle particularly interested me. The site is currently closed to the public as these works continue. I was kindly given access to the site by the OPW (Office of Public Works) where I was allowed to photograph the retaining structures and the restoration methods employed on this official place of heritage. These temporary retaining structures built around fragile parts of the castle structure are themselves large-scale structural improvisations that took on a very strong (anxious) sculptural quality.

 

From this the word upkeep opened up to me – as did the idea of the monument. The visual effect of the stone cladding designs of the bungalow bliss types houses seemed to overlap in some way with the material restoration works in the castle. There seemed to be some urge beyond the illustrative that was common to both.

 

The foremen who I was introduced to on the site, John and Billy, gave me timber wedges, scaffold tubes and fixings for me to experiment with. These are the standard building materials of the retaining structures on their site. The scaffolding elements are quite heavy, and I decided that they had to be handle-able by one person, so the longest piece I used was about 5 feet. As such to generate any height or massing with these elements required a lot of improvised articulation.

 

During the residency I came to realise that the castle ruin site had a different meaning and heritage to people of a certain age in Askeaton – people generally over the age of 40. It seems that this is the last generation to experience the castle as a thing that was part of the day to day movements of the town - the castle was open, it was not sealed off as a site of heritage to this generation as they grew up in the town. From meeting and talking with people from the town (at the weekly lotto draw, in the shops, and on St. Patrick’s day) I learned that the banqueting hall ruin beside the castle tower was used very regularly by this generation as a place to hang out in, and as an informal handball alley. The banqueting hall is now also undergoing considerable restoration. The two intact gable ends of the structure appear prominently in the skyline of the town, and to some extent still express the power of the place outward toward the countryside.

 

The public access to the castle now does not exist in the form it once did. The castle is a closed-off, (re-)building site - public access is limited for health and safety reasons. The older, porous (obsolescent) form of access to the castle ruin seemed to me to have created a lesser-known, unofficial heritage of the castle – its, let’s say “Handball heritage”.

 

While I was skulking around the castle taking photographs and talking with John and Billy, the brickwork of The Hellfire Club part of the site became more and more apparent. According to John it is a very interesting structure, full of unique building details, but is far inferior in terms of construction quality to the much older castle and banqueting hall. John gave me a number of books and pamphlets on brick and window restoration techniques.

I had bought some packets of thin sheets of coloured foam during the first week of the residency, so I started cutting out brick-shapes from these sheets and tried different brick patterns around the existing architecture of the studio space I was working in, to the rear of the busy community hall.

 

The ideas of infill and perspective started to become prominent in my mind and how I started to see the town. The position from which a person might re-imagine a building or a place became important. I am not from Askeaton (and my home town in the midlands of Ireland is not ‘Historic’) so the large castle ruin in the middle of Askeaton continued to be an extraordinary (magnetic) sight day and night. I found myself trying to re-draw the once existing but now missing building shape that the ruin suggested. This drawing activity was fleeting and took place in my mind and in the part of the depthless sky that immediately framed the ruin as I navigated around it – I projected upward (dreamt) from the street to the extremities of the castle as it is now, imagining its original shape from this theatrically halted decay.  The decaying ruin reverberated backward or counter-projected the fullness this fragment once belonged to.

 

Nearing the end of the residency these bungalow bliss houses – whose use value is coming into a period of flux - started to take on a more cinematic aspect. The viewing position dictated by both building forms (the bungalows and the castle) prescribed their type of monumentality too. Both of these recent and distant historic forms of construction also revealed improvisations within their structures that had previously laid latent to me. And though the nature of these improvisations are not in any way resolved to me in an intellectual sense, the more haptic thinking that took place during the residency period allowed something of these improvisations to become apparent.

 

Note:

If you would like any of the points or ideas brought up in this brief description to be fleshed out - please contact me via my website, and we can begin a conversation. www.adrianduncan.eu