St Angela’s ambitious school building project is a lesson in building a new dimension for education

The old convent building stands in harmony with the new school building at St Angela's College in Cork. Pictures: Denis Scannell

Cork school’s renaissance is a showcase for architectural excellence, writes Eoin English

ONE of the country’s most ambitious, complex and challenging school building projects has been named amongst the world’s top 30 buildings, and been shortlisted for a prestigious national and global award.

Sixteen years in the making, the mammoth €9.2m redevelopment of the historic St Angela’s College campus in the spiritual heart of Cork city, is in the running for the People’s Choice award in the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland’s (RIAI) Irish Architecture Awards — Irish architecture’s equivalent of the Oscars.

But the innovative design, described by the influential London-based Architectural Review magazine as “liberating and uplifting”, is also one of just two Irish projects selected by the Royal Institute of British Architects as amongst its 30 incredible buildings from around the world this year. It has been shortlisted for its international award which is due to be announced later this month.

Situated on one of the country’s steepest streets, sandwiched on a confined site between St Patrick’s Hill and Richmond Hill, the St Angela’s project posed major challenges for the team of architects from O’Donnell + Tuomey.

The site has several historic and protected buildings and is located in an Architectural Conservation Area.

As well as protecting the historic buildings and adding news ones on the complicated and constrained site, the architects had to work with a tight budget and provide a sports hall, while working to a standard Department of Education secondary school brief.

But after years of detailed consultation and painstaking design work, and after two years of renovation and building, the new school campus opened to students and teachers last January.

With several one-off design elements and building solutions, it has been hailed as a major architectural achievement and described as one of the most original and exciting school buildings in the country.

It has been designed like a hill-town — the architects described it as a “topographical miniaturisation of Cork’s urban conditions” — with city-like lanes and terraced courtyards and gardens connecting the new and old together.

A continuous external route negotiates the 18-metre drop in site levels, connecting an orchard garden, courtyards, classrooms, and playgrounds.

Students and staff can move from the orchard garden down a series of stairs and across courts to the external performance and play area at the bottom of the site, without ever going inside.

Internal circulation areas generally overlook active courtyards and teaching rooms look into quieter areas, or have views over the city.

The school even has a fenced roof-top play area on top of its PE hall — one of just a handful of schools in the country with a roof-top play space.

 

School principal Pat Curran said they were delighted it has been shortlisted for two major awards, and he praised the architects for their commitment to the project over the last 16 years.

“We have always provided an excellent education at St Angela’s but the joke internally was that the building was like Hogwarts — with dark dingy areas in places and creaky floorboards in others,” he said.

“But now we have a bespoke school building. It is now an educational community of buildings, and the interaction between the old buildings and the new is wonderful.

“The building is an absolute pleasure to come in to.

“There is fun in the design. Light fills the corridors, which are wide and airy, and there are lovely social spaces.

“We have circular windows in places which cast wonderful shadows on the floors. We can see the landmark features of the city’s northern skyline from almost every vantage point.

“And we have noticed our sixth year art students sitting in the quiet spaces around the school, capturing these views through the windows for their own art portfolios, which is wonderful to see.” St Angela’s College was founded by the Ursuline order of nuns in 1887 and following the acquisition of several adjoining buildings, it expanded on its compact site over the next century, with prefabs added in the 1950s and 1970s.

But when it became clear that more prefab buildings would be needed in the early 2000s, a solution had to be found.

Consideration was given to moving to a greenfield site, but given St Angela’s historic connection to the city centre, it was decided to embark on a complete redevelopment of its campus.

Architect, Sheila O’Donnell, was involved in the project from day one and said it was one of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s longest-running projects — from feasibility studies in 1999 to completion earlier this year.

“But we stuck with it. It was such an interesting project on the steepest street in Ireland. The idea of having to build there, while keeping the historic buildings, and getting a sports hall in there, was an interesting puzzle. It was always one of our more interesting projects,” she said.

“There were times when we thought it mightn’t happen but as an architect, you have to be quite dogged, you have to be patient, and stick with things, and believe in the possibility of it happening.” She praised former principal, Rosaleen Maloney, who she said was driven to provide a better school, and her successor, Geraldine Quilter, for he commitment to the project, before Mr Curran took over.

She also praised the Department of Education for supporting the project throughout, for opting to keep the school in the inner city, and for displaying flexibility around key design elements.

The entire school community vacated the site in September 2013 and relocated to the site of the former St Patrick’s Hospital and Marymount Hospice, before the builders moved in in March 2014.

Internal circulation areas generally overlook active courtyards and teaching rooms look into quieter areas, or have views over the city.
Internal circulation areas generally overlook active courtyards and teaching rooms look into quieter areas, or have views over the city.

Over the next 22 months, they refurbished four 19th-century buildings and built two new purpose-designed buildings — one for sciences and one for arts.

Their biggest challenge was to incorporate a full-size sports hall on the confined hillside site.

The architects overcame this by installing a clear-span concrete structure on the lowest part of the site.

Its roof, at the level of the entrance from the street, made new ground on the site and provided a sunny terrace and ball-court with views out over the city below.

Red sand from Cork red sandstone was added to the mix for the concrete paving, in continuation with the typical street landscape of St Patrick’s Hill.

Buildings were designed to take advantage of their site and orientation and the architects ensured that all teaching spaces and habitable rooms have natural daylight as the main source of light.

And despite the various levels across the site, just two lifts make the entire school building accessible to wheelchair users.

“Architects and builders worked closely together to get the best value out of the project, to make a lasting public building on a very special site,” Ms O’Donnell said.

The new school campus opened its doors to 550 students and 50 staff on January 6 last.

Other projects in the running for the RIAI’s awards include the new public library in Hollyhill, on Cork’s northside; The People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire; the GPO Witness History experience; the Faabory Swimming Platform in Denmark; Aldi in Terenure; Humewood Castle; Waterford Fire Station and Dublin Port Diving Bell.

The RIAI has encouraged people to vote for their favourite building by June 17 at www.irisharchitectureawards.ie or on the RIAI Facebook page. The winners will be announced on June 24.


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