Medieval Mile Museum, Kilkenny Ireland by McCullough & Mulvin Architects

Colm Murray

The architect dealing with any existing building that deserves some kind of respect (a ‘monument’), does not begin with a blank page, but with an entity that is resistant through its typological logic, obduracy, mysteriousness, and sachlichkeit. If it was ever, in its enduringness, laden with architectural intent, it will convey symbolic meanings which have rippled out: through time, into the community and the environment in which it is situated, through landscape presence, depictions, memories, even family genealogies. These become the grounds, the facts, which the sensitive architect cannot ignore and instead may choose as the cultural material for design.

St. Mary’s Church was built by the Norman settlers in the 13th century in a prominent place in their new town, at the centre of Kilkenny’s ‘Medieval Mile’. It has experienced changes in the intervening centuries of decline and re-appropriation which the architects describe as ‘four-hundred year long breaths’. McCullough and Mulvin were required to turn it into a museum: not as a blank box, but to present the building’s history, its fabric and associated remains, as an object for consideration in itself, as deserving and requiring interpretation. Of course, it is also more complicated than that, because it must also contain special objects that demand their own environments and presentation.

Fred Scott has argued, ‘adapting buildings is a specialism within ‘Architecture’ requiring its own language, theory and ethics’. He asks: ‘… what degree of alteration – spatial, material and surface – is legitimate?’1 St. Mary’s church provides a provocative answer to this question, particularly in relation to the conscious approach its architects display to two of the common tasks of dealing with any existing building, which Scott gives almost metaphysical emphasis: ‘stripping out’ and ‘making good’.

A project in a historical location will contain archaeology – essentially hidden information and objects accumulated in strata and sediments that require specialist and sensitive excavation and reading. Thus for Scott, ‘Stripping back is essentially a work of interpretation,’ (and not destruction or criticism). The project and programme at St. Mary’s were stretched to permit extensive archaeological investigation, yielding artefacts, and interrelations built into layers of soil, plaster, and rubble. Niall McCullough of the architectural practice has referred to ‘the careful taking away before the re-making.’ What was revealed became the subject-matter of the project: the use of the space was pressed to accommodate the histories to which this building could testify.

McCullough and Mulvin’s project appropriated new space for the museum by reinstating and ‘making good’ the volumes of a long-demolished chancel and north aisle as a design parti. In a city predominantly built of dark limestone (historically described as marble), these are rendered distinctively of our time, against the background of grey stone and slate roof, by being clad in sheet lead.

The architects critically examined the historical sub-division of the interior archetypal cross-shaped plan to provide differentiated museum interior places, re-using past sub-divisions of space that were used to articulate ritual within the church. The new extended volume of the chancel is re-made as a 2-storey building: this arrangement of a undercroft for relics with a sanctuary above is not commonly found in Ireland, but echoes pilgrimage churches elsewhere. In St. Mary’s, the undercroft, open to the air, retains in situ a set of renaissance sculptural and architectonic tomb memorials, unique in Ireland. In the reinstated chancel above, the treasured objects of Kilkenny’s municipal history, the Liber Primus Kilkenniensis, and the ceremonial sword and mace of the office of mayor, are displayed in a ‘Treasury’, in the place where a high altar would typically have been found. This re-building provided shelter for the tombs, and the opportunity to make a highly-serviced environment to maintain environmental conditions for the precious objects. The new volumes are intervisible with the body of the church through the East window, the new screening elements evoking the separateness of the chancel in medieval church architecture.

Previous gestures of architectural design were recognised and respected. The north transept, shut off from the crossing in a 1961 remodelling, become a designated ‘monument room’, its walls covered in 17th and 18th century sculptural memorials of the dead. McCullough and Mulvin partially re-connected it to the main volume of the church interior, allowing the cross-shaped plan to be read again, but providing sufficient spatial differentiation to retain the memory of its 20th century use. The resulting interwoven interior space and museum display reflects this co-evolution within the project of historic and archaeological content and architectonic form. The museum contents of the South aisle were arranged to be solely stone artefacts, so that this space could be lit with clear light ‘that was always meant to flood in like this.’ The nave arcade was opened up, revealing wall paintings in the 13th century plaster. Glass floors reveal excavated crypts.

According to Fred Scott, ‘… a building which is in [a] ruinous condition can speak of itself …’. The exposure and display of the 17th century roof trusses at St. Mary’s by the non-reinstatement of the ceiling over the crossing allows the building’s structure to be read This is ‘stripping out’ without ‘making good.’ This gesture permits the evolution of the building to be read backwards. Neither a partially-completed building site, nor the dilapidations of the ruin, this presentation of the ceiling in a state of ‘undress’ permits the visitor to comprehend the building as a window into the past, as a ladder in time that can be ascended or descended.2 McCullough has said that ‘buildings are always falling apart or being added to, their nature is essentially provisional’. The articulation of this meaning is one of the architectural achievements of this project. This roof-aperture, with its density of timber structure within, changes with each viewpoint, a dense hologram.

From the Treasury, the architects set up a relationship across the city rooftops through a panoramic window with another municipal project they are working on, also for the municipal authority, the former widows asylum at St. John’s over the River Nore. Both historic structures have been extended with lead-clad volumes to accommodate the interiority of exhibition space, at St. John’s to house an art collection in the Butler Gallery. This urban rhetoric sets up a visual conversation that implicates the rooftops, street-life, facades and back yards of the city in the presentation of what the city is.

The historical elements of the fabric of the building uncovered or discovered during the process have been retained in situ, employing what the architects have called ‘watchful opportunism’. McCullough refers to the strong status of archaeology in Ireland, as the history books are not to be trusted. The evidence the building presents of Irish history, albeit in microcosm, is given high importance. Introduced display items include copies of Irish high crosses, dating from the early 20th century, and medieval carved funerary monuments (recumbent slabs with effigies of the dead, gothic inscribed slabs, and 18th and 19th century wall-mounted memorials). The fixed and moveable features have been composed into a collage of elements within the white space of the lime-plastered walls. Further interpretive technology is incorporated into mobile units that double up as seats, and which allow for flexibility for the use of the space for non-museum functions. Elements bearing symbolic, artistic or historical meaning, informational content, and use value are thus intermingled without diluting the ‘raw immediacy’ of the experience of place.

A great work of architecture is only ever the result of a combination of a good architect working with a client who is urging them towards architectural quality. The client in this case is the local government authority, Kilkenny County Council, whose brief was to create a Medieval Mile Museum. Through flexible project management, fixed on the goal of museological and architectural excellence, within the constraints of programme and budget, architect and client were able to elicit a historically-resonant and coherent result. The building and its archaeology became the subject of the project, intertwined rather than being disaggregated into a polite and self-effacing container for objects to be presented in. The artistic productions of Kilkenny’s past, varying in scale from the reinstated volumes of missing parts of the building, to muscular tomb sculpture and sculpted high crosses, ceremonial sword, to precious archival book, have been arranged in a spatial composition to make an experience of the past as continuous with the present.

The iterative design process produced a museum interior that integrates architectural articulation – the recognition of the typical volumes of the nave, transept, chancel and aisle of the archetypal church plan – with the historical material found in situ, on site and in the city, melding them into a coherent experience of cultural continuity that is not apologetic about its contemporaneity, and yet is respectful of the historical material it expresses.  The citizen of Kilkenny visiting the former St. Mary’s church will encounter spaces and displayed objects at once familiar and rendered special by their presentation, and simultaneously enriched by their architectural re-interpretation.

Outtakes – potential different discussions:

Since 1964, The Venice Charter3 has been a mainstay of good practice in the conservation of ‘monuments’ and provides a framework for critical analysis for interventions. It has become obvious in the last fifty years that it does not provide comprehensive guidance, but two messages emerge strong and clear – to treat evidence of the past with respect, and that new installations should reflect their contemporary zeitgeist. Both of these are reflected in this building transformation.

Internally, the walls were re-covered in lime plaster, the historical technology which absorbs and forgives fluctuations in atmospheric humidity.

Colm Murray (1965) is the Architecture Officer at the Heritage Council in Ireland, where he manages conservation plans and grants. He was a visiting scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, LA in 2016, researching the ascription of value to places. He tutors and lectures in architecture and planning.

1 Scott, Fred, 2008, On Altering Architecture, Routledge, Abingdon. The quotations are from Architecture Today, 193, November 2008, p.8 

2 The presentation of time in archaeological contexts is discussed by Gavin Lucas, 2001, The archaeology of time, Routledge, London

3 2nd International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments, 1964, International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, Venice

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