In Conversation With Aidan McGrath
Meet Aidan McGrath. A lover of cheese, (almost) all things Italian and one half of McGonigle McGrath, a Belfast based architecture practice garnering international acclaim thanks to a sympathetic approach to context and place, a consideration of form, materiality and craft, and an understanding of the quality and simplicity of buildings well made. However, Aidan's passions don't end at architecture. A growing love of photography sees him exploring themes of ageing, weathering and composition in the dry, desert lands of Marfa, Texas and the colourful streets of Tuscon, Arizona - to name a few. We spoke to Aidan about his travels, influences and reflective writings that accompany his work....
Tell us a bit about your architectural journey to date?
How long have you got?
No, actually it’s pretty straightforward and, sadly, a little parochial. Belfast boy, initially (and through to mid-teens) infatuated with all things “aircraft”. Then I experienced one of those rare damascene moments and realised that there was more poetry in architecture than in aeronautics. Ok, that’s 90% hindsight. I simply began to recognise that architecture was a better fit for me. It grew rapidly from “a good fit” into a passion. I haven’t looked back.
My interest in (infatuation with) photography began at about the same time as architecture. They’re irrevocably intertwined. Thereafter a fairly straight professional path beginning in Queen’s University and ending in McGonigleMcGrath.
Honestly, back then QUB was not a great architecture school, it aspired to mediocrity and didn’t always get there. However, I had two inspirational teachers who made a difference, they enthused me. They fed the passion which has burned for 40 years.
Robin Wylie, the first guy to inculcate in me the notion that design was a process that might be learnt (or at least identified) and then honed. And Harry Meek, an art historian, whose guided walks on a field trip to Florence changed my life for ever. Maybe I would have fallen for Italy anyway, I suppose so, but he definitely hastened the pace of the affair.
After Queen’s, a small Belfast practice engaged mostly on social housing, working under the direction of a guy, so genuinely committed to the public good that his lasting influence on me was social rather than architectural.
It was an odd time, Belfast was very violent and we worked in pretty edgy parts of the city. I did gain a great experience there in the diplomatic arts, dealing with contractors and clients and bureaucracy. And I think I learnt a pragmatism that has proved invaluable especially in the high speed world of retail and restaurant design where one must think on one’s feet.
A big change a short while later. I joined, to run it, a small design company “Tangent Design” which undertook mostly high end corporate work, some architecture but mostly retail fit outs.
There was a glamour to it which appealed. Trips to Milan and Bologna identifying fittings and finishes. It’s in the nature of that kind of work that it is somewhat ephemeral, not much of our output from those days is still around. But some of it was genuinely “cool.”
My love affair with restaurant design began then. Roscoff was the first, good place to start.
Only a short time after becoming a director in that firm it folded due to irreconcilable differences between the other two directors. Me? I can get on with anyone.
Thus, years ago began twenty two over seven, leading ultimately to McGonigleMcGrath.
For the first time in my life I was working with colleagues who were motivated primarily by a desire to have beautiful things built. A young architect, Kieran McGonigle, joined twenty two over seven straight from university. Talented guy, the best architect that I’ve ever known. He earned a directorship but ultimately he and I began a new practice McGonigleMcGrath. The rest is history, a history which I am extremely proud to say measured in design awards and the positivity of our peers.
Of all the projects you worked on at McGonigleMcGrath what has been the most memorable and why?
You’ll be expecting me to select one of our houses, probably one of our rural houses. We are best known for these. We have produced some good examples of the genre of which we really are quite proud. We’ve been winning significant awards for them for some years and they’re widely published.
For a long time we’ve been working with vernacular forms and refining them. Slicker perhaps and heavily abstracted but self-evidently still the offspring of a rural cottage or agricultural building. But in the last few years we have been stepping further away from traditional forms, which will, I think, when these projects are published, surprise some people. Those of you who follow our Instagram will already have seen some evidence. Always we remain conscious of the relationship of the house to the land. Sensitivity to the terroir is the hallmark of a good rural house.
But instead the building which I’m going to select goes back many years, to the late 1990s, from the days of twenty two over seven, the practice (in which Kieran McGonigle and I were both directors) that preceded McGMcG.
The building which first made our name and about which I still harbour real pride is the Ormeau Baths in Belfast. A project which I’m immodest enough to think changed attitudes a little to the quality of the Victorian city.
An old swimming (and washing) baths, 100 plus years old, a handsome building with real civic quality but which, when we began the process of remodelling and reuse, was derelict and in dire condition. Many people thought that it was lost.
We remodelled and altered the building, ultimately the project was an exercise in the melding of contemporary design (in terms of the extensions and all insertions) and a loving and painstaking restoration of the historic fabric. We had our own office under the arcing roof of one of the wings for many years. The building ultimately comprised a civic art gallery and diverse offices.
“The Baths” began a passion in me for conservation and reuse. The shame for Belfast is that too few people in any position of authority then realised the merit in this kind of exercise in reuse. We lost too many of our unique, quality architecture to the mundane and the blandly pseudo modern. We haven’t been too bad about caring for the grand architecture, Lanyon’s output and Lynn’s but too late did we recognise the merit in our brick built mills and warehouses.
It’s clear from your Instagram and online journal that you are also passionate about photography, what drew you to this medium?
Ultimately it became an end in itself, a proper passion. Now I believe that unless I had become a really skilled painter I would never be able to investigate and communicate the subtleties of light and texture that interest me so much.
I wonder, now, as I’m writing this, whether the fact that my influences are all painters and almost no photographers is a product of treating the camera more as a tool primarily for interpretation rather than record making.
Subject matters such as time, balance and pattern appear prominent in your work. Do you find there to be a cross over between what you're drawn to in photography and what you’re drawn to in architecture?
I would have said until recently, a straightforward “no”, suggesting, instead, that it was more a question that these interests are simply parallelled simultaneously (but independently) in these two aspects of my life. And actually paralleled too in another of my interests, art, especially painting. Wherein composition and texture are critical interests.
Now, on foot of the most comprehensive analysis by my friend and business partner Kieran McGonigle, in pursuing a PhD on the design processes and influences in the practice, I’m prepared to admit that my photography may influence our design. There is still a lingering doubt. When I photograph the relaxed patterns and deeply socketed windows in the adobes in the barrio viejo in Tucson, are we influenced by the characteristics of the adobes or by the way I have photographed them. You know, not only am I not sure, but actually I don’t think that it is all that important.
That the boundaries between photography and architecture (and art) are indistinct feels like a good thing.
We at Envoy thoroughly enjoy your reflective, comical and articulate writings that often accompany your photography - has writing always been important in your design process? If so, are there any writers in particular you draw inspiration from?
I came late to Instagram.
For a year or so we ran the McGMcG site as a rather unfocused general architectural site. When we polished that into a dedicated McGMcG gallery populated by our own work (much of it at design stage) I began my own page. It plodded along a bit. Now it dominates my day more than it should.
As to whether writing has always been important to me, especially in my architectural career, I think so. I find the process of communication by writing really allows me to focus, to make things precise. I always encourage clients, especially domestic clients to write a brief. That’s not about elegant writing, could be bullet points or streams of consciousness...as long as it is focused.
But now you’ve asked me about the influences on my writing, you’ve made me rather too self conscious. I wish you’d asked about the influences on my photography or my architecture. I’ve rehearsed those subjects repeatedly, revisit them in my sleep. But my writing, I’m not sure. I think that maybe the die was cast years ago, reading Clive James and Alan Coren. Wit, with substance. Today still columnists, not novelists, Jay Rayner definitely, although he’s maybe just slightly too knowing. I wouldn’t dare claim that he influenced me but one writer whom I wish I could emulate is Flann O’Brien, his novels of course, but the short pithy, pants wetting observations of “Myles na gCopaleen”. Genius.
If you had asked me about influences on my photography I’d have said, firstly, they’re all painters. Not a photographer among them. In terms of my pursuit of pattern and rigorous composition, definitely Callum Innes and Sean Scully even the more local great and (sadly recently) late Felim Egan. And for my preoccupation with texture and detail in architecture and also how architecture behaves in light, three great mid-century American masters: Andrew Wyeth; Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe.
Despite travelling far and wide, you’re based here in Belfast.
What appeals to you most about living here?
I’ve got to say I think that the greatest quality of this orange/red brick city is its setting, embraced tightly by hills and by the sea, the ease with which one can reach the countryside is a delight. Napoleon’s Nose visible from everywhere in the city. Within minutes of the centre one can be in the wild and vacant landscape of Divis or the green and intimate Lagan valley at Edenderry. And within 30 minutes on a decent beach or walking in remote hill landscape. My wife and I have a little house in the pretty Co. Down village of Killough. Within an hour of Belfast I can have the stove lit there and the wine breathing.
The city itself, I can be positive about that too. The Ulster Museum is a delight and so too the MAC (and not just that they represent some of the finest contemporary architecture in the city), the old central library and in purely architectural terms that slightly incongruous Art Deco cluster at Royal Avenue and North Street.
Socially, of course, the city holds many of my friends and some of my family and many of those locations wherein that socialising which I miss so much habitually occurred.
And finally, what does 2021 hold for you?
Plans for 2021.
Let me tell you first about my unfulfilled plans for 2020.
2020 was to have been the first year of the rest of my life, our lives, my fellow traveller and I are inseparable in this regard. I’ve more or less retired (at least from my “day job”) and at the tail end of 2019, an elderly and dependent close relative, my mother-in-law, died. Our capacity for travel then became almost limitless.
We planned a week in Florence in January, which we completed. A beautiful time on quiet streets and in museums and churches and restaurants almost empty of foreign visitors. Exquisite wintry sunshine on ochre stucco and polychromatic stone. We were singularly fortunate to have had this experience. The memory carried us through much of early lockdown.
And for March and April we had planned the American South West Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. A driving trip on the trail of Georgia O’Keefe and Agnes Martin and Donald Judd, visiting their homes and studios and the landscape in which they worked.
That trip, of course, didn’t happen so it’s fair to assume that following that itinerary is fairly high on our agenda. If not 2021 then definitely next year.
And Italy always features “big” in our plans. I would expect to be back in Umbria and Le Marche in this coming year. And I’d like to believe that some days in the eternal city will feature. Food, art, architecture and almost limitless opportunity for photography.
I’m not sure, beyond travel, I hope to “focus” on photography closer to home. I think that in recent years I have underestimated the potential to find beauty and texture and colour in Belfast. I plan to rectify that.
And as frequently as is decent, just as soon as it is a responsible thing to do, I want to cook for friends. I’m absolutely never happier than when breaking bread, supping wine and spinning yarns with friends around our own dining table.