Our New College

Top of the class Des O’Sullivan
Irish Examiner 15th Oct. 2005

COLOURFUL exterior shapes inspired by the geometric work of artist Piet Mondrian, pre-patinated copper panels, a 21st century structure and an unexpected open campus space are not what you expect to find when in that ancient quarter of Cork city’s South Parish bounded by Sawmill Street, Rutland Street and Douglas Street.

Which goes to show that it is well to expect the unexpected at St John’s Central College, and is what you get. The interesting new exterior leads to a well?planned interior which offers classrooms, libraries, cafes and teaching areas designed for a variety of day and night educational purposes, from hairdressing and nursing to engineering and sustainable design.

The colour within and without contrasts with bare concrete walls and lintels and is low key. Natural light floods through the four floors from above. The large side windows overlook ancient stone warehousing in need of preservation and restoration. The new campus at St John’s is an example of what can be achieved with architectural imagination in a neglected part of town.

This conveniently sited quadrant near Cork’s city centre has an atmosphere all of its own and is awash with potential. There has been some successful redevelopment of the area around, with renewal and some stylish apartment building, but much more is needed. At St John’s the contrast between what is new and what has been here for a very long time is a welcome feature. This building is a successful contemporary intervention and makes abundantly obvious the need to preserve much of what has been neglected.

This is because the windows overlook and highlight and enhance the wonderful old warehouses in local red sandstone and limestone tucked away in the back streets between Douglas Street and South Terrace.

Designed by Reddy O’Riordan Staehli Architects, St John’s Central College campus is an unusually successful blend of old and new on a tight budget. Some ’60s tat structures were done away with to create an unexpected small square, a we1come new public space in a city which lacks almost totally those small squares and spaces which lend so much interest to any inner city backdrop. This little oasis of light and space would definitely benefit from the addition of improved Street ftirniture, enhanced planting and extra lighting.

There is potential to open up an access to Douglas Street behind, something which is crying out to be done now. This adult post-leaving certificate college, under the management of the City of Cork VEC, offersa range of strongly practical courses and has more than 1,000 day students.

The site includes the former St John’s Church, a protected structure, and the 19th century sandstone Buckingham House, which is in need of some attention. The stone boundary wall between Buckingham House and Sawmill Street was demolished during the construction, thus opening up the area even more to the public.

In the design process, purpose-designed spaces were specified using secondary school guidelines of the Department of Education. The Library, lecture theatres and canteen facilities are shared with the nearby Cork College of Commerce. Because the quad has been created there is a more direct link between the city centre and the intersection of Langford Row and the Infirmary Road.

The new four-storey building is on the western boundary of this 2.7 acre site and provides a slimly colonnaded, covered outdoor walk. There is a new two-storey pavilion on the south side of the quad. A glazed bridge at first-floor level connects the two new structures and provides views of the curved and sloping patinated roof of the pavilion. This sloping patination is repeated on the low maintenance exterior of the main building and provides steady northern light at roof level for classrooms in the areas of art and graphic designs.

On the inside, a lot of teaching space has been packed into the four-storey structure. The interior colours, natural wood and concrete finishes and the use of glass blocks creates a strong sense of light and space and plenty of visual interest. The combined contract value was around €12.4 million. Strong design does much to diminish the impact of the bulk of the new building, which scales in vonderfully well with the surroundings.