Ciaran O’Connor, Shane de Blacam FRIAI and Anne Gavagan.

de Blacam and Meagher Architects receive lifetime achievement medal

Gandon Medal recognises a sustained output of quality work over many years

The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) has awarded the RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement to de Blacam and Meagher Architects for their contribution to the advancement of architecture.

The medal was presented by RIAI President Ciaran O’Connor FRIAI to Shane de Blacam FRIAI. The late John Meagher FRIAI was represented by his sister Anne Gavagan.

The Gandon Medal is a lifetime achievement award that recognises a sustained output of quality work over many years. de Blacam and Meagher Architects, founded in 1976, are the RIAI 2020-2021 recipients.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, de Blacam and Meagher Architects were a rainbow in the dark to students and young architects. Aspirations and ambition rhymed. To physically make architecture is to shape function, form, and technology in three-dimensional space, cognisant of context. The buildings of de Blacam and Meagher rise above pure utility, beyond basic construction, to encompass all that is practical and necessary both functionally and economically, with architecture that is culturally meaningful, memorable, and beautiful. Buildings that help make human beings human. A fitting recipient of the RIAI Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement 2021.

RIAI President Ciaran O’Connor said: “de Blacam and Meagher Architects are no stranger to RIAI awards. As well as numerous annual awards they have won both the Housing and Conservation Medal plus the Triennial Gold Medal. The RIAI is delighted to add to those awards and bestow the RIAI Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement to de Blacam and Meagher Architects.

"Sadly, John Meagher passed away earlier this year and the RIAI was pleased to present this award to his sister Anne and her family. John's socialability and his friendships with distinguished clients was equally matched by a design ability that was innate, expansive and of an exceptional standard. He inspired both colleagues and clients. de Blacam and Meagher Architects are deserving recipients of the Gandon Medal and the RIAI wish to congratulate them on this wonderful accolade.”

Photo by Conor Healy / Picture It Photogr, Conor Healy / Picture It Photography

Shane de Blacam said: “I am profoundly grateful to the RIAI honouring the practice with this award and grateful to the hundreds of architects who have worked in our office to make the buildings. I have taught many students in University College Dublin and watched them go on to found their own practices of distinction in architecture making huge impacts particularly in the UK and North America. I had the privilege of working with John Meagher for 45 years and he was my best friend.

"John handled his pen gently and laid out the ink in a soft, slightly irregular, line that moved across the page, balancing his hand with his little finger as he was thinking. Drawing was his way of thinking and explaining what he wanted and the pen stopped precisely at the point he wanted it. I relied on him when I was trying an idea or a plan; he understood instantly what was at issue, he explained it with all the fund of everything he had read in his books, exhibitions he had attended, and journeys he had made. I am delighted to accept this award honouring the work we did together.”

Shane de Blacam studied in UCD and the University of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia he was exposed to the influence of landscape architect Ian McHarge, author of the seminal book Designing with Nature, and studied under, and worked for, Louis Kahn, one of the Master of Modern Architecture.

John Meagher studied at the Bolton Street School of Architecture, now the Technological University of Dublin, and at the University of Helsinki. In Finland he began a lifelong interest in the work of Alvar Aalto, the master of humanist Finnish architecture, and the early twentieth century Swedish masters Asplund and Lewerentz.

Shane and John spent the early 1970s in Philadelphia, which at that period was the epicentre of design discussion in America. Shane worked for Louis Kahn and John with Venturi Scott Brown, both key practices within the world of western architecture. Shane and John were unknown to each other while in Philadelphia. Returning to Ireland they met while teaching and formed their practice in 1976 that continues to practice today, despite the untimely death of John earlier this year.

The practice of de Blacam and Meagher Architects have designed many quality buildings from houses to headquarters, from churches to conservation, from libraries to universities, all with the watermark of quality. They combined their early architectural experiences of Scandinavian craft and humanism, with American clarity and positively. This combination was to prove a potent force for architectural design development in Ireland, both in terms of teaching and architectural practice.

The OPW 1979 Taoiseach House competition was a key stepping stone for de Blacam and Meagher. They developed an architectural language and syntax that would sustain them throughout their long years of practice. This language would find its mature expression in their projects of poetic pragmatism that followed from the 1980s up to today. They included Trinity College Dining Hall, Castle Street mixed use, Herbert Lane and Harold’s Cross houses, Ibiza Villas, Cork Technical College renaissance, Abbeyleix Library, Lyons Estate, Grand Canal Quay, to name but a few. These projects have no bluster or bombast. They stand up to both scrutiny and indifference because their buildings have a reciprocal relationship with each site.

The mystical movement of light, the impermanence of shadow, the ambiguity of mist - all part of the West of Ireland experience - are captured at the Chapel of Reconciliation in Knock, as well as the functionality of a shrine church. In conservation they were not afraid to restore, translate or transform a building through intellectual rigour and craft rather than a suite of conservation manuals. As the historian Roy Foster wrote in his note to their representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 2010, they are "at once imaginative and respectful of their surroundings".