It takes a lot of bravery to do something completely different; enormous courage, both on the part of the architect and the client. But when you take that risk and hold your cool, it can pay off big time. Joseph Kearney had passed through the triangular wasteland for years, going to and from his own Victorian home. Then, following a period that changed his life – the death of his wife and the decision to take early retirement – he bought the site in 2004 and began to dream. “It was a time when everything was up in the air,” he says. “You don’t know where the coins are going to fall, but you have to seize the opportunities.”
Today, thanks to a great creative relationship with architect Tom Maher and strong input from his son, Alex, Joseph revels in a home with magical light effects, where even something as simple as having your morning coffee becomes a wonderful moment. Although neither Joseph nor Alex have a design background – Joseph worked for Telecom Éireann before his retirement – they are both quite creative. Nevertheless, it was a very long process. Initial drawings had been submitted and planning permission approved, but the original architect had become too busy so he was back to the drawing board. “Tom was a recommendation,” recalls Joseph. “And when he showed me his ideas and told me he wanted to use the same material – copper – inside and out, I thought he was joking or he was kidding me. ‘softened up for something else.’
But Tom, who had spent several years working in an office overlooking the copper dome of Rathmines Church, was dead serious. And he was right. Inside, the copper ceilings on the ground floor reflect the light, which is also skilfully reflected off the windows and mirrors, giving beautiful plays of gold all day, all year round. “Lie down in your bed,” Joseph tells me, “and you can see the reflections of people and pigeons outside.”
Showing me around the house, the couple are always full of joy and enthusiasm for what they have created. There are skylights here and there, taking in the light and the eye, through the height of the house; clever seating areas that showcase views while maintaining privacy; secret storage, and everywhere an attention to detail that makes spaces sing. The timber lines are followed by the lines of the Kilkenny limestone floor, which itself runs through the outdoor patio, where a water feature has been designed to minimize street noise.
Downstairs there are two bedrooms, “we use one in the winter and one in the summer”, explains Joseph, showing how one is light and airy at the front, opening with doors- windows on the patio; while the other is a more cozy nest. In each, the bed can be swung into a recess in the wall – James Bond style – to create a multifunctional space. In the summer living room, the windows can slide to easily create a garden room. Tom worked closely with Joseph and Alex to design the furniture: the beds, the storage and kitchen units, as well as the pair of bathrooms, which are artfully, like the head of a yacht, miracles of design. saving space – like slatted floors that lift up to reveal baths.
Was Joseph the dream client, I wonder? “We had our differences of opinion,” said Tom, with a smile. “But they have always been creative. You might meet a client and he’d say “no way” when you came up with something, but Joe and Alex would go away and think about it. You can’t ask for more.
They could have asked for an easier project, maybe. The first group of builders let them down, so they had to start all over again. But both Tom and Joseph have a positive streak, which allows them to see this as a time to refine, to make the ideas even brighter and the house more exquisite.
“The whole construction took about ten years,” explains Joseph. “But I knew I had to keep going. There have been times when I wondered what would happen if I gave up and bought an apartment? he stops at this thought. But he was in good hands, as Tom kept the project on track. After studying at UCD, Tom set up Bates Maher, together with Kevin Bates, now director of Scott Tallon Walker. The practice was awarded Ireland’s highest architectural honour, the RIAI Gold Medal, in 2013 for Poustinia, County Tipperary’s retreat centre. The pavilions in the center show the same attention to materials, details and unique atmospheres that successful architecture can create, just like Tom’s house for Joseph.
We go up to the top-floor kitchen for tea and cake, and I’m completely taken in by the view of the church’s copper dome. “After living in a period house, it took time to find the measure of the space,” he adds. “But living here has been wonderful. I was always drawn to modernism, growing up. Artist Patrick Scott was a friend of the family and Scott’s works dot the walls. “It’s the chance of each generation not to repeat the past,” he adds. “You don’t expect customers to change their lives,” Tom says. “But you could open life ideas in a different way.” And this is how you create a new future.
Originally published in 2019
WORDS Gemma Tipton
PHOTOGRAPHY Ros Kavanagh