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Turn the World on its Head: Valerie Mulvin on the Architecture of the 1960s – and in 60 Years from Now

According to the Dublin architect Valerie Mulvin, the 1960s and their progressive thinking still exert great influence today. She considers it one of the most important tasks of today's architects to make the buildings of that time - and other existing buildings - fit for the future. On the occasion of Detail's 60th birthday, Valerie Mulvin reflects about the future of architecture and recalls her first encounter with our magazine.

Detail was founded in the 1960s. What did this decade leave us behind in terms of architecture? One of my most brilliant finds in my favourite second-hand bookshop a few years ago was two Detail books from 1965 – “Contemporary Architectural Design – selected examples from Detail”. They’re full of images and details which are inspirational, particularly as we re-evaluate what the 1960s brought in terms of innovative thinking, fresh design ideas and a sense of turning the world on its head. Films, books and especially architectural design from that period have again become hugely influential, and ideas about modernity established in the 1960s and their value are being re-imagined through the lens of today. Much of the detail from this period can be re-considered and updated to suit modern building codes while retaining the freshness of the original concepts.

When did you first come across Detail, and what do you associate with our magazine? Detail was always a significant magazine from College days. The library received regular hard copies which were consulted by each of us students in turn - a bit like consulting a precious illuminated manuscript. Back issues were bound into volumes each year and were always a great resource on projects. It was one of the first magazines we subscribed to when we set up our office, and I can report that every issue that comes in is a delight – its thematic aspect, the research on focused topics, and the publication of critical details of each project are all really valuable in terms of solving problems which help us achieve our design intent. Our construction industry tends to be quite conservative, so it is great to be able to point to an actual building, produce the detail and say, why not like this?

Where do you think architecture will stand in 60 years’ time? What issues will architects have to deal with, and what kinds of buildings will they be designing? Huge questions! In my opinion architecture will be a big part in interrogating and helping to solve the issues that trouble us all – issues of inequality, of climate change, of housing and cities, of making our footprint on the planet more sustainable. In positive terms, I believe architecture will be an essential part in bringing delight and making great environments for people to live in. I suspect the materials we will use will be both ancient and modern – stone, brick, timber and concrete (the last achieved through more sustainable production processes) as well as new materials we can’t yet imagine, derived from research into all kinds of natural structures, materials derived from recycling, and sustainable technologies. Energy from the sea and sun may become more central to our thinking.
Depending on where in the world one is building, there will be different climatic challenges. In Ireland, it looks like it will be extremes of wind and rain. Each region will no doubt develop specific ways of handling details to rise to the challenge of providing shelter, and spaces which are tailored to their use yet flexible to accommodate change in the future. This will be both good for the planet, and will give us more diversity through avoiding standard solutions.
The climate emergency and health preoccupations will steer us in a direction of new buildings which need little energy, use natural ventilation, and take on the characteristics of some of those new materials, while maintaining generous space standards for healthier group interaction; and building technologies which solve the needs of each region on the earth.
Re-using old buildings will be continue to be a strong and sustainable part of architectural work, both on a simple practical level of sustainable reuse of structures which are capable of being re-purposed, and in creating cultural continuities by maintaining and upgrading significant buildings of previous eras. Possibly the categories of building types we take for granted now – housing, educational buildings, cultural, scientific, manufacturing, etc., for example – will blur into more flexible containers for elastic functions, with buildings becoming inherently less destructive on the planet through their approach to materials and to energy. Finally, I believe the design of the environment and the public realm will become more significant worldwide, with nature at the heart of what we do, creating buildings which delight.

Valerie Mulvin is a co-founder (with Niall McCullough) of McCullough Mulvin Architects, a Dublin-based collaborative practice established in 1985. Valerie graduated from University College Dublin School of Architecture in 1981. After completing numerous projects in Ireland, McCullough Mulvin have also been working internationally in recent years. In India, they completed several buildings at Thapar University, Punjab, one of which – the Learning Laboratory won the DETAIL Reader’s Prize in January 2021.

Discover the Thapar University, Punjab by McCullough Mulvin Architects here.

Valerie Mulvin on the Architecture of the 1960s, Photo: McCullough Mulvin Architects
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