Derry girl Caroline O’Donnell, the new chair of architecture at Ivy League school, Cornell University, talks to the ‘Journal’ about life and work

Caroline O’Donnell has made history as the youngest ever chair of the Department of Architecture at Cornell University. She is, of course, the first person from Derry ever to have been appointed to the prestigious position.

Friday, 6th August 2021, 5:33 pm
Caroline with her daughter Lúnasa during a trip to Binevenagh with Benone, Magilligan and Inishowen head in the background.

The architecture programme at the Ivy League college in Ithaca, New York, is considered the best in the United States. That the 46-year-old Derry woman has made head of department is a very big deal indeed.

Yet when the ‘Journal’ spoke to Caroline at her office this week she was self-effacing and it is clear that she still considers herself a Derry girl at heart.

“My parents are from Derry. My daddy is Patrick O’Donnell from Creggan. My mum is Pauline Morrow from Chamberlain Street.

Caroline and Pauline at Party Wall, winner of the PS1 Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Young Architects Programme in 2013.

“They spent their lives in Derry, got married, had two kids and then moved to Athlone, where I was born. I grew up there until I was 12 and then moved back to Derry. So I spent my whole teenage years trying to get a Derry accent!”

Though born in the midlands Derry’s gravitational pull was strong thanks to the influence of her parents.

“We always went back to Derry on holidays and up to Moville. Derry was always the place I considered home. Even when I was growing up in Athlone I knew that’s not where we were from. I went to Thornhill and spent my formative years in Derry.”

She has fond memories of growing up in the city in the early 1990s.

“I remember going ‘up the town’ after school to hang out in the Richmond Centre. That was the highlight, still is the highlight of my life! There was no Peace Bridge. It was very different.”

Caroline started teaching architecture at Cornell 12 years ago. During her time there she has edited the Cornell Journal of Architecture and has published widely. ‘Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site,’ (2015); ‘This is Not A Wall: Collected Short Stories on CODA’s Party Wall at MoMA PS1,’ (2018); ‘The Architecture of Waste: Design for a Circular Economy,’ (2020); and ‘Werewolf: The Architecture of Lunacy, Shapeshifting, and Material Metamorphosis,’ (2021) are among her influential works. She also owns the award-winning Caroline O’Donnell Architecture (CODA) practice in Ithaca and on International Women’s Day 2017 was named as one of 30 ‘must-know’ female architects in the world by architecture journal Azure.

After finishing her A-Levels at Thornhill in 1994 Caroline studied architecture in Manchester. She worked in Rotterdam for a time in the early 2000s, before moving to the US to complete a master’s programme in 2004.

“I had every intention of going back to Europe. I didn’t intend staying in the US at all.” she says.

Over the past decade Caroline’s career took off and she is now part of the furniture at Cornell’s hallowed campus in Upstate New York.

“I got tenure and now I’m in charge of the department for the last two weeks. I have a baby now so I suppose I’m staying,” she said.

Two years ago Caroline became a mother, giving birth to a baby daughter Lúnasa, naming her after the month in which she was born.

Not long afterwards her architectural and academic career took on a secondary importance. The tremendous joy of welcoming Lúnasa into the world was pierced by devastating news.

Primitive Hut, Decomposing Pavilion. Art Omi, Ghent, New York, USA.

“I had a baby in August 2019 and in November my mother was told she had six months to live.

“Me and my brother [Fergal] went home - he is in the US as well - in November. My dad died on Christmas Day and then my mother lived for six months so the beginning of COVID was her last three months or so.”

Caroline paints Pauline as a woman of great crack and vitality.

She tells how Pauline inadvertently ended up on stage at Ebrington during a performance of Haris Pašović’s incredible outdoor theatre-piece ‘The Conquest of Happiness’ during the City of Culture year and had no choice but to play her part as a massacre victim during the performance!

“They were both 78. She was so full of life. Always dancing.

“She went to all the shows in the Millennium Forum. She was water skiing and jet skiing up until last year. She acted a lot younger.”

Caroline with her late mother Pauline and her daughter Lúnasa in Ithaca, New York in 2019.

Caroline jokes how her father, in typical Derry fashion, had been no respecter of reputation no matter how proud he was of his children.

When his high-flying daughter sent him a copy of her first book ‘Niche Tactics’ he joked: “I really enjoyed your book. I read it from cover to cover, well I mean, I read it cover and cover!”

Her return to Ireland for their final months was a precious time.

“My daughter was from three to nine months so my mum got to see her crawling. This was a silver lining. It was great to be there with her. It was great to be in Derry.”

While a period of great sadness it allowed the returning émigré a chance to have a proper look around her home town again after so long in exile.

“I was walking every day with the baby across the Peace Bridge and up to Ebrington. There was a little café open - the only thing that was open during lockdown. I’d stop there a while and then walk out the Limavady Road.

“It was nice weather and it was kind of an amazing thing to do because I’d been in Derry a week at Christmas and a week in the summer but I hadn’t been in Derry for that big of a chunk of time.

“The city is so different from when I grew up there in the early 90s. I remember working for an architect in Derry one summer, George Brennan. He’s still there. I was just an intern but a couple of times I went down to eat my lunch by the river but you had to go and sit in a car park. It was the only way you could enjoy the river. I always thought this was crazy. You had this beautiful landscape and nobody is paying any attention to it. That’s all changed now.”

She is glad to see Derry embrace the Foyle as a natural asset and points out that we are not the only city to have neglected our riverfront.

“I can’t remember the quote exactly from Le Corbusier, the most famous architect of all time, but he said something about the river in Paris. ‘Why would you pay any attention to the river? It’s like paying attention to the maid’s quarters in your house’.

“It’s kind of amazing how up until pretty recently people didn’t think they should be turning their attention to it. You see it everywhere, New York as well, Derry, all these roads, parking and industry backed up to the river.

“Only fairly recently did people figure out it would be fairly good for cities if we could turn around and pay attention. I think the Peace Bridge is an incredible thing for the city. Obviously to connect the two sides means more than it would in an average city. And Ebrington opening up. I think there is a lot more to be done there but even just the fact that it’s a space and things are happening there.”

Asked about her favourite buildings locally she suggests Grianán and the Derry Walls. This is surprising as the output from her CODA practice is at the avant-garde end of the spectrum to the lay eye.

She is taken, however, with the ultra-modern Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin for which the Dublin-based firm O’Donnell + Tuomey was awarded 2nd place in the 2011 Stirling Prize for Architecture.

“I’m interested in it because it’s innovative. They are using concrete and colours and things that are not normal and not fitting in to the Derry context. I think it’s super interesting that they did that with the programming of a language centre. You could have imagined that going much more traditional and conservative. I’m kind of interested in that.

“Even the way the light comes into the atrium is not a normal organisation of a building in Derry. Nobody thinks about a courtyard building in the north of Europe but it really works. It’s an amazing light space. Everything is emptied out in the middle and all the functions are pushed to the side. It seems like it’s designed around the void as a thing that’s more solid. The negative space is what it’s all designed around. I’d love to seem more innovation and more risk taking.”

Caroline suggests the development of a distinctive Derry architecture has been stunted for obvious reasons.

“Through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, people had other things on their minds. Architecture, in a crisis, is pretty low down on people’s lists.

“I feel like there has been a great culture of music and all the arts - music, dancing, the visual arts - but perhaps because of the political situation there hasn’t been a lot of architectural innovation. We’ve borrowed things from other places.”

She gives an interesting example to illustrate Derry’s history as an architectural magpie.

“I showed the Guildhall in my class and asked the students to tell me where it is and they will mostly say London. That’s a borrowed architecture. It’s not a Derry architecture or Irish architecture.

“Things are changing. What is Derry architecture? A lot of people are asking this question in the US these days. Culturally, if architecture has always been the domain of the wealthy, powerful person, and in this country that’s the white male as the client and the architect as subservient to that and part of that power structure, I think people have started to ask how do we think about it differently and start to engage with communities and understand how we can change the power structure and be part of the whole changing of the hierarchy of power. You know what it is in the US. You can ask the same question in parts of Ireland. I don’t think you can say there is an Irish architecture. Derry figuring out its own architectural identity would be an interesting thing to think about.”

A major of focus of Caroline’s own philosophy and practice is the connection between the built and natural environments. This, she believes, is something we all need to address.

“Up until recently I would have said by making a building you are doing bad. You are using materials that are limited in the world. You are using energy probable not through solar power....I went to Holland on a trip with students a couple of years ago and they were saying something that was really obvious. Why would we be trying to get to zero? That’s our goal? You wouldn’t do that with anything else. Can we not start to think of architecture as actually helping? Could architecture be generating more energy than it uses or has used and giving it back to the grid?

“Can we make that a rule in our building? I think Amsterdam has now done it. They’ve said every building has to be giving back. It’s really obvious but also a wild idea to make this official policy.”

The depletion of naturally occurring minerals and metals is another growing issue within the field.

“The material problem is more serious because there is only so much iron ore in the ground. There is only so much zinc. If you look at the charts of these metals they are all really close to running out. Iron ore still has about 100 years but all of the others like copper, zinc, tin, have 10 or 20 years left. It’s crazy it’s not more of a crisis. It’s not going to be choice in the future. Fresh zinc and copper is going to be so expensive that we are always going to be using things that are recycled from other buildings.”

As Caroline embarks on an exciting new phase of her career in the US she will always have one eye cast back across the pond in the direction of Derry.

“Derry is an amazing city. I don’t know if I appreciated it when I was growing up because that’s what you know. Certainly compared to other cities in Ireland that just grew up naturally, to have this super planned city with the Diamond and the Walls and that structure and then to work as an urban designer later and to look back at Derry you can see someone really thought about this in advance. It didn’t naturally happen like most places. It’s pretty amazing. It’s a great place to come from. I’m very proud.”

Caroline with her daughter Lúnasa at Stroove.