VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow

Carlow town is home to a new state-of-the-art theatre and a superlative municipal art gallery. The new VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art and The George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow is a remarkable building. Irish Building Magazine looks at the latest of a series of investments in public infrastructure that are promoting the arts and are improving the lives of Ireland’s citizens.

Constructed of white glass and white concrete, the exterior has a translucent quality that gives the building an introspective appearance by day and an exuberant, exciting quality by night when it is illuminated by low-level lighting behind the glass wall.


The 3,000 sq m building comprises a 353-seat theatre and stage area, four principal gallery spaces, stores and workshop areas, a restaurant and theatre-bar facilities. The theatre is equipped with the latest audio-visual equipment, a superb lighting system and a flexible stage that can be configured to accommodate an orchestra pit. plans to build an arts centre in Carlow have been promoted for more than 30 years, since at least the founding of the annual Éigse Arts Festival in 1979. Next year, to celebrate Éigse’s 30th anniversary and the opening of the new centre, the venue will host a retrospective season that will extend beyond the nine days in June when the festival is usually held.

The arts centre’s Main Gallery is a superlative exhibition space: measuring 29m by 16m, with a clear ceiling height in excess of 11m, it is the largest purpose built gallery in Ireland and is destined to be a place where large national and international works of art will be displayed to their best. Its opening show includes some of Ireland’s most renowned artists, including Sean Scully, Charles Tyrrell, Richard Gorman and Maud Cotter.

The Facility also has three other galleries: the Link Gallery, Studio Gallery and Digital Gallery. The Link Gallery acts as an entrance to the building and also as a central hub providing access to the other gallery spaces and to the theatre. As well as challenging the traditional idea of having a sequence of gallery spaces where a visitor  can walk through interconnecting rooms, the Link Gallery creates an architectural harmony that pleasantly accommodates the disparity in the size of the four different exhibition spaces. The Studio Gallery is a flexible space designed to act as a workshop/education outreach facility or studio for fostering artists-in-residence programmes, while the Digital Gallery is a fully-blacked out area, with additional power points and data points in its floor, designed for hosting art installations that use projections and audio-visual material.

The translucent glass walls allow all the galleries, save the Digital Gallery, to be lit by natural light alone during daytime hours. “It is a very pleasant building to be in during the day time,” says the centre’s Director Carissa Farrell. “Because the glass is translucent, there is no harshness to the daylight when it enters the building.”

Architect for the building, Terry Pawson Architects London, was chosen following a competition held by the RIAI in 2004.  Construction works commenced in September 2007 and completed on time and on budget in July this year, with BAM, formerly Rohcon, as main contractor.

“As soon as we saw the tender, we wanted to win it,” said BAM’s Contract Manager Aidan O’Connell. “This is a very exciting, landmark building and I am very proud to have worked on it. Many of the construction methods used were new to me and the experience has really added to our knowledge of advanced construction processes. The glazing system uses bonded glass, there are no window frames visible, and for the fair-faced concrete we used OSBs – orienteered strand boards – to get the finish that the architect wanted.”

“”The whole project team – Client, Architect and BAM, were very enthusiastic about the project and cooperated very well together”. On the Council side, Project Engineer Sean Laffey and Clerk of Works Tim Madden were very proactive in helping us to deliver the project on time and on budget; if they saw a problem coming up, they sorted it.  Jeremy Brown  of Terry Pawson’s London offices to supervise the work and to see how we were progressing with sample concrete wall panels and floor panels. Aside from ensuring that we achieved the correct finish on the concrete, with no seams showing, the biggest challenge was to finish installing the concrete floors in January and to protect them, while we continued on constructing the rest of the building.”


VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art and The George Bernard Shaw Theatre is a good example of the high level of initiative locally in Carlow. While it benefited from a €3.17m ACCESS grant from the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, the bulk of the €18m cost was paid for by Carlow’s Local Authorities, with the strategic town-centre site being donated by the Trustees of Carlow College, known locally as St Patrick’s.

The county’s local authorities have worked hard to improve the economic and cultural life of Carlow town and county, with the new VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art and The George Bernard Shaw Theatre, opened in September, being just one of a series of infrastructural investments that have borne fruit in the last eighteen months.  Indeed, the next project in hand is the construction of a new county museum in the town, due for completion in late 2010, which will be another significant addition to its civic and cultural quarter.

In addition, Carlow has become a much more attractive place to live and visit since the opening in May 2008 of the new bypass around the town. Built by BAM on time, within the space of 22 months, and on budget, at a cost of €216m, the 18.5km bypass has reduced the town’s daily traffic levels by more than 9,000 vehicles.

Carlow has also been successful in attracting major direct foreign investment to the county. Last year, it succeeded in attracting the US insurance company Unum to establish a strategic software service centre creating 200 jobs.   In November 2007 Merck Sharp & Dohme chose the town as the location for its first vaccine facility outside of the United States.   Investment of €200 million is currently underway with over 400 construction workers on site and the facility will employ 170 highly-skilled staff members when it is completed in 2011.