This luminous edifice in the south-east Irish town of Carlow is a glowing testament to a growing reputation

Before a bypass was completed in May 2008, Carlow was a bottleneck on the main road between Dublin and Waterford. A town of only 20,000, it seems like an unlikely place for an architect to build its reputation, but Terry Pawson Architects has managed to do just that with an €18m (£16.3m) performing and visual arts centre.

Until this project – known as VISUAL and the George Bernard Shaw theatre – Pawson was known primarily for projects such as Vernon Street offices, a sensitive low-rise in west London. However, Carlow has established the practice’s credentials as the deliverer of international-standard designs for a provincial budget.

Terry Pawson's Carlow Arts Centre

Located in the town centre in the grounds of St Patrick’s college, a 19th-century seminary, the building closes a wide quadrangle that is shared by the college. Yet the site is not as formal as it first appears. It was previously home to some agricultural sheds to which the dull hue of the glazing alludes. The windows also harmonise with the neutral grey of the town’s local limestone.

Indeed, although the glass volumes provide a stark visual contrast with the 18th-century cathedral next door, there is a quiet contextualism at work in the building. Towns in south-east Ireland have a more recognisable grid than those in the rest of the country, but even these break up when they reach parks and rivers. Pawson’s opaque glass volumes composed on a concrete plinth pick up the rhythm of the town’s informal grid.

Terry Pawson's Carlow Arts Centre

As the daylight fades, the glass mutates from opaque grey to a colourful glow. It’s a contextual building, but one that speaks of a confidence in contemporary architectural forms and materials, and acts as a stepping stone for Pawson on the way to its 45,000m2 opera house in Linz, Austria, which went on site this year.

Project team

Architect Terry Pawson Architects
Client Carlow council
Structural and services engineer Arup
Quantity surveyor Nolan Ryan Tweeds
Theatre consultant Theatre Project
Contractor BAM