Writing in 1967 V. S. Pritchett characterised Ireland as a place on the edge:
Americans…after their transatlantic flight…will feel they are homing on another continent at
last. They are not. The European, going westward, has the truer impression. He is going out
to the tattered fringes where Europe is breaking up.1 Pritchett’s view, if undeniably Anglo-centric, can be adapted to our purpose here in considering the state of Architectural Modernism in 1960’s Ireland. The picture at the outset of the decade suggested that here indeed was architecture of the tattered fringes. Few, if any twentieth-century buildings, would have entered the restrictive Pevsner cannon of progress. Nonetheless, in the space of a few short years, the architectural profile would be altered radically. By the time the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) held its annual meeting for 1966 in Dublin the architectural landscape was in the process of being transformed.
In spite of limited tangible evidence it would be inaccurate to suggest that Ireland was ignorant of Modernism. What had been a pre-dominantly inward looking cultural agenda was in itself, a mirror of trends found elsewhere in many post-colonial cultures. It was not a state of inertia inherent in the local psyche as many commentators imply. The country had provided, if unintentionally, a seedbed, for its own significant contribution to Modernism, Joyce being the most obvious exemple. But others had contributed too. Roderic O’Connor (1860-1940) a painter, worked briefly with Gauguin; the designer Eileen Gray (1878-1975) reached a limited international prominence, if only now being appreciated in the land of her birth and somewhat hijacked by style gurus.2 And the very characteristic of the society that many found stifling others found conducive to their own intellectual agenda.3 Indeed as late as 1966 the architect Arthur Gibney implied that a backwardness could benefit the architectural profession, allowing the exercise of empirical judgement and the ability to choose the best formula from the trials and errors of others. 4 By 1960 the achievements of Modernism were at least familiar to the architectural profession. The Australian born, Raymond McGrath (1903-77), had been a key figure in an earlier British manifestation of Modernism, especially in the realm of domestic architecture. In 1934 he had published Twentieth Century Houses and had been an admirer of Aalto since 1937.5 Since 1940 he had been the principal Architect of Ireland’s OPW (Office of Public Works) but had been frustrated in his more creative impulses. Officialdom and, no doubt prevailing taste, encouraged a retreat into an emasculated faux Louis XVI, deemed appropriate for official residences at home and abroad. Other figures were in touch with, or at least aware of, innovation elsewhere. Robin Walker studied (1947-8) with Le Courbusier. The Dublin born, Kevin Roche (b. 1922) had been in the United States since 1948 and Saarinen’s principal associate in design since 1954. Roche has noted the ‘sense of isolation’ in his student days in Dublin. It ‘was very severe, almost a sense of despair.’ On the death of the Professor of Architecture in 1941, he writes, ‘Beaux Arts education gradually gave way, so that we suddenly discovered that there was such a thing as modern architecture. One became aware of Markelius and Asplund and Aalto in Scandinavia…’ The much overlooked Sean Kenny (1932-73), who in the 1960s radicalised stage design in London’s West End, had spent time at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin.
Michael Scott (1905-89), was as near as the country came to Modernism, best encapsulated in his own home ‘Geragh’ and his work on the Irish Pavilion at the World’s Fair, New York (1938-9).6 Scott knew Aalto, the latter referring to Finland as the Ireland of the North.7 He had also been instrumental in bringing Gropius to Dublin in 1937 to lecture on ‘the International trend in Modern Architecture.’8 And he had obtained some wider prominence especially for his Central Bus Station (Busáras) erected in the face of post-war austerity in 1947 and suggesting radicalism never previously witnessed in the Irish urban scene.
In contrast to the poverty of the late 1940s much has been made of Ireland’s recent economic success, encouraging (1994) Morgan Stanley to coin the expression Celtic Tiger. The impacts on social change have been manifold, much discussed, and possibly even delusional.9 In spite of such transformations real attitude change began not in the 1990s but when Sean Lemass (1899-1971) succeeded Eamon de Valera (1882-1974) as taoiseach [prime minister] in 1959. The Lemass era, lasting from June 1959 to November 1966, represented as never before a commitment to outward looking policies.10 Lemass’s tenure followed on the 1958 Programme for Economic Expansion that with subsequent economic plans turned the economy into a more open and dynamic force, needing to adapt to survive.11 Such change was compounded by a confluence of factors, which across Irish society were to have repercussions, many of which are still being felt.12 The Second Vatican Council (1962-5) challenged the conventions, if only nominally, of prevailing religious practice in a predominantly Catholic state. A national television station, forcefully encouraging debate and openness, was initiated in 1961. The Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement (1965) together with negotiations for entry into the Common Market (EEC, now EU) all spoke of change to the prevailing order and a challenge to the prevailing cultural order and elite. At the outset of the decade the presidency of John F. Kennedy in the United States, visiting Ireland in triumph six month before his death, appeared to suggest that given the right circumstances Irish men and women could succeed at home as they had done abroad. All such change was accompanied, and sustained, by a marked increase in prosperity, a rise in disposable income and a substantial increases in consumer expenditure.13 Having sung the praises of Cork’s old architecture T. F. McNamara could write in 1960 that there ‘is now a more vigorous awakening to the impulse of the élan vitale of the Machine Age and a new dialectic is expressing itself.’14
Economic analysts noted how in 1962 capital outlay on construction should rise due largely to more building in connection with industrial expansion, to the need for more and modern office space, and to demand for housing. 15 The increase in the scale of Irish offices, by default, enhanced the promotion of large-scale international abstract art a further concession to change in contrast to what had been the prevailing taste for the figurative.16 Notable projects included the P. J. Carroll & Co. Ltd. Offices on the Grand Canal, Dublin (1964. Robinson, Keefe & Devane). Liberty Hall (1965. D. R. O’Kelly) headquarters of the ITGWU (Irish Trade and General Workers Union) proclaimed appropriately the power and influences of an increasingly affluent workforce. As if recalling Sullivan’s dictate that a skyscraper should be ‘every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation…’ Liberty Hall towered above the Liffey’s embankments proclaiming for all to see its assault on the Georgian streetscape and arguably Georgian sensibilities.17 State and local authority provision of public housing was enhanced. Practices prevalent since the 1930s in public housing programmes appeared to be jettisoned. In 1964 informed by continental prototypes, such as Britz-Buckow-Rudow, Berlin (1958-69), and schemes by Aalto in the Hansa District, Berlin (1957-9) and the Ritstiflet, Vallingby, Stockholm (1958), Dublin Corporation signed the contract for the Ballymun public housing scheme, considered the biggest ever contract in the building industry.18 Earlier that same year a delegation from Belfast Corporation Housing Committee travelled to Stockholm and Copenhagen to study public housing and recommended that Belfast should follow Scandinavian methods.19 High-rise schemes from the United Kingdom such as at Lewisham Park, London, were undoubtedly as influential. Regrettably, in the absence of cohesive social and economic planning, Ballyum became a by-word for social depravation even if comically alluded to in the work of Roddy Doyle such as The Commitments (1987) and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993). The current demolition of tower blocks at Ballymun is testimony to failure. The fate of comparable Scottish schemes has been captured evocatively in Andrew O’Hagan’s, Our Fathers (London: Faber & Faber, 1997) and recalls the advice that houses should not be functionally so advanced that they are lived in under protest.20 The near war-like scenario that erupted in Belfast in 1968 precludes an assessment of the success or otherwise of public housing projects, based on architectural merit alone.
Growth in the population base and the spread of suburbs in larger towns and cities encouraged the erection of new places of worship. In spite of a pervasive conservatism the Catholic Church had been open to limited changes in liturgical art and architecture and was to be a key player in fostering a new aesthetic throughout the 1960s. Change came incrementally and was more readily embraced by religious orders than the secular clergy. It is now perceived that ‘better’ architects were less likely to be commissioned by a conservative clergy.21 The architectural press too felt hard done by such conservatism. 22 In 1962, conscious of liturgical movements and innovative architecture in France and Germany, the Benedictine Abbey of Glenstal, Co. Limerick, hosted a Congress on Architecture. A church journal, The Furrow, reported regularly on church art and architecture and its commentators revealed an awareness of trends elsewhere.23 The same journal produced a Studies in Pastoral Liturgy. Responding quickly to liturgical change a generation of new churches allowed for a radical break with the practices of earlier decades and became among the most tangible, and significantly publicly accessible, symbols of change. The most notable include Michael Scott’s Corpus Christi Church, Knockanure, County Kerry (1964); Our Lady Queen of Heaven, Dublin Airport (archt. Robinson, Keefe & Devane. 1964); St Domininc’s, Athy, County Kildare (archt. John Thompson & Partners. 1965) and St. Theresa’s, Sion Mills, County Tyrone (archt. Patrick Haughey. 1965).
In the field of culture and education state agencies embarked on a range of projects of unprecedented scale and ambition. If a huge National Concert Hall, commemorating John F. Kennedy, remains unexecuted other successful projects include the so-called Cork Opera House (1965) and rebuilt Abbey Theatre (1966).24 Education and its provision were forcefully promoted. In 1965 alone the Commissioners for Public Works placed contracts for fifty new schools.25 In the previous year the premium for a new university was awarded to Andrezej Wejchert.26 This followed an international competition, the methodology employed in procuring a design for the new Berkeley Library of Trinity College (1967. Ahrends, Burton & Koraleck). The building of a new university in Northern Ireland was no less architecturally ambitions but its location beset with controversy and sectarianism.27 Such schemes, north and south, paralleled trends elsewhere especially in Great Britain which in these years witnessed the creation of many striking university campuses such as the University of East Anglia, Norwich (1963) by Denys Lasdun.
Tourism began its inexorable rise to prominence and all aspects of the society from cultural life to principles of conservation and public hygiene seemed subject to the need to attract foreign visitors.28 The Intercontinental Hotel (1963), Ballsbridge, was the largest in Ireland and set new standards of scale and comfort. Domestic chains (Ryan and P. V. Doyle) emerged to take advantage of a growing sector; Doyle’s Montrose Hotel opened in 1964. The Silver Spring’s Hotel (archt. E. A. Newenham), Cork, opened in the same year having employed Intra Design, London, as design consultants. By 1966 there were nearly 19,000 hotel beds, many in strikingly invasive buildings that proclaimed their modernity with no qualms for natural environment or architectural setting.29 Cork Airport (archt. L. M. Caroll) opened in 1961 and could boast of 7,000 passengers in one month!30 The opening (1967) of Ireland House on 5 Avenue, New York, gave clear indication of the main market drive by the tourist board and by 1967 tourism was the state’s largest export item.th
Side by side with the clarion call for change and innovation the architectural press was torn in saving the Georgian legacy. While noting and encouraging progress, The Irish Builder, was also concerned at the threat to Dublin’s Georgian architecture. The magnitude of the threat in the 1960s may now seem remarkable. Some argued that Dublin should be a town owing nothing to its past and only the abolition of public obstructions, however historic, would improve the city.31 Proposals to fill the canal system encircling the city were renewed from time to time. In 1964 a proposal that the Streets Committee of the Corporation should consider acquiring the Royal Canal from Cross Gun’s Bridge to Newcomen Bridge with a view to having it filled in was agreed at a meeting of Dublin Corporation.32 From at least the 1940s onwards there had been growing international concern on the decline of the city’s architectural fabric. In 1940 Mario Praz had despaired of the local perception whereby Georgian houses having nothing outstandingly Irish about them could obviously perish.33 Concern mounted throughout the 1960s in the face of official neglect.34
After much public debate and rancour, which still survives, the State’s Electricity Board (the ESB), commenced demolition of a range of late eighteenth-century houses in Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, in March 1965.35 The best advice of international scholars encouraged demolition. But this appeared, in hindsight, to give a carte blanche to developers to demolish wilfully where they so chose. Other perceived the new buildings as visionary, a symbol of Ireland of the future.36 Compounded by comparable later controversies, notably over the City’s official offices, architecture in Dublin and arguably in Ireland lost much of its nerve. The economic downturn of the 1970s, the political and economic stagnation of the 1980s, encouraged an absence of significant new architecture. Much was built but with a number of striking exceptions the emphasis had changed from one of confrontation and assertion to one of amenability. Unwilling to take risks the Georgians had to be appeased even where the benefits were ultimately dubious and of little benefit. The potential for quality had to be curtailed by an attention to blend in brickwork. The only recent significant public architecture in Dublin, the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery (2002. archts. Benson & Forsyth), has been compromised by the need to retain an insignificant Georgian component on the site. Hotels from the 1960s remain across the country but have had their public spaces, and usually bedrooms, turned into faux
eighteenth-century interiors. Heritage themes abound. Modillions and dentils running riot collide with smoke alarms, cut-glass chandelier, and wide-screen televisions.
The Irish had, in effect, rejected the Puritanism inherent in Modernism. For all its potential for reflecting a new Ireland it offered little to which the population at large could relate. The rejection of materialism inherent in much Modernism was redundant in a society, which previously had little. The Miesian sophistication of refined minimal quality materials was too elitist when faced with the more tangible signs of prosperity, the lush foliage and fitted carpet. In another context the novelist, Flan O’Brien had noted that ‘affluence is no guarantee of a sure identity and that poverty is the inevitable condition of those who had their past identity taken away.’ In an Ireland uncertain of its past even more so of its future the Georgian Society could present more persuasive arguments. Guardians of their own subjective taste and owners of property their substantial masonry and fine timber carving had greater resonance than polished steel. In spite of the sophistication of much recent architecture, the dominant taste now appears to be a manic neo-Georgian. That this taste now swamps the country is a reflection of both the success and failure of preservationists. It shows the extent of their influence in determining taste but their failure in defining how that taste is to be employed. They have failed to engage with the twentieth and now twenty-first century, aesthetically and occasionally politically, and have failed to influence the development of a better architectural environment. George Bataille has succinctly suggested that: ‘…great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes.’ The architectural heritage, like Bataille’s monuments, has been used as an authority against the shady element of change. The irony is that the purity they espouse may not have been incompatible with Modernism itself. For Ada Louise Huxtable the ‘Miesian skyscraper is the basis of a superb vernacular, probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house. Its rejection is unrealistic.’37 A fuller assessment of Ireland’s 1960s legacy could re-ignite a creative discourse with the past and an embrace of innovation in keeping with the technological basis of current affluence.
1 V. S. Pritchett, Dublin: A Portrait, London: The Bodley Head, 1967, pp. 24-5.
2 The Irish Times, 16 March 2002 (‘Weekend Review’, p. w7).
3 Compare, R. Wall, Wittgenstein in Ireland, London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2000.
4 A. Gibney, ‘Influences in Irish Architecture’, Irish Builder, 10 September, 1966, p. 583.
5 D. O’Donovan, God’s Architect: A Life of Raymond McGrath, Dublin: Kilbride Books, 1995, p. 184.
The Irish Times 21 May 1976.
6 D. Walker, Michael Scott in (casual conversation) with Dorothy Walker, Kinsale: Gandon Edition, 1995, pp. 83-103.
N. Sheaff, ‘The Shamrock Building’, Irish Arts Review, Spring 1984, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 26-9.
7 Ibid, p. 175.
8 Ibid, p. 73.
9 MMI Stockbrokers [Dr. A. Murphy], The Celtic Tiger – The Great Misnomer: Economic Growth and the Multi-national in Ireland in the 1990’s, Dublin: MMI Stockbrokers, 1998. For observations on social change in general see texts such as Gemma Hussey, Ireland today: anatomy of a changing state, Dublin: Town House, 1993; London: Viking, 1994.
10 C. Ó Gráda, A rocky road: The Irish economy since the 1920s, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 30.
11 National Industrial Economic Council, Interim Report on the Second Programme for Economic Expansion, Dublin: Government Stationary Office, 1964, p. 5.
12 Compare literary manifestations of such change. Declan Kiberd, ‘Interchapter, Recovery and Renewal’ in Inventing Ireland, London: Jonathan Cape, 1995, pp. 563-80.
13 Alfred Kuehn, Prospects of the Irish Economy in 1962, Dublin: The Economic Research Institute, June 1962, p. 5.
14 Irish Builder, 11 February, 1960, p. 39.
15 Kuehn, p. 5.
16 P. Murray ‘ Irish Painting, Tradition, and Post-War Internationalism’ in When Time Began to Rant and Rage: Figurative Painting from Twentieth Century Ireland, ed. James Christen Steward, London: Merrell Holberton, 1998, pp. 78-89, p. 86.
17 ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’, Lippincotts, 57, March 1896, pp. 403-9 in Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings (1947 ed.), pp. 201-13, in R. Twombly, Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 329.
18 Irish Builder, 13 February 1965, p. 107.
19 Irish Builder, 30 January 1965, p. 69. The Design Council in the Republic of Ireland had been established as a result of a report from Scandinavian Design Group. See: An Córas Trachtála (Irish Export Board) and Kaj Franck, Scandinavian Design Group in Ireland, Design in Ireland: Report of the Scandinavian Design Group in Ireland (Dublin: An Córas Trachtála, April 1961).
20 Henry-Russell Hitchcock & Philip Johnson, The International Style, New York: Norton Library, 1966, p. 94.
21 A. Flannery, ‘Our Churches: The Liturgy and Church Architecture’ in R. Hurley and W. Cantwell, Contemporary Irish Church Architecture, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985, pp. 9-29, p. 25.
22 Irish Builder, 10 September, 1966, p. 595.
23 The Furrow, vol. 12, no. 6, June 1961; supplement, pp. 22-5.
24 Irish Builder, 1 February 1964, p. 88; Architects Journal, 17 September 1966, vol. 144, pp. 529-40.
25 Irish Builder, 1 January 1966, p. 9.
This included a striking new teacher training college, St. Patrick’s Training College, Dublin, Architect and Building News, 31 August 1966, vol. 230, no. 9, pp. 383-4.
26 Irish Builder, 26 September 1964, pp. 722-3.
27 Irish Builder, 27 February 1965, p. 145.
28 The design quality of some services was excellent such as the Information Office and Site Museum at Newgrange by Kevin Fox (OPW The Architects Journal, 7 September 1966, vol. 144, p. 594.
29 Bord Fáilte Eireann (The Irish Tourist Board), Report for the Year ended [31 March 1967], p. 17.
30 Bord Fáilte Eireann (The Irish Tourist Board), Report for the Year ended 31 March 1962, pp. 23-5.
th Bord Fáilte Eireann (The Irish Tourist Board), Report for the Year ended [31 March 1967], p. 6.
31 Ireland Rebuilding (1953-1954), p. 7.
32 Irish Builder, 15 February 1964, p. 119;
The Architects Journal, 7 September 1966, vol. 144, p. 568-9.
33 M. Praz, On Neoclassicism, London: Thames & Hudson, 1969 (originally Gust Neoclassico, Florence: Sansoni, 1940), p. 111; ‘Conversion of Dublin’s Georgian Houses’, Architect’s Journal, 26 December 1946, vol. 104, pp. 470-3. For a consideration of such issues see Frank McDonald, The Destruction of Dublin (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985).
34 ‘The Fate of Georgian Dublin’, Country Life, 23 October 1969, vol. 146, pp. 1030-2.
35Irish Builder, 13 March 1965, p. 185.
36 Irish Times , 2o February 2002.
37 A. L. Huxtable, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 52.