Interview with Ciarán MacGonigal on Michael Scott

Interviwed at his home, 26 March 1996.

My father was at college with Michael Scott at the Metropolitan School of Art. They were involved together in a play King Argimenes which my father designed the set for. Later Scott would commission him to do a oil painting for the New York World Fair Pavilion. He also commissioned Keating. There was no love lost between them, in fact Keating hated the sight of him. Michael gave him the commission to hedge his bets and gain influence with the older generation.

This of course is my own opinion, but I think that Scott was not a great architect. But what he had was a skill in recognising those with potential as an architect or for power. He had a very high regard for power and would always try to cultivate and influence those with it. He would be perfectly polite to you if you were nobody important, but he was more friendly and outgoing to those who had power. He had chameleon like qualities and was very adjustable to politics and changes.

When it became apparent that I may have had some future, Scott started to pay more attention to me – he was always trying to cultivate the next generation. If he could influence the next holders of power and responsibility then his influence would last longer. That was what went wrong, Scott and his supporters – James White, Donal O’Sullivan stayed on too long. When anything goes on too long , it becomes disliked or discredited. With this generation, when they retired the generation behind them was retiring also. I remember two occasions when it became obvious that his power was waning.

We were at dinner down the country in a large country house. It was just after the final ROSC exhibition and there was a £50,000 deficit in the books. The lady of the house was very rich and prepared to pay it off, there was no problem with it. Anyway we were all there around the table, when Scott starts to tell a story. About halfway through he stops, and everyone is fidgeting and drinking, and starts to tell the story again, from the beginning. The room went quiet and I could see Michael, he knew he had blown it, but couldn’t figure why. The woman said afterwards why should she give £50,000 to an old man, that was the end of Scott as a figure of influence.

Michael was always trying to get work for his staff, it was this huge machine behind him that needed constant work. As a result he was always hoping to get work from the Government – keeping the machine going was what drove him. I remember the day when they announced at a lunch that the John F Kennedy Concert Hall was to be built in Beggars Bush and that the Office of Public Works and Raymond McGrath was to design it. He staggered, he actually staggered, he was so sure that he was going to get it. I think that day he realised that his influence over architecture with the Government was fading. There was a younger generation of architects like Arthur Gibney and Stephenson who were close to Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan. Scott had been placing his bets on Donagh O’Malley but his early death closed that avenue. so at that stage, the large commissions like the ESB and the Central Bank went to them and Scott lost out.

In Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s, there was little in the way of large commissions not related to the church or the state. Some firms like Robinson Keefe made a point of cultivating the church hierarchy and were very successful. They designed quite a number of churches and schools in the Dublin area, some of which are very good. Scott of course was good friends with Lemass, who would support Scott when ever there was an opportunity. Lemass was not all that interested in the arts but when he became Taoiseach, Scott and his friends on the Arts Council, including Donal O’Sullivan were effectively state control of the arts.

They were always conscious of their own appearance. When O’Sullivan’s contract was not going to be renewed, he resigned, trying to give the impression that he left of his own accord rather than face the embarrassment of being out of favour.

Scott was a very fussy dresser, he was always well turned out and in the height of fashion. He was a great one for these shirts with long cuffs and fancy cuff links which were always pulled neatly out beyond his jacket sleeves. I remember once, he used to sit there, inscrutable with this little half smile and someone asked him, were his shirts made by such and so. Scott said nothing, just this little smile and let this other fellow believe that they were. That was Scott all over, he neither confirmed or denied, let you jump to your own conclusions, unless of course they were to his detriment.

It was the same with his photographs. All of the photos published are carefully posed, almost clichéd. He always wanted to see the negatives and specify which to use, really careful control of his image and public persona.