Busaras – Michael Scott, early work and his design team

scott_michaelMichael Scott (1905-1989) was born in Drogheda, County Louth in 1905. His family originated in County Kerry and he was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin. There he first demonstrated his skills at painting and acting. Initially he wanted to pursue a career as a painter but his father pointed out that it might make more financial sense to become an architect. Later in life Scott said about his childhood: I think he was right because I’ve always been interested in shaping materials since the day, when aged six, to my delight, I caught a glimpse beneath my teacher’s skirts of a well formed wooden leg.(Steedman, 1975, p. 35)

Like most other Irish architects of his day Michael Scott did not study architecture at the Schools of Architecture, but was articled as an apprentice for the sum of £375 per annum to the Dublin firm of Jones and Kelly. There, between 1923 and 1926, he studied under Alfred E. Jones.

Jones and Kelly were at this time a conservative practice. They were responsible for housing estates at Mount Merrion, Dublin based on the garden city ideal and for the last major public classical building to be built in Ireland – Cork City Hall, finished in 1935, on which Scott worked for a time. Scott later claimed that it was not until he left Jones and Kelly that he became aware of the trends of modern architecture while in fact the firm had a great architectural library with many books on current European architecture and design of the period.

During his apprenticeship, Scott joined Sarah Allgood’s (1883-1950) School of Acting at the Abbey Theatre and appeared in many plays there until 1927, including the first productions of Sean O’Casey’s (1884-1964) Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and The Stars. During the period 1923-1926, he was also studying art at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in the evenings, alongside such people as Maurice MacGonigal (1900-1979) and Nano Reid (1905-1981), and under the tutelage of Sean Keating (1889-1978), who was Professor of Painting. These relationships were to prove important, as Scott was to commission work from these artists in later years. In 1926 he was elected head of the Students Union and organised an Arts Week with lectures, plays and exhibitions. He took the lead role in a play during this Arts Week, King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior – the set was designed by Maurice MacGonigal. Scott’s total immersion in the arts and Dublin artistic society through his acting and painting was to provide important contacts in future years and be the source of valuable commissions for his firm.

After leaving Jones and Kelly, he worked for a time in the offices of Charles J. Dunlop as chief assistant architect followed by a year in the Office of Public Works Architects’ Department designing headstones. He was responsible for the conversion of the Gate Theatre, Dublin at this time. This was for Hilton Edwards (1903-1982), who was to remain a life-long friend, and involved the conversion of the Ballroom and the Supper Rooms above, into an auditorium and the construction of a stage in an adjoining room. After Edward’s death, Scott inherited his share holding in the theatre.

He remained at the Office of Public Works until 1927 when he was asked by Sean O’Casey to tour the United States of America with the Abbey Players for six months. That same morning he received a letter from the secretary of St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital in Charlemont Street, Dublin. Madeleine ffrench-Mullen (1880-1944) asked him to design a new wing for the hospital. After deliberation, it was decided that he should go on the tour with the Abbey while observing the latest trends in hospital design in the United States, and then return with ideas for St Ultan’s. While he was there, Scott contemplated taking a job as an architect, taking up painting or acting full time. He was staying with his friend, the artist Patrick Tuohy (1884-1930) and was playing the lead role of Jack Clitheroe in the Broadway production of The Plough and the Stars. In the event he returned home to practice architecture from his father’s front room. The new St Ultan’s wing was opened in 1929 and was to be the first of many hospital commissions.

After an approach from Sean O’Casey and due to financial problems, Scott took up acting once again in 1929. This was the lead role of The New Gossoon by the Abbey Dramatist George Shiels (1886-1949) at the Apollo Theatre in London. Scott assumed the pseudonym of Wolfe Curran in an attempt to keep his acting career a secret from other architects. He was quite successful and acquired good reviews but the subsequent attention (from the Daily Express which exposed him as Michael Scott, an Irish architect) caused him to retire after three weeks. He never acted professionally again. The theatre was owned by J.B. Fegan who also owned another theatre in Oxford that needed renovation. Scott was interested in the job and took the part in the play on the understanding that he could have a drawing board in his dressing room.

In 1931 he joined forces with Norman D. Good to form Scott and Good, and they opened an office at 36 South Frederick Street, Dublin. Good was a successful businessman and a good draughtsman while Scott was responsible for most of the design work. The Irish Hospitals Committee had started the Hospital’s Sweepstakes, a lottery in order to raise funds to fund the modernisation of the State’s hospitals and as a result many hospitals were being constructed or extended. The Irish Government decided that a modern image was required for these hospitals and the Minister for Local Government and Public Health, Sean T. O’Kelly (1882-1966) compared Ireland to Finland, and suggested the work of Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) as examples. In a lecture to the Architectural Association of Ireland in 1933, O’Kelly stated:

We too in this country have room for men who will give to our peculiar problems the intense study they require, and help us build in a manner that will reflect credit on our country and generation. (Rothery, 1991, p. 146)

There was a keen interest in architecture from the Government ministers of the new state and they were often present at meetings of the AAI. The Hospital Sweepstakes building (Robinson Keefe, 1937) was itself a work of modern architecture with a long low front elevation with a glazed tower at one end. All of the new hospitals built in the 1930s were modern in style and the main beneficiaries of work were Vincent Kelly who was on the Sweepstakes Committee, T.J. Cullen (1880-1947), and Scott and Good, who rapidly gained reputations for designing hospitals and received one commission after another.

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Scott and Good’s hospital at Tullamore (1934-37), although faced with traditional limestone masonry, has a very strong horizontal linearity and glazed stairwell that show a Dutch Modernist influence in the massing and the use of a round bay in the centre of the main block. The massing is reminiscent of work by Willem Dudok (1884-1974) at his school at Hilversum while the round bay is suggestive of the housing of J.P Oud (1890-1963) at Hoek van Holland (1924-27) whose work Scott saw and admired on a visit to Holland in the early 1930s (Walker, 1995, p. 71). The main block is strongly symmetrical, showing the traditional training of the architects, but the building is entered from one end allowing an asymmetrical end elevation in the International Style. The ground floor elevations are dominated by a range of round headed windows. This unconventional use of materials with the massing treatment of International Modernism shows Scott’s interest in the use of materials for decorative purposes.

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In 1935 they designed Portlaoise General Hospital (formerly known as Laois County Hospital). This building unlike its predecessor, does away with traditional massing and materials. It is a flat roofed, white plastered horizontal structure that ultimately fails to be as interesting as its mixed breed ancestor. Again strongly symmetrical, the entrance is flanked by two stripped down columns supporting protruding masses. The rear elevation is much more successful with a strong horizontal linearity. Both hospitals have symmetrical plans, with Portlaoise being designed with the operating theatre in the centre of a ‘H’ plan. After a while Scott consciously tried to avoid taking on any more hospital jobs in order not to become labelled as a hospital architect. He claimed to be so successful at this that he was not asked to design one afterwards (Steedman, 1975, p. 35).

In 1935 a competition was held to design new offices for the Department of Industry and Commerce in Kildare Street, Dublin. Scott and Good submitted their entry only to be unplaced. The journalist and architect John O’Gorman (born 1908), writing under the pseudonym Wisbech in The Irish Builder and Engineer, wrote of the results that “he found it a complete mystery why the scheme submitted by Michael Scott and Norman D. Good was neither placed nor commended” adding: [it] was encouraging, however, to note several schemes from young (and in some cases not yet qualified) architects which to my mind showed a sounder grasp of the realities of architectural design than those which came from men who have for years acted as councillors, examiners and assessors. (Wisbech, 1936, p. 102)

O’Gorman went on to write that the elevations of the Scott and Good entry were “outstanding” reminding him that “this is the year nineteen-thirty-six and that Ireland is not entirely cut off from cultural movements on the continent” (Wisbech, 1936, p. 102). A major fault with the design according to Wisbech seems to have been its height, in that the cubic office capacity other entrants got into four storeys, Scott and Good got into seven. He also mentions that “there was evidently no cheese-paring” on grounds of cost – an early indication of Scott’s refusal to compromise his work (Wisbech, 1936, p. 102). It seems that Scott and Good placed their design back from the building line on the street, creating a small plaza in front, as Wisbech refers to the footpath being carried over the site, adding dignity to the design. The winner was Basil Boyd Barrett, who was also a student at Jones and Kelly at the same time as Scott.

Scott and Good were also responsible in association with the London architect Leslie Norton between 1934 and 1935 for some flamboyant exercises in Art Deco Cinemas in Dublin – the Theatre Royal, College Street and the smaller Regal Cinema next door to it. Scott, although not responsible for the interior design or exterior form of the building, was responsible for the commissioning of artists to produce work for the building. Scott commissioned the sculptor Laurence Campbell to produce a triptych relief panel of “Mother Eire” for the front of the Theatre Royal. Scott was to use the work of Campbell often to decorate his buildings in the future.

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