Re: Re: Apathy at the RIAI

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For all I have said about the profession of Architecture, I have managed to miss one aspect. I have gone to lengths to draw attention to things the RIAI hasn’t done. Duties it has not performed. But there is a side to this discussion, I haven’t been able to articulate properly. I am going to attempt to rectify that. There is something the profession of architecture in Ireland could do nothing about. Something terrible which the profession of architecture in Ireland, is struggling in the early 21st century to come to terms with still. I was watching some old footage on BBC4 of the final days of WWII this evening. Well worth catching if you ever have the chance. Here is the wiki page of the American film maker responsible.

In the 1930s, Europe had been a world leader in many ways. Yes there was economic depression on a global scale in the 1930s. But there also would have been optimism in the early 20th century. The architectural profession across Europe, including that in Ireland, would have fed on that optimism. Ireland had gained a new autonomy and began to build its own state. But watching the documentary film about the end of WWII, I noticed that Europe in the mid 1940s was a medieval kind of place. Within a short space of time, much of the optimism in Europe had been reversed.

I got a sense watching the film footage by George Stevens, of the attitudes of both east and west towards, the broken down and suddenly ‘backward’ European situation in the mid 1940s. Europe posed no competition in any sense anymore. It was literally in bits, and would not be a major player in the game for decades after. Not only was physical infrastructure in ruins, you could repair that with steel and concrete. But relationships between the member states were badly damaged and could not be as easily repaired. The two armies met for the first time on the Elbe river in Germany. Both the Russian and American armies were thousands of miles away from their homelands. All that had been left in their wake was a path of destruction and war torn landscape.

It is important to put the architectural profession in Ireland in that context. It was remote and marginal. It was unable to draw on much inspiration from Europe. When I attended architecture school in Bolton Street in the early 1990s, they were still trying to model themselves on the Bauhaus! Something that had been discontinued in the 1930s, sixty years earlier. I look at buildings built in Ireland prior to WWII and you can see the skill and connected-ness they have with some grand, intact European tradition. But having left such a wonderful legacy, the architectural profession in the post WWII years, across Europe was simply marginal to the discussion. You had a broken down and backward European mainland, which could only look for the cheapest and fastest solutions.

Solutions that were probably driven by people in the construction industry and the engineering or cost control professions. How else would the likes of Ballymun be tolerated? I worked for a number of years as an engineering draughtsman for an elderly structural engineer. He told me that his first assignment as a young graduate was to assemble together a gigantic pre-fab kit, to make an aircraft hanger in Northern Ireland as part of a US base there. When Ballymun and precast construction was happening much later in Dublin, there was still a sense of post WWII desperation about it. The fastest, most scientific and logistically efficient construction. The point was discussed in a radio interview with Pat Kenny this year. Boston based property developers, Corcoran Jenninson observed the idea of building something quickly and leaving site as fast as possible, was still the model here in Ireland today.

The engineers and cost control professions in the post war years, would have seen their positions grow in importance. While the architects saw their position minimized in that time of crisis. Given that context, we cannot have expected for any kind of fruitful relationship to exist between engineers, architects and those involved in cost control. Architects to this day are highly defensive and prickly about their status. It doesn’t help the cause of better integration of the construction professions. We are still trying to overcome this problem of relations within the construction industry. This makes sense when you place it in the context of WWII.

The engineering and cost control professions will be reluctant as we go forward to relinquish any of their dominance. On the other hand, architects are ill-equiped to take up ‘leadership positions’ within the construction industry. The accountancy profession had died out completely in Russia, by the time the Berlin wall collapsed in 1989. In architecture in Ireland today, there is nobody left who remembers when architects were leaders. Architects simply don’t know how to behave in that role, for all the lip service the young ones dish out on the subject. That has to include this website:

In the post WWII years, Irish architects had the option to journey westward across the Atlantic. Some never returned again. In the wake of WWII, there was nothing left intact, no tradition in Europe to which one could aspire. All there was left, that was intact was in the United States. You can see the impact of the United States on the careers of people like Sam Stephenson. The people at Scott Tallon Walker gathered whatever they could on trips to the United States and brought it home. But it is difficult to form a relationship with a country on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. The lessons that Irish Architects could gather and bring home from America must have been limited. Limited in some case to the aesthetic appearance. But not the entire business and leadership side of architecture.

I highly encourage anyone to check out George Stevens WWII film footage if you can. Perhaps you can see more in this than I can. I was lucky enough to work for Liam Carroll, the Irish property developer towards the end of the bulding boom. What I am greatful for, is the fact that Mr. Carroll looked to the United States in his inspiration. He probably learned something from his time spent working at Jacobs. He made attempts to foster in his own organisation a balance between engineers, cost control and design. His business was never painted in the best light in the Irish Times. But I learned something about the unity of the construction professions that was definitely worth the effort.

Brian O’ Hanlon

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