Res­cu­ing Gib­ney’s ar­chi­tec­tural vi­sions

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - FRANK McDON­ALD


The most fa­mous Gib­ney in Ir­ish ar­chi­tec­ture was Arthur Gib­ney, part­ner of Sam Stephen­son in de­sign­ing the ESB head­quar­ters on Dublin’s Fitzwillia­m Street (re­cently de­mol­ished), the for­mer Cen­tral Bank on Dame Street (cur­rently be­ing ren­o­vated) and the first phase of the Civic Of­fices at Wood Quay.

But there was an­other Gib­ney, not even dis­tantly re­lated to Arthur, who left his mark far and wide, in­clud­ing in­stantly recog­nis­able Bord na Móna hous­ing es­tates, which were com­mis­sioned to pro­vide homes for turf-cut­ters in the mid­lands, just as the Pembroke Es­tate in Dublin built char­ac­ter­is­tic cot­tages for its work­ers.

Frank Gib­ney has now been de­servedly res­cued from rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity by re­tired ar­chi­tect and plan­ner Fer­gal MacCabe in a co­pi­ously il­lus­trated book that doc­u­ments his hero’s of­ten rad­i­cal plans to re­shape nu­mer­ous pro­vin­cial towns in Beaux-Arts style, com­plete with ax­ial vis­tas and Gar­den City hous­ing es­tates.

Gib­ney was also in­volved in “Project X” to pro­vide a new town next to Shan­non Air­port’s duty-free in­dus­trial zone – the first such ef­fort to build an en­tirely new set­tle­ment in Ire­land since the north­ern planter towns of the early to mid-17th cen­tury. MacCabe believes his plan would have pro­duced “a mag­nif­i­cent ur­ban en­sem­ble”.

But it was all too much for the De­part­ment of Lo­cal Govern­ment to swal­low, and Gib­ney re­signed from all com­mis­sions in Shan­non af­ter be­ing in­formed by Bren­dan O’Re­gan, dy­namic chief ex­ec­u­tive of the de­vel­op­ment com­pany, that the plum job would go to other architects who “had no civic de­sign am­bi­tions”, as the au­thor notes.

MacCabe first en­coun­tered Gib­ney’s work at the age of 10, when he ob­served the con­struc­tion of new canal-side hous­ing on Clon­tarf Road in Tul­lam­ore, re­plac­ing a run-down ter­race of thatched cot­tages known lo­cally as “Tinkers’ Row”. It was the rhythm and grandeur of the new houses that in­spired him to be­come an ar­chi­tect.

As he writes, Gib­ney’s rep­u­ta­tion as “a sin­gu­lar fig­ure” in Ir­ish res­i­den­tial de­sign rests pri­mar­ily on the six-es­tate vil­lage schemes he com­pleted for Bord na Móna in Kil­cor­mac and Brack­nagh, Co Of­faly; Rochfort­bridge, Co West­meath; Lanes­bor­ough, Co Long­ford; Cloon­tuskert, Co Roscom­mon, and Coill Dubh, Co Kil­dare.

In­flu­enced by the English arts and crafts move­ment, their for­mal lay­outs, with the use of fea­ture gables and arches, made these charm­ing model vil­lages as dis­tinc­tive in the land­scape as the curved con­crete cool­ing tow­ers of Bord na Móna’s first-gen­er­a­tion peat-fired power sta­tions, all of which are gone – only the houses sur­vive.

In­evitably, many of the res­i­dents – owner-oc­cu­piers now – have re­placed orig­i­nal doors and win­dows with alu­minium or PVC al­ter­na­tives. But MacCabe notes that the orig­i­nal de­sign char­ac­ter of the schemes has gen­er­ally been main­tained, and he sug­gests that they should all be ar­chi­tec­tural con­ser­va­tion ar­eas.

Even though he lived in Dublin, in a re­mark­able house with a thatched roof that he had de­signed, Gib­ney sought to re­lo­cate the cap­i­tal to a site out­side Athlone, at the geo­graph­i­cal cen­tre of Ire­land, with roads ra­di­at­ing out from it in ev­ery di­rec­tion and a cir­cum­fer­en­tial route to link all the sec­ond-tier cities to­gether. It didn’t hap­pen.

Like many of his gen­er­a­tion, he was averse to tra­di­tional cities and the very idea of apart­ment liv­ing, which “de­stroyed in­di­vid­u­al­ity and fam­ily life, per­pet­u­ated class di­vi­sions, lim­ited in­ter­course be­tween fam­ily groups, di­vorced chil­dren from na­ture [and] re­sulted in a ‘Flat’ mind stunt­ing the ex­u­ber­ance of liv­ing”.

Gib­ney had the “un­set­tling” ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing on the jury for a 1954 ar­chi­tec­tural com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign a new Catholic church for Clonskeagh in south Dublin, for which the rec­om­mended con­tem­po­rary pro­posal was cast aside by Arch­bishop John Charles McQuaid in favour of a tra­di­tional de­sign by Jones and Kelly.

But Gib­ney’s airs did not en­dear him to some clients. As MacCabe notes, he would never ad­dress build­ing work­ers di­rectly, but rather through the clerk of works. He would also turn up in a Rolls-Royce, “a most un­usual mode of trans­port for an ar­chi­tect in the 1950s”, when many coun­cil­lors were still go­ing around on bi­cy­cles.

There is much dis­cus­sion in the book about the po­lit­i­cal con­text of the time, the emer­gence of town plan­ning as a pro­fes­sion and the ideas we im­ported, in­clud­ing “new towns” be­ing built in post-war Bri­tain. But it’s mainly about Gib­ney’s life and work, which in­cluded his ac­tive role as a polemi­cist for his own ideas.

Although his town plan­ning schemes were “too ad­ven­tur­ous for the times”, MacCabe con­cludes that Gib­ney’s Bord na Móna hous­ing is ar­guably “the sole phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the vi­sions enun­ci­ated by Pearse and de Valera … of mod­est and tra­di­tional set­tle­ments in the coun­try­side for those em­ployed in lo­cal in­dus­try”.

Architects and plan­ners will be fas­ci­nated by Am­bi­tion and Achieve­ment: The Civic Vi­sions of Frank Gib­ney, not least be­cause it re­pro­duces so many draw­ings and plans of his hous­ing schemes. But any­one with an in­ter­est in Ire­land’s de­vel­op­ment in the mid-20th cen­tury will find it very re­veal­ing about how we felt our way to­wards the coun­try we now in­habit, for good or ill.

Gib­ney’s rep­u­ta­tion rests pri­mar­ily on the vil­lage schemes he com­pleted for Bord na Móna, such as Lanes­bor­ough, Co Long­ford

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