Between 1930 and 1960 the architect and town planner Frank Gibney (1905-1978) was one of the most sought after housing designers in Ireland, being responsible for the layout of more than 4000 public or private dwellings in every part of the country. Today his reputation rests largely on his six beautiful schemes in the Midlands, built in the 1950s for Bord na Móna workers, and which are acknowledged to be models for rural living. Similarly, his own house ‘Sutton South’ in Howth, now a protected structure, is notable for the integrated design of the dwelling and its garden. However, his town planning proposals are less well known; perhaps because they remained largely ignored and unimplemented. The 1934 Planning Act empowered Irish local authorities to make plans for their administrative areas, though their adoption was discretionary. Having limited technical skills and fearing the costs of compensation, few (despite urgings from Brian O’Nolan, alias Myles na Gopaleen, in the Department of Local Government) took on the task. In the same period, the Government embarked on an ambitious and well-funded public housing programme. Under pressure to respond to both initiatives, many public authorities employed Gibney to provide plans which would also supply a context for their housing schemes.
Thus, between the late 1930s and mid 1950s Gibney prepared plans for at least seventeen towns and cities including Drogheda, Cavan, Killarney, Ballyshannon and Tullamore, as well as making preliminary proposals for Shannon New Town. However, in common with other such plans elsewhere in Ireland at that time, none were formally adopted, thus avoiding potential compensation claims. Nonetheless they offer an intriguing insight into not only the town planning practice of the era but also its social, economic and indeed even religious, assumptions. Gibney’s town plans conform to the two orthodoxies of the period; the rigour of the Beaux Arts approach and the principles of the Garden City movement. The latter advocated outer and inner traffic bypasses, self-contained neighbourhoods of low residential density, abundant open space and planting and separate employment zones; the former urged architectural coherence via formal design with vistas dominated by prominent public buildings.
Apart from his housing briefs, Gibney would not appear to have received any guidance from the local executive or elected councillors (and certainly not from the citizenry) as to how they saw the their town in the future. The form of the final plan seems to have been left entirely up to their town planner to prepare – almost as an artistic exercise- and no draft options were presented for discussion. Whilst surveys were produced in relation to topography, infrastructure, land use and building condition, history and built heritage, no analysis was made to project future needs, population growth or the realistic prospect for the implementation of the plan. In the stagnation and decline of those Emergency years, such research was perhaps pointless to an extent and, in the case of Waterford at least, plan-making would appear to have been regarded almost as a propaganda exercise intended to raise spirits in deeply depressed times and to inspire a belief that a better future might eventually arrive.
Having discharged his duties in identifying appropriate housing sites, suggesting bypass routes or locating industrial areas, Gibney then felt free to propose dramatic reconfigurations of the historical centres of his subject towns. These interventions invariably proposed the imposition of new regular formats on their usually ad-hoc, and frequently medieval, street patterns, and the creation of urban order through formal spaces and vistas focusing on prominent public buildings; generally the local Catholic church. Where such structures weren’t sufficiently imposing, a new and more dominant building was proposed. Underlying the entire exercise was the objective of the ordering of the settlement as a coherent visual entity. My own illustrations are derived from his larger scale plans and show in detail his proposals for the central areas of Ennis (1950) and Waterford (1943).
In Ennis an inner distributor road girdles the historic town centre, off which three new housing areas are proposed – one of which, ‘Hermitage’ – was built. The most dramatic intervention however is the creation of a new landscaped entry avenue into the town from the Galway road on the north and linking to Bindon Street – the finest and most formal street in the town. A new plaza is formed at its southern end which is then the take off point for a new road and bridge across the River Fergus into Main Street and continuing on to an urban park dominated by a new cathedral. This would have required the removal of much of the medieval core of the town but would have created a very formal civic centre. Equally dramatic is the proposal to demolish all of the properties on the northern side of Main Street (which had been subject to intermittent flooding) and the incorporation of their sites into the water meadows of the Fergus to create a public park.
Gibney’s 1943 Sketch Development Plan for Waterford shows the full extent of his ambition and imagination. The expected proposals for outer and inner ring roads are present. A prescient proposal for moving the Port downstream with new road and rail links is made. Sites for 1000 houses on the southern side of the city are identified. It is suggested that Little Island be acquired and developed as a Folk Park along the lines of Skansen. A site should be sought for an airport in the direction of Tramore. Outer ring roads define the ultimate extent of the city on both the Waterford and Kilkenny banks of the River Suir.
His most dramatic and visionary proposal however, is the linking of the northern and southern extremities of the city on either side of the river by an almost six mile long ‘spine’ via the city centre. This grand ‘Via Triumphalis’ decorated with parks, plazas, fountains and sculptures, would commence in the new formally-designed housing neighbourhoods to the south, and proceed along the Cork road into a magnificent roundabout/plaza on the southern edge of the historic city. A new avenue would then bisect the core, emerging via an urban park onto the Quay. From here a bridge would lead across to a civic ensemble framed by the new railway station (amalgamating the three routes into the city) and proceed from there northwards to a magnificent 200 hectare circular Hill Park at Ballynamona.
In the city centre a new cathedral, in a landscaped setting, would be built on the elevated site of the old Barracks at Ballybricken, from which a dramatic series of steps would sweep down across O’Connell Street to the Quay, further emphasising its civic dominance. The plan envisaged the comprehensive redevelopment of the medieval area around Reginald’s Tower and the Bishop’s Palace to provide for city offices, a museum, library and art gallery and other appropriate civic and social uses. The Quays on either side of the river would be widened and landscaped.
In the years to come, parts of the proposed ring roads were built – though as local rather than regional distributors – as the city grew far beyond what Gibney had projected. The Port moved as suggested but further downstream. The airport was provided in the general area identified. A large housing scheme (designed by Gibney, though not exactly as envisaged in his plan) was built on the southern side of the city. However, none of the civic design initiatives were pursued. Apart from housing schemes in Drogheda, Ennis, Monaghan, Tullamore, Killarney and some smaller towns, few of Gibney’s town planning proposals would appear to have been implemented but those that were, affirm his reputation as a designer of great ability. Several of his ideas could yet be resurrected with benefit.
The arrival of the 1963 Planning Act brought with it a more hard-headed and realistic approach. Objectives were now to be based on short term and achievable outcomes. Longer term civic design exercises intended to create beautiful towns and cities but which brought no benefit other than their aesthetic merit, were quietly dropped. The future was to be modest, rational and above all, cost effective. Schemes such as those envisioned by Gibney, would have no place in it.