Rem Koolhaas, as curator of last year’s Venice Biennale, theorised that the 20th century exploration of modernism coincided with a loss of localised architecture: ‘architecture that was once specific and local has become interchangeable and global.’ Brash and controvertible, Koolhaas’ statement shunned the spirit with which modernist architecture was embraced in many post-war European nations.
Disparate forms of modernism could be seen from Niemeyer’s Brasilia to our very own shores. Though the universal advancements of the structural steel frame and reinforced concrete became the technologies of choice, the underlying stimulus for the modernist embrace was distinctly local. This could be seen most effectively in national infrastructures where the impact of both first and second world wars had instigated a fresh desire for new forms of tectonic and territorial vernaculars. Initiated and funded by the increasingly democratic state, modernists added a more social dimension to infrastructure, often embodied by the physical gateways to a nation. Typologies such as airports, industrial silos and bus stations became more than a means of transport or industrial efficiency, and began to take on the role of 20th century monuments to systematic progress.
At home, architects such as Michael Scott and Desmond Fitzgerald are exceptionally noteworthy amongst the early modernist movement, particularly Scott’s Busáras and Fitzgerald’s Collinstown Airport, which entered the Irish public conscious as both political and architectural entities.
Brought about by a desire to centralise Dublin’s bus services (in contrast to the pre-existing scattering of bus stops along the Liffey’s quays) Busáras would, however, attract a significant reaction within the public realm. Scott’s team designed a sculptural mass, with a corrugated canopy under which arriving buses would wind past a curved viewing space, purposefully diverged from its architectural surrounds such as the Custom House. Lacking the usual ornamentation that came with national monuments pre-independence, the ambition of this prominent building was not comprehensively accepted outside of the artistic establishment; while the use of Irish materials, such as portland stone and Patrick Scotts celebrated mosaics, did little to alleviate the worry that the first precast concrete box-framed building in Ireland would devalue Dublin’s skyline. The Irish Times ran articles criticising and mocking the scheme, citing its huge cost of over a million pounds in 1947.
Scotts re-imagining of modernism in this Irish context was diluted throughout the fraught planning process and in its final form its scale had been drastically reduced, and its function divided between the Department of Welfare and CIE. This compromise had a structural effect in reducing its grandeur as a gateway to Dublin, minimising the amenities such as coffee shops and its vista’s towards the city. It instead became more of a stopping point restricted to the lower levels, with a scarcely accessible rooftop balcony becoming office courtyards. In spite of this, and its poor maintenance, Busáras was a key instigator in the burgeoning alteration of the infrastructural vernacular in Ireland.
The same too can be easily said about Desmond Fitzgerald’s Collinstown Airport, part of what we now call Dublin Airport. Though limited in its initial public impact by censorship imposed due to Ireland neutral stance in WW2, Fitzgerald’s airport won numerous awards as a modernist pillar to the exciting new age of transport in Ireland. Until 1940, Aer Lingus had been operating a limited service from Balldonnell Aerodrome, and with this new terminal, the national carrier was able to begin flights further than the UK. Capable of facilitating more than 100,000 passengers a year, the terminal conveyed its stature with a long convex elevation facing arriving places, while its concave elevation embraced the front facade. With a smooth modern external finish (drainage being internal), every last detail of the building was architecturally considered. From its ocean-liner luxury brass stairs, to the menus in the restaurant, Fitzgerald and his team with the OPW imagined it from the offing as a true testament to an emerging nation, international in look but distinctly Irish in function. During the recent celebrations of its 75th year, the still striking building was recalled as a place to which the elite would travel to, not just to fly, but also to sit and watch the runway from its plentiful viewing gallery. Although very few flights now depart from its gates, it is still in nostalgic use as DAA and Met Éireann offices, attesting to Fitzgerald’s foresight in the use of structural steel buttressing, which enabled its later expansion and repurposing.
Infra-Éireann, Ireland’s exhibit at Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale worked towards reclaiming these monuments. In an interview with The Architects Journal, curators Gary Boyd and John McLoughlin cited Sean Keating allegorically depicting Ardnacrusha as ‘the passage from the dark night of colonialism to the clear light of independence.’ These projects, when examined with due regard, exemplify the dialectical relationship between the growth of modernism and a desire for a new infrastructural vernacular, void of colonial influence while imbued with a sense of achievement and confidence.