Killarney & Tullamore as Paris & Rome: Frank Gibney’s Grand city plans.
A quick mention for this superb talk (Thursday 21st January) given at the Irish Architectural Archives (Merrion Square) by Fergal MacCabe, on surprising aspects in the work of Frank Gibney.
Frank Gibney 1905-1978.
Gibney was a well known and successful architect. During the 1940s and ‘50s his architectural idiom tended to the Arts & Crafts style, with occasional, highly competent forays into Modernism. One Arts and Crafts style build, his Sutton South House, on a fantastic site on the south-facing side of the Howth peninsula looking across Dublin Bay is an early and still very rare example of house and landscaped gardens being conceived and executed as one, entirely integrated design. (It is all now a protected structure).
Gibney also did much important work for state and semi-state bodies. But this talk, based on much patient research by Fergal MacCabe at the Irish Architectural Archives at Merrion Square, focused on another side of Gibney’s practice.
During this period, it emerged, Gibney had another card up his sleeve, as he designed scores of imaginative and highly ambitious sketch master plans for towns and cities right across Ireland. This of course was the subject of the talk, where many of these town plans reside now at the AAI.
The background to this aspect of his work is instructive. For Gibney the 1940s and the 50s were a period where he was successful procuring work as an architect (not as planner). Much of his architectural designs were for state and semi-state agencies like the Turf Cutting Board (later Bord na Mona) for Shannon Airport and such clients. These projects often included workers’ houses laid out in large developments or estates, often situated on the outskirts of existing towns.
Naturally, the laying out of large-scale housing schemes implies, almost by default, an element of town planning. How will the new houses relate to the larger town, to services, roads, to water and so on? Even this level of engagement with planning is, in one sense, unorthodox. In general (or at least in most other jurisdictions) planners decide where houses get built and how they relate to towns, not architects. To do it the other way round is, as Mr. MacCabe aptly put it, a case of “the architectural tail wagging the planning dog”.
In any case, Gibney often did seem to have a hand in deciding where to locate the developments. He also tried to align or orientate his houses with local features, like lakes or rivers, or to create sight lines, to a local monument or cathedral spire say.
above and below: Original sketch development master plans for (above) Newmarket-on-Fergus (Co Clare) and below, Cavan. Both images thanks to Fergal McCabe and courtesy and copyright of the Irish Architectural Archive (AAI)
For many architects, that might have been enough. Yet Gibney consistently went much further as he developed a taste for grand schemes, making suggestions of how the entire existing town or city might be improved as whole. Such plans were rendered as beautiful water colours.
In fact, it seems likely that the beauty of the water colours may even have contributed to, if not their success exactly, at least their acceptability to local authorities. Again and again Gibney, though the medium of pencil sketch and water colour, proposed radical changes to towns and landscapes, far beyond the original remit and well beyond the boundaries of his new estates.
Here below for example is a Sketch Master Plan for the city of Waterford. If adopted, it would have created whole new parks as well as grand avenues, radiating out from local landmarks, and joining to a new riverfront parade, which itself seems to include a new linear park.
above and below, 2 details from a sketch development plan for the City of Waterford, as conceived and drawn by Frank Gibney, and redrawn by Fergal McCabe.
This was heady, and visionary stuff. The reception of his ideas was also and in itself interesting. You might think that people would have resented such large scale, entirely unsolicited input from an architect. Perhaps, as alluded to, the beauty of the drawings themselves might have played a part deflecting any potential hostility. (Although sheer bemusement may perhaps have come into it too)
But over time, as Mr MacCabe outlined, a sort of change occurred. As Gibney became known for making these plans, town and local authorities started to request them. The attitude was or became one of that, since the plans were “part of the service” they “might as well” have them as well. As there might be a useful idea or two amid Gibney’s plans, why not at least “have a look”?
Fergal MacCabe spent much time looking at and analysing Gibney’s extraordinary city plans that have survived and come to the AAI. These include completed schemes for Ennis, Tralee, Listowel, small towns like Buncrana and Ballyshannon and far more substantial places like Killarney, Drogheda and Waterford. Gibney’s water colours, although very beautiful, are now a little hard to interpret, so Mr. McCabe has made updated, simplified but equally elegant versions in his own hand (see title image and insets above and below).
As well as being rather satisfying, Mr. MacCabe’s time spent looking and painting must have been a great way to engage with Gibney’s work and his ideas. It’s a point often and well made that the best way to understand something is to draw it.
In his master plans, Gibney made dozens of radical suggestions. These often involved opening up new avenues, linking transport to town centres, creating new parks, grand avenues, boulevards, open spaces and sight lines, and linking local landmarks and focal points (the spires of cathedrals being a particular favourite).
above: sketch Development Plan for the town of Ennis, Co. Clare: pencil, ink and water colour by Fergal McCabe, based on the original water colour and designs by Frank Gibney
Indeed as Mr. MacCabe pointed out, Gibney’s ideas put him somewhere between the Garden City philosophy, as practised in the UK (Welyn Garden City and elsewhere) and the Beaux Arts movements of Haussmann’s Paris, or say Luytens’ vast schemes for Imperial Government in New Delhi or indeed the master plan for the Mall in Washington.
above: Concept Plan for a Garden City, Howard.
above: Haussmann’s Paris. Below: Plan for the Mall in Washington, as conceived from 1791 onwards, by L’enfant, McMillan and others.
Now of course, all this sense of grandeur and vision was thus applied to Ennis, Buncrana and Tullamore. And why on earth not?
Well, one issue of course was the sheer scale (and implied vast expense) of Gibney’s proposed changes. In addition, many suggestions involved sweeping away whole terraces, even whole areas of old, historic urban fabric.
Where, for one thing, was money for replacement buildings supposed to come from? Ireland, economically speaking, was more or less on its knees at this time.
What also of conservation issues? These may not have concerned local authorities then. Given prevailing attitudes in the Ireland of that time, they almost certainly didn’t. Nonetheless perhaps we should be thankful now so many old parts of Irish towns were not simply swept away.
In the event, very few of Gibney’s plans were ever put into practice. Needless to say, this was not for conservation reasons, but simply because they were far too ambitious.
Occasionally, local interests played a blocking role also. An important interest in Killarney, to this day, is the traditional local Jarveys that take tourists on a scenic carriage ride from the train station down into the town. The Jarvey drivers soon rallied against Gibney’s master plan when they realised it might put them out of business!
Amid Mr MacCabe’s excellent talk were many fascinating insights into the Ireland of the 1940s and 50s. One such detail was when Gibney made it clear he wanted to install bathrooms in a public housing scheme but was told by the relevant minister to remove them. This was on the grounds that bathrooms were a luxury and far too generous for those in receipt of public housing! This by the way was in the 1950s, and from a Labour Minister!
By contrast, and in an excellent compromise, the Fianna Fail Minister involved (Neil Blaney) discreetly told Gibney to allow space for bathrooms anyway, and even to plumb them. (Bathtubs and sanitary ware were then installed at a later date).
Oddly enough both Neil Blaney and Todd Andrews came out rather well during the talk. For somebody like myself who grew up in the liberal atmosphere of 1980s Dun Laoghaire, where Fianna Fail were the devil and Todd Andrews was the man who’d ripped up all the tram lines, this was a novel experience!
Over the course of his excellent talk, shot through with wry humour, Mr. MacCabe concluded that Gibney was a very good architect whose work (much of it in the Arts and Crafts style) has stood the test of time well. He also allowed that Gibney was a lucky architect, being well placed to secure and complete so many commissions. Conversely, the speaker concluded, he was a rather unlucky planner. Very few of his extraordinary plans were ever fully realised. The speaker, who was excellent, was clearly in sympathy with Gibney. Indeed he succeeded in putting his ideas, even for a planning layperson like myself, in the context of international best practice and thinking. It was a fascinating talk.
Speaking for myself however, admittedly with my conservation “heritage hat” on, I think perhaps it was best, on balance, that many of Gibney’s more radical ideas never saw the light of day.
What do you think? I always love to hear from readers. But either way, many thanks for reading.
above (and title image) a sketch Development Plan for Waterford, pencil, ink and water colour by Fergal MacCabe, based on the water colour and designs by Frank Gibney.