Wilfrid Cantwell on Michael Scott & Busáras
Interview with Wilfrid Cantwell, at his home, 12 March 1996, about Michael Scott and Busaras.
I qualified in architecture in 1944 from UCD. It was a five year course and it was only after passing the final examinations were you allowed to do your thesis. The head of the department was Rudolph Maximillian Butler and his health was failing badly. He appeared approximately three times during my first two years. On two of these occasions he gave short lectures on the history of architecture. He was not understandable as he mumbled in a German accent. On the third occasion we were doing a one day design project of a lighthouse. I had drawn this lovely design and pinned it to the wall above my desk for the lecturers to examine. R.M was brought in, held up by one of his assistants, saw my drawing on the wall and immediately ordered it to be pulled down. After it was pulled down, it was explained to him that it was my project. So naturally I passed as a result. They couldn’t but pass me. The course taught was in the old Sculpture Gallery in Earlsfort Terrace and was mainly inhabited by pigeons. After his death, no successor was appointed for a while.
In the old way, the thesis subject was determined by the Professor, and you had no choice. In my year originally there was 22 students, the biggest year ever and fifteen finished. The year had tonnes of talent. A member of the class was Dan O’Herhily, the actor. He didn’t want to be an architect, but his parents did. The class had a contract which we honoured for the duration of the course. He entertained us – he was very funny and we did his work for him. When exams came up we told him what to expect and he went off and looked at the relevant books. He was very good at exams, the actor in him, I suppose. He could look at a page and when he saw something related to it in the exam, would simply write down the relevant page. He always passed. Immediately after graduating, he went to Hollywood where he is very successful.
During Easter in my final year J.V. Downes took over. J.V. was a gentleman, quite a competent architect but he did not understand students. He could not relate to people at all. We as a class went to him and said that he was not picking our thesis subjects and that we would select our own. We never saw him again but he tried to pick the subjects for the year after us.
My father was the Rents Officer for the Great Southern Railways Company, in charge of renting or leasing out surplus bits of equipment. It was quite an important job and he was the first catholic to hold it, as the GSR was full of freemasons. So he was able to give me introductions to all the other senior officers. My thesis was a new office headquarters for the Railway Company to be built on a site at Heuston Station.
When I left college, the next problem was how to get a job, because at the end of the war there was no work anywhere. My father put me in contact with Michael Scott whom he knew through a friend. Michael Scott agreed to see me and I went to the offices in Clare Street as they then were. So I marched in with my drawings of the offices at Heuston under my arm and was offered a job at 2.50 or 3 pounds a week – my father was getting 5pounds so I was doing very well. Scott liked the drawings very much, so naturally I jumped at it. Even then it was the leading firm in the country and it was very small – only six or seven staff.
My first job was McCairns Garage on Townsend or Tara Street. [The garage was on the corner of Townsend and Tara Streets.] A couple of years later they moved to Santry and it was wiped out, which was no harm because there was a lot of plumbing in it ,of which I knew nothing. My second job was a complete disaster also.
On Busáras, Michael found he was in trouble. The two architects working on the building, Nolan and Quinlan were working on the design for eighteen months and getting no where. Scott’s office was very open and everyone very friendly so you knew what was happening on other people’s drawing boards and they were totally at sea. There were two problems – a small site and they were approaching it from the wrong angle.
The head of CIE was A.P. Reynolds which was purely a political decision and he was very friendly with Scott. One of Scott’s merits was that he could recognise a good idea when he saw it or equally a bad one. He could come over to your drawing board, see a drawing he hadn’t seen before and immediately point out a weak part of the design. Scott was a lousy architect, his judgement was pretty good but his ideas were pretty poor. The only drawing he did on Busáras was when the city architect specified an imitation Wyatt window in the stone on south endwall to reflect the Custom House. So Scott did the drawing and submitted it to the planning office. After planning permission, it was quietly forgotten about.
I showed Scott a sketch and he recognised immediately the right basic solution. [Quinlan and Nolan had been designing on a slightly smaller site and had been trying to get the buses into the building. Cantwell came up with an idea which was the basis of the completed building in that it was open and the buses entered and left through portals at each end under the building.] He then went to Reynolds looking for more money for the job and to buy a bit more of the property. The other two boys, Nolan and Quinlan left and went into practice together. I was immediately appointed principal architect.
I was six months out of college and knew nothing but I worked like a slave for the next two years and learnt a lot in the process. I left eventually in 1947 to start my own practice – I had a stroke of luck, I was offered a substantial job by my local authority. One of my other reasons for leaving Scott’s office was that I had brought the job to the stage where the tenders for the reinforced concrete structure were being submitted. The basic drawings were done but there was a fair bit of the details to be done. I thought it was time to become an associate in the firm – at the time there were no associates or partners. Apart from design of Busáras, I did all the organisation, there were many gifted designers but no organisers. I was keeping the job and firm together. Michael could not see this so I left. I had recommended practically every member of staff including Robin Walker and Ronald Tallon. Later on, he came to recognise the importance of organisation and made Walker and Tallon partners – they were both good organisers as well as architects.
I often wondered who was really responsible for the design of the New York World Fair Pavilion because it was too good to be Scott. Dermot O’Toole and Jim Brennan were responsible for the hospitals in the 1930s, but they had left. There was nobody in the office from that period when I joined, so I never found out. I was only starting college when it was designed.
I basically designed the building, Pat Scott did very little during my time there, except for the mosaic designs and a little drawing. Kevin Fox became principal and succeeded me and was responsible for almost all the detailing. Kevin Fox was a brilliant teacher but a fairly useless architect. He could see every side of an argument and consequently never make up his mind about anything. He was very indecisive. Paddy Hamilton also detailed. Patrick Scott was mainly responsible for the detailing of the mosaic panels. Fred Hilton did a little bit also. There was also an Englishman who was a total disaster. An ex-RAF type and he thought he knew everything.
Kevin Roche did very little, he was mainly working on the Donnybrook Bus Garage. He was a lunatic, the only man I know who got away with firing a rifle in the architecture department. He had no discipline but plenty of interest and ideas.
One of the gifts of Michael Scott was that he could pick good staff. If you were good, he kept you on, however if you weren’t, you would be found out quickly. Another one of his merits was that he was totally loyal to his staff and would take the blame if any of the staff made bloomers. Because he accepted responsibility, he consequently got total loyalty. He was prepared to listen to any idea, whatever your ideas were, he was prepared to listen to them. He was a genius at making contacts and a brilliant PR man. It was a great place and there was never any rows except for the secretaries. Days would pass and he would never appear in to the office and his secretary thought she was in charge. She would try to boss around the architectural staff – that was the only friction in the offices.
Des Featherstone and I went up to Inchicore to do some site measurements one cold December day and on the way back we decided to go into the Dolphin [the Dolphin Hotel] for dinner because we were frozen. When we got back we gave Scott the bill, but he didn’t mind because we had been working hard. That was the type of man he was. Occasionally we used to work all night and in the morning go into the Johnston Mooney and O’Brien restaurant next door on Clare Street for breakfast. These meals would be paid for by Scott as we did not get paid overtime – we were happy enough to have jobs.
When the politicians got involved, there were huge problems, but there were problems before that. When we were designing the structure, no one had put up a RC structure like this before in Ireland or as we subsequently found out in Europe either. There were no suitable engineers in Ireland. There were engineers that could do sums and tell you whether a building would stand up. But we wanted an engineer who could think creatively and know instinctively whether it could stand up.
I don’t know who suggested Arup, but I know it wasn’t me. He was in the architectural journals a lot at this time. Scott persuaded Reynolds to allow us to approach him. So Arup was invited over for a preliminary meeting. In those days the trip was very long, by mail train and the mailboat. Scott could not meet him as he was off down the country at a meeting. So I was deputised to meet Arup.
The meeting got off to a great start as I got him of the boat, through customs and into the Royal Hotel for breakfast before anyone else came off the gangway. All because of my contacts in the GSR. He had breakfast in the Hotel and was promptly sick as he could not cope with all the cream and fat after the rationing in London. He came into the office the next day and within ten minutes we knew we had our man. He thought and acted like an architect. He was great with problems and coming up with ideas. His Irish assistant Jock Harbison was brilliant, almost as good as Arup himself. Unfortunately he died young, the company here [Arups] hasn’t been the same since.
The next problem was the mechanical consultant. Michael had appointed Oscar Faber and Company because they were the biggest in England. But he was a little bit dubious and sent me over to England to check on their work. When I came back, I said there was no way, so Scott consulted Arup. Arup recommended Varming who was unheard of at the time. Varming was brilliant. He thought, understood like an architect and was full of ideas and prepared to act as a partner in the project. By the time I left, contracts were out for the construction. James Kelly, our site supervisor had a terrible reputation. He was an awful talker, and lectured to everyone but what he had to say was very valuable. A big problem we had, was with water. There is a constant flow of water from Finglas on the northside down into the Liffey and from Tallaght on the south side. By listening to old people who know these things, you can learn quite a lot. Kelly did not know a lot about architecture but what he knew about building and construction was priceless.
This underground water in Dublin is quite a problem. There was a Bank, the Hibernian I think it was, on Dame Street. The hotel [Jury’s Hotel] next to it now Bloom’s was being built and the built down below the basement level of the bank. Being between the bank and the river, the Hotel basement which was waterproofed, caused the water to back up and flood the Bank vaults. All these important papers and stuff belonging to the rich, they were all destroyed. I am the consultant architect to St Theresa’s church just off Grafton Street and when they were building the new Brown Thomas Store last year, I went to the architects, ironically Scott Tallon Walker and told then about this site water and pointed out that their huge deep basements were going to affect the church. It took an awful amount of persuasion but eventually I got them to provide drains to protect the church. Its this kind of information that you get from the older generations.
The design was finished by late 1945. The curving bus station canopy was the suggestion of Arup. It was a unique feature, not like anything done before. The problem was that we had to have something that cantilevered out far enough to cover the passengers. It is a very light economic way to cover them. A flat canopy with that much of an overhang would have required a massive counterbalancing weight, so it was not feasible. With the Government interference, the plan was always changing, but this was after I left, at one stage there was a small church being suggested.
I based the design of Busáras on the Maison Suisse in Paris by Le Corbusier. I still think it was the right decision. I have always thought that architects should take each job as they come, and assess the best approach. Although based on the Maison Suisse it is much better technically. When I was at college and it was the same for the rest of them, none of us had seen a modern building anywhere. In the summer of 1947 myself, Kevin Fox, Kevin Roche and Fred Hilton scraped together enough cash to visit the continent. Roche’s father was the manager of Mitchelstown Co-Op and they were buying equipment from Swiss businessmen to replace all the old milk producing machines. So we flew to Paris and it was nerve-wracking. We spent two days in Paris and concentrated on the buildings of Le Corbusier and then went on to Zurich where we met the Swiss businessmen. Paris was grim but Zurich was like fairyland. They took us up the mountains to a restaurant. It was incredible, all the twinkling villages and towns down the mountains all lit up. We were still used to the blackout.
The next day they told us about this 7pounds return bus trip to Milan inclusive of food and accommodation. It was too good to miss so off we went. The bus driver drove us down this mountain passes, while talking to someone sitting behind him, never having both eyes on the road – hair-raising. I think he was drinking as well, he turned out to be a Nazi on the run from the allies. We drove down to Milan and he had rooms in Hotels all over the city for the bus load of passengers. There was no food in the hotels so he took us to this restaurant or cafe. There were all these children in rags standing outside staring in, then we discovered why. The food was Irish Government Relief Rations for children and clearly marked on the boxes as such and here it was been sold to Irish people in a restaurant. Milan was so decrepit and ruined by the war, so after a few days we went on down to Rome.
The only books on modern architecture available at college were a couple of books of Le Corbusier’s work. We always thought they were marvellous, but when we saw the real buildings, they really did look marvellous. We were disappointed that they were so poor technically. It was because he was a very good painter that they looked so good.