Busaras: Foreword

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Author’s note: this was submitted as a M.A. Thesis in History of Art in 1996 at the National College of Art and Design. I spent 18 months researching the building and its history through various archives including the National Library of Ireland, the Irish Architectural Archive, and the archives of Scott Tallon Walker.

Genuine examples of the New Architecture are in Ireland much rarer than most people imagine and the number of practising architects completely in sympathy with the movement could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. (O’Gorman, 1937, p. 58)

This passage was published in an article by John O’Gorman in the journal Ireland Today, on the occasion of Walter Gropius’ visit to Ireland. In 1937, he came to Dublin to promote his book The New Architecture and The Bauhaus (1935), and to give a lecture to the members of the Architectural Association of Ireland. One of the organisers of this lecture was a young Irish architect, Michael Scott. For Scott, modernism was more than a set of architectural principles – it was the embodiment of a new set of positive values which contrasted strongly with the inward looking prejudices that so characterised Ireland in the 1930s. He always felt that modernism through its art and architecture would open Irish society to the world. Scott’s influence on Irish architecture was a result of his careful cultivation of those in power. Scott was commissioned to design two of the most important public commissions: the Irish New York World Fair Pavilion of 1939 and the Central Bus Station (Busáras), designed and built between 1945 and 1953.

Busáras was the first large modern building to be constructed in the city centre of Dublin and as such created a huge impact when completed, attracting attention from all over Europe. It cost over one million pounds to build and was meticulously detailed with stone, mosaics, handmade bricks and assorted woods. At the time of its commission, the willingness of the Fianna Fáil Government to finance such a radical design constituted a public statement of a new era in Ireland’s development.

The life and career of Michael Scott will be examined with a brief overview and introduction to each of his major buildings and commissions. His education and his place in Dublin artistic life had a profound effect on his architectural philosophy. Through this, the evolution, the major influences, and the social concerns that helped shape his architecture are examined.

According to those who worked with him and knew Scott, his gift was not as a draughtsman or designer but as a great organiser, motivator and selector of young design talent. This thesis will examine to what extent the design of Busáras was a team or collective effort. Scott by this stage had a very talented and competent team assembled, and this team was to be responsible for the design, as Scott assumed the role of an overseer, letting his assistants get on with the work. This team included Wilfrid Cantwell, Kevin Fox, Kevin Roche, Patrick Scott, and Robin Walker. Scott’s office was seen as the best in the country by architectural students of the 1940s and 1950s and there was a constant stream of young architects applying to work in the firm, and consequently Scott always employed the best. Scott’s ability to pull together the many talented architects in his practice and produce a coherent piece of architecture, compensates for any shortcomings he may have had in the actual minutiae of architecture.

The thesis will examine the streetscape and the way the building was influenced by town planning considerations especially the Abercrombie Town Planning Report. The building’s relationship with the nearby Custom House will be examined with regard to desires among some quarters of the Corporation of Dublin to create a cohesive architectural area around it by completing the original crescent plan for the area in a fitting architectural style. The influence of the building on the street plan in the area is also examined. As design concepts evolved, the City Corporation was forced to change its plans for new streets in the area. There was much opposition to the building of the Custom House in the eighteenth century and this pattern was to be repeated a hundred and fifty years later with Busáras. This controversy lasted nearly a decade from the first debate about Store Street as a possible site for a Central Bus Station to the building’s completion. This ongoing controversy had concrete consequences in the way it effected the building through enforced stylistic changes in the interiors, incomplete features and loss of some passenger facilities. It also delayed completion of the building for some time.

The team of architects was heavily influenced by the work of Le Corbusier which shaped the building aesthetically. Scott was one of Le Corbusier’s greatest supporters, as he saw him as the sole embodiment of modern architectural style: It is difficult to point to any other architect of the time who had seen Le Corbusier as more than one of the many exponents of the International Style.(Colquhoun, 1968, p. 106)

Busáras is inspired by some of Le Corbusier’s pre-war work notably the Maison Suisse (1930-31) and his use of elements like pilotis, glazed façades and a pavilionised top storey. Was Scott or Scott’s team unduly influenced by these buildings or was it as a result of a similar logical approach to design? The engineering team was led by Ove Arup and his engineering expertise in concrete forms can be seen in the design of the bus station concourse wave form canopy.

The thesis also deals with one of the most noticeable traits of Scott’s work – the integration of art and architecture as he felt the different disciplines complemented each other. From the earliest stages in his career, Scott tried to incorporate art and sculpture in his buildings – a trait that has been carried on by his practice even after his death. Ronald Tallon who was his partner in later years, wrote: He was interested in all the arts, all the visual arts, and he was the only person I have ever met who had this very broad interest. Painting, sculpture and architecture were integrated in all our buildings, and that was Michael’s influence. (Kavanagh, 1989, p. 11)

This is a result of Scott’s education at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and his relationships with many young artists of the period which were formed at that time. Throughout his career, Scott commissioned from a small group of artists, decorative schemes, sculpture and paintings for his work. The building was conceived as a work of art containing applied decoration, sculpture and painting. Many works were commissioned for the building and never carried out for financial reasons. Art is an integral part of Busáras, with a large quantity of mosaics applied to surfaces, especially on the underside of the canopies on the pavilion floor. In Busáras, special care was taken with the decorative cladding of surfaces. Exterior materials were used in a decorative fashion with subtle patterns being created in the way that they were applied to the building. Is the building a piece of mainstream International Modernism with the input of Scott’s preoccupation with art and architecture? Finally, does the building belong to the mainstream of international modernism, or is it in the tradition of the Festival of Britain buildings, attempting to marry traditions of the past with the materials and social values of the present?

Internally much importance was attached to the finishing of public spaces and the interaction between various areas. In a building with such a large amount of glass, light naturally plays a very important part both in daytime and at night, when a completely different aspect of the building is presented through the use of artificial lighting. The public areas of the building in particular have a light and airy atmosphere, brought on by the use of natural light in a bid to make travel a pleasurable event rather than an inconvenience to be undergone. Most furnishings and fittings were specifically designed for the building and as such the building represents one of the last major integrated design projects completed in Ireland. From chairs to lamp fittings, everything was designed, and some manufacturers boasted about the fact in trade magazines, proud to be associated with the building.

  • Chapter 1 Michael Scott, early work and his design team
    Introduction to Michael Scott and the major players in the team Read
  • Chapter 2 City Planning, The Custom House and the Busáras Project
    How the area developed, and the controversy over the project
  • Chapter 3 The Plan and the Modulor System
    The plan and layout of the building interior
  • Chapter 4 The Design of the External façades
    The external influences and development
  • Chapter 5 Interior Architecture and Design
    The interior treatments or the building and fixtures and fittings
  • Chapter 6 Art and Architecture
    How Scott used decorative elements on Busaras