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The vanishing Devane

It's time to treasure and protect the legacy of Ireland's most underrated modernist architect, Andy Devane

Andrew ‘Andy’ Devane may not be familiar to you. However the buildings, mostly ergonomic and beautiful democratic public buildings in concrete, always imbued with his generosity and modern perfectionism, certainly will be.

Early Years
Andy Devane was born on 3 November 1917 in 1 Upper Hartstonge Street, in Georgian Limerick. He was the eldest of four sons, the rest of whom studied medicine like their father John Devane who maintained his practice in respectable 3 Pery Square nearby and was also a consultant on St John’s and Barrington’s Hospitals. Dr Devane was personal physician to various Limerick bishops and to the Mary Immaculate college from 1915 until his retirement in the 1950s, connections which undoubtedly helped his son’s architectural career. As befitted the son of a doctor young Andy attended Clongowes Wood before choosing to study architecture in UCD. After graduating in 1941 with a degree that was mediocre down, apparently, to “intemperance and arrogance” after he had soared high in his early years in the College, Devane turned to town planning and became an associate of the professional institute, the Town Planning Authority.

Andy Devane, 1947
Andy Devane, 1947

In 1945 he was among a group of young architects who joined the practice of Robinson and Keefe (RKD), injecting worldly and modern ideas, and dynamism. Established in 1913, the practice had initially received commissions for housing and small commercial projects quickly winning high-profile projects such as the structures for the Eucharistic Congress 1932, the Gas Company building on Dublin’s D’Olier St and Independent House on Abbey St. But for a man of his verve the Modern School was beckoning with new paradigms.

Cheeky Letter
Exactly 70 years ago a mischievous Devane wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright, the genius behind the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Fallingwater, citing the low public opinion of the works of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, ending with the provocation: “I cannot make up my mind whether you are in truth a great architect or just another phoney”. Perhaps not knowing that he had sent a similar letter to both Mies Van der Rohe and Corbusier, Wright generously responded,“Come along and see”.

Oboler House blueprint © RKD Architects
Oboler House blueprint © RKD Architects

He did: when offered a partnership at RKD in 1946 he deferred, to take up the Taliesin Fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Scottsdale, Arizona. This decision would change his life. Devane was one of the first to cross the Atlantic to study under the great architects of the time but others followed. These included Kevin Roche, who later designed the Ford Foundation building in New York and Dublin’s anodyne Convention Centre; Robin Walker, who became a partner in Scott, Tallon and Walker and who sought the tutelage of Mies van der Rohe; and Shane de Blacam who designed the Beckett Theatre in Trinity College Dublin and who worked under Louis Kahn.

American Schooling
Devane diarised his first thoughts on America and Wright:

“My first sighting-impression of Taliesin West sums it all up. I have never forgotten it. After four days of continuous travel (Shannon, Labrador – blizzard in both places- Boston, New York- all in TWA Constellation) – change of places in New York to DC3s, hopping across the apparently endless vastness of America- and ending up (with no bags and a last few dollars) walking into the desert from Scottsdale, hot (so hot), exhausted, confused, convinced I had made a huge mistake in my quest I was picked up in a supply truck driven by FLW’s daughter-in-law, Svetlana, on her way to Taliesin. I will never forget those first glimpses of canvas, Redwood and stone in its desert setting of cacti and mountains – and then walking into a dream- a reality of form and material such as I had never known before – and meeting ‘the man’ himself – so different – so familiar. I was home!!!”.

Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright
Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright

A year after Devane returned to Ireland, another young Irish architect, Jack O’Hare, made his way to do his apprenticeship under Wright, inspired by Devane’s journey. In a public interview in 2011, O’Hare described the large open drawing-room where each student would sit hand-copying the master’s drawings. Devane kept a sample of the exquisite blueprints he copied for ‘Oboler House’, commissioned by the film director Arch Oboler and his wife Eleanor who set out to create an estate called ‘Eaglefeather’ in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu.

Return to Ireland
Devane returned to Ireland in 1948, enthusiastic about taking Wright’s ‘Usonian’ [his word for US-derived] style of architecture, seeing it as a template for post-war Ireland and eager to set himself apart from the UK models. Prosaically he mourned that, “On my return my first ‘major’ (to me) project was a mortuary chapel tacked on to the RC Church in Naas”.

Educational Buildings
More technicolor work soon followed: St Mary’s Girls’ National School, King’s Island, Limerick which began in 1949 and was completed in 1951. There is a striking similarity between the drawing room of Taliesin West and the auditorium of St Mary’s with its exterior ‘knuckles’ and sloped roof. This was the first of many Devane national schools in the working-class areas of Limerick city. As a true disciple of Wright he wanted to showcase concrete as the perfect building material.

St Munchin's Girls National School, 1957
St Munchin’s Girls National School, 1957

Devane’s mantra was: “Basic building at basic cost with real community benefit”.

But I would disagree – these were not ‘basic’ buildings. With economical materials he was able to create buildings for Limerick’s poor that would make their equivalents in grander areas look dull and outdated.

Wide cantilevered concrete canopies tested the limits of contemporary engineering. The clever insertion of clerestory windows, sloping ceilings, primary colours and terrazzo flooring created warm, bright rooms to ignite the children’s imaginations. His attention to detail easily extended to the playground, with tactile concrete blocks giving texture to fun shelters for children’s play in bad weather.

Among his ventures in Dublin were Inchicore Technical College, Emmet Road, (1952-54) and Mary Immaculate College Dormitory Building (1955-57) both Wrightian. For Gonzaga College (1955, with Chapel later 1966-67, a rare private-school brief) he was required to extend and convert two mid-Victorian houses for use as the school. Reflecting on the Gonzaga College commission later in his life Devane commented: “At Gonzaga College the client was wise and decent and the task of linking existing gentle buildings with economy was satisfying”.

Other schools followed, breaking the utilitarian mode of the time, typically in working-class areas, and single-storey in concrete, spacious with sloping ceilings and a characteristic attention to detail and the particular use: St Munchin’s Girls’ National School (1957) Ballynanty, Limerick; St Munchin’s Boys’ National School (1955), Limerick; Scoil Mháthair Dé, South Circular Road, Limerick (1963), St Colmcille Boy’s National School, Swords (1966) and St John’s Girls’ and Infants School, Cathedral Place, Limerick (1975).

Churches
In recognition of his work for the Catholic Church, in 1965 Devane was elevated to the Advisory committee on Sacred Art and Architecture for the Irish Episcopal Commission – implementing the architectural imperatives of Vatican II.

He was flying: Our Lady Queen of Peace, Dublin Airport (1964) is tainted by a preemptive Department of Transport intervention which cut fourteen feet off the tower height spuriously claiming that it was dangerous to aircraft before themselves building a much higher building close to it. He also designed St Fintan’s Church, Sutton (1973) and St Lelia’s Church, Ballynanty, Limerick (1976). For these or other reasons he was apparently known, hushedly, as Divine Devane.

Gonzaga College, 1955 and Chapel, 1966-67
Gonzaga College, 1955 and Chapel, 1966-67

Hospitals, Commercial Buildings and others
Devane would work on many building typologies through his career. There are accounts of him walking through older parts of hospitals with the doctors to ascertain their requirements from the building. He was architect of Mount Carmel Private Hospital Dublin (1949), the Urology Unit of the Meath Hospital (1954), St Galvia Private Hospital, Galway (today Bon Secours Hospital) (1954) and Port Elizabeth Hospital in South Africa (1968).

RKD continued to prosper in the 1970s, winning large commercial schemes like Stephen Court in 1971 – headquarters of the benighted Anglo Irish Bank – which was highly recommended in the European Architectural Heritage Year awards in 1975, and the unloved Irish Life Centre in 1978. Devane would later comment that the clients wanted the equivalent of the German Volkswagen Headquarters on this site but: “we persuaded them to settle for low rise setting, relating the building to its surroundings in scale and material”.

AIB Bankcentre. Dublin
AIB Bankcentre. Dublin

Devane was now collaborating with leading Irish artists of the day including Imogen Stuart and Oisín Kelly.

Twenty five years after Michael Scott’s Irish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Devane was commissioned to represent the best in Irish design at the 1964-5 World’s Fair. He was told to formulate an Irish round tower while also communicating that we were a modern Ireland. Unlike Scott’s clichéd building, that was sell-out shamrock-shaped, Devane captured Irish vernacular through the use of natural materials like Liscannor slate, while championing a contemporary aesthetic of smooth, white, rendered walls and asymmetric lines.

Devane would also put his hand to hotels such as the Shannon Shamrock Hotel, Bunratty, Co. Clare (1959); and sports buildings such as the Ceann Arus GAA Headquarters Building, Jones’s Road, Dublin 3 (1982) (demolished).

Ballynanty School, 1957
Ballynanty School, 1957

Philosophy and Life
In a profession where brilliance is often offputtingly brittle Devane was always thoughtful in what he said and wrote: “In more ways than one, exterior space is the city dweller’s quotient of nature, his window of the seasons, yard-stick of the elements. As density increases and crushes space, nature recedes until, as in downtown New York, it virtually disappears, dominated and supplanted by structures and technology gone mad, and one commences to live in a sub-nature world”.

Devane married Maureen Ashe in 1950 and had three sons, Richard, Martin and Tony. His own home, Journey’s End in Howth (1952-55), an extension to a two-storey 1920s house, is the only building, he once remarked, over whose design he had complete artistic freedom. Sadly, Maureen died in 1977. It hit Devane hard. He retired from RKD in 1983, although he remained as a consultant, providing the concept design for Tallaght Hospital in the mid-1980s. Poignantly, his last building was a boys’ home (1999) where, apart from some of the year which he passed at the Irish College in Rome, he spent the last years of his life in the service of the destitute. He died on January 15, 2000, there in Calcutta.

Legacy
Devane’s thoroughgoing lack of self-promotion is admirable – embodying the vision of J.M. Richards’ (editor of the Architectural Review during this period) of the ‘anonymous architect’. It makes for a refreshing riposte to today’s ‘starchitects’.

With such an impressive and ubiquitous legacy it is strange that he is not spoken of in the same breath as mid-twentieth century titans of Irish architecture like Michael Scott, Robin Walker, and Ronnie Tallon.

This would matter less if it were not for current threats to some of his work.

Planning permission has been granted by Dublin City Council for the demolition of four of the six blocks that comprise AIB Bankcentre in Ballsbridge. At its opening in 1980 Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, a man of uneven taste, described the scheme as: “the essence of good taste, discrete, neither imposing nor assertive, a fine example of the demanding art of orderly development. When the balconies are clothed in shrubs and plants we will have nothing less than the hanging gardens of Ballsbridge”. The Ronan Group purchased the site in July for last year for €67.5 million and will build the largest Dublin office development since the crash.

As imperatives emerge for higher density, and fashion deserts even beautiful buildings in concrete, creating a lethal momentum for demolition of modernist buildings, it is time our regime for listing and protecting buildings opened up to the best exemplars of twentieth-century architecture, and recognised the talent of those behind them.

By Emma Gilleece