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Constructing Ireland's foundations

Irish infrastructure
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A new book explores the key role of modern infrastructure in Ireland’s development as a viable nation state

This book opens with two quotations, one from Rem Koolhaas, the other from Irish nationalist Pádraig Pearse. It is, I think, safe to say that these two figures have never before been brought together in establishing the premise for a project or a publication. But the rationale for the unlikely partnership, and the intellectual ground established in drawing together their respective statements, soon becomes clear.

Writing in 2013, Koolhaas, who curated the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale under the title Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, was offering a brief to all the participating national pavilions. He asked that they reflect on how, over the course of the century, modernity had gradually supplanted national identity, so that ‘architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global’.

One hundred years earlier in From a Hermitage, Pearse had offered a vision of a free Ireland that would draw on its own resources to secure its own future. He envisaged the draining of bogs, the harnessing of rivers, the nationalising of railways and many other measures by which an independent Ireland could sustain itself. He recognised that the romantic project of self-determination must be underpinned by solid systems and orders.   

As the editors Gary Boyd and John McLaughlin note, Terence Brown used this quote from Pearse in his classic study Ireland: A Social and Cultural History to diagnose a recurring pattern of development in 20th-century Ireland. Drawing on terms used by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Brown characterised the nation as periodically oscillating between ‘essentialism’ (holding to an inherited path) and ‘epochalism’ (embracing the spirit of the age).  

For Boyd and McLaughlin – who, as curators of Ireland’s pavilion at the 2014 Biennale, assembled the exhibition that gave rise this book –Pearse’s emphasis on the need for infrastructure provided the basis for their response to Koolhaas’s brief. If Koolhaas offers the idea that infrastructure is a modernising force with a tendency to globalise and to reduce national specificity, this is balanced by Pearse’s countervailing argument that these very forces of Modernisation are, in fact, key to the development of a viable nation-state.  

Thus is established a dialectic between the impulse to modernise and the need to hold true to some national identity. In many instances in Ireland’s recent history, as Brown demonstrated, these two impulses oppose and ultimately cancel each other, but sometimes, as Pearse envisaged, they can act in concert to powerful effect.

This, then, is the jumping-off point for Boyd and McLaughlin. In an admirably cogent introduction they set out their strategy to track the development of modern Ireland over the 10 decades from 1916 to the present by examining the role that architecture played in the making of Ireland’s infrastructure.

The book links individual works of architecture to the larger narrative of the state’s development

Accordingly, the book comprises 10 essays, each focusing on a particular mode of infrastructure developed during a particular decade, and each studying a specific built project or typology associated with that infrastructure. We proceed chronologically from a consideration of the steel and concrete frame used in the reconstruction of the General Post Office (both before and after its partial destruction in 1916) all the way to the present-day construction in Ireland of data-farms for digital multinationals.

Sometimes infrastructure is understood as something physical – electricity networks, motorways; sometimes it is understood in relation to social services – health, education. But in every instance, the ultimate interest for the authors is in how these emerging infrastructures manifest themselves as architecture.

As Boyd and McLaughlin are at pains to point out, the book is ‘not intended to be a comprehensive survey. Rather, it is a series of critical examinations of particular significant episodes in the spatial and cultural making of the state.’ To that end, the editors have gathered an impressive roster of many of the most interesting scholars working in this field, and the result is a consistently rich and fascinating journey through a century of Irish architecture.

It is a journey that alights at some familiar landmarks – no tale of modern architecture in Ireland would be complete without a study of the hydro-electric plant at Ardnacrusha, or the Busaras building, each covered in depth here. But, by virtue of its thematic focus, it can also deal with less familiar material. A humble telephone exchange building in Rosleven, designed by Noel Dowley in 1975, is offered, in a thoughtful essay by Brian Ward, as an instance of ‘infrastructural adhocism’. Peter and Mary Doyle’s Birr Community School, long admired by architects, is examined by Aoibheann Ni Mhearain as what she terms ‘a materialisation of the  transformative educational policies of the 1960s’.

Irish architecture

Irish architecture

RTE campus by Scott Tallon Walker

Where the subject matter is more familiar, the perspectives offered and the sources used are fresh. The sanatoriums of the 1930s have often been cited as early examples of Irish modernism, but in Ellen Rowley’s examination, involving extensive archival research, their place within the larger TB eradication scheme is more fully fleshed out. Anna Ryan’s account of the genesis of Shannon airport rediscovers the excitement and glamour associated with flight in its early years of operation. Kevin Donovan’s insightful piece about Scott Tallon Walker’s RTE campus offers a more subtle variation on the usual narrative of the steel and glass language of Mies van der Rohe being transported to Ireland during the Lemass era (1959-1966), in which the building’s details become emblems of the meeting of idealism and pragmatism which characterised the period. And in Denis Linehan’s fascinating essay on motorway networks, artistic interpretations of the resulting landscapes, from figures as diverse as Martin Gale and Tana French, are given as much space as the physical developments themselves.

Perhaps the most important achievement of this book is the manner in which it convincingly links individual works of architecture to the larger narrative of the state’s development. It insists the architecture must be understood in the larger social and political contexts which produce it, and which it then goes on to shape. If on occasion the critical and theoretical frameworks being brought to bear threaten to overwhelm the built examples being studied, this only serves to highlight the extent to which a fine balance of interpretive analysis and historical narrative is usually maintained. Edited academic volumes rarely achieve the consistency of standard and the coherence of approach demonstrated here. Besides this, the book is designed to a standard that is also uncommon in academic publishing. The project’s genesis in an exhibition – to be displayed, following its successful Venice outing, at venues around Ireland in 2016 – is evidenced by the generous use of illustrations, both archival and contemporary, many of them unfamiliar. A number of the photographs, for instance the one introducing Gareth Doherty’s chapter on Ardnacrusha, in which a technician strides through the still empty mill-race, manage to encapsulate in a single image the governing spirit that informs this book.

As the terms coined by the editors for the title, Infra-Eireann, neatly suggests, this volume is borne of the belief that Ireland’s 20th-century infrastructure – sometimes anonymous, sometimes monumental; sometimes celebrated but more often overlooked – is as much part of Ireland’s modern identity as those social and cultural aspects earlier explored by Terence Brown.

The book thus stands as an important addition to the historiography of 20th-century Ireland. More specifically, it will serve as an invaluable resource to anyone interested in the architecture of that period. For the way in which it provides vivid and compelling stories of nation building, it deserves to find a wide readership. It already looks set to become integral to any future study in the field: a new piece of intellectual infrastructure. 

This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Book cover

Book cover

Infra-Éireann: Infrastructure and the Architectures of Modernity In Ireland 1916-2016, edited by Gary A Boyd and John MacLaughlin • 232pp • Ashgate • £65

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