The houses that Ronnie built

Sat, Dec 4, 2010, 00:00

TRIBUTE:THERE’S AN APOCRYPHAL story about a young architect who joined the staff of Scott Tallon Walker. He was given a project to draw up – it had already been designed, of course – and came to believe that the staircase was in the wrong place. So he sought a meeting with Ronnie Tallon to discuss the matter.

Ushered in to the great man’s presence in his grand office on the piano nobile of 19 Merrion Square, the young architect explained his reservations about having the staircase so rigidly aligned on the modular grid of the building, and had the temerity to ask: “Why do we have to do it like this?”

Dr Ronald Tallon, in his characteristic halting voice derived from an early speech impediment, simply replied: “Because God . . . is watching.” The young architect might have been in two minds about whether Ronnie was referring to The Man Above, or simply to himself as the autocratic pater familias of Ireland’s leading architects.

Talking over lunch at his modernist glass, steel and concrete brick home in Foxrock – itself an homage to his architectural hero, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose Farnsworth House in Illinois provided the template – Tallon laughs at the story and admits that it could even be true. Because, to him, modernism is the one true religion.

The flat-roofed house on a beautiful wooded site adjoining Foxrock Golf Club was built in three phases, starting in 1969, and provides a tranquil home for Ronnie and his wife Nora, both now in their early 80s. Amazingly, given its location, he recalls that they bought the then swampy two-acre site in the mid-1960s for just £2,000.

Even by then, Tallon was already in the front rank of Irish architects, with two Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) gold medals – one for the RTÉ television studios at Montrose and the other for the GEC factory in Dundalk, both completed in the early 1960s. Now he has won the RIAI’s first James Gandon Medal for lifetime achievement.

At the award ceremony, sculptor Michael Warren spoke of the “exhilarating experience” of collaborating with Ronnie over the past 30 years, while Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan described him as “my most unforgettable character . . . the only man who has consistently changed my mind” – and usually got his own way, in the end.

If Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker invented modern Ireland, it was Ronnie Tallon, pre-eminently among his peers, who put shape on it, with a range of major buildings that have (mostly) stood the test of time – along with his mentor Michael Scott, partner in practice Robin Walker, and others such as the late Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney.

Born in 1927, Ronnie Tallon grew up on Griffith Avenue, the son of a shopkeeper on Townsend Street. During the Emergency (otherwise known as the second World War), there was so little traffic that kids in the area were able to play hurling on the great avenue – itself one of the finest legacies of visionary planning in 1920s Dublin.

He went to Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square, where the Christian Brothers encouraged his aptitude for drawing and art from an early age, to such an extent that he really wanted to be a painter. “My father was shocked. He thought it would mean a decadent way of life, and that wouldn’t be right at all. He didn’t see it as a real job.”

Because he was also good at maths, Tallon was sent to Craig Gardner to train as an accountant, but he “hated it”. Architecture was the compromise, so he ended up in UCD and spent every summer working in an architect’s office – first Cedric Keating, who designed the Kodak building in Rathmines, then Hope Cuffe and Peppard Duffy.

“I didn’t have any great philosophy or idealistic drive about architecture, I just enjoyed what I was doing and it was a career,” he recalls. “The war had just ended, and it was a strange time. Nothing had happened in building for six years, here or anywhere in Europe. So I went back to the Bauhaus, searching for some direction.”

After graduating from UCD School of Architecture in 1950, Tallon returned to Peppard Duffy, where he designed a timber reredos for the high altar of a new church in Raheny; it was vetoed by then archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who (notoriously) also turned down a competion-winning scheme for a modernist church in Clonskeagh.

Tallon got his chance to design what is probably Ireland’s first truly modernist church at Knockanure, near Moyvane, Co Kerry, in the early 1960s. By then, he had joined Michael Scott and Partners. “Michael knew the parish priest and that’s how we got it. But he didn’t realise he was getting a modernist church with a floating concrete roof.”

Scott had been the assessor for a competition to design Shell service stations, which Tallon jointly won and, on the strength of that, offered him a job.

“He asked me how much I wanted and when I told him £20 per week, he turned pale and said he didn’t earn that himself. But I learned that he spent that dining out in Jammet’s every week.”

He describes the great Scott as “a man of vision and idealism, with an interest in all the arts, right down to living a creative life himself. He had made great buildings and I was very aware that he was the country’s top architect. In my experience, he didn’t design – he left that to Pat Scott and later to Robin Walker and myself.”

The Abbey Theatre was one of his early projects, but he doesn’t like to talk about it because it became “the bane of my life”. More thrillingly, the RTÉ television studios was the first building in Ireland to use precast concrete columns and a flat-slab structure. “This was really where the country changed to more industrialised thinking.”

The building that pleases him most is the former Carroll’s Factory in Dundalk, with its wonderful Sails mobile by Gerda Fromel. This was where Tallon managed to realise the simplicity and freedom of the module that so inspired him at the Katsura imperial villa in Kyoto, to which he has made a pilgrimage five times. “It’s like going to Lourdes for a cure.”

Asked how he felt about Michael Scott winning Britain’s Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1975, after the quintessentially Miesian Bank of Ireland headquarters in Baggot Street was completed, he says: “We like to think it was granted to Michael on behalf of the work of the practice, and Michael graciously said that himself when he accepted it.”

Tallon has spoken and written very little about his work, on the basis that it speaks for itself. He has also steered clear of politicians, although he admits asking Charlie Haughey to intervene when his Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park was threatened with removal. Haughey picked up the phone and ordered that it be saved.

He is still galled by the outcome of the Custom House Docks competition in 1987 (for the site where the IFSC is now located). Scott Tallon Walker’s client, construction company Taylor Woodrow, was told it had won – “we even opened bottles of Champagne” – only to find out the following day that the project had been awarded to a Hardwicke-led consortium after a late-night meeting in Kinsealy.

As a long-time patron of contemporary art, Tallon was dismayed by the Bank of Ireland’s sale of most of its collection – Tallon had purchased it on behalf of the bank. He was similarly shocked when he learned that the Carroll’s collection was sold, ultimately to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, as he had been promised that it would stay in Dundalk; he still hopes some of it might go back.

But he’s quite chuffed that the Carroll’s factory – recently renovated by the practice to house Dundalk Institute of Technology – as well as the Goulding Summerhouse that juts out precariously over the River Dargle, and the extraordinarily well-composed Bank of Ireland headquarters (I was wrong about it in my book, The Destruction of Dublin) are all now protected structures.

He also delights in the demise of “post-modernism”, a trend in architecture that he found utterly retrograde. “We went on with the same philosophy we developed 50 years ago. And the new generation in the office carry on that tradition, as devoted to architecture as we were in our day. It’ll go on long after me, and I like that.”