Waiting for the 109 at Busáras to Navan or Cavan or whatever part of the shticks you’re off to, you probably don’t think, “what a fine building this is”. Doubly so if you frequent the post-apocalyptic stainless-steel-clad bathrooms. But perhaps you should. Caitríona Devery spoke to artist Gavin Murphy who has researched the place for an exhibition called Double Movement in Temple Bar Gallery & Studios.
Busáras is a rare thing in Dublin: a radical civic architectural project that was conceived of “for the people” and built to cutting edge standards. In the 1960’s the basement became the Eblana theatre, central to Dublin’s cultural ecology until the 1990’s.
What got you interested in what many people might consider a neglected and unremarkable building?
It really got sparked by a talk I attended in the canteen of the Department of Social Welfare, which is on the top floor of Busáras. It was part of the Patrick Scott retrospective that took place in IMMA and in Visual Carlow, about three or four years ago. It was essentially a talk about Scott but referring to his earlier work as an architect. Patrick Scott is an Irish artist who worked in Michael Scott’s architectural practice, and Michael Scott was the lead architect for Busáras. It was his vision and his practice that carried out the work.
It was at this talk when I discovered that the canteen was originally intended as a public restaurant, that would turn into a nightclub in the evenings. This was all part of Michael Scott’s original vision for ‘the bus station’, as he referred to it. It just struck a chord with me, and pulled up a memory about this space in the basement, which was also mentioned: the Eblana theatre. I remembered knowing about this theatre in the basement of Busáras.
Tell us about the design of Busáras and what makes it so unique? As an infrequent visitor, I sometimes feel it has a hardness that you often get with modernist architecture.
Busáras is a really unusual, interesting departure from international modernism, which came out of the Bauhaus in Germany and people like Le Corbusier in France. It was a move away from what’s referred to as the stark white modernism of say the 1930s, and it actually employed a lot of interesting textural and decorative detailing in it, that wasn’t necessarily evident in earlier kind of buildings. So you have the curved, wave form cantilevered canopy, sheltering the passengers as they go on to the buses.
You have actually quite a lot of detail and subtle changes between the different storeys. And things then such as the mosaic tile, use of marble, wood, Portland stone, and these various other high quality materials. I think what age has done to this building is that it has lessened the visual impact of those type of details. Details which to use your language might “soften” the building.
I think if you look at the images of the building in its day – even though they’re black and white, that attention to detail and that attention to materials really stands out in a way. I think in subsequent decades the building has been tarnished somewhat by changes.
It didn’t get finished to Scott’s specifications and was never used as intended: what was planned and what ultimately happened?
Yes, the Busáras scheme as it was envisaged was never fully realised, that was partly due to the political reasons. It was envisaged as a site to amalgamate all of CIE’s hitherto scattered offices which were located in different sites all over Dublin, and provide a central bus terminus for the citizens of Ireland essentially who prior to that had to queue up along the quays in order to get their buses out of the city.
Michael Scott who was approached by Percy Reynolds the then head of CIE to build it saw it as this total scheme, a scheme that’s referred to in the film as very much “for the people”, it was publicly accessible from top to bottom.
CIE’s offices would have been all around in the two rectangular upright parts, you had the bus station in the central ground floor concourse, then you had a rooftop restaurant which turned into a nightclub at night, and right down to the basement where you had this newsreel cinema, where passengers could wait and watch these newsreel loops while waiting for their bus.
This was of course turned into the Eblana theatre. And there was to be a barber and a creche and all these facilities. However due to a change in the government in 1948 Fianna Fail were voted out – and an Inter-Party government was voted in.
They put a stop on the Busáras scheme and provided various alternate uses for it. A women’s labour exchange was mooted at one point, and various other things as I described in the film. Eventually, a compromise was reached. So what you have today is – the office part of Busáras actually houses the Department of Social Welfare (now Social Protection). Just the basement and the ground floor were for buses – so in terms of Scott’s original vision, it was never fully realised.
The Irish political establishment has traditionally been conservative. Where did the political will come from to make this building so ‘radical’ i.e. was Busaras as part of a wider modernising movement (even if ultimately compromised?)
The drive to produce a radical departure architecturally (certainly in Irish terms) seems to have been driven by Scott. Percy Reynolds who was the head of the newly formed CIE must have been aware of Scott’s modernist credentials, and appears to have simply trusted Scott to deliver something suitably modern and impressive for the new company, though I have no idea if he was particularly modernist himself.
The political will didn’t come into it until later (except for consultation on the site I think), as CIE was a private company and was only taken over around 1946/7 due to their being in dire financial trouble, by which time the scheme was essentially a fait accompli.
The project ultimately became a bit of a political hot potato. Though it can be seen in the context of other schemes like the Ardnacrusha power plant, in terms of the modernisation of the country.
Scott himself was interested in this idea of a building for the people, elevating an everyday function of daily life to something special through the design and materials – but beyond that, was he overtly political in a wider sense, a social radical?
There’s many who are far more qualified to answer that! How socially radical was Scott? He certainly spearheaded a radical break in terms of official civic buildings in this country, and was determined that we should be engaging in modernism at its most cutting edge, and that ran right through from architecture to engineering, and a belief in the interrelationship between all aspects of art and design.
And you can see this in his involvement with the early Arts Council and the ROSC exhibitions, and also the Signa Design Consultancy, that he established in 1953 with Louis le Brocquy.
I think at the same time he can perhaps be seen as an establishment figure, albeit one who wanted to bring in a new establishment, but one that was not conservative, not interested in maintaining the status quo, a modernising force.
The Eblana was the theatre that operated for a few decades from the Busáras basement: where would you place it in the cultural history of Dublin?
Well if you ask any Dubliner or person living in Dublin who was going out to things in the 60’s and 70’s, and you mention the Eblana theatre they will know about it. In terms of my own generation and younger, you have to have tripped across it in order to know anything about it. It’s this idea that there are cultural sites out there, that are not always underground, but they are hidden away. You have the Abbey Theatre, the Project Arts Centre, you have a number of newer theatres as well but you also have these other sites that greatly contributed to our present-day culture.
I think it’s both interesting and important and maybe incumbent upon us – certainly I feel it as an artist – to look at those sites and see what kind of contribution they made to our society. Because you can learn about where we are today, through these. And indeed, Busáras through itself as a structure and subsequently through the theatre in the basement, is just a huge repository of all types of information, about the art making of the time, the society, the politics of the time, our international relations, what was going on elsewhere, and the kind of stages Ireland was going through.
What kind of programming was there at the Eblana, I get the sense its radicalism doesn’t match the avant-garde-ness of the architecture?
I think you could be right there in the sense that the Eblana wasn’t the Project arts centre. It wasn’t a very cutting edge, purely experimental art driven theatre space. It showcased the early works of well-known playwrights who would have written popular, very successful plays. In a sense what it did at the time was it offered a certain type of new writing that was potentially not populist exactly but popular successful theatre, so you had playwrights like John B Keane, Brian Friel, and others. Equally, you had the likes of Beckett, and you had plays that very much reflected their age.
The Abbey at the time – our national theatre – wasn’t looking to new writing. So Phyllis Ryan, who had been a child actress, and who decided to set up her own theatre company, decided to take things into her own hands, and set up the Eblana, a space where these type of plays and these types of writers, and the actors who were her peers, could act as well. I think it’s quite interesting about the Eblana it was a place for jobbing actors to earn a living. You had a large cohort of very well-known Irish stage and radio and screen actors who worked in the Eblana: Brenda Fricker, Frank Kelly, Ray McAnally, Ronnie Masterson, Marie Kean, as well as Gabriel Byrne and even Liam Neeson and John Hurt. Des Nealon also contributed the voice over for the film also featured.
The plays did certainly reflect the times. You had plays that were critical of the Irish Church, of society’s views on unmarried mothers, on contraception, homosexuality, all of these subjects that were taboo, and in many cases the Eblana staged productions that tackled these subjects for the first time. Things that might a first glance seem quite so relevant to us today – but I found that there were a lot of relevances in things that were discussed in the Eblana in the 70’s to things today, what we’re talking about currently: women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality – the precursor to those issues were very much being spoken about in the Eblana in the time.
Often Irish history seems to be shaped by strong-minded, interconnected individuals, with an accidental and incidental quality to how things happen. Did you find this in your research?
Yes. There’s a lovely connection between the two – I guess if you want to call them protagonists, in the film, Michael Scott and Phyllis Ryan, in that they both trained as actors in the Abbey School, with the Abbey Players and would have travelled to America to perform. And they both had these instrumental changes while they were there. Scott in terms of architecture – he saw the incredible buildings that New York had and came back enthused by that and enthused by what was happening outside of then a potentially, seemingly insular country. And Phyllis Ryan also went to America and decided she wanted to form a theatre.
So very much, there are these personalities in the film. I think It’s something I wanted to get across in the film, you know that there are these contributions to society, to your culture, to our arts, they’re people led, personality led. You know governments and the arts council, funding bodies, city councils, support these endeavours, and potentially take the credit for the state of our culture but at any one time it’s down to individuals. You know they can be supported by government –the very large ones can be for certain, for example IMMA – but certainly in the arts when it comes to spaces like Temple Bar Gallery +_ Studios, Project Arts Centre, and countless others these were all set up by artists, theatre makers, practitioners. You can look at these things as being institutional but however they are very much born from the grassroots up.
I know you’re interested in your other research and writing in artist led spaces – how would you say Dublin today is faring when it comes to these spaces, are they sustainable?
I think the situation for artist-led spaces in Dublin today – and around the country – is pretty dire. ‘Burn out’ is a huge problem for these spaces, which tend to be able to run for a number of years, engage in what is actually essential work in terms of supporting artists to continue to make work and to develop their practices, work that has a huge value at the time but also a ‘deferred value’ that other galleries and institutions – and our art and culture – ultimately benefit from, yet there is relatively little ‘trickle down’ in terms of funding and support.
So spaces, and the people who run them, move on, and someone else has to reinvent the wheel, and a lot of knowledge and experience just disappears. Like the Eblana, these spaces rely on the drive of passionate individuals to bring them into existence and maintain them, and unfortunately, they are not given the credit, or support, they deserve. This can be clearly seen in the example of artist-run studios, which have been depleted by as much as 50% over the past couple of years.
Gavin Murphy’s exhibition Double Movement (featuring film, installation, sculpture, text and photography) continues at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios until 18th November. Find our more here or on his website.