Conor English tells how his research on Frank Murphy resulted in a biography and a unique insight into 20th-century buildings
THERE is very little information about mid-20th century Cork design and people are increasingly curious about this period and its architecture — especially when it relates to schools and churches that we experience and interact with daily.
When I penned a piece on Cork architect Frank Murphy for Irish Examiner Property & Interiors last year, the response was overwhelming. It ultimately led in part to a book I have now published.
I was asked by Cork City Council to put my research forward for a Heritage Council of Ireland grant and this book casts a new light on Murphy and this fascinating period of design in Cork.
Frank Murphy (1916–1993) was an acclaimed Irish architect who used modernist principles as a language to bring a modern style of architecture to Cork.
The architect’s long career, which spanned the latter half of the 20th century, was helped along by his demeanour as well as his talent, salted with a burning curiosity and limitless enthusiasm for his native city.
This combination ultimately earned him a reputation as a renowned award-winning architect, yet his legacy remains lost — I felt it was untold and omitted from the story of Irish 20th-century architecture.
His style featured long planar forms, structures animated with pattern, rhythm and rich material palettes enveloping modern space plans, Murphy was without a doubt one of Cork City’s most important architects.
A dedicated modernist and an equally progressive conservation campaigner, Murphy concentrated for much of his career on 20th century ecclesiastical designs, as well as the schools, offices and factories of Cork.
His clients included Cork Distillers, Thompson’s Bakery, Sutton Coal Merchants, the Jennings family, Ford Motor Company and Mayne’s Pharmacy. In addition, Frank Murphy was the architect for 52 youth hostels for An Oigenationwide.
His conservation work included restorations of Vernon Mount, Youghal Clock Gate, Skiddy’s Almshouse and Cork Gaol. The year 2020 will mark 80 years since the founding of his office in 1940.
This new book charts the entire length of Murphy’s work, highlighting distinctive features while discussing the cultural conditions that kept this architect in the shadows of his more famous Irish contemporaries.
The publication is illustrated with newly commissioned photographs and drawings of his many projects. This biography also explores the interplay of the architect’s influences and impulses; development and tradition; provincialism and nationalism; and how Cork was always a condition of Murphy’s life and work.
Like many Irish architects of the period, Murphy was influenced by Scandinavian and American architecture.
When travelling to these countries he sought out the wealth of modern buildings to be found, visiting work by architects Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen.
These modern architects had a deep understanding of place.
Instead of buildings that stand oblivious to their surroundings, they sought to settle into and be part of the landscape around them. From the mid-1950s, Murphy would apply this in his own way in Cork.
Frank Murphy was not working through modernism for its white box, clean cut and modern aesthetic potential, but was wrestling with the pragmatics of designing and problem-solving on restrictive budgets in Cork City.
His buildings express an economy of design, but with a language of craft embellished with a certain flamboyancy and pattern.
Many Frank Murphy projects use colour and eccentric materials whether suburban or urban, often using glazing and surface decoration to ease them into the Cork built environment.
Murphy received his most prestigious commission in 1953 with the commission to come up with a design for a new church in Drimoleague, West Cork.
This proved to be a breakthrough project for the young emerging architect, providing him with a chance to present his ideas centre stage in a public building.
The church is a highly original, forward-looking and striking presence in the West Cork countryside. Remarkably, it is the only stylistically modernist church in a series of churches built in southern Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s, known as the Rosary Churches, by then Archbishop of Cork and Ross, Cornelius Lucey. Furthermore, All Saints Church in Drimoleague is credited as being West Cork’s first modern building.
During this period Murphy’s office was designing many scales of projects and commissions. Sevearl of the jobs were from local businesses in Cork, which were increasingly requiring the services of architects.
Murphy’s practice designed numerous shopfronts during this time. The most playful and original shopfront designed by Murphy is Mayne’s Pharmacy (1954 and 1960).
Today Mayne’s is certainly one of Cork City’s prime surviving examples of mid-century shopfront design.
Cork Distillers Bottling Plant
Cork Distillers wanted to create an image of a modern company that had facilities to rival their Dublin competitors, John Powers Whiskey Co and John Jameson & Co.
This project had an impressive pairing — an ambitious Cork client matched equally with a home-grown determined architect.
The building characterises Murphy’s contextual yet flamboyant modernist approach to design.
The arrangement of the administration area in its use of pattern in glazing and layering of various material breaks the mass of the building successfully and creates an approachable building that makes use of its river frontage.
The bottling plant is notable for its sculptural cast concrete and its riot of colour, especially the bright yellow glazed bricks.
It also expresses the collision of machine industrial architecture, a prominent city site and Murphy’s own predilection for animating buildings with pattern.
Thompson’s Bakery on MacCurtain Street, Cork City, was a notable project by Murphy during this period. Unlike the bottling plant set in a verdant riverside site, the bakery’s urban setting relies on the glazing arranged in a pattern to engage with the street.
Designed by Murphy’s office between 1962 and 1967, the scheme essentially demolished a block of terraced houses on a Victorian street to expand its existing complex to house a new state-of-the-art Swiss roll factory.
Thompson’s was one of Cork City’s largest employers. Its confectionery products were extremely popular and its Swiss roll was the most successful — reputably Thompson’s made a mile of Swiss roll every day.
In the early 1960s it needed to expand its premises and Frank Murphy & Partners was duly appointed. The glass façade represents a total break from tradition and highlights the scale and aspirations of Thompson’s Bakery.
In 1965, Murphy started work on a landmark city site at Number 1 South Mall, across from Cork City Hall. It originally housed theVictorian headquarters for Sutton’s Coal Merchants, which burned down in a disastrous fire in 1963. Sutton’s was a large Cork firm with many city properties that expanded to many different businesses and disciplines.
When completed, the building was the first and largest purpose-built office building in Cork City. The building makes use of its exposed and prominent site with large projecting slate window bays. Sutton House is one of Murphy’s more restrained designs but, importantly, it tackles the site successfully: The building turns the corner and addresses the river, the street and creates a small public plaza to the east.
A recurring theme in Murphy’s career is his passion for protecting buildings under threat of demolition or change, particularly in Cork City. Murphy established the Cork Preservation Society in 1968 to preserve Cork’s threatened built heritage, starting with Skiddy’s Almshouse in Shandon, Cork city (c.1719). Skiddy’s was established by Steven Skiddy, a wealthy Cork-born merchant, to house the poorest in the city.
In the 1960s the then-owners, the North Infirmary hospital, intended to demolish the almshouse and build nurses’ accommodation. Frank Murphy was outraged by the decision to erase such an exceptional piece of history and set up the Cork Preservation Society to start a rescue campaign.
The Preservation Society was even supported by Jack Lynch, which led to the building being successfully placed on the official record of monuments and places in 1968. The Cork PreservationSociety then fundraised in order to restore the almshouse. In 1975 the restoration was completed, and Murphy won the RIAI National Award for Architecture [restoration], the Europa Nostra medal.
Cork’s Modern Architect: The Work of Frank Murphy by Conor English with Cork City Council and the Heritage Council of Ireland is for sale in the RIAI Bookshop, 8 Merrion Square, Dublin, the Cork Design Shop at Nano Nagle Place, the Crawford Art Gallery bookshop and online at www.corksmodernarchitect.com