Cork architect the unsung hero of modernism

Conor English explores the work of architect, Frank Murphy and reassesses his legacy.

Cork architect the unsung hero of modernism

Conor English explores the work of architect, Frank Murphy and reassesses his legacy.

People usually describe buildings and architecture from the middle of the 20th century as grey, cold, or even boring. Although in some cases, this may be perceived as true, it certainly does not describe the vibrant and eccentric work of visionary Cork architect Frank Murphy.

Murphy is arguably Cork’s most eminent and exciting modern architect. He was a prominent figure who presided over the city’s cultural and artistic circles, and for a time, was principal of the largest architecture practice south of Dublin, building nationally and even in the United Kingdom.

Graduating from UCD in 1939, at the time Ireland’s only school of architecture), and part of a circle which included architect Michael Scott and the artist Louis Le Brocquy, he was deeply rooted in the Irish modern movement. A kind man who was never far from his pipe, he quietly strove to enhance the built environment of his native city, through many projects throughout his career.

Born in 1916 to a large contracting family, life in construction was inevitable and at age 18 he enrolled at UCD to study architecture. Murphy rebelled against the inherited classical style that was being taught at the school. His early experiences would be shaped by the new style of contemporary architecture emerging from pre-war Europe and America.

He headed up the student architecture society organising trips to Europe and even a meeting with Walter Gropius, one of the leading educators and architects of modernism and founder of the Bauhaus school.

Like many Irish architects of the period, Murphy had a keen interest in Scandinavian architecture. For his honeymoon, he travelled to Sweden with his wife Mary [née Wolfe of Skibbereen], for the abundance of modern architecture he could see and visit.

While there he sought out buildings by architects Alvar Aalto, Sigurd Lewerentz and Gunnar Asplund. These eminent practitioners had a deep sense of place and materiality and instead of creating modern buildings that ignored their surroundings, they sought work that would settle into, and be part of the landscape around them. Murphy, in his own way, would apply this considered approach back in Cork.

After the Second World War, he received his first series of commissions and immediately put his inspiration into action.

Glass and steel were becoming more available after the war and he skilfully employed glazing as an ornament in its arrangement and pattern — and used in projects such as Jennings Soda Water Factory, and Shield Insurance on the South Mall.

Development of social infrastructure during this period in Ireland, such as schools, churches and hospitals, was entirely based on religious patronage. Architects would receive a great deal of work from religious orders in the austere 1950s.

In 1951 Murphy was commissioned by the Brothers of Charity to design hospitals in Waterford and Cork. He spent three months carefully researching sanitoria and monasteries in Sweden and Scandinavia.

The hospitals he designed marked the beginning or a fruitful partnership with other religious orders, one where his practice gained momentum with clients who favoured modern design.

In 1953, Murphy was chosen by another order, the Presentation Sisters in Cork, to design a convent, chapel and primary school in the new and ever-expanding Cork suburb of Ballyphehane.

The design is two-storeyed, short, horizontal and has a variety of surface textures, with neat timber and brick detailing, clearly influenced by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Murphy who would design all the Presentation schools, right up until the ‘70s, had now gained a reputation as a bold refreshing new voice in Irish architecture.

In 1953 he received his most prestigious and contentious commission, the design for a new church in Drimoleague, West Cork. The church is highly original, forward-looking and is striking in the West Cork countryside — it is credited with being West Cork’s first modern building.

Praised in architectural publications for its materials, with a bold design that contradicted tradition and the usual cruciform plans of churches, it showed Murphy as a committed modernist who never compromised with mock styles from the past. This caused some conflict locally, as the Bishop had more traditional tastes. and tellingly, it was to be Murphy’s only Catholic church in his long career.

Murphy fought hard for new architectural thinking in Cork at a time when the City was an isolated, insular place witha small circle of older architects of a different standing.

This was to change. Unlike earlier years, where the Church or government were the only patrons of architects, Murphy began to receive work from a variety of sources as the economy started to prosper under the new economic policies by an enlightened Sean Lemass. Increasingly, private individuals and companies would employ the services of architects.

Murphy received an enormous amount of success in the 1960sand it would be his most productive period. The practice was called to work in Dublin, Glasgow and London and in 1961, the firm was approached to design anew bottling plant for Cork Distillers on the North Mall. This was to be the largest of all Murphy’s projects and many consider this masterpiece.

Cork Distillers wanted to create an image of a modern company that had facilities to rival their then, Dublin competitors, Power’s and Jameson Whiskey.

This project had an impressive pairing; an ambitious Cork client matched equally with a homegrown determined architect.

The design is a symphony of mid-century materials and colours, yellow glazed brick, mosaic tiles, glass and remarkable cast concrete used in various shapes. Smaller but just as successful projects include Mayne’s Pharmacy on Pembroke St [today a wine bar], that Murphy drew in 1960.

By 1964 Frank had taken on four partners, Ian White, Fred White, Denis Higgins and Ewin Uniacke and employed more than 30 staff and students in the drawing room. In 1966 Frank Murphy Partners was appointed to design a new scheme to modernise the Ford motor company’s premises.

The same year he and his partner Ian White designed a new state of the art Swiss roll factory for Thompson’s bakery on MacCurtain St.

Unlike the bottling plant, set in a lush riverside site, the bakery’s urban setting relies on the glazing and materials arranged in a pattern to engage with the street.

Thompson’s were staking their claim to the 20th century commissioning a daring and modern building on a historic street. The building was highly distinguishable because of Murphy’s flamboyant inclusion of the

popping executive balconies on the top floor, which cleverly broke the scale and uniform of the façade.

In 1967 Murphy completedCork’s first purpose-built office building, Sutton House, No 1 South Mall, after a disastrous fire destroyed the firm’s original Victorian headquarters.

A more reticent design with slate vertical bays and clad in Portland stone, Murphy wanted it to mark the gateway to Cork’s financial district holding, as it did, an iconic riverside site across from City Hall.

Frank Murphy’s work brought him to the top table of Irish architecture and in 1975 he won the RIAI National Award for Architecture and the Europa Nostra medal.

He lectured in architecture at the Crawford School of Art and as a Member of the ROSC committee, an exhibition of international art, he was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to Cork in 1980.

He was featured on an RTÉ television programme on his “space-age home” in Blackrock, Tir nNóg, which played host to famed parties with famous guests and throughout his career, campaigned to save numerous building under threat of demolition or change.

He became a highly influential conservationist, working as an advisor with An Taisce and the Irish Georgian society with his friend Desmond Guinness, the Knight of Glynn.

He set up the Cork Preservation Society in 1968 to preserve Cork’s threatened heritage, starting with Skiddy’s Almshouse in Shandon, Cork’s oldest inhabited building.

He continued to campaign for heritage, such as Youghal’sClocktower, Doneraile Court and his last project, the Cork Gaol. Here lies the interesting duality in such a remarkable architect, campaigning for historic buildings, whilst also being an advocate for change and modernisation.

Murphy’s Dublin contemporaries did not share the same sentiment, as large parts of Georgian Dublin were erased for development.

Today, Frank Murphy’s legacy lives with FMP Architects run by his son Peter and partner Brian McKeown. A new generation has also picked up the torch — Frank’s granddaughter Emily, a former project architect with Renzo Piano, (architect of London’s Shard), has recently set up practice in Paris.

Murphy’s’ work stands out in a time when Cork and Ireland were undergoing significant change, socially and economically. He strove to enhance his home place in a modern and changing time, through new design and sensitive restoration.

The sheer number of buildings he added to the city’s mid-century catalogue is remarkable and his later conservation work, which saved many at-risk elements of Cork city’s heritage, was unprecedented.

Cork City has an incredible architectural heritage; from the gothic towers of St Finbarr’s Cathedral, to the Art Deco flair of Christ the King Church, to thelatest, contemporary edge of the Glucksman Art Gallery.

But time has passed, and we now need to rethink, re-evaluate and start a discourse on an overlooked period of architectural history —to understand these buildings like most great architecture: unique and born through circumstance, which will always make them relevant.

Bravo Frank!

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