Dublin Airport was designed by a group of architects in their twenties who were specially appointed for the task by the Office of Public Works. It bears the hallmarks of the typological approach to the design of airport terminals, which was highly evolved by the mid-1930s. The same could be said of other public building types, such as schools, cinemas and lidos.
The airport was designed with a stylistic approach which reflected a palatable form of modernism which had travelled from Continental Europe, to the United States and back again. It was Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn-esque but also ticked the boxes of the International Style – as it was dubbed in the United States. It appeared to mimic the formal characteristics of an ocean-liner crossed with an aeroplane, with it’s streamlined and sleek white body and ‘wings’ like a mechanical bird. It looked every bit like an ocean liner in cropped images where the visitors are shown waving from its open terraces. This was so appropriate during the Machine Age in which ocean liners were symbolic of luxury and glamour and also offered a new engineered approach to designing in a streamlined, economical and democratic way. The idea of civil aviation was itself electrifyingly thrilling, and the public thronged to airports to be part of the spectacle. In fact, when the new Dublin Airport project was proposed it was acknowledged that designing the airport as a leisure venue for the non-travelling public was crucial – this would encourage the public to become ‘air-minded’ and familiar with the new technology.
Dublin Airport Terraces, ca. 1945
A First Class Airport
Following the decision to design the new terminal around ‘land’ planes rather than ‘sea’ planes (or flying boats) the OPW’s correspondence on the project hints at the atmosphere of nervous excitement about it. A letter from the Accountant of the Government on 5th June 1937 reads that the £150,000 budget was to be exceeded by 100% due to the change in requirements to a ‘First Class’ airport, and that the ‘very large increase in the cost [was] the result of a departure in many directions from the original scheme of work’ (OPW, F99/16/1/36). He concluded by advising Mr. Tyrell (of the Department of Industry and Commerce) that he should urgently take the matter up with the head engineer and produce a revised estimate for approval. The revised estimate came in at £360,000 and the OPW explained that initially ‘…only the minimum of buildings was provided for, one small hangar and a modest terminal building’, but that:
We are unable to say whether developments other than that provided for in this estimate will ever be necessary. This depends so much on the extent to which air travel will become a regular mode of transport in this country in the future (OPW Principal Architect, T.J. Byrne, 7th June, 1937, OPW, F99/16/1/36).
The giant work shop hangar which was required due to the need for a first class airport ‘capable of accepting the largest aircraft by day or night under all conditions of weather’ was described proudly as being ‘probably the largest hangar in Western Europe’ (7/61937, OPW, F99 16/1/36). It seems that the ambitions for the airport project had soared from the initial concept and that everyone involved had become excited at its grand scale. It was a marker of progress for the Free State and the design was praised internationally for its ambition and modernity. Another letter read that:
The Saorstat’s particular interest lies in securing the full advantage of its geographical location between Europe and North America. In addition, the policy of the Government is to encourage the development of civil aviation which makes it essential that the capital city should be provided the same safeguards and amenities as do the principle airports of other countries (27/ 7/1937, OPW, F99 16/1/36).
Machine Age Design
Airport design around Europe and Britain could be really quite jazzy, fun and eccentric. The layout of Dublin Airport’s runways, and how they merged with the plan which was designed like an aircraft body, reinforced the symbolism. There were a number of contemporaneous airport terminals which used the imagery of flight in their layouts, such as Birmingham Airport, with its winged sides, very obviously aeroplane-like. Ramsgate Municipal Airport on the Kent Coast (1937) also featured bi-plane-like symbolism in its external form (Toulier et al. 2000).
Birmingham Airport, Norman & Dawbarn, 1937-38.
Dublin Airport, airfield side.
Dublin Airport, entrance side.
In its dynamic curved and streamlined form, the Dublin Airport building expressed the exciting aspect of travel and flight. The airfield side has a light, transparent and open look, because of the expansive glazing. It is a convex curve which reaches outwards towards the runways. The curved wings seem to touch the horizon. The entrance side is a concave curved plane punctuated with rectilinear openings, embracing the visitor. An article in Country Life magazine, primly entitled How Architecture Can Be Modern And Classical Too (7/3/1947) by Christopher Hussey, evocatively described the mood that Dublin Airport evoked in those early days:
As the plane circles in, the streamlined building is made to look even more like a ship by the people – friends of passengers or spectators – gathered on its upper deck below the control tower, which itself resembles the bridge of a liner (Hussey, Country Life, 7/3/1947, p.420).
The shade of white that was rendered on the face of the Airport had been considered. The finishing coat is described in the Bill of Quantities as being composed of ‘one part “Snowcrete” to three parts of white sand with waterproofing material and to finish “cream” or “ivory” with a smooth gritted finish’ (OPW, 42917). This is one instance of many where a proprietary brand was specified and, in the issue of the Irish Builder where the details of the building were finally published in 1945, firms advertised themselves and their products based on the fact that they were involved in the project (IB, Vol. 87, 28/7/1945). ‘Snowcrete’ features as a popular brand of stucco from the descriptions of other modern buildings in the Irish Builder.
The glazing putty applied to the window frames was to consist of, interestingly, ‘glaziers putty mixed with white lead and olive oil and sprigged with copper sprigs’.
Leisure and Modern Design = Glamour
In the 1930s glamour was about escapism, and modern design was ‘an escape, an illusion, an ideal, a dream’ (Postrel, 2004, p.25). At the beginning of the century people were still adjusting to the changes wrought by technology and the ways to harness machines to their advantage. The modern world was to be about flux and rapidity, a journey by locomotive flashed blurred scenes of the landscape before your eyes – these elements manifested themselves in the fragmentation of cubism which was domesticated in Art Deco with its lightening-bolt motifs, flashes, and dashes of vivid colours (according to Art Deco historian Bevis Hillier, 1983, p. 70)
‘As for reality, we like it exotic’ – G. Bauer, 1925 (Wood, 2003, p.125).
Ghislaine Wood describes people living in the era of Art Deco as having their everyday reality infused with the exotic: ‘Every aspect of modern living was given an exotic veneer, from the facades of factories and cinemas to the packaging of perfumes and chocolates’ (Wood, 2003, p.125). Perhaps we still feel protective of art deco buildings, no matter how modest, because they recall a time when whimsy and theatricality were attached to commodities that are now so everyday that they are taken for granted.
Flying was part of the heady, razzle-dazzle lifestyle of the rich and famous in the inter-war years. It was really quite the most exciting and modern thing that a person could do. Typical of the democratisation of leisure in the era, airports opened up to the mass non-flying public, who flocked to them as venues which were more thrilling than going to the cinema (and cinemas were quite incredible then). Proper airports had leisure facilities for the public, so the new Dublin (or Collinstown) airport provided ample viewing terraces, a restaurant which overlooked the airfield and a cocktail bar, which looked like it belonged on an ocean liner, and a dance floor. The interior finishes were luxurious and all elements typical of the art deco style
While Dublin Airport was minimalist and white-rendered – which in itself carried associations of the luxury modernist villa – the interior was luxurious and glamorous because of the materials used. The cocktail bar glittered with mirror tiles, a shiny mahogany bar top and chrome tubular steel bar stools. Visitors were familiar with the style because it was typical of Hollywood film sets, so it was associated with Hollywood glamour.
Dublin Airport, cocktail bar.
Modernist interiors created an impression of machine age precision but David Frankel, writing about Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, argued that it was really the way in which a designer could express with materials ‘the ideal of modernity through the vigour of their geometry…the clarity of their assembly’ (in Riley, 2002, p.13). The passenger lounge had veneered walls and ceilings which were made up of squares of two different tones. In the black and white photograph featured in the Irish Builder the composition of voids and solids with the forms of the curvaceous furniture and curved light fittings, echoed the shapes of the interior spaces and created a flowing look throughout. The tubular steel furniture was probably still considered quite clinical looking but thoroughly modern (IB, Vol. 78, 1934). The floor of the bar was of maple and contrasted with the dark veneered surface of the bar-front (BQ, OPW 42917 & photos: Oram, 1990).
The internal cills of the large windows overlooking the terrace of the airfield were of polished ebonised mahogany and appeared like a deep ledge at waist level. Below the ledge, the radiators were covered by decorative grilles which were made up of horizontal lengths of bronze. Bronze was used in various locations: as stair balustrades and as ironmongery to doors (BQ, OPW, 42917).
The main stairs were an impressive feature of the interior design. Light streamed over them from the full-length glass block panel creating a translucent and dream-like quality. The stair treads were of Roman Travertine and the skirtings were terrazzo (BQ, OPW, 42917). The balustrades were bronze and appeared modern and sophisticated, the warm tone creating an effect like the sunset on the deck of a ship. The balustrade was composed of thin horizontals and verticals. The less visible stairs in the building had teak treads (BQ, OPW, 42917). The rich materials were allowed to shine in the off white, sobre interior spaces. The RIBA Journal in September 1948 reported that ‘The skillful proportions, good colour scheme and well designed furniture and details help to make the whole building a particularly successful example of its type’ (RIBA, Vol. 56, 9/1948, p. 500-501). The luxurious impression would have been reinforced by the fact that interior furnishings were specially designed for the project, including the menu cards, crockery and cutlery which were designed by the architects themselves – a real gesamtkunstwerk.
In the restaurant the flooring was maple with a Macassar ebony margin – this was probably a sprung maple dance floor which people tended to expect (IB, Vol. 89, 28/7/1945). The band platform was maple parquet also with an ebonised mahogany margin (BQ, OPW, 1938). There were concealed coloured lights over this area (IB, Vol. 89, 28/7/1945). Macassar ebony was one of the most popular exotic woods used in the French Art Deco furniture industry, being heavily promoted at their 1931 Colonial Exhibition. According to Ghislaine Wood, the use of precious woods such as these linked Art Deco’s origins with the French Ancien Regime (Wood, 2004, p. 88). Whilst strict modernists did not approve of the use of veneers, moderne interior designers applied them to create a look of opulence and luxury (Duncan, 1998).
It is always interesting to read descriptions of colour schemes in interiors in this era which is so associated with white or monochrome. Interior walls were painted white in the 1930s, initially as a nod to utopianism – this simple finish allowed the very wealthy to ‘feel less ostensibly rich in that setting’ (Hillier & Escritt, 1997). The look was popularised by the interior designer Syrie Maugham whose own house, the editors of Vogue had written, ‘apprehended the sweet uses of light and white’ (Lambert, 2000) where she used glass and mirrors to great effect. The airport interior walls were off-white but with colour used to define particular areas, such as violet/ grey- blue (a colour featured in modern interiors at the time in the Architectural Review) which apparently ‘toned well’ (IB, 28/7/1945, Vol.87, p. 367) with the coloured ruboleum floor tiles (IA, vol. 140, 1998) in some areas and terrazzo, in three tints of marble, in other circulation areas (IB, 28/7/1945, Vol. 87, p. 367). The walls and ceiling were finished in cream-coloured plaster. The traffic counters would have looked rich, against the lightness of the walls, in walnut and sycamore. Internal window boxes cleverly concealed copper rain water pipes while also providing a decorative feature, and were filled with geraniums (BQ, OPW, 42917).
The carpets were described as ‘distinctive’ by the Irish Builder (IB, Vol. 89, 28/7/1945, p. 374). These were grey with multi coloured discs. This carpet design was used throughout the building but with different colours to match the various schemes of each area. It defined cosy areas like the lounges from the rubber-floored circulation areas. The curtains were similarly multi-coloured to tie in with the different colour schemes. The lounge had easy chairs and coffee tables arranged in an informal manner. There were club chairs mixed with lounge-type chairs with backs at a steep recline facing the sky, through the enormous ‘french’ windows with billowing curtains. Throughout the building the decorative quality of light was played with, concealing it and creating a theatrical atmosphere, so that the visitors must have felt as though they had walked onto a film set. Uplighters were used throughout the public areas of the building which projected big discs of soft glowing light onto the ceilings (IA, 9/1998, vol. 140).
Via the staircase to the south, the visitors would reach the first floor restaurant. It was decorated in tones of pale blue and cream, although the Irish Builder reported that ‘it may be mentioned here that the colour schemes of the rooms throughout the building are varied constantly, thus avoiding any sense of monotony’ (IB, Vol. 89, 28/7/1945, p. 376). The facings to the radiator casings in the conference room and restaurant were all of polished ebonised mahogany and here again featured a polished ebonised mahogany deep cill (BQ, OPW, 42917).
A description in the Architectural Review of 1932 of the Daily Express Building by Serge Chermayeff describes bronze handrails and a curved staircase tiled in terrazzo. The writer describes it as ‘refreshing after the ever recurring stodge, as is spring salad after a protracted diet of boiled beef and all its ghastly accessories’ (AR, Vol. 79, 7/1932, p. 3-12). This conveys the contrast in the appearance of the new style of the 1930s with what had preceded it. New works at Claridges Hotel are also reported on in the same feature, bearing similar details to Dublin Airport’s interior – Travertine floor, glass bowls with concealed lighting on ebonised mahogany pedestals (AR, Vol. 79, 7/1932, p.19).
An examination of the interior details of the airport really imparts an idea of it as a spectacle, which drew visitors as if it were a bright shining beacon of modernity. As well as drawing crowds to witness newly acquired aircraft, it was also the place for spotting international celebrities who came to Ireland to promote films or for charity works. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the first state visits were made – the King of Denmark visited in 1949 to great excitement, but celebrities like Judy Garland in 1949, Grace Kelly in the 1950s (who later made an official state visit with her husband in 1961), Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in the 1960s, added to the glamorous spectacle.
(the photos were sourced from the Irish Independent Newspaper Archives, Hugh Oram’s Dublin Airport, The History (1990) and the Irish Builder & Engineer, 1945).