Dublin by Night (in the 1930s)

The Dazzling Metropolis

I have been noticing little bits of neon around the city lately (normally in interiors) and it is funny that neon can be both retro and modern at the same time. In the 1930s there was so much neon in Dublin that some ‘people of taste’ took a dislike to it and complained bitterly in, for example, the architectural paper the Irish Builder and Engineer. They thought it to be vulgar, flashy, debased. It seemed symptomatic to them of a general malaise in the modern world which they believed was turning their art into no more than a crude advertising medium! I can understand their viewpoint, as they may have come from an Arts and Crafts background and believed that the substance of their art was being eroded in the face of new forms of materialistic commercialism. It was an attitude which also reflected a wariness about the ‘new leisure’ (as discussed in previous posts) and the threat it seemed to pose to traditional social and cultural structures. I found this quote I had noted down from Robert Pattison’s book The Triumph of Vulgarity (1987) in which he says the arrival of popular mass culture was ‘not the extermination of elite culture but the reinvention of it in a popular mode’. Some welcomed this change – others didn’t!

A few 1930s contributors to the Irish Builder appreciated the glamorous and painterly, transformative qualities of the new lighting. It was a complement to the increased technological and social modernity of the city. They commented on the way it brightened up the streetscape and turned the capital into something like an international metropolis by night! I particularly love this description of the city, written in 1933 – it is extremely evocative:

Dublin is not generally recognised as a city of factories, but rather as a centre of that culture which delights in leisureliness, and aestheticism. Yet, at certain hours of the day it changes its role, and becomes, for a few minutes a pocket Pittsburg, Cincinnati or Chicago. Steam whistles blow, sirens shriek and hooters wail (Anon, 1933, ‘The Daily Hoot’ in the Irish Builder‘s ‘News and Views’ column, 17th June, p. 521).

I always think about this when I go for a walk on the Great South Wall at twilight: looking back you can see the spectacle of the port of Dublin, chimneys billowing steam, ferries arriving, aeroplanes landing or departing, lights blinking. I imagine how it was for the writer-architect (and the general public) experiencing this brave new world of modern travel and commerce in the 1930s.

Night Architecture

The razzmatazz of the city was really enhanced by the presence of new cinema buildings which glowed at night, advertising themselves with neon signage and concealed lighting. Other modern buildings such as petrol stations and road houses (or motor hotels) also advertised their presence with clever lighting, disparagingly described as ‘speculative ventures’ designed to ‘catch the eye of the passing motorist’ in Architectural Review (Anon, 1938, p. 288). The English art and architecture critic Philip Mortan Shand coined the term ‘Night Architecture’ to describe cinemas, which epitomised a certain type of showy modern building which slept during the day and came to life at night (in The Architecture of Pleasure: Modern Cinemas and Theatres, 1930).

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The Capitol Cinema, Dublin, Prince’s Street, 1953 (https://twitter.com/irishcinema50s)

The cover of the pamphlet Dublin By Day and By Night (1939) (a guide to the city’s night-time attractions) shows a glamorous Dublin City bathed in neon light and colour. The illustration shows how lighting at night-time transformed the landscape and turned the city into a leisure magnet. The image depicts the heavy presence of electric signage in the city, with an emphasis on glamour; on the other hand, Manning Robertson’s A Cautionary Guide to Dublin (1933) had included a satirical illustration of the scene from this same vantage point, with exaggerated signage, but from a negative perspective. Neon signage was the most criticised form of the new lighting and was described in articles such as ‘Neon Signs – How They May Charm or Repel’ in the Irish Builder (Anon (b) 1937, p. 26). However, the author emphasised that ‘We are not one of those who see nothing but garish vulgarity in the new brightness of city streets when contrasted with the drab gloom of pre-neon winter nights’, although he described its:

obtrusiveness – the almost brutal, relentless and unceasing assault upon delicate sensibilities […] Nevertheless, the illuminated fascias, the outlines, scrolls, squiggles and geometrical designs in simple lines of purely beautiful colours, viewed against a black background of sky or building should check the too hastily universal disapproval of this new advertising prince (Anon, 1937, p. 288).

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Dublin By Day and By Night (1939) – A pamphlet advertising the attractions of the city. Note the neon style typography on the cover!

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Architect Manning Durdin Robertson’s book (with the RIAI) A Cautionary Guide to Dublin (1933). This was a book compiled to promote a responsible approach to planning.

Lighting the Way

New building types in the developing suburbs, like petrol stations and roadhouses (such as the one in Crumlin, described in a previous post),  represented the only bright lights in the suburban landscape – according to the Irish Builder even O’Connell Street in Dublin was only fully illuminated in 1937, at which event it was described as ‘The Great White Way’, after New York’s illuminated Broadway (Anon, 1938, p. 1079). These buildings capitalised on the opportunity to attract traffic like a beacon in the darkness. The new technique of floodlighting was used, and in the roadhouse in Crumlin it was concealed at the base of the building behind a privet hedge. Floodlighting was the nighttime feature par excellence of Charles Holden’s London Underground Stations of the 1930s, and the new Osira floodlighting bulbs were advertised in the Irish Builder.

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The Great White Way – BROADWAY!!!!!! By night it looked like a collage of 2-dimensional advertisements, like a stage set. The buildings have disolved into the background. Where does the sky end and the street begin? It’s a very disorientating effect.

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O’Connell Street, Dublin – this looks like early 1930s, perhaps when the first electric street lamps were erected (https://twitter.com/dubcivictrust/status/933147808550522880)?

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O’Connell Street Dublin – I think the exciting searchlights might have been for the Eucharistic Congress but that happened as early as 1932! The Players sign is really well done! I bet it was admired and loathed in equal measure.

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Charles Holden’s Southgate Station – it even has a light beacon which looks like an electrical transformer component on its roof (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/gallery/2009/oct/15/art-deco-icons).

While night architecture may have been admired in Berlin and Paris, it seems that in Dublin it was not wholly embraced.  In an article in the Irish Builder with a section titled ‘Jazz Advertising’, the writer – ‘A Spectator’ – referred to ‘neon and other handmaids of commerce’:

I am told that modern commerce demands many forms of aesthetic outrage […] I am loth to sacrifice civic beauty at the shrine of Ardnacrusha! […] I share the dread that our nightly crescendo of “colour-noise” may soon play havoc with our aural and optic nervous systems […] will our City Manager and City Architect kindly take the necessary note? (‘A Spectator’, 1935, p. 1045).

It seems that the output of the Hydroelectric Power Plant (or ‘Shannon Scheme’) in Ardnacrusha, opened in 1929, wasn’t entirely benign!

Hmmm…

What happened to all this jazzy light advertising? I don’t know!

I certainly feel that the decorative lighting experienced by the public in the 1930s was more spectacular and exciting than what we have today. Artificial light was perceived differently in the 1920s and 1930s, though. In that period, because light was considered so luxurious (and it was still expensive, hence also the use of reflective surfaces and light colours in interiors) lighting fixtures tended to focus on the light source itself, shaded by opaque white glass globes, as though it had a certain magic about it. The Bauhaus’s Laszlo Moholy Nagy saw it’s potential as a new art form, and was excited about the use of new plastic glass sheets (plexi-glass, I imagine) which could be curved and bent to refract the light on a surface (see his book ‘The New Vision’ here).

Electric light was like a new material to be played with, just like plate glass, plastic or chromium.

Perhaps the city council actually did listen to the complaints, and conservative ‘good taste’ put an end to the liberal use of light advertising. It might also be that light, as a sort of modern commodity, lost its novelty value and power to intoxicate the senses – and so it was no longer able to command so much attention from the public – or maybe economic problems / issues with upkeep forced its removal. At least today we get to enjoy the extra lights at Christmas!

If you have any interesting examples, or knowledge of 1930s lighting, please share!

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The International Style and Glamour of Dublin Airport, designed in the 1930s.

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

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.

Birmingham Airport, Norman & Dawbarn, 1937-38.

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Dublin Airport, airfield side.

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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).

airport 3

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.

snowcrete 

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.

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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).

window

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.

stairs

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).restaurant

Colour Scheme

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).

Refreshing Modernity

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).

‘Building a Model World’

This blog post will look at a display of utopian thinking by Irish architects towards the close of the Second World War (or ‘The Emergency’ as it was also known in neutral Ireland). Some of this focused on the new phenomenon of universal paid holidays or, what was in essence, the democratisation of leisure. The ‘New Leisure’, as it was described in contemporary publications, necessitated the design of new types of leisure venues – aimed at the masses rather than the ‘leisure class’ (see the previous posts on swimming pools and holiday camps). The resultant buildings tended to evoke associations with modernity and progress in their eschewing of traditional styles of building – associated with conventional ideas of class and hierarchy – in favour of modern international approaches to architecture. For younger architects in particular, modern architecture was the solution to addressing this social need and they promoted it in public ways through exhibitions, such as the one which will be described here, as well as in journals.

The National Planning Exhibition was held from April to May of 1944 in the Mansion House in Dublin. The exhibition was organised by the Architectural Association of Ireland, with architect Noel Moffett leading the endeavour, and was part of the National Planning Conference, presided over by planner and architect Manning Durdin Robertson. The proposals made at the exhibition included sites to be developed for holiday camps, hostels and for play centres. Moffett stated in one of the accompanying ‘Reconstruction’ pamphlets that,

One of our greatest needs is for holiday camps. Not a few canvas tents beside a lake – although we need them too – but a planned camp, with well-designed, comfortable buildings, where people who live under appalling conditions in the slums of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Waterford, can come and spend a few weeks in a holiday environment, cheaply and easily. We want camps for people who cannot afford hotels. Camps of this kind, by the sea or on an inland lake, can be beautiful to look at and cheap to build, if modern building methods and materials are employed (NLI. p.1292).

The urgency in Moffet’s plea for holiday camps came from this desire to improve the health and wellbeing of the general population, using the new architecture and new methods of planning to materialise that ambition. Images which were featured in the Irish Times, in anticipation of the exhibition, showed architects labouring over scale models – the article was called ‘Building a Model World’. The article previewed the exhibition as though it were an exciting event, asking ‘What will the world of the future be like? Will it be a streamlined concrete and glass affair?’ and promising that ‘holiday makers are not forgotten’, showing photographs of models for a holiday camp with bathing pool at Kiliney, County Dublin, and a hostel for Glenmalure by Robin Walker and Albert Bradley. The holiday camp model was portrayed in the images from an aerial viewpoint probably because of its scale, but there was also a fascination with new methods of aerial photography in this period. According to Alexandra Harris (in Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination), a new generation of British artists believed that the work of the ordnance survey commission represented a new art form (Harris, 2010, p. 26). It influenced the work of John Piper and John Betjeman, in particular, who provided photographs and text for Shell’s travel guides (Ibid).

 

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Margot Moffet with a model of a junior school. Source: Irish Times, April 15th 1944, p. 1.

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Robin Walker and Albert Bradley with their model for a youth hostel in Glenmalure. Source: Irish Times, April 15th 1944, p. 1

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Proposal for a surreal looking holiday camp in Kiliney, County Dublin. Source: Irish Times, April 15th 1944, p. 1

I was excited to see photographs of the centrepiece of this exhibition because it immediately reminded me of the famous 1939 New York World’s Fair ‘Futurama’ installation by General Motors, structurally and conceptually. Taking advantage of the space in the Round Room of the Mansion House, the Planning Exhibition’s viewing platform circled an interactive map of Ireland with coloured lighting illustrating plans for the future. A reporter for the Irish Times reported ahead of its opening that:

The centre piece alone leaves the World’s Fair trailing […] a map of Ireland built in plaster of Paris. It will be honeycombed with coloured lights, neon tubes and flashing glass recesses.

The map of Ireland was shown as the island in total, blinking with lights to give the impression of interconnectedness as well as self-sufficiency. The circular centrepiece was approached via a sloping path, surrounded by murals. At the finale of the exhibition visitors were faced with motivational slogans and a mirror in which they saw themselves: ‘finally they meet a huge mirror, in big letters, is written: “And here is the man to do it”. The visitor looks at himself. He looks at the slogan. He gets it’, ‘Quidnunc’ reported (p.3). Very inspirational stuff – straight to the point!

 

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The National Planning Exhibition, 1944 (from The Irish Builder and Engineer, 1944)

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General Motors’ ‘Futurama’ at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

The Irish Builder’s reporter at the event seemed slightly incredulous at the scope of it. ‘Thousands’ of visitors were described as winding their way through a ‘maze of pictorial suggestions’ (he seemed to suggest it was overly complicated and disorientating) until they arrived at the central illuminated map. The journal reported that Richard Orpen Junior, J. C. Costello, C. J. Buckley and Miceal Costello took turns speaking at the microphone and operating the switchboard, illuminating the relevant parts of the map as they referred to reforestation plans, youth hostel and health centre construction, proposed leisure resorts, highways and even proposed locations for additional airports, to connect with the Continent and North America. Of hostels they suggested that ‘we shall need to see a considerable extension of the number’.

Planning is Everyone’s Business!

Something which really interests me about the early days of professional planning in the Free State was the push to make the public ‘planning-minded’. Quite rightly, architects and planners believed that if the public became educated about their built environment, and could be encouraged to take an interest in it, then they would demand ‘good’ design and would turn to professional architects to provide their homes and businesses. This was also the motivation for the BBC’s programmes in the 1930s which focused on educating the masses in matters architectural; they even held events in public houses where patrons listened to the programmes and then participated in surveys! This is detailed in Shundana Yusaf’s book Broadcasting Buildings: Architecture on the Wireless, 1927 – 1945 (2014). The theme of the exhibition was ‘Planning is Everyone’s Business’. However, some authority figures were uncomfortable with this level of interference in social matters. The exhibition was criticised by Sean McEntee, T.D., for example who inferred that all of this planning stuff was reminiscent of fascism or communism. He described planning as being dangerously restrictive to the human being and divisive to the population. He imagined a situation evolving where planners would stand in opposition to ‘the serfs of the plan’ (Anon, 1944, p. 1). The reporter for the Irish Times hit back at these comments, writing that,

the Irishman’s mind has been hardened during the last few years […] he no longer permits an obvious reform to be damned by the labels “Fascist”, or “Communist”, or even “Laissez faire”, or “un-Irish” (Anon, 1944, p. 1).

At a time when there was a fascination with air travel (the war did not seem to deplete this fascination with the glamour of flying) the mass public flocked to the new Collinstown (Dublin) Airport to wave at aeroplanes from its open terraces. This exhibition gave the visitors a novel aerial viewpoint of their own country, which would encourage them to think about the concept of planning in a holistic way. In its evocation of The World’s Fair’s Futurama it also invited the audience to imagine they were looking into a possible future, and it showcased the essential role of architects and their dedication to the creation of this ‘Model World’.

Mural paintings of the Art Deco-ish era.

This post is slightly different to my usual ones as it is more related to my mainstream research! I normally use this blog for material that I didn’t get to use in my phd studies (the things that would come back with the comment ‘is this really necessary?’). Well, this section actually is related to my research project, but some of it might still get the chop!

I realised that there is something exciting about mural painting in interior design while I was exploring leisure buildings in the era of 1920-1950. They interest me because at first they struck me as a very dated concept, as you don’t really see them in contemporary buildings, and they seemed sort of out of place. Once I got used to finding them in leisure buildings of that era, I realised that they added to the glamour and razzle-dazzle of the venues. They were the work of artists, and they reflected what was happening socially as well as artistically at the time. ‘Mural painting was an art with something to say’ – appreciated in public buildings for its didactic function, or for offering escapism, creating an air of spirituality – it was the ‘artistic genius unleashed’ (according to mural historian Claire Willsdon, 2000, p. 3). see also the murals of Diego Rivera . In the examples included in this post, the murals were situated in bars and / or restaurants.

In Britain, there are great examples of this exotic, uplifting sort of work. I love Eric Ravilious’s famous and strange mural for the Morecambe Hotel in Lancashire (it only lasted for two years – English Lakes Blog). It was created in 1933 and it is surrealist looking, fantastical, other worldly. It is a strange architectural fantasy which seems to reinterpret the contemporary fashionable ‘lido’ scene, in a modern neo-classical/art deco fashion. Apparently the artist and his wife disliked the new art deco style hotel which was built to attract American tourists. I wonder are the strangely two dimensional buildings in the painting a statement on the shallow materialism of the hotel’s purpose? It reminds me of film stage sets of the period, such as the unsettling British film The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948), which in itself is a surrealist film. In this era there was a strand of surrealist art and design which ran parallel to the functional modernist approach, which seems now like a sort of hegemonic juggernaut which pushed everything else to the sidelines. In architecture there are many examples of other creative approaches to the question of the ‘future of architecture’. Apart from, for example, the mathematician Buckminster Fuller’s (1895 – 1983) geodesic domes, Dymaxion houses and car (Buckminster Fuller Institute), Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867-1959) organic and, I think, futuristic (not futurist) work (Frank Lloyd Wright Trust), there was Frederick Keisler’s (1890-1965) organic interiors and ‘Endless House’ designs (MOMA) . In fashion, surrealist designer Elsa Schiaperelli (Italian, 1890-1973) seemed to be the counterpoint to the more modernist Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. She famously collaborated with Salvador Dali (Fashion meets surrealism). (I just this week discovered that Chanel also collaborated with Dali on the costumes for a ballet called Bacchanale!).

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Mural in the Rotunda of the Midland Hotel in Morecombe, U.K. by Eric Ravilious, created in 1933.

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Eric and Tirzah Ravilious painting their mural.

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The Red Shoes – Moira Shearer in Powell & Pressburger’s surrealist 1948 film based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson.

The use of wall painting in interior design also fitted within the innovative developments in bright and colourful wall treatments of the jazz age, when gilding, stucco work and coloured plastics all blended with decorative lighting to spectacular effect.

Rex Whistler’s (1905-1944) mural in the restaurant of Tate Britain in London is pure magic. Created between 1926 and 1927 (possibly 1930) its subject is ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ and it features whimsical architecture and leaping animals against a bucolic backdrop, lighting up the basement room. Alexandra Harris describes it as a ‘subterranean wonderland’ (in Romantic Moderns, 2015, p. 76). Some say that the subject concerns the artist’s pursuit of mural commissions! It was a state-sponsored scheme and it was hoped that it would encourage other catering companies to commission murals from young artists. Whistler is remembered particularly as a mural artist, he gained a number of wealthy patrons who commissioned murals from him for their country estates. Although he was a great artist he was described as a ‘decorative painter’. Mural historian Claire Willsdon writes that his style stood in contrast to what had until then been a ‘British school at Rome’ style, in the vein of Piero della Francesca (p. 369, 2000).

 

Rex Whistler's mural 'The Pursuit of Rare Meats' from the Tate Britain Restaurant, London (1926-7).

Rex Whistler’s mural ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ from the Tate Britain Restaurant, London (1926-7).

 

Rex Whistler's mural 'The Pursuit of Rare Meats' from the Tate Britain Restaurant, London (1926-7).

Close-up on a unicorn from the mural

In Ireland, the Dolphin Bar (designed by James Brennan, 1939) on Essex Street Dublin featured a mural around the perimeter of the bar, depicting horse racing. The photograph seems to portray quite a sophisticated and glamorous venue, in what was often referred to as an ‘American Bar’ style. The paintings look odd in a modern context but they appear to have added a further architectural / visual dimension. A railway buffet in Bray County Wicklow, built in 1935 and now a gastro-pub (see photo here), had the walls of its upstairs club-style lounge painted to represent ‘the sea…tinged with the glow of the sunset…to excellent effect’ (Irish Builder and Engineer, 1935). It also featured wall-mounted seagulls in plasterwork – unfortunately I don’t have a photograph of the upper floor. Lots of cinema auditoria also featured ceilings painted as skies, it seems to have been a bit of a convention in the 1930s.

The Dolphin Bar Essex Street Dublin (1939). Image from Sean Rothery's Ireland and the New Architecture, 1991.

The Dolphin Bar Essex Street Dublin (1939). Image from Sean Rothery’s Ireland and the New Architecture, 1991.

 

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Photographs of the interior of the Railway Buffet in Bray, featured in the Irish Builder in 1935 (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin Department of Early Printed Books).

 

Like the Dolphin Bar, Butlin’s Mosney Holiday Village (1948) featured painted murals in its American Bar. This was a cocktail bar with chromed tubular steel furniture, a terrazzo floor, concealed ceiling lighting and back-lit glass block panels. It looked very modern and glamorous, and the inclusion of mural paintings would at first seem at odds with this streamlined sophistication. The paintings seemed to depict folkish scenes, people dancing, working in the fields etc. Former Redcoats (who worked in Mosney in the 1950s) to which I showed this image of the bar and its paintings were puzzled by it, and could not remember the murals which of course now appeared so out of place amidst the modern decor! Willsdon writes, in her study on mural painting in Britain, from 1840-1940, that murals depicting the countryside, traditional activities and archaeology were popular in the 1930s, coinciding with the rural preservation movement and the use of motorcar, bus and train to explore remote, scenic areas (2000, p. 295).

 

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American Bar, Mosney Holiday Village County Meath, ca. 1948 (Architect: L. H. Fewster & Partners, London; Irish Consulting Architect: J. J. Robinson of Robinson & Keefe).

 

As these were painted in the post-war era the content of the mural is also not altogether surprising, as interior design historians Anne Bony (Furniture and Interiors of the 1940s, 2003) and Stephen Calloway (Twentieth Century Decoration, 1988) have noted the prominence of folk elements in design in this period. People wanted comforting images related to their homeland, and to vernacular design and tradition. Blended with the modern styling of the furniture and finishes in the American Bar, the mural begins to make sense in this context. Apparently many visitors to Mosney were from the country, too, so they may have appreciated such homages to traditional customs.

Another location where a mural depicting a scene from the past seems striking, was in one of the new ‘Roadhouse’ building typologies, this one in Crumlin in Dublin (opened 1948). The building has disappeared beneath a newer super-bar type development and I haven’t found any images of the mural unfortunately! It was apparently a representation of ‘The Chase’ (of the Gilla Dacar), an Irish legend of the Fianna (see Project Gutenberg eBook). This, in the context of a bar designed around the modern technology of motor travel, along a new ‘highway’, is sort of charming. The building itself looked like a lot of the U.K. specially designed roadhouse buildings – in the modern style. Roadhouses did however often excel in blending countryside vernacular with International Style modernism and art deco – it suited their locations on the intersections of new arteries on the periphery of cities, in the new suburbs, the liminal area between city and country. They offered a taste of urban glitter for country people and a breath of fresh air for city dwellers. Some descriptions of roadhouse interiors in 1930s British architectural journals are really evocative of the visual culture of their time. One example, the Comet, was described in Architects’ Journal in 1937. It featured lots of 1930s whimsy; the balustrade of the stairs featured motifs of stars and moons, the walls were painted ‘shell pink’, the restaurant featured mirror tiles with aeroplanes and their smoke trails etched in the peach-tinted glass. The carpet was zebra-patterned in brown and dull gold. The sitting rooms had floor to ceiling silver-gilt panels and a turquoise carpet. The entrance (to what the writer described as a ‘Road Hotel’) was in stippled plastic paint with ‘rounded angles everywhere’ – streamlining – with a floor and staircase in terrazzo of a light buff colour mixed with mother of pearl. The etching of glass has been described as typically characteristic of the art deco era, when industrial methods transformed traditional materials, and was found in decorative objects as well as sliding glass screens. See Lucy Fischer’s Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco and the Female Form in which she describes art deco as merging craft with technology, and artisanship with mass production ( 2003, p. 15 ).

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Image from the RIBA photo library which describes this as the first class sitting-room in The Comet ‘Hotel’, 1937. The etched figures are visible in the glass surrounding the door.

 

Roadhouses were normally frequented at night and there are fantastic videos on British Pathe showing a couple of them in England (The Ace of Spades 1933 Swimming Pool  The Ace of Spades 1933 interior The Showboat 1933 ). The roadhouse in Crumlin (a new Dublin suburb) also contained a circular stained glass window by Stanley Tomlin, which was another traditional if not spiritual touch, in a building which was designed for frivolity and modernity and which hinted at the formal characteristics of an ocean liner.

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Roadhouse & Residence, Crumlin, Dublin. T. P. Kennedy & Dermot O’Toole (ca. 1948)

 

In parallel to the folkish trend, there was a desire for fantasy and escapist decorative design – which the surrealist elements found in much interior design of the period addressed. Beavis Hillier also noted the remarkable popularity, in this era, of seaside iconography – particularly oyster shells, mermaids and dolphins which featured as murals and graphic design, as well as objects associated with flight such as Victorian hot air balloons and classical icons such as the winged Pegasus which he believes were a result of the restoration of safety to the seas and air after the war. The ballroom in Butlin’s Mosney was decorated with dolphin murals and the house band played against a backdrop of backlit giant oyster shell!

 

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Cropped postcard showing The Ballroom, with an orchestra revealed against an oyster shell, Mosney (John Hinde Studios), ca. 1960.

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The Ballroom, Mosney featured in Butlin’s News (Mosney edition), 1960, p. 6 (courtesy of Jane Leslie & http://www.butlinsmemories.com).

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Postcard showing The Ballroom, Butlin’s Mosney, ca. 1950 (Source: http://www.Flickr.com).

 

Murals are quite an ephemeral aspect of architectural design and seeing them or reading about their existence in building types which themselves are long lost / forgotten about is sort of thrilling for me! Somehow the building types are no longer relevant, which means that we are lucky if their facades remain, and their interiors have long since disappeared. They can usually only be imagined from old newspaper and periodical reports which occasionally included photographs. American bars, holiday camps, buffets, roadhouses – and their quirky internationalist / folkish interiors!

 

‘The Vanity Box’ – a vivid spectrum of make-up and clothing in Ireland in the twenties and thirties.

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A surprising revelation when reading this Irish periodical was the daringly vivid array of colour available in the make-up of the era. ‘The Vanity Box’ column in Irish Tatler and Sketch drew readers’ attention to such gems as red or ‘absinthe green’ eyeshadow, worn with blue mascara, in April 1932. It is so frustrating that this contemporary eccentricity was not captured on coloured film! Of course, film stars wore extremely strange makeup to highlight their features on black and white film, particularly for the blue-sensitive film of the early 1920s. For example, a yellow-hued foundation was employed as it would read as a clear and bright skin tone, and this was combined with lavender-hued contouring as this would read as a darker grey. A website on the subject (www.cosmeticsandskin.com) quotes from a 1930 guide to the new panchromatic movie make-up by make-up artist to the stars, Max Factor:

‘Formerly grease-paints of intense colours, especially rich, bright yellows and vivid greens, were employed to give the desired effects. It has been found, however, as might be expected on theoretical grounds, that with the introduction of panchromatic films and improved forms of lighting, softer tones of yellowish or brownish flesh-coloured grease-paints give much better and more natural-looking results. There is, in consequence, a tendency nowadays towards the use of more natural flesh tints than those amazing yellows and greens which made the movie studios of yesterday appear such queer, ghost-haunted places.’ (Redgrove & Foan, 1930, p. 149).

So, perhaps many of these innovative colours which emerged in mainstream make-up developed in synchronicity with the technical requirements of the movie industry. In the 1920s Max Factor introduced a brand called ‘Society Make Up’ to compensate for the association make-up had historically with the vulgarity of the stage and music hall (see the book Max Factor and Hollywood: A Glamorous History by Erika Thomas, 2016, p. 51). He began to market his product alongside the current movie releases, which ensured his make-up’s popularity as it was endorsed by the iconic stars of the day. A website on the subject of 1930s clothing and make-up provides some illustrations which were featured in make-up guides of the 1930s: http://vintagedancer.com. There is also a 1937 short film available on Youtube which shows film star Constance Bennett (mentioned in the blog post ‘Hollywood from Within’) giving beauty tips! See Vintage 1930s Makeup & Skincare Guide  posted by Glamourdaze.

To Tan or Not to Tan?

Coco Chanel famously popularised the tan in the mid-1920s (see  A Short History of Tanning), and it became a prestigious sign that one could afford to spend one’s vacation on the Riviera, lounging by the beach, rather than partaking of the ‘cure’ in an indoor spa. However, in contrast, in 1931 ‘The Vanity Box’ column reported on ‘How to Achieve the Fashionable Complexion’ – which was apparently as white as one could manage! The article included a recipe for whitening summer-tanned skin, which included magnesia, lemon juice, egg-white and the advice to avoid eating too much meat and not to drink coffee. It recommended that women should use a ‘pale pinky-toned’ powder, and ‘a slight touch of eye-shade is now included in a daytime “make-up”‘ (September, p. 24). In a later article it also advised on the ‘Best means of whitening the arms’ which was to apply a whitening paste at night, and then to wrap the arms in bandages, promising that ‘in a few weeks your arms should be milky white and as soft as velvet’ (p. 31). The wan appearance of the consumptive had been a fashionably romantic look in the previous century, while it had always been more acceptable for the upper classes to display their leisurely lifestyle with pale and delicate skin.

This contrary fashion for a pale look may also have reflected the white-skinned look of the Hollywood film star, as well as the vamp-ish It Girl look of those whose lives revolved around the social night time scene, such as actress/It Girl Brenda Dean Paul who reportedly survived on brandy cocktails and salted nuts for years. A fun episode of the BBC series ‘Back in Time for Dinner’ which focused on the 1920s, also portrayed the prominence of alcohol at a typical social event, in which food was relegated to the sidelines, dinner appearing in the form of tiny cocktail sandwiches and nuts. This was a complete reversal of the abundant display of food as a sign of social standing at dinners in previous decades. A regular column in Irish Tatler called ‘The Ideascope’ reported in 1932 on ‘Snacks at all Hours’, and the popularity of ‘snacks and sandwich bars at restaurants’ to supply the people emerging from ‘cocktail parties which last almost up to the time of the “big film”‘ (July 1932, p. 19). The inter-war years saw a carefree attitude (on the part of the middle and upper classes) in which people lived in the moment, trying to forget the shadows of war, wealthy young people living at a dizzying pace – described brilliantly in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies in which he refers to them as the Bright Young People (1930). One of the characters of that book – Agatha Runcible (based on society flapper Elizabeth Ponsenby) – suffers a nervous breakdown, repeatedly uttering the words ‘faster, faster!’ until she ultimately expires (Penguin 1980 edition, p. 200).

Colour combinations in day-wear

Apart from make-up looks, clothing was colourful too – in an article in 1932 ‘The Lady of the House’ describes some fantastic colour combinations, such as lemon yellow worn with soft orange; brown with orange accessories, or a jumper in emerald green and yellow worn under a brown coat. Wine-reds, coral-reds, rose-reds and deep dark red, as well as bright scarlet, were all fashionable hues. With the darker reds, it was reported that, ‘you can combine a dull gold shade or a light touch of olive green would be unusual’ (unusual is good!). Scarlet blends well with either off-white ‘or the new skipper-blue’, while there was a shade of deep red which looked good with purple! ‘Wear purple if you have dark brown hair, wear with a narrow orange and white belt or one in pumpkin-yellow’ (May 1932, p. 18). I like the way colours tended to be described in this evocative manner – presumably because any images provided were by necessity limited to black and white.

Oh how I love finding references like these in the writing of the period! While we might imagine the 1920s and 1930s in black and white, there was actually a lot of experimentation with colour and pattern. It reminds me of references I have seen to coloured wig powders used in the eighteenth century – purple, green, red! It all seems pretty daring really. Why don’t we all use more colour, and walk around looking as vibrant as birds with colourful plumage!

‘Hollywood from Within’ – making sirens of Irish women in the early 1930s.

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‘The Lady of the House’ column, article titled ‘Fashions of the Hour’ (Irish Tatler and Sketch 1931)

 

This post will look at the way in which women in Ireland were influenced by the stars of the silver screen in the 1920s and 1930s. It shows how film stars were portrayed as exemplars or models which could be readily emulated. However, it also presents evidence of an uneasy recognition of the loss of individuality in the midst of new mass media devices, and the way in which distinction was encouraged, within particular parameters. In this period of ‘flux’ between the wars, the lighthearted, fashion-focused commentary of a women’s periodical mirrored social ideas which were current at the time.

‘Copying from the famous’ (from ‘The Vanity Box’, Irish Tatler and Sketch, September 1931).

In ‘The Vanity Box’ in September 1931 the author pondered upon the theme of women and their individuality (expressed through fashion, of course): ‘Women as a whole do not take the trouble to discover themselves. Looking round in any public place, it is possible, in a twinkling, to recognise a dozen familiar types, all copied from the famous, utterly lacking in individuality’ (p. 24).

The author noticed something which was a symptom of modern culture, in the repetition of patterns not only of dress but even ways of walking and talking. Behaviours were quickly evolving through exposure en-masse to the most popular of the era’s entertainments: the cinema. Contemporary social theorists criticised what they saw as the gullibility of the masses, and feared that the public were vulnerable to manipulation, and that they were content in their oblivion. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis film (1927) the loss of individuality in relation to factory work conditions (in a dystopian future) is represented in the juxtaposition of humans with machines – they blend with the infrastructure and lose their individuality, becoming machine-like in their movements, mere mechanical components.

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Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927.

It’s also a feature of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). These films (or at least scenes from them) can be watched on Youtube. Critical theorist Siegfried Kracauer described the phenomenon of people carrying out synchronised activities en-masse as the ‘mass ornament’, using the dance troupe The Tiller Girls as an example (as well as referring to military parades).

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This visual effect is particularly evident in the films of Busby Berkeley (fantastic clips available on youtube). The effect of numerous people acting out perfectly synchronised and choreographed movements produces a spectacle which is naturally impressive to the eye (such regularity of pattern naturally stands out against the apparent chaos of nature) and the audience loses itself in the moment.

Although these ideas related more to the ‘worker’ rather than to the upper-middle and upper class readers of the Irish Tatler & Sketch , it was a phenomenon of the visual culture of the era.

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Busby Berkeley dance number, 1930s.

Distinction within the mass ornament.

In October 1931 the periodical advised that ‘Distinction is the smart thing to attain. If your profile is more interesting with your hair worn off the forehead, if it gives you that carved-out-of-marble look, then wear it like that. The courage to look distinguished rather than merely pretty is modern’ (‘The Vanity Box’, p. 26).

Greta Garbo epitomised this new trend for a distinctive look. She had an almost masculine quality and tended to avoid delicate feminine clothing in real life. Like Marlene Dietrich, she looked impressive in athletic leisure wear and masculine suits. When these Europen actresses spoke in early talkies their accents emphasised their exoticness. Dietrich reached international stardom in The Blue Angel in 1930 and Garbo’s first sound film was Anna Christie, also in 1930, promoted with the slogan ‘Garbo Talks!’

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Greta Garbo in her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930). Known as ‘The Whiskey Scene’, this was when audiences first heard her distinctive voice, and loved it!

 

While  Irish Tatler satisfied their audience with illustrations and photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo (women were invited to choose their model), the writer of this column encouraged readers to find their own identity – within that typological range presumably. There really was ample scope for personal expression at the time, though, with many styles of patterned textiles and lots of exuberant and vibrant colour in clothing and makeup (post on make-up to follow). However, fashion, like modern architecture, was now available in the form of mass produced articles of ‘ready to wear’ and, just like the idea of type-form in architecture, clothing styles were advertised as ‘models’. This 1930s advertisement from the British department store Debenhams shows an example of ‘A Model Tea Gown’ – model meaning standard ‘type’ as well as a reference to an ideal.

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Advertisement for Debenhams department store, 1930s showing ‘A Model Tea Gown’ (myvintagevogue.com).

It was common, in the era of film star mania, to copy costumes from the silver screen. Patterns were available which allowed women to manufacture their own outfits copied from their favourite stars, as well as department stores selling their own copies. The Brown Thomas advertisement below was featured in the Irish film review periodical Talkie Topics in 1932. The department store presents their new ‘Constance Bennet hat’: ‘Neat, chic and up-to-the-minute’, the shop advised customers that it was recommended as a style by Constance Bennet herself so, ‘why not call and try it on yourself?’ After all, she may be a film star but the same style might very well flatter you!

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In advertisement for Brown Thomas asks ‘Have you tried the Constance Bennet hat?’

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Talkie Topics, first edition, March 1931 (edited by Fay Sargent).

A quick look online shows that Constance Bennett was in at least three films released that year: ‘What Price Hollywood’, ‘Two Against the World’ and ‘A Lady with a Past’.

 

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This image is a still taken from her film ‘Two Against the World’ in which she appeared in a fetching close-fitting hat (www.youtube.com)

 

While Irish Tatler assured its readers in February 1931 that ‘Clothes Make the Star!’, indicating that the effect could be created by non-celestial types too, the cinema was being condemned as one of the ‘evils’ of modern times by the catholic church. There is a clear contrast between the concerns of the Tatler’s readers and the way in which the ordinary public were being chastised from on high. Such warnings were a reaction to the public’s incredible appetite for the cinema, which really took off in the 1930s era of the ‘super cinema’ and ‘picture palace’. Although critical theorists also disliked the entertainment or ‘culture’ industry because of its distracting effect on the masses, the cinema was praised by others for broadening people’s minds and helping to modernise their thinking. In a country which officially promoted virtue and traditional values, as a form of national identity, there was wariness around this aspect. An archbishop’s lenten pastoral was reported on in the Irish Independent in 1930 in which he warned young people about the dangers of the cinematograph as well as ‘evil literature’ (the Censorship of Publications Act was introduced in 1929) and dances – even if they were  inoffensive (the Dancehalls Act would be introduced in 1935). He also condemned extravagant spending on ‘luxuries’. Therefore, one can imagine that attempting to emulate one’s favourite international film star in style of dress would be considered almost sinful and unbecoming of an Irish maiden. Although the Irish Tatler was read by a different audience, the same desire to emulate the stars was found across the reading matter of the period.

 

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Irish Independent, 10th March, 1930, page 6 (www.irishnewspaperarchives.com).

 

In 1925 Irish Tatler had referred to the ‘atmosphere of crisis’ in which it said the Irish cinema trade seemed to exist, ‘and since our last issue a cloud appeared on the horizon  on the question of the censorship of films, and dissolved away almost as rapidly as it appeared’, admitting that there could be no reasonable objection to the banning of ‘unhealthy or undesirable films’ but that it would be ‘a great mistake if we allow our insularity to become more insular’ (1925, p. 39). ‘Influence’, it said, should be from ‘the broadest possible principles’ (Ibid). Irish Tatler wasn’t unduly concerned by moral propaganda, it was after all a society paper read by the elites (the leisure class), and it carried on luxuriating in the frivolity of fashion, being rather more concerned about the effect of censorship on culture. Talkie Topics voiced its irritation at the tide of church condemnation of the film industry, while producing articles on the influence of the cinema on interior decoration (to be described in another post).  In December 1931 a feature in Irish Tatler displayed ‘Clothes That Make Sirens of us all’ and in February 1932 a photograph of Greta Garbo was featured, which was headed ‘Garbo’s Evening Ensemble’. In April  the periodical reported in its ‘The Ideascope’ column that the Garbo versus Dietrich ‘controversy’ had decreased in importance, and instead claimed: ‘Blonde or Brunette…this is the new debate’. Such international (rather than nationalist) ideas, although frivolous, were understood by any girl of any social rank who went to the cinema (and they all did).

The fashion pages were fickle! It seems that attempting to emulate a model film star was pointless in the midst of changing tastes. However, readers who followed the advice to develop their individual style could avoid the pitfalls of following fleeting fashions too rigorously. This was a significant concept in an era in which masses of people fell prey to dangerous ideologies like fascism – although the elites were also guilty of following fascism as a form of racial / cultural distinction in order to emphasise their right to power. Although the Irish Tatler and Sketch was generally an irritatingly shallow paper, big ideas were filtered through the articles showing how these significant cultural and social shifts were evident everywhere, if one cared to pay attention.

 

 

 

Lidos in 1930s Dublin? Spas and more.

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Postcard showing Dun Laoghaire Baths, ca. 1933

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Advertisement for Dun Laoghaire Baths, 1927, from the Irish Independent (Irish Newspaper Archive)

 

Dun Laoghaire Baths – what a fantastic amenity this was in its ‘hey-day’.

In the 1930s it seems that Ireland, Britain, the U.S. (and certain totalitarian nations, as well as colonised nations) were gripped by a ‘swimming craze’. Baths had existed in Dun Laoghaire since at least the 18th Century and historically it was one of many therapeutic spa towns in Ireland. People would travel to various towns around the country (and Europe) for ‘the cure’, taking the waters, taking plunge baths and various treatments in ‘slipper baths’ such as hot and cold sea water baths, fresh water, sea weed baths and ‘needle’ baths.

In the twentieth century there was a transformation in the delivery of therapeutic cures – and in the 1930s the Irish government began to provide grants, working with the tourist board, to redevelop Irish spas – both coastal and inland – in the modern manner. For example, Lucan Spa was improved in 1934 by Robinson and Keefe Architects (now known as RKD: Robinson, Keefe and Devane), and it was re-branded as the National Spa. New therapeutic methods were employed which reflected an interest in new technology and the potential for electricity to impart energy to the body. Ultra-violet ray apparatus were popular and modern bathing establishments often incorporated solaria so that people could absorb the vitamin-rich rays in all year round. The sun was the new cure-all, and the sun tan symbolised health and youth; in the 1920s and 1930s there was a bit of an obsession with youthfulness.

 

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Pump Room in the National Spa, Lucan (Robinson and Keefe, 1934).

 

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Photo of a lido with a solarium in England, 1930s.

Fitness booklets began to appear in Ireland, such as Victor Dane’s The Sunlight Cure: How to use the Ultra-Violet Rays (1929). Chapter one is entitled ‘Pigmentation,’ with the subheading: ‘Man’s Skin Should Be Tanned’. These books promoted a reformed, healthy lifestyle which revolved around absorbing the sun’s rays. They were often quite racially fixated too and were influenced by ideas about eugenics (we know how that developed…). They advertised sun ray lamps which could be used in the home, too, and there were claims that ultra-violet light could aid slimming, digestion, as well as prevent and cure tuberculosis, rickets and all manner of other ailments. It is no surprise then that local authorities began to look for ways to encourage the public to expose themselves to the sunlight.

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Artificial Sunlight: Its Use and Application by Vaughan-Cowell (1932) and advertisements featured therein (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).

Artificial Sunlight: Its Use and Application by Vaughan-Cowell (1932) and advertisements featured therein (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).

Modern spas, such as the Hydro in Tramore (by Patrick Sheehan, hospital designer, 1946-8), and the new interior of Lucan Spa,  looked very much like functionalist sanatorium buildings, and often advertised that they had doctors and nurses in attendance. This was a world away from the traditional seaside spa which relied on local fishermen’s wives who would work as washer-women and masseuses and would also ‘duck’ ladies under the cold sea water (wheeled out in a bathing box).

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tramore The Hydro in Tramore, County Waterford, Designed by Patrick Sheehan (1946-8), was constructed with a grant from the tourist board. Top: an advertisement for the facilities; above is an advertisement for steel windows by Smith and Pearson, featured in the Irish Builder and Engineer (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).

 

Advertisements for Dun Laoghaire claimed that it had an exceptional sunshine record – which was a typical ploy to attract tourists – saying that it rivalled Bournemouth and Southport. In 1932 Southport was advertised as the ‘Paris of the North’ and its lido was extremely elaborate (see Janet Smith’s Liquid Assets, 2005, for a case study).

 

dladbracing

Advertisements for spa resorts from 1928, Connaught Tribune, 1928 (Irish Newspaper Archive).

 

Southport: Railway poster from the 1930s depicting its glamorous lido.

Southport: Railway poster from the 1930s depicting its glamorous lido.

 

It was also common to describe holiday resorts in Ireland and Britain as having ‘bracing’ conditions. Bracing sea breezes were promoted as a health tonic, as much as sun (in reality this was probably in short supply).

 

Advertisement for Dun Laoghaire from 1928, Connaught Tribune, 1928 (Irish Newspaper Archive).

Advertisement for Dun Laoghaire from 1928, Connaught Tribune, 1928 (Irish Newspaper Archive).

 

From approximately 1926 to 1935 improvements were carried out at Dun Laoghaire Baths, according to references throughout the period in the Irish Builder and Engineer. In 1933 there was a report in the journal that a new swimming tank was being constructed there. In 1937 a scheme was devised to provide a whole new modern bathing establishment on a par with the ‘super lidos’ of Britain (although in Ireland the term lido was not readily used, in relation to swimming pools, as it seemed a tad vulgar). The new scheme for Dun Laoghaire (to be located in Sandycove more accurately) was to include a solarium in the basement with ultra-violet ray therapy. There also would have been a sun loggia and sun cafe with one side glazed with a folding screen, so that on a sunny day it could be opened up to the open-air. The design for the baths looked really cool in drawing form but I think it would have made a very bad ruin (ie. thank God it wasn’t built).

 

Proposed bathing establishment for Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, featured in the Irish Builder and Engineer, 1938 (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books). The designer, J.R. Boyd Barrett, was the winner of a competition set in 1937.

Proposed bathing establishment for Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, featured in the Irish Builder and Engineer, 1938 (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books). The designer, J.R. Boyd Barrett, was the winner of a competition set in 1937.

 

The existing baths looked very much like many lidos of the period but they were a little small in scale, which just would not do when one was attempting to rival the British and Continental lidos! When compared with British examples the baths clearly fitted within the contemporary typology. For example, pictured on the left is an aerial view of Dun Laoghaire Baths in the 1930s and on the right is an image of Margate’s Cliftonville Lido. Blackrock Baths, further along the coast, was also a historical bathing place, whose baths were updated in 1928, to host the Tailteann Games. The new facility was designed along the lines of a bathing stadium and had a very fetching diving tower (all recently demolished).

 

The war interceded in the ambitious plans for Dun Laoghaire / Sandycove and the £100,000 scheme was never built; after the war the estimated cost had escalated to £160,000.

I think the existing baths would still look extremely attractive if they were restored and returned to their pristine 1930s white stucco. I am quite sure they would be more popular than ever as open-air bathing seems to be enjoying a renaissance. However, apparently they are going to be turned into a cafe and artists’ studios which seems a backward turn in view of the socially democratic emphasis on leisure which produced such resorts in the 1930s. There will be improved access to the sea and facilities for swimmers though, which is a positive change!