I found some pages I had photocopied while doing research from Aviation: The National Air Magazine of Ireland. It’s an evocative and strange little document of a very different time – it was the inter-war years when people who identified as ‘modern’ were excited about new technologies and embraced thrills. The magazine seems to have only been published between 1935 and 1937, reflecting the fast changing time when life was lived in the moment! This was a really exciting time for air travel, when aviation was being developed for civil use and stylish new airport terminals were being built. These new hubs of modernity blended the activity of travelling – done by the wealthy elite – with an experience of accessible luxury for the public, who treated these air-ports as leisure venues. They were designed to be glamorous and internationalist, echoing their liminal nature as portals to other parts of the world. I think it was in 1936 that the first outline designs for Dublin Airport were being done, which itself was considered to be really cutting edge, on a par with any air terminal internationally. It was a real opportunity for Irish architects and the government to put the country on the map and really show what they could do. I wrote an overly long blog post on Dublin Airport previously!

Aviation magazine was all about the thrilling glamour of the new streamlined aeroplanes and the experience of flying them. Sean Lemass (Irish minister for industry and commerce) was represented like a debonair film star in May 1935, as the patron of Irish Aviation Day. He would be instrumental in the development of the Dublin airport project, wanting to see Ireland take its place on the world stage.


Aviation, May 1935, p. 180 (courtesy TCD Library).


The ‘Aviatrix’

The magazine frequently featured women pilots – presumably the magazine had lots of female readers too, as flying was all the rage and it was considered a thrilling – and expensive so therefore elite – sport. I noted when reading it that there were plenty of advertisements aimed at women in the magazine. The ‘Flying Sisters’ below are kitted out in pearls and heels and look achingly cool.


Aviation magazine, 1937.


The images below from Aviation magazine in 1935 show female pilots who were scheduled to participate in displays on Aviation Day. Joan Meakin ‘famous girl glider’ looks impressive, with windswept hair and hands placed casually in her pockets. ‘Lady-like’ protocol could be dispensed with when standing next to your personal aircraft (the magazine described many female pilots as ‘he-women’).



Aviation magazine, 1935.


Aviation magazine, 1935.

Amelia Earhart (American) is perhaps the most iconic among the female pilots of the era. Images of her in her pilot’s costume still look surprisingly modern. Amy Johnson (English) was the first woman to fly solo to Australia in 1930; she crashed and died while in active service during the Second World War in 1941, aged 37. See newsreel footage of her here. But there were Irish women aviators too. One of them, Lady Heath (Sophie Peirce Evans, from County Limerick), is represented in a portrait by John Lavery in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery (1928). The text next to the painting says she was the first person to fly a small open cock-pit plane solo from Cape Town to London.  Apologies for concentrating on her looks (as though ignoring her deeds because she’s a woman!) she cuts a very impressive figure in her pilot’s flight-suit, gloves and goggles. A dash of red lipstick completes her glamorous image. She looks like she’s sitting in the aeroplane, casually leaning on one bent arm – showing off the elbow-high pilot’s gloves – a look of total confidence (or maybe that’s a ‘withering look’) on her face, with a heavily clouded sky in the background. She has no time to waste, she’s ready to lower the goggles and get on with her busy schedule!

An Irish Pilot (Lady Heath) by Sir John Lavery (1928). Hugh Lane Gallery Dublin.

An Irish Pilot (Lady Heath) by Sir John Lavery (1928). Hugh Lane Gallery Dublin.



Amelia Earhart looking very content.



Amy Johnson ‘Queen of the Skies’ in her flight suit (https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/amy-johnsons-birthday/)

Warm clothing was essential as early aeroplanes were very cold, they weren’t pressurised, and apparently there was a sickening smell of fuel. The pathe newsreel footage shows the delicate little aeroplanes wafting in on the air currents and bouncing onto the runway, almost being held down by people on the ground… It would make a good visual metaphor for the giddy uncertainty of the age.


In April 1937, Aviation reported that the ‘Flying Duchess’ (Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford) was missing and that an extensive search by police and airmen was being undertaken. The search had moved from land to sea as part of a plane similar to the one she had been flying in was found on the Norfolk Coast. The magazine listed her ‘recreations apart from flying’ as natural history, fishing, shooting and radiography. She started flying at the age of 62 as she ‘regarded it as the most exhilarating of all sports’ according to the journal (other sources say she started flying at 61). Her death while flying, at age 71, is actually recorded now as March 1937, just a few months before Amelia Earhart went missing. Like Amelia Earhart, the wreckage was never found; she is believed to have gone down over the sea. See some 1930 pathe newsreel footage of the duchess here; she had just flown to Capetown and back (in record time), at the age of 64, and there she is arriving at Croydon airport looking very powerful indeed. Aviation reported that:

‘Aerial acrobatics in no way frightened her, and she delighted in an occasional “spin” or “Immelmann turn.” In Spring of last year she made a trip of 5,500 miles, flying to Paris Biarritz, Madrid, Tangiers, Toulouse, Lyon and back to London. This was her greatest and most thrilling flight.’



Aviation magazine, 1937.

In September 1935 Aviation reported on the ‘Feminine Aspect of Flying’. The article states that of the two thousand licensed (private) pilots in Britain, less than 100 were women and of those that:

‘There is undoubtedly a small section of these whose one ambition for various personal reasons is solely to obtain a pilot’s licence’.

I quite admire their feistiness and willingness to get involved in such a daring pursuit, even if some of them were just doing it for larks and didn’t mean to carry on. The writer speculates that: ‘Of these, about a tenth are acknowledged as worthy of consideration as pilots in the true sense’. Oh well, I thought this would be an uplifting article.

The ‘Moth’ as an alternative to the ‘Model T’?

The article notes that many pilots didn’t renew their licences because there were not enough aerodromes to make it an efficient and reliable form of transport! This ties in with the idea in the 1930s that flying would in the near future become a means of daily transport to and from the office in the city, for example. From the late 1920s there were advertisements for Vulcanite in the Irish Builder and Engineer stating that ‘Flat Roofs will be even more important in the Future’. They typically featured images of a light aircraft landing on a tall flat roofed building.


Vulcanite advertisement from the Irish Builder and Engineer, 1930s.


‘safe, convenient, speedy and economical…’

In 1928 The Irish Builder and Engineer had reported on a lecture at the Dublin Rotary Club by Lady Heath herself.  It was titled ‘Light Aeroplanes’ and she described how flying was ‘now becoming a means possible for the average man or woman and that it is a safe, convenient, speedy and economical method of travel’. She stated, according to the reporter that, an ‘aeroplane or seaplane is as easy to handle as a motor car’ and that ‘Ireland has been designed by nature as a stepping stone between America and Europe’ – certainly  this was the reason for Ireland embracing civil aviation, and that ‘seaplanes are more attractive to the Irish as we are used to the sea’ – there was discussion in the 1930s about whether to build an airport in Dublin for seaplanes or land /airplanes. She advised that the potential of aviation ‘should arouse professional and patriotic pride’. She concluded that ‘what women can do to help aviation men can surely surpass’ – so presumably men should have been doing more! When the Blue Lagoon project was being contemplated for Bull Island at this time (enclosing it to form a marine lake by the sea and creating a vast public playground) the Irish Builder emphasised the importance of incorporating a flying ground, for people to land their ‘busby moths’ while they go to ‘deport themselves’ at aquatic sports. The Irish Aero Club had been established in 1929.


There’s so much to say about aviation in this period and it would take more than a few hours on a Tuesday evening to write about this properly! I think if I was to write a book it could easily be on this topic – it’s fascinating. Other notable Irish female aviators are Eileen Gray (architect / designer) and Lilian Bland (Anglo-Irish) who designed, built and learned to fly her own aeroplane, which she called the Mayfly, in 1911-2!

Articles such as ‘War and Peace in the Machine Age’, ‘The Mystery of Speed’, ‘In the Air – To-Morrow’ and ‘Is the Biplane Doomed’ all featured in 1935. The editor greeted the new year in 1935 with some romantic lines:

‘Unto the stars and the milky way

the sky above and the earth below

seeking the light of another day

and the dawn of a future now.’

– the future was ready for the making.







Top Hat Ballroom, Dun Laoghaire

During the Second World War, or The Emergency as it was known here, there were still  new cinemas and ballrooms opening up around Ireland. There was also a lot of planning for new leisure buildings to be constructed after the war, and consequently what was built tended to look very similar to the buildings of the pre-war era.  In February 1954 the Irish Builder reported on the opening of the Top Hat ballroom in Dun Laoghaire (now demolished), which had opened in December 1953. It was located between Longford Place and the Old Dunleary Road. It had an art deco appearance, rendered in white, and its scale from the front appeared small but this was an illusion as it was entered at pavement level with the main floor 18 feet below that. Walking in on this level, the guests could then make a dramatic entrance down the staircases onto the dance floor, echoing scenes typical of Hollywood films where the actors would flounce or dance down grand staircases, depending on the dramatic requirement. The logo of the ballroom made this connection obvious, with its top hat, gloves and walking cane in the style of Fred Astaire.

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The Top Hat ballroom, featured in the Irish Builder and Engineer, 1954.

The writer of the review seemed to suggest that the stepped outline of the parapet was introduced as a way to relieve the severity of the building: ‘to improve the appearance, the concrete gabled wall is stepped, and a band of scalloped plasterwork […] added at cornice level’. This simple and economical device was found in lots of small public roadside buildings, which were related to new uses, such as garages, cinemas and dancehalls and it had a strong visual impact synonymous with popular visual culture and modernity. By the mid-1950s this art deco motif may have looked a bit old fashioned, except perhaps in the context of a ballroom which was referencing 1930s Hollywood glamour.

The building was designed by A.F. Hendy FRIAI, who had designed, amongst many other building types, an ambitious building with elements of Greek revival mixed with art deco for the Pearl Assurance Co. (now Westin Hotel) on College Green in 1936, and in the late 1940s had designed Archer’s Garage on Sandwith Street – an International Style / art deco gem which was demolished illegally in 1999 and then rebuilt. He also designed, with Kaye-Parry and Ross, Brittain’s morris motor assembly works in Rathmines in 1930.

What I really appreciate about the reviewer’s text (although it is written in a terribly dry style) is the description of the interior. These old interiors are such a mystery – they never last long as they are ripped out and painted over as fashions change – so I adore any descriptions of paint colours and materials. The writer explains that:

‘The entrance directly leads onto a wide and thickly carpeted balcony from which an impressive view is obtained of the bandstand at the opposite end, the dance floor and sitting-out alcoves […] situated at either end of the balcony, is a broad staircase to the dance floor […] directly beneath the balcony and cloakrooms floor […] is occupied by a buffet counter, two buffet rooms […] there is also a small dark room for the use of the ballroom’s own photographer. An area of some twenty feet in width finished with tables and chairs lies between the dance floor and the buffet’.

The Top Hat had its own branded tea set / dinner ware by Arklow pottery, which also manufactured branded crockery for Aer Lingus. The style of the ceramic decoration is neo-victorian or neo-baroque which was fashionable after the war. This combined with the gold edging evokes an idea of old-school luxury and glamour, which in this new leisure age was appropriated for the masses. This seems to have been the design aspiration for the venue as a whole.


The Top Hat had their own branded tea set / dinner ware! Detail which seems to reference the golden age of Hollywood on a Top Hat Ballroom plate, courtesy of Eugene McMahon.


Gilt edge on a Top Hat Ballroom plate. Photo courtesy of Eugene McMahon.

The dance floor was laid in Canadian maple wood and sprung – as was the convention – the wood arranged in a decorative pattern. The main part of the ballroom had high ceilings of 24 feet and in the the alcoves the ceilings were ten feet high. The writer explains that, ‘The main ceiling is composed of acoustic tile and contains powerful blue, green, white and red “spot-lights”. Two parallel lines of equally spaced windows in the long, side walls provide cross-ventilation. ‘

‘Spot-lights’ were obviously a novelty and perhaps this was a term that people were not used to. The writer seems to feel the need to inject as much technical information as he can (I have omitted it). This comes off as a bit awkward and self-conscious, jarring with the descriptions of the aesthetics, and reflects the way that architects felt they needed to demonstrate that they could understand the more technical trades like engineering, and were not just involved in decorating structures. This became very important in the first decades of the twentieth century when there was a lot of discussion about the future of the profession when the ‘engineer aesthetic’ was becoming acceptable / considered the way of the future, throwing the role of the ‘gentleman’ architect into uncertainty.

The part of the text that is very valuable is this one about the colour scheme:

‘Delicate shades of rose and lavender edged with touches of black decorate the walls. As a contrast the pillars are of a rich yellow and have, besides scalloped caps of black, tassels of plum coloured silk. A novel innovation is the revolving bandstand…’

These colours could have been lifted from the palettes of symbolist and expressionist painters. Another thing I find interesting about old reports on fashion and interiors is that often colours are described in relation to real ‘things’ such as the lavender, rose and plum mentioned here, but frequently orange was described as ‘tangerine’, there would be mentions of ‘aqua’ or ‘lido’ blue etc. I imagine it’s because colour photography was normally not used in journals and periodicals but also because it sounded more evocative and exotic.

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Interior of the Top Hat ballroom, looking very vast and barn-like, from the Irish Builder and Engineer, February 1954.

The rooms to the rear of the stage were for the ‘visiting artistes’. There was a flat roof covered in asphalt to the front and the main roof of steel trusses and purlins was covered in asbestos (the miracle material). The decoration was carried out by ‘Spray Painters Ltd’ and the neon signage was by the ‘Neon Electric Sign Co.’ The front of the building had a neon sign in copperplate with the ‘Top Hat’ crest above it. The writer described the overall external appearance as ‘harmonious’ and praised the ‘symmetry of design’ and ‘comfortable appointments within.

In the 1980s the ‘Top Hat’ was a roller disco venue, apparently, and in the 1990s it hosted a concert by Nirvana and Sonic Youth!


The bath as aspirational artefact and idea : historical examples from an Irish architectural journal.

References to baths and bathing are a recurring feature of the history of urban planning and architectural design. The bath was significant as a symbol of aspiration, an object to focus on in the drive for social improvement and an icon in the quest for modern luxury.

(This post is a work in progress…)

The Bath and Social Distinction

Just as the artificial UV lamp promised to transform the home into a domestic spa in the 1920s and 1930s, the bathroom became a luxurious space within the homes of the well-heeled. However, the bath as domestic object was a subject of controversy; it seemed to represent the failings or prejudices of the authorities with regard to the housing of the lower classes, whether it was considered a luxury or an essential. Public wash houses -which contained individual baths for washing the body as well as laundry facilities – were still being erected by local authorities in the 1930s. However, they were no longer associated with the progressive approach to public health that they had been in the Victorian era. Paul Overy, author of the amazing Light Air and Openness: Modern Architecture Between the Wars (2007), writes that part of the insistence on wash houses for the lower classes originated with the relinquishing of upper class control over people who would formerly have lived-in as household staff of the great houses (2007, p. 158). In the moralising and hygiene-conscious nineteenth century, wash houses had been introduced as a way to impose middle class standards of cleanliness on the lower classes.

In the 1930s, the continued use of wash houses represented an inability on the part of the authorities / government to provide properly equipped housing for the people. Progressives believed that every family was entitled to a private bath within their homes. Design historian Adrian Forty identifies the bath as a symbol of class distinction in the middle class home – until they became widely adopted in working class social housing – so the middle and upper classes were reluctant to relinquish this status symbol and preferred to keep it out of reach. When bathrooms began to lose their association with privilege, as they gradually became included in lower class homes, the bathroom was reimagined as a space of leisure within the home through the use of new and glamorous materials and colourful fixtures, rather than the plain white porcelain baths of working class homes. Such modern embellishments achieved the desired distinction (1986, p. 167). In an article in The Irish Builder in 1934 the author recalled a time, not so remote, in which a hot bath was a luxury whereas in the 1930s:

‘the bathroom – for those who can afford it – has become a thing of great beauty and a joy to enter’ [and the new fittings have] ‘sold many a house to the aesthetically minded home-seeker’ (Anon, p. 629).

For architects imagining a bright new world in the 1930s, the white porcelain functionalism of the bath allowed it to take on the appearance (and significance) of a ‘hospital within the home’ and this was an important ideal in the development of modern working class housing at a time when slum housing was a major problem (Overy, 2007, p. 175).

Baths in the Architectural Utopia



Satirical image and article from the Irish Builder and Engineer, 1942 / 43.


In The Irish Builder and Engineer in 1942 / 1943 an illustration accompanied an article which satirised architectural writer Sigfried Giedion’s theory of ‘simultaneity’ in the new architecture (see Giedion’s Space, Time, Architecture of 1941) and portrayed an architect sitting in his open plan living space which was furnished with a white enamel bath (in the foreground), a lavatory taking pride of place on a tiled portion of the floor, a clinical looking bed and modernist style tubular steel table. He would go on to write about mechanical inventions including the bath in Mechanisation Takes Command in 1948. The illustration could also have been referencing Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in which a wash hand basin was installed in the hall: Le Corbusier had a longtime preoccupation with various types of bathroom equipment.  The image demonstrates a satirical allusion to the bath being an icon of the avant-garde. In the Decorative Art of Today (1925), Le Corbusier had famously advised installing the bathroom in the largest room of the house and markedly connected its use to that of leisure and exercise by stipulating that it should be located next to an open-air terrace equipped with gymnastic equipment. Significantly, he described undressing in the bedroom as ‘unclean’ which I understand to mean morally unclean as much as, if not more than, hygienically unclean. This idea of moral as well as physical cleanliness has only begun to really be explored in relation to modernist architecture relatively recently. In relation to the bath, the question of morality was always significant. This can be seen in the discussions around the bathroom in Irish social housing of the inter-war period.

Plumbing and Progress – Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier.


Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1927) with a wash hand basin in the entrance hall (source:https://mayimmayim.wordpress.com/).

In 1935 the ‘Current Topics’ column in The Irish Builder and Engineer stated that bathrooms were a ‘vital necessity of modern civilisation’ and that it was the task of the architect ‘to deal with the structural and hygienic problems that beset us today’ which ‘is not a mere matter of artistic revelry’ (1935, p. 895). Its architect-editor Harry Alberry wryly remarked:

‘Such is an architect’s existence! His eyes scan the lovely skyline of the mountaintop; his feet are planted in the manhole’ (‘Oculus’, 1935).

In his essay ‘Plumbers’ (‘Die Plumber’) of 1898 architect Adolf Loos had criticised the lack of baths in middle-class German and Austrian homes, contrasting the situation in particular with the advanced plumbing in Britain. In Germany, the development of its public bath infrastructure in the late 1800s was seen as a way of showing its imperial power, its modernity and progress, according to historian Jennifer Dillon. Advances in social medicine became a way of ‘asserting its right to compete with Britain’ (2007, p. 60).

Loos elevated bathing to a cultural status, writing that the government need not attempt to encourage Austrian art whilst the people had no ‘culture’: only bathing would bring culture through the provision of a bathing infrastructure. He described the plumber as the state’s chief craftsman, anticipating the shift in perspective in that which could be perceived as a work of art and that which is mass produced (read essay here). Apart from fetishising such engineered, mass produced, unaesthetic sanitary equipment, Le Corbusier had depicted common everyday products such as the motor car and the pipe alongside icons of architecture such as the parthenon, in his book Towards an Architecture (Vers Une Architecture), published in English in 1927. Rather than considering bathroom equipment as consumer objects, however, Le Corbusier treated these items as morally and spiritually transformative objects. The wash hand basin in his Villa Savoye could have been symbolic of a font in the vestibule of a chapel – visual purity bringing moral purity. Such items were essential equipage for Le Corbusier.

‘Bathless Houses’

In the ‘Comments’ section of The Irish Builder in June 1923, in an article called ‘Bathless Houses’, there was an opinion piece printed which criticised the lack of private baths for the working classes in Britain. The article criticised the decision by the House of Commons that private baths were a luxury rather than a necessity and suggested that the middle and upper-classes should,

‘abandon their use in a spirit of democratic altruism until the time arrived when cleanliness is not only next door to godliness but a permanent resident in the proletariat same house’ (p. 503).

The author described some of the contemporary thinking around bathing, such as those which Loos had criticised in 1898 including that bathing was believed by some to invite illness, and that the ancient Roman baths were sites for gossiping and narcissism. However, the writer also referred to the ‘health faddists’ which he said may have opened their pores to the extent that ‘whatever common sense they ever may have had by nature has escaped into empty air, leaving them with nothing on the brain but water’ (Ibid).

‘To Bath or Not to Bath?’

In a 1935 Irish Builder article entitled ‘To Bath or Not to Bath?’ the author suggested that, rather than being a luxury, having a bath in the home was likely to be more important than having a parlour, and that it would contribute as much to the hygiene of the home as the kitchen or sanitary equipment. He described the new ‘5-purpose bath’ which had been devised for small dwellings saying that although they, at the Irish Builder, had not had the opportunity to test its ‘mutative qualities – as a kitchen table, a wash basin (with hot and cold taps), a sink and draining board, and a complete home laundry (with ringer and rubbing board)’ that they had seen illustrations, which he humorously described, in which:

the family is displayed at dinner; hey presto! At morning ablutions; hey presto! mother is washing up; hey presto! Mother is doing the household washing; and, finally, hey presto! Mother tired with her domestic duties, is singing in her bath. All the same unit, standing in the centre of the kitchen, and all done with a turn of the wrist so to speak! It is really very wonderful and, apparently, very cheap, and, assuming that the household arrangements work according to schedule, very competent (Anon, 1935, p. 276).

This may have been a reference to the type of bath that was installed in flats designed by Herbert Simms for Dublin Corporation, such as at Pearse Street (1934-6) where one flat has been returned to its original 1930s state and features a small bath in the kitchen.

The author alluded then to the concerns that some had on moral grounds, that people should not bathe in front of the family – a concern also described by Paul Overy – but the writer referred to it in terms of potential inconvenience rather than being morally questionable. Overy writes that this sort of bath was provided in new social housing in Vienna between the wars, and describes it as being installed in the kitchen or scullery rather than in the central living space of the home, for reasons of propriety (2007, p. 169).

In Germany, from the nineteenth century, showers were considered the most appropriate form of private bathing for the working class home – no doubt due to their more efficient use of space but it might also have seemed more appropriate than the traditional ‘slipper bath’, which was associated with leisure. Dillon suggests that this standing-up form of bathing may have seemed to be a more invigorating method also, which would be less likely to cause lethargy in a working class person, as well as being less expensive!(2007, p. 57)

The Indoor-Outdoor Bath

The idea of open air bathing had taken hold in the 1930s – it was considered healthier and more hygienic than indoor swimming, which was normally provided for in baths and wash houses. The writer of the article concluded by saying that ‘attention is being increasingly paid to facilities for public bathing’ and that:

‘Educational authorities, medical men and psychologists agree that swimming is one of the best exercises for the body and the mind [..] open air bathing, particularly, by the exposure of the skin to the sunlight and the movement of the air, has a beneficial effect on health’ (Ibid).

It was considered ‘essential […] that it (a pool) should be situated in the open air’ (Ibid).


This 1935 Irish Builder article demonstrates the way in which the private bath in the home was directly related to the swimming bath as a modern approach to facilitating improved health and hygiene, and in its private as well as public incarnation as swimming pool it was recognised as an instrument of social progress and egalitarianism. The technology and culture of bathing evolved alongside society’s benefit in the practice of it. The bath’s connection to the physical and social body is a powerful theme which runs through the architectural discourse of the time.



Dun Laoghaire Baths (updated)

I really enjoyed attempting to understand the history of the collection of buildings that made up what is known as Dun Laoghaire Baths (they were the Royal Victoria Baths until 1920). When I was walking around there about a month ago I noticed that the more ‘modern’ buildings on the seafront had been demolished, leaving only the older building to the front. Probably because they were moderne twentieth century buildings and made of simple concrete they weren’t considered valuable (buildings of this period made ‘bad ruins’ as Nikolaus Pevsner admitted). However, they were culturally significant. They were still in use until relatively recently (1990s) when they were famous for their ‘Rainbow Rapids’ – apparently! When news reports stated that the baths building would be retained they were referring to (what appears to be) the Edwardian building on the road and not the more exciting (to me) buildings to the rear, facing the sea, which were totally evocative of the ‘lido age’ of the early twentieth century. Here is something I wrote about them back in the summer; I based some of it on a video I found on youtube which explored the derelict interior of the building. Read my short blog post on Dublin lidos to find out more about the social, medical and political  significance of the lido phenomenon of the early twentieth century.

An Assemblage of Bathing Buildings

I never quite figured out the dates of all the elements of this establishment. I referred to numerous sources including archival ones from Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Library – they very kindly provided me with their attempt at the history which I think seems very likely; I also rooted through a big folder of old newspaper and journal clippings in Blackrock Library. I scoured building notices from the Irish Builder and searched for old newspaper reports and advertisements in the Irish Independent and Irish Times online archives. I referred to architect-planner Manning Durdin Robertson’s 1936 book titled Dun Laoghaire: Its History and Scenery, written while he was organising a competition to design a new super swimming stadium: state of the art swimming stadia were seen as an urgent civic requirement in the idealistic 1930s. Thom’s Directory was helpful in figuring out when improvements were made to the baths in the 1920s and 1930s. Peter Pearson’s account (Between the Mountains and the Sea, 1981) concentrates on the history of the earlier buildings rather than the inter-war period which interests me most (1981).

The History…I think

Ordnance Survey maps show an older baths building closer to the East Pier than the present location; this survey was carried out between 1837 and 1842. John Crosthwaite developer built new baths in 1843 (see Susan Galavan’s book Dublin’s Bourgeois Homes: Building the Victorian Suburbs 1850-1901, which I still need to consult).  The photograph below probably dates from the late 19th century – early twentieth century. It shows a Victorian looking building with a chimney which probably belonged to the baths. This might be the John Crosthwaite building which was then replaced by the more modern little building we see on the roadside today.

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The old baths, further east (map is from 1837 – 1842) (ignore the red spot). Source: http://www.osi.ie; http://map.geohive.ie/mapviewer.html


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OSI map from a survey carried out between 1888-1913 showing the current location (ignore the red spot). Source: http://www.osi.ie; http://map.geohive.ie/mapviewer.html

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The two maps overlaid (Dun Laoghaire library carried out a similar comparison in their research).


Photograph from ca.1890? I wish it was clearer!


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Snippet from Google maps. Oops, too late to take a picture now…

An advertisement to let the establishment in 1921 stated that the modern baths were built in 1908 and added to in recent years (Anon, 1921, no. pg). Peter Pearson noted that the baths were rebuilt by the town council between 1905 and 1911. In 1911 they were recorded as being a ‘public’ establishment, rather than a private enterprise, in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council Minutes. It is also stated that the old baths were demolished in 1909 (p. 373).

The lido-era buildings

From approximately 1926 to 1935 further improvements were carried out, according to references throughout the period in the Irish Builder. In 1933 the journal reported that a new swimming pool was being constructed there which would contain a children’s paddling pool, a new swimming tank and access to bathing in the open sea. This was in addition to its traditional indoor slipper baths which were filled with hot sea water (slipper baths looked like roll-top baths).

In 1933, after a storm which damaged both Blackrock Baths and those at Dun Laoghaire, the Irish Builder reported that renovations and extensions were being carried out by the local authorities (Anon, 1933, p. 342).  The damage to Dun Laoghaire was serious, prompting the Borough Manager to request  a report ‘at a future date regarding a complete new Baths scheme for Dun Laoghaire on the lines formerly submitted by the Borough Surveyor to Blackpool (Cork)’ (DLR Minutes, March 1933, p. 16). In the Council Minutes of 1935 it is stated that the Baths should be remodelled on the lines set out in the report of 1933, by the County Engineer. An aerial photograph of Dun Laoghaire Baths from around that time clearly shows that this establishment was a bona fide ‘lido’ – especially when viewed next to an aerial view of Margate’s Cliftonville lido, in which their similarities of layout are apparent (see my Dublin lidos blog post).

Manning Robertson described the facilities in 1936 as: forty-three men’s boxes (changing cubicles), 127 ladies’ boxes, a tea room, a lounge, laundry and offices. The numerous individual ‘boxes’ were a slightly outdated feature, as many modern lidos consolidated all the facilities in one building, in a unified manner. Robertson noted that ‘provision for medicinal baths include hot sea water, shower, slipper, needle, seaweed, sulphur, alkaline, and Russian (steam) baths’ (p. 49). At the time that the book was written, Robertson reported that new baths were to be provided at a cost of £65,000 (the winning design was ambitious and was never built):

These will include a large swimming pool, 300 yards by 100 yards, sunbathing beaches, hot and cold medicinal and ultra-violet baths and a large palm lounge for use as a café and for concerts and dances. It is also proposed subsequently to add warm salt-water baths for winter use (p.49).

Analysis of the Buildings, ca. 1908 – 1935

The Edwardian (?) Building

This building was used as the entrance and faces Windsor Terrace. It has Tuscan order columns decorating the side elevations and the front entrance is presented with a gabled roof creating a triangular pediment, with keystones, over the doorway. On the ground, like an entrance mat in terrazzo of pink and charcoal grey, is a sign which reads BATHS in modern san-serif letters. The elevations with a parapet and quoins create a neat and stylish little building – signifying its function as a respectable and ‘proper’ little establishment. Behind this lay the more modern looking structures containing the changing rooms and original laundry and treatment rooms (now demolished).


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Image from Google maps capturing the demolition of the buildings to the rear. I wonder what this spectator is thinking?

The Rear / ‘Lido’ facade

In images from the 1930s, the façade facing the sea looks like typical ‘lido’ architecture. A smooth pale stuccoed concrete surface and stark rectilinear openings correspond with the engineer-style of the era. This elevation evokes characteristics of the ‘machine age’ with its lack of decorative detail, and the formal positioning of the fenestration, distinguishing it completely from the style of the earlier building. The earlier road front elevation represented the earlier, genteel spa typology while the rear expressed the new visual identity of healthy, glamorous mass leisure, looking optimistically towards the sea.


Dun Laoghaire Baths, postcard, 1930s? Source: http://www.askaboutireland.ie. You can see the towels from the baths’ laundry drying in the air (it was important for baths to display their hygienic credentials).


Aerial photograph of Dun Laoghaire Baths, 1930s (judging by the cars in the background) Ornamental gardens are evident to the right of the building. Source: Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council.

The venue was family-orientated with a children’s pool, babies’ and elliptically-shaped pool but swimming galas were held in the principal pool of 146 feet x 30 feet. The photographs below show the concrete swimming tanks and the ocean liner style white tubular guardrails on a level above the pools. The aerating fountains added drama to the venue and the white render to the concrete reflected the sunlight. The second image below is especially interesting as an ocean liner is captured in the background as well as the modern concrete bathing shelters by the pier, in the distance. These shelters were left un-rendered and have a severe almost stripped classical, art deco appearance. The longer, athletic pool is in the background of the image, in front of the main building. The cheerfulness of the bright wall finish from the baths’ heyday was recreated when they were used in a Dulux ‘Let’s Paint’ promotional project in about 2010 (?). When the concrete structures were painted, the smooth and rounded, almost primitive forms were appreciable once more – the paint started to look grotty very quickly though.


Photograph of childrens’ pool, Dun Laoghaire Baths, looks like late 1920s because lots of the girls have bobbed hair but the paddling pool was built in 1933 (not sure if this is the paddling pool though). Maybe it was brand new because it doesn’t seem to be painted. Source: National Library of Ireland.


Photograph of Dun Laoghaire Baths showing the bathers’ pool and aerating fountain and main swimming tank in the background, late 1920s – early 1930s. The women have bobbed hair and cloche hats. It looks so clean. Source: National Library of Ireland.

The Interior (1911 – )

(The interior was in a state of dereliction when I wrote this piece.)

On Youtube there is a fascinating amateur film of a tour of the building and this information was gleaned from the film (‘a never ending nightmare tour’ thebettyfordclinic, 2012). Through the Edwardian roadside entrance, patrons approached the cashier’s office which was in a timber panelled enclosure with reeded glass screens. The art deco style turnstiles are still in the building, although not in their original location. In the hallway there is more Georgian-style panelling, a doorway with a fanlight and cast iron balustrade to the stairs. Patrons descended these stairs to arrive at the baths. Prior to the 1930s I think this hallway was decorated with palms – I seem to remember seeing a photograph of it but haven’t been able to find it since – and it appeared to be quite aspirational looking. The ladies’ and gents’ changing rooms may have been on separate floors (the building appears to have had three storeys plus basement). On the middle floor there remains an indoor rectangular swimming tank and the round vents on an extension on the sea-facing side correspond with this space (could this date from the 1930s? Or maybe it’s from ca. 1960 when indoor pools became the norm).  On the floor below, a rusty slipper bath is discarded. In the basement there is a large antique pump, in emerald green, and a copper boiler and piping.

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Dun Laoghaire Baths / The Rainbow Rapids. A Tour (thebettyfordclinic, 2012). This still image from the creepy tour shows the extension on the left with the round vented windows. When the cameraman walks around on the outside of the building it actually seems lovely and it’s easy to imagine that it was a nice place to be in its hey-day.


I am pleased that swimmers will be accommodated at the site when construction ends but I would prefer it to be a full-blown 1930s style lido, as I really think there is a demand for it these days – and art deco style is really enjoying a ‘moment’ (plant some palm trees around there too!). We would all be afforded the opportunity to lounge around in our beach pyjamas, holding parasols and ‘catching the rays’. Artists studios and a cafe – meh, I feel that is not really social or leisure-orientated enough (although I do love art and artists). A swimming pool / lido across the road from a giant library would have been a dreamy juxtaposition.


Please let me know if you have more information on this venue – I’m not from Dublin so I never saw the baths when they were in use. I would love to see old photographs…

Some eye-catching advertisements from a 1920s / 1930s building trade journal.

Coming across eccentric old advertisements is a very enjoyable aspect of doing research on architectural / building history – it is very diverting (which can slow one down a tad). There were lots of new proprietary products on the market – in the 1930s in particular – and lots of new technologies. The promotion of these products tapped into contemporary architectural and design vocabulary and the popular social ideas of the time.

Veneered Doors

What’s your style? Heals Arts and Crafts style or Moderne (Art Deco)? Don’t you know that people were in such a frenzy all throughout the 1920s and 1930s that they couldn’t focus on ANYTHING for long enough to decide what sort of decor they wanted? Maybe a jazz dancing-crazed young housewife liked a glamorous home, all mirrors and chrome, which reflected her love of the cinema, while her boring office clerk husband was more of a traditionalist. Well, this door matches both!


The Irish Builder and Engineer, July 1935. (courtesy of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).

Coloured Cement

Motoring (which was more of leisure pursuit than particularly practical) necessitated the building of new roads, and concrete was recommended as a road surface. There are lots of concrete roads around where I live and I wonder do they date from the 1930s? Anyway, in this advertisement from 1931 (featured in the Irish Builder and Engineer) the use of Colorcrete is suggested for roads and footpaths. It was available in ‘buff’ (a commonly mentioned paint hue in the 1930s – I think of it as a pinky grey colour but have also seen it described as a yellow-beige) and red. Coloured concrete could provide bright and cheery roads in colours which would ‘harmonise’. The image has a surreal but idealistic Wizard of Oz look to it. In those early days of modernisation anything seemed possible and the future was there for the making:


The Irish Builder and Engineer, July 1931 (courtesy of Trinity College Department of Early Printed Books).

Here (below) Colorcrete is advertised for house exteriors. The tones in the monochrome image makes me imagine very wild colours but in fact the available buff or red hues were probably not very exciting:


Irish Builder and Engineer, 1931 (courtesy of the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).

The san-serif font is modern with a ‘no messing’ approach and the ‘COLORCRETE’ brand font looks a bit like neon.

White renders

There were lots of advertisements for white cement render in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Snowcrete’ was often advertised using images of modernist villas and swimming pools to sell its product (very chic). White render was thought to help capture the sun’s rays and was perceived as healthy, hygienic, moral and of course cheerful – particularly in the cloudy gloom of northern Europe. This advertisement for Pudlo white cement render reflects the Egyptomania of the period in which Cleopatra and Tutankhamun were all the rage (Tutankhamun’s tomb having been discovered by Howard Carter in 1922). Cleo-inspired, hairstyles, jewellery and clothing as well as the sunburst motif were typical evocations of this mania. Cinema buildings took on the look of ancient Egyptian temples, people were sunbathing and bronzing themselves to absorb the vitality of the rays – to promote youthfulness and energy. Maximising daylight was an important aspect of new building design and in this image a winged sun-king-pharaoh-pyramid builder carries a dish with something smoking – incense? – out of which appears the brand name. He has a wreath in his other hand…this must be referencing some classical story that I don’t know about…while sun rays descend on a typical traditional/modern (they could never make up their minds) middle class home of the time…


Irish Builder and Engineer, 1929 (courtesy of the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).


Not a material as such but an important new domesticated technology which impacted on peoples’ everyday lives in the period: electricity. Here the new Electricity Supply Board emphasises the modernity of its product and shows the way that the new visual style (what we now call art deco) when applied to anything could create associations of glamour and aspiration. This is an abstract looking architectural illustration but could just as easily be depicting a modern wireless set. Are you a modern man or woman? If you want to live as ‘we moderns’ do then you simply must have your home wired for electricity!


The Irish Builder and Engineer, 1931 (courtesy of the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).

This advertisement (below) is particularly exciting, evoking as it does associations with those crazy, wreckless Italian futurists of the pre-war days. In this illustration, which again looks like a blend of architectural and industrial design, electrical components take on monumental proportions. This looks in fact like the Shannon hydro electric power plant at Ardnacrusha, opened in 1929. A writer in the Irish Builder complained one time that he was still waiting for buildings like those in the film Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) to be constructed in Ireland, but this illustration and insect-level viewpoint has a definite look of Metropolis about it:


Irish Builder and Engineer, 1938 (courtesy of the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Department of Early Printed Books).


Futurist architecture dating from pre-WW1 (Antonio Sant’Elia I think).


Set design in Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927.


The terrifying machine in Metropolis (1927)


I will see what others I find and may add to this in future!

Tamara de Lempicka: an artist-star for the machine age.


I was lucky enough to be in Madrid this week to see an exhibition that my Spanish sister-in-law Ana told me about: Tamara de Lempicka – Reina del Art Deco (Queen of Art Deco) in the Palacio de Gaviria. It’s a very well-composed exhibition which is set in a gorgeous old palace just off the Gran Via. The interior of the palace has a lovely shabbiness to it as though it has just been opened up after many years and hasn’t been refurbished. It’s dark and mysterious and the exhibition winds around numerous grand salons and corridors. Each room has a painted ceiling and there are large mirrors and moulded columns and cornices.


The faded glamour of the Palacio de Gaviria.



Art Deco – the total style.

The paintings and drawings are shown along with huge photographs of the artist as well as lots of pieces of decorative design dated from around the period of the Paris 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (which gave its name to the Art Deco style), in which the artist participated. It was a very exciting exhibition for this reason: first of all you walk up an impressive sweeping staircase, with murals all around and chandeliers, then along a dimly lit corridor with rippled coloured glass panels on either side. The interior blends nineteenth century medieval and twentieth century styles – there’s even a bit of rococo. You then enter a screening room through a velvet curtain and watch a film narrated by the curator of the exhibition, which provides an overview of the artist’s life and work. The first exhibit that you encounter is a 1920s lacquered panel depicting Josephine Baker (an entertainer whose iconic image was used on all kinds of decorative and consumable objects) and other art deco pieces of furniture, screens, vases etc. dated from the period of the Paris exhibition. Tamara’s art, and she herself, is viewed within this context of art deco as a total style. Art Deco is sometimes described as an applied style or decoration which provided a veneer of modernity and glamour to everyday life.



Magazine glamour shot of Tamara de Lempicka.

Although art is generally visually suggestive of the time in which it was created – one can normally see connections between the style of the art and what was happening in design in a given period – Tamara’s work was problematic for some critics because it seemed to be so obviously immersed in the style of the period. It wasn’t taken seriously – it probably seemed in itself to be decorative and sheer, highly stylised, composed of clean lines and colours and smooth surfaces. It was difficult for women to be taken seriously as artists anyway – they were encouraged to work as dress designers or interior decorators rather than artists. For this reason, although Tamara loved fashion design, she doggedly refused to involve herself in any of these prescribed female-orientated career directions. In her paintings, volumes / bodies are represented in a mechanistic way, like the streamlined objects of industrial design in which the joints and rivets are invisible. It is almost impossible to read the process of the art work as the paint is blended so finely that skin, lips, eyes and hair have an airbrushed quality like a photograph or a work of graphic illustration. Figures are given a monumental, statuesque quality. The exhibition contextualises this approach by showing the work alongside cover art for vogue and fashion illustrations of the period. However, the artist studied the old masters and was an admirer of renaissance art in which a perfection of light and surface was achieved and she worked to create this illusionary quality that dared the viewer to believe that it was painted at all.


The Young Girls (1928 / 1930)



The Blue Scarf (1930)


A big surprise of the exhibition was the many items of fashion design on display; iconic 1930s shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo, a dress by Elsa Schiaparelli, purses and hats. Contemporary 1930s pathe films of the artist-star were played alongside these exhibits to show the way her work was consumed and interpreted along with her own image and lifestyle. This is similar perhaps to the way in which Dali’s identity and public persona were so integrated with his creative output, assisted by modern communication technologies. Tamara appears to have been a natural performer – the films show her choreographed movements, the tilt of her head, the way she used a cigarette as an accessory to her performance, in the same way that Marlene Dietrich did. Tamara is described as decadent and having lived a debauched lifestyle. She was an aristocratic exile from Moscow who fled to Paris in 1918 and struggled to provide for her daughter and husband (who couldn’t / wouldn’t work) and she used her talent to regain her status and live again in the glamorous and indulgent fashion to which she had been accustomed before the revolution. She didn’t fit into the unconventional and more socialist way of thinking that she encountered in the artistic cafes of Paris but she was a talented person who fought to preserve her individuality.

tamara working

Not dressed-up in this scene but with perfect hair and dramatic make-up: Tamara painting her husband’s portrait (1930).

tamara studio1

Her glamorous and uncompromising studio-apartment designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens (ca. 1928 – ), was featured in magazines.


Salvatore Ferragamo shoes


More contemporary context provided in the exhibition: maybe this is what her patrons were wearing in the 1930s.


Vogue cover (not by de Lempicka)


Fashion illustration by Tamara de Lempicka


Tamara de Lempicka in her Mallet-Stevens designed studio / apartment.




Artist – Star

Her biographer (Laura Claridge) struggled to tell an accurate version of her story, although she had access to the author’s diaries, letters and interview material, because the artist had fabricated many aspects of it (Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, 2000). It was clear from the start that Tamara was the author of her own life and history, controlling the version of events as they would be portrayed to the public as audience, just as modern performers were doing (although Hollywood producers and film studios normally controlled the story of their stars – Tamara was very much in charge of her version of events). Her art also has this detached and impersonal quality – there is little sense of the movement of the author’s brush across the canvas and she wanted to create this appearance of perfection in her art. However, the clouded grey eyes which she sometimes painted on otherwise glamorously portrayed female figures in some of her paintings was apparently a tribute to her mother who had developed blindness – this provided a small window into the vulnerability and sensibility of the artist. I wonder did Tamara worry that this would happen to her too? Her drawings seem more personal than her paintings and you can get a sense of her dedication in the neatness of her tiny pencil strokes and the care she took with shading, and the abstract, stylised suggestion of form.

Disciplined / Decadent

Tamara was supposedly decadent, self-indulgent and caught up in a fast-moving lifestyle of distraction and fantasy. However, her work suggests enormous discipline and dedication. She studied the work of great artists, developing her skills by learning from works of art in Paris, Florence, Madrid. A painting of a corner of a hotel room which is highly finished and detailed shows that she took the time to work on her art as she travelled. All of her work had a very polished quality which takes time and discipline to achieve. It makes me think that much of her public persona was orchestrated to present this image of glamour and modernity, which was only as real – but also as perfect – as a film depicted on a cinema screen, creating an aspirational and iconic figure in order to sell her art and ensure that she was always relevant. Many impoverished aristocratic exiles had resorted to working as fashion models in Paris at the time that Tamara was beginning her career. She moved in perfect synchronicity with the cinematic glamour of the period, presenting herself as this artist-star. Photographs of her supposedly engaged in painting are theatrically staged, showing her dressed like a film star, complete with furs and elaborate jewellery, similar to the way in which film stars were portrayed in promotional films and magazine articles. It seems impossible that a person could invest so much time in her appearance and produce such rigorously painted images. Like many women, she seemed to be able to do it all – and probably had a lot of pride in her appearance, wanting to reinforce the idea of her aristocratic origins. Overall, she communicated the idea of an ice-cool ambition – see her painting Self-Portrait: Tamara in a Green Bugatti, 1929.


green bugatti

Autoportrait: Tamara in a Green Bugatti (1929) – not featured in the Exhibition (maybe this is one of the paintings Madonna – a big fan of Lempicka – owns?)

Unlike many works of art which are far more revealing when viewed in real life, Tamara’s paintings don’t reveal much more in reality than they do as digital reproductions. This seems to reflect an aspect of the new technology of the time: they were produced in the machine age and her work reflected the technological modernity of that era, and the new pervasiveness of visual art in the environment of everyday life.

(Tamara de Lempicka was born in Warsaw in about 1898 and died in 1980).

The Architecture of Levity – Cinema Design in 1930s Ireland.

(This blog post is a work in progress!)

Cinemas were exciting new public assembly spaces built as part of the new phenomenon of democratic leisure. In Ireland, as elsewhere, cinemas were sites for escapism and fantasy. Cinema interiors served to transport the audience to exotic destinations through the illusionary devices of modern lighting and ersatz materials which imitated gold, silver, velvet and exotic timbers. The air was sprayed with perfume and seating was plush. Cinemas like the Metropole and Savoy in Dublin city incorporated restaurants and dance floors and in this way they served as multi-functional contemporary leisure venues. When I was researching cinema-going in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s I found a lot of references to the church’s condemnation of the leisure activity. This post will explore some examples of cinemas built in regional towns in Ireland in the midst of a 1930s cinema craze and will examine their designs in relation to contemporary ideas about morality and modernity.

Like other buildings described in this blog, cinema design seemed to be at the height of its evolution in the mid-1930s. The best of the type were technologically innovative and were designed as a team effort between architects, engineers and skilled artisans (larger examples were described as ‘super cinemas’). As commercial, privately operated ventures they used visual spectacle and associations with Hollywood glamour and modernity to attract customers, as well as references to historical architectural styles. Their interiors were inspired by film sets and they in turn inspired interior design in other venues and even in the home. Leisure was no longer the preserve of the leisure classes and most people could now afford to participate in the glamorous and democratic luxury offered by the cinema. It wasn’t just about the film on the screen; the audience could enjoy watching glamorous scenes featuring art deco style stage sets in similarly decorated surroundings!

Two approaches

There were two typological approaches to cinema design observed by contemporary architectural commentators. These were described as the ‘atmospherics‘ and the moderne varieties. The atmospherics incorporated fantastical interior scenography – such as the Venetian Doge’s Palace recreated in the 1929 Savoy in Dublin – and the more ‘functional’ moderne types with a more streamlined and minimalist design aesthetic, creating a unified appearance between interior and exterior. Both approaches (with overlaps) were evident in Ireland. This post will look at Michael Scott’s Ritz cinemas as examples of the moderne functionalist approach (Athlone Co. Westmeath, 1938-39, and Clonmel, 1939-40; also a Carlow Savoy not discussed here) and Robinson and Keefe’s more atmospheric Savoy Cinemas in Galway and Waterford (which were in reality dualistic in terms of design approach).

Cinemas such as the Athlone Ritz by Michael Scott were like objects of industrial design, evocative of 1930s streamlined wireless sets. They communicated their function as though they were a casing for a modern mechanical device – in this instance for the display of moving pictures. Streamlined and inevitably white-rendered as though cast from a mould, their interiors were similarly lacking in elaborate ornament. This ‘cleanliness’ and simplicity was associated with ideas about social levelling and advanced culture in modernist discourse. As discussed in previous posts, a symbolically hygienic environment was also considered to be morally as well as physically improving. On the other hand, the atmospherics, with their opulent decor and references to historical styles as well as luxurious French art deco, appear to have been associated with decadence by moralists (and the catholic church in Ireland) and with social stagnation according to intellectuals and modernists. In the Savoy cinemas of Robinson and Keefe there was a clever blend of functionalism, which seemed to reference the wholesomeness of their educational buildings, with the escapist luxury which people wanted to experience in a cinema interior.


Ritz Athlone, Michael Scott (Irish Builder and Engineer)


Ritz Clonmel, Michael Scott (Irish Builder and Engineer)


Ritz cinemas

All three of the the Ritz group of provincial cinemas contained similar interior decoration but various external forms dependent upon the constraints of the particular site. Interesting influences are evident in these buildings. An American approach to the typology is noticeable in the architectural handling of the ‘publicity tower’ in the Clonmel (1939-’40) example – also reminiscent of Dreamland at Margate, United Kingdom (designed by Julian Rudolph Leathart & W.F. Granger, opened in 1935). An expressionist influence is evident in the design of the Athlone cinema with its curving glazed element, as well as the influence of Erich Mendelsohn’s celebrated Universum Kino in Berlin (1925-’31). Most of all, the International Style had clearly influenced the architect who enjoyed a friendship with Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus. Gropius gave a lecture on the subject of The New Architecture and the Bauhaus in 1936, at the request of Scott who was head of the Architectural Association of Ireland  at the time (Rothery, 1991). In the pilotis which supported the ground floor of the Ritz in Athlone, the clear influence of Le Corbusier is a notable feature. This space was intended to be glazed for a riverside cafe or ‘buffet’ but remained empty.

Ritz Athlone

The cinema at Athlone was built on the filled-in bank of the River Shannon and, due to site conditions, both a sturdy and lightweight structure was required. It was built of ‘vibrated’ reinforced concrete. An Irish Press reporter noted that ‘the elevations of the building reveal this method of construction’ (17th February 1940: 10). A perspective drawing of the cinema shows a boat hitched to the side of the building which fed into the 1930s love of the outdoors and played with connotations of the international style ocean liner aesthetic. The ticket-box was located below the canopy on the exterior – the local paper reported that this was an American solution. International-style tubular steel railings marked the boundary of the site – in which the nautical influence seems appropriate. Oculi, or port-hole-style windows, were also a feature of the exterior. Abundant glazing conformed with the modernist requirement for healthful natural light to the interior. By night the building must have become a spectacle of artificial light, with tubes of coloured neon lighting the front and the glazing emitting its own diffused light onto the landscape (architectural critic PM Shand described this as a new ‘night architecture’).

The entrance hall was a double-height space, which was a result of omitting the typical balcony level foyer. Most cinemas had an entrance hall on the ground floor level and a separate foyer approached by a grand staircase (Attwell, 1980). Scott substituted the romance of the grand staircase for the opportunity to fully glaze the entire space. A flat roof to the rear was finished in tarmacadam for potential use as a terrace – a flat roof was de rigueur. A contempporary advertisement for ‘Ruberoid’ (the built-up flat-roofing system) stated that ‘modern architecture demands for its functional fulfilment a flat roof’, making a clever association with the importance that Walter Gropius (amongst other influential commentators) placed on this element (IB, 21/3/1936: 255). Similarly, an advertisement for the rival ‘Vulcanite’ proclaimed that: ‘Flat roofs are an integral part of modern architecture’ (31/10/1936: 1001). The advertisements appeared in the same year that Gropius spoke to the Architectural Association of Ireland, in 1936. His speech was identical to the text of the English translation of his book, The New Architecture and The Bauhaus – according to a report in the Irish Builder (Wisbech: 1936). In the book he had described his hope that ‘flat roofs as “grounds”’ would result in ‘leafy house-tops of the cities of the future…like endless chains of hanging gardens’ (1935:30).

The foyer colour scheme included duck-egg blue on the ceiling. This must have been a nod to the atmospheric tendency to imitate a blue sky, which appears to have been a cinema interior convention, which was often enhanced by a system of coloured lights which could be ‘played’ in sequence to mimic various natural effects ranging from ‘a glorious sunrise to a storm setting…each lasting five minutes’ (Anon (n)1930: 526). Lighting was in three colour tints and projected from a concealed trough in the ceiling. The walls were beige and pale grey in the lobby and, elsewhere, ‘rose colour fading to buff’. The public, which was generally not credited with the capacity to appreciate simplicity, was apparently very appreciative of it.

Decorative elements

The interiors of these buildings were not historicist but consciously ‘modern’. Scott’s three examples were economically decorated, an attribute that PM Shand would have welcomed (Modern Theatres and Cinemas, 1930). Although the sense of magic and occasion may have been more understated than in the ‘atmospherics’, one former patron of the Athlone Ritz recalled that its interior was ‘glittering’ (Mc. Bride & Flynn, 1996). An understated luxury was achieved through the use of modern proprietary materials (their modernity giving them a sheen of glamour) in conjunction with a colour scheme of buff and neutral hues and the use of lighting as a decorative effect. However, the drawings of Scott’s Carlow Ritz and the Bill of Quantities for the Athlone Ritz do reveal a conflict between the desire on the part of the architect to produce a more expensively finished building and the budgetary constraints. Expensive items such as terrazzo were omitted and replaced with modern synthetic materials such as ‘Korkoid’. The decorative schemes of the finished buildings were economical but ingeniously effective. The Irish Builder’s commentary on the buildings shows an appreciation of their unified design while local press commentary reveals an appreciation of the promise of modernity that the buildings seemed to offer their regional locations: ‘the town of Athlone, rich in history, has yet not neglected its modern side’ (Irish Press, 17/2/1940). The Carlow cinema was opened to aplomb by film star Diana Wynyard in 1938 (irishnewsarchive.com).

The interiors made a virtue of simplicity – in the manner that Shand and The Architectural Review (which he contributed to), as well as the Irish Builder, recommended. The architect’s adherence to a functionalist set of ‘ethics’ is revealed in minor details in the Bill of Quantities in which architraves initially specified as ‘moulded’ were substituted with the more specific and plainly modernist ‘rounded’ on numerous occasions (IAA PKS 0299). Doors are described as ‘sheeted’ and ‘flush panelled’ in ‘Masonite Presdwood’ – a proprietary material typically used in modern vehicles such as the American Pullman coaches from 1935: ‘a new hard-wood manufactured solely of wood fibre…it is grainless, knotless and flawless’ (IB, 1931: 283). On flush doors, a contributor to the Irish Builder remarked that ‘one cannot doubt that the flush door has come to stay. Never again will the bolection mouldings and the beads and quirks of the Victorian four–or–six panel door act as dust traps, to be cleansed’ (Anon (i)1936: 688).

In The Ritz cinemas, various veneered plywoods – teak, birch, ‘figured oak’ – were used as facings to flush doors and wall panels (IAA, op cit.). The new types of plywood obtainable were discussed at length in the Irish Builder in an article in 1930.

Functionalism and Ethics

Much modernist discourse (also evident in the Irish Builder’s commentary) was concerned with issues of public improvement, which highlighted the difference between the lower economic classes and their professional class, and there is a sense that the overly-elaborate brand of cinema interior was considered patronising to an audience which consisted of all the levels of society. The cinema – like the train platform – represented a democratic space and ideally captured ‘the spirit of the age’ (Gropius, 1935). Le Corbusier had criticised the use of ersatz materials in this context and had noted that the cinema had helped produce an ‘unvarnished’ society in which the poor and wealthy alike could experience how the other half lived (1931). Shand had described the ‘present age (as) singularly intolerant of all forms of sham and snobbishness’ (1930:14).

This removal of the ‘veneer’ from society extended to a desire to revealing the ‘truth’ of materials which was noted, for example, as almost an ethical problem in the use of  materials like ‘Colorcrete’ by a commentator for the Irish Builder (Anon (j) 1927: 127). However, in Shand’s critique of cinema interiors he had praised a Berlin cinema design by Kauffmann for the ingenious use of what he described as ersatz materials – deal boards and zinc plating. He remarked that ‘it is often a bad thing to have too much money at one’s disposal where building is concerned’ and favoured this economical approach (1930: 15).

New Materials

A local reporter remarked upon the ‘exceptional type of decorative floor, designed by the architect’. This material was synthetic ‘Korkoid’ – one of the numerous new materials available to builders, a rubberised composite of compressed cork (Steele, 1995). It was available in various colours , was hygienic and hard-wearing and could be waxed and polished. This material was also used on the Queen Mary (1936) luxury ocean liner in ‘tourist class’ and in the shopping areas (Ibid).

Another economical but effective element in the decoration of this cinema was the use of corrugated asbestos (‘Big Six’) which was attached to the splayed sides of the proscenium arch and then spray-painted silver (Irish Independent, 16/2/1940: 99). This finish, when lit, would have achieved a modernistic serrated / fluted effect. As was Scott’s custom, he commissioned an artist to create artwork for the interior. The Irish Builder reported that two carved wooden figures were commissioned from Lawrence Campbell RHA, depicting Dance and Music, and were placed either side of the proscenium arch. However, Scott recounted to Dorothy Walker his memory of commissioning Louis le Brocquy to create two painted free-standing figures representing Tragedy and Comedy (Walker, 1995). ‘With these exceptions’ the Irish Builder remarked, ‘the decorative scheme is marked by extreme simplicity and there is nothing fidgety to divert attention from the screen’ (Irish Independent, op cit.).


The Savoy (was originally intended to be called The Corrib), Robinson and Keefe (Irish Architectural Archive).


Savoy cinemas (the Waterford Savoy is not discussed here)

The Galway Savoy was opened in 1935 and was designed for Irish baritone singer Walter McNally by the successful architectural firm of Robinson and Keefe, known for their use of modernistic elements in their buildings (Rothery, 1991). The building was designed as a landmark on Eglinton street and, standing three storeys tall, accommodated 1,250 people. It was described as being ‘brightly decorated in green and white’, by the Irish Builder and Engineer (Anon (a) 1935: 314). The white effect may have been achieved with ‘colorcrete’ – a proprietary brand of render mentioned in the Bill of Quantities – while the green finish was described as a glazed terracotta tile (faience), in a report on the proposed cinema in 1933 (Connaught Tribune, 9th Sept. 1935 ). The ground floor housed four shops, two either side of the entrance and their glazed fronts were framed in bronze.

The design of the building is an interesting juxtaposition of the ‘new architecture’ and what could be described as ‘skyscraper-style’ (Hillier & Escritt, 1997). The ground floor, street level, of the building was brightly coloured and made a feature of reflected and diffused lighting to illuminate the streetscape by night, advertising the building’s presence. The central portion of the building is a modernistic element, vertical in emphasis, which had a central glazed feature with prominent san-serif lettering, topped with a decorative flourish. You can see suburban schools designed in the 1930s with a similar central ‘art deco’ entrance feature – showing how apparently jazzy features such as these could lose their commercial associations completely. The portions of the building on either side of this are horizontal in emphasis with large, steel-framed corner windows by Crittals, with bronze fittings. No distracting roofs are evident – simply a cement-finished parapet terminating each element. Lighting was a key part of any commercial design in this period, often being diffused through opaque glass or reflected off modern materials, such as chromium and polished rubber flooring. Back-lit white ‘Morocco’ plate glass was incorporated in the front elevation of this building, as well as neon signage.

Decorative Elements

Terrazzo was used for the flooring, including the treads of stairs, trimmed with brass. The new ‘Ruboleum’ material was used in circulation areas (as in Dublin Airport). Rubber flooring was novel, especially because of the variety of colours available and this novelty, combined with a contemporary taste for hygiene and reflective surfaces, meant that it achieved the same standard of consideration as the more expensive and labour-intensive terrazzo. In 1935 the Irish Builder devoted an article to terrazzo, titled ‘Quality in interiors – How terrazzo helps’, with the author arguing that cheap construction is a false economy (Anon (b): 1202). An article on the interior of a new bank in Dublin described it as ‘hygienically finished with terrazzo dados’. While Ireland was experiencing a tuberculosis epidemic the ‘hygiene aesthetic’ (which Paul Overy describes in Light Air and Openness, 2007) was a practical consideration (Anon (c), 1935).

In contrast to the modernist ‘wipe-clean’ interior, however, the Savoy featured heavy moulded fibrous plaster cornices in the tearoom and proscenium arch. Bronze kick-plates seem a luxurious material to use on doors on which the levers were in chromium-plated steel. Chromium was an ersatz material – it was associated both with hygienic and ‘clinical’ modernist furnishings, as well as the luxury and glamour of venues such as the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London (credited with popularising the material through its use of PEL stools) (Wealleans, 2006).

The ceilings and partitions were ‘painted with scenery, to give an atmospheric effect, on the lines of the palatial cinemas of the modern metropolis’ (Connaught Tribune, op cit.). No indication of colour schemes is provided in the archives but two contemporary cinemas, The Regent in Blackrock Co. Dublin (designed by J.V. McGrane, 1938) and The Odeon in Dundrum Co. Dublin (designed by the firm of Henry J. Lyons during ‘the Emergency’, 1942), contained typical 1930s colour schemes, which shows the influence of Expressionist and Ballet Ruses colours and pattern. The Regent was described like this:

The dado of the cinema is chocolate colour, flecked in gold and terminated by a silver band previously moulded in the plaster; the walls above are orange colour graduated to pale cream to blend with the ceiling. The wall features are picked out in silver to reflect the light from the fibrous wall fittings. The reeding of the proscenium surround is coloured a deep orange, the flats being silvered to reflect the coloured lighting from the stage battens (Anon (d) 1938: 215).

The Odeon had ‘Russet’-coloured seats, orange painted walls, ‘speckled in’ red and gold, and a speckled blue ceiling. Both schemes sound very art deco. Use of gold and silver paintwork reflected the available lighting while also adding depth and movement to the interior as well as a sense of luxury and glamour. The draperies of the stage were in boldly clashing red and green whilst the decorative proscenium grilles (which concealed coloured lighting) were gold with red and black columns (Anon (e)1942: 293).

Regency style elements are a surprising feature of 1930s design and are also evident in the Savoy in the use of decorative urn forms on the stair balustrade, perhaps lending an air of aristocracy to the interior. Perhaps the reviewer in the Irish Builder was not very enthusiastic about this cinema’s design as he blandly acknowledged that: ‘the lighting and the interior decoration combine to give an atmosphere of charm and restfulness, qualities that the public is rapidly learning to appreciate’. Was he referring to the ‘evolving’ taste of the masses?

A local newspaper referred to the ‘atmospheric’ decoration but the Irish Builder probably decided to tread carefully and simply stated that it [the decor] was ‘treated much on the lines successfully adopted in the Dublin and Cork Savoys. As this was an architect-designed cinema – and Shand maintained a distinction between this and the type of cinema whose plan was designed by quantity surveyors and decorated by shop-fitters – the Irish Builder may have appreciated the design in terms of what Shand described as a ‘tasteful levity’ (Shand, 1930: 4). These architect-designed cinemas were imagined in total; Gropius viewed this approach as being like the construction of a medieval cathedral, and many of the atmospherics seem to evoke a sort of futuristic baroque in their church-like interiors. Instead of critiquing the aesthetic of the design the article concentrated on its technical aspects – a tactic which seems to have been employed whenever an author did not want to offer an opinion. However this also reflects the contemporary association between the architectural and engineering professions in which their distinction was often blurred. The Cork Savoy was apparently the subject of a cutting analysis in the Architectural Review which Sean Rothery says mockingly described it as ‘Ireland’s most beautiful theatre’ (1991).

Contemporary thoughts

In 1928 the Irish Builder’s Page L. Dickinson described the architectural typology of the cinema as ‘the modernist’s opportunity’ saying: ‘new types of building come into being as a result of sudden demand…buildings that make no claim to permanence…Here the modernist finds ample scope for original experiment’ (1928:858). Predating Shand’s 1930 publication (in which he described the cinema as ‘a young and happy nation, (it) has no history’, 1930:3) but writing amidst an architectural discourse that referred to ‘traditionalism’ and the ideologies of Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, his views were perceptive. In 1930 he described the factors that were ostensibly, in his view, internationalising Irish culture and key amongst them was the cinema:

It may be noted, just in passing, that the cinema has played a great part towards internationalism, as it has familiarised people with every part of the world. As a consequence, it seems to me, people are far less ready to criticise new ideas and forms to-day than they were twenty-five years ago (1930:894).

This was problematic for some, and is noticeable in articles written from a Catholic propagandist perspective in contemporary Irish newspaper articles. An Irish Cinema Handbook (1943) also illustrated this tension – historian Claire Wills writes that it was edited by the notoriously puritanical Reverend Devane. It began with a reprint of Pope Pius XI’s Vigilanti Cura of 1936. The influence of the proclamation, in which the Pope stated that the cinema medium ‘has enlisted in its service luxurious appointments…everything calculated to delight the sense and cater for man’s lower faculties’ was preceded by similar comments in the Irish media at least from the early 1930s (Redmond,1943:10). Films were accused in the Handbook as causing ‘emotional agitation’ and showing alternative lifestyles for which economically impoverished people would yearn (Ibid).

Architect Alan Hope contributed an article to the Handbook on ‘The Modern Cinema Interior’, in which he reflected the views of Shand and the modernists, referring to the waste of money and labour involved in elaborate decoration, and also criticising the conceit of illusion in decoration. This draws a line between the aesthetic of modernism – its moral associations between ‘hygienic’ architecture and culture –  with the church’s condemnation of ‘decadent’ cinema interiors. With their economical / hygienic aesthetic Scott’s Ritz cinemas might not have been easy to criticise on the grounds of morality. Likewise, with Robinson and Keefe’s Savoys, particularly the Galway one, the blend of functionalism (which was associated with hospital and school building design) with atmospheric elements may have diluted the ‘problem’ of their decadent interiors.


Note: the information for this came from sources which include the Irish Builder and Engineer, Irish Newspaper archives, Irish Cinema Handbook (1943), Modern Theatres and Cinemas (Shand), Cathedrals of the Movies: A History of British Cinemas and Their Audiences (Attwell), The Picture Palace and Other Buildings for the Movies (Sharp).