It wasn’t love at first sight. Eoin Ó Broin remembers spending 11 years at Dublin’s central bus station, Busáras, on his journeys to Belfast. “I never looked up,” he said. But something about the building caught her interest, and a visit to the Irish Architecture Foundation’s Open Day in 2019 opened her eyes to the building’s surprising wonders. Today, Sinn Féin TD and Party spokesperson for Housing and Heritage is a staunch fan. So much so that he has just published, with photographer Mal McCann, an abundantly illustrated book on the building.
It might not come as a surprise. Designed when the Republic of Ireland was still young, Busáras embodies the idealistic excitement of an emerging nation: the belief that doing things differently can change the world. Its conception is based on an egalitarianism and a sense of socialism which seem to be obvious to cherish, and yet which did not succeed in lasting.
The largest building, of which Busáras is a part, also bears the name of Seán McDermott, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, and one of 16 executed after the Easter Rising.
Broin writes well; fluently and poetically in places. It describes in detail how Áras Mhic Dhiarmada, designed by Michael Scott, incorporated the work of Irish designers including Patrick Scott (unrelated), who would later become one of Ireland’s most famous artists. Patrick Scott’s mosaics adorn the building and, alongside metal and woodwork by Barney Heron, combine to shape a building in which beauty has significance and value, alongside the more utilitarian functions of the project. Design decisions and commissions say it’s not enough to shelter from the rain while you wait for your bus – people deserve more.
McCann’s photographs capture this brilliantly. They also show neglect, dirt and rot. There are plans for the interior, paneled and shiny offices, inlays of marquetry, marble, mosaic and terrazzo, and skylights highlighted in gold. There are also images of missing mosaics, of abandoned spaces, of a tent pitched in a doorway to sleep at night. Frustrating for a book on architecture, form doesn’t follow function, and the image captions are housed on the back rather than alongside McCann’s snapshots and well-documented historical images and original design drawings.
Despite its relative neglect, Busáras is a listed building, and a restoration program has recently been announced, in particular to make the building more accessible. Dermot Bannon Architects is one of the design teams involved.
Although Ó Broin thinks most Dubliners don’t appreciate Busáras as much as they could, it has in fact exercised an enduring fascination, being discovered and rediscovered periodically over the years since its completion in 1953. Present prominently in Ellen Rowley’s second volume More Than Concrete Blocks (2019), she was also the subject of Double Movement, a work by Gavin Murphy in 2017, at the Temple Bar Gallery, in which Murphy focused on the abandoned theater, installed in the basement of the building.
In Murphy’s words, Busáras should have been “a global civic edifice for all of Ireland. There were plans for a nursery, and a barber… ”. The theater, which operated until 1995 under the name Eblana, was to be a screening room, so you could catch the news while waiting for your bus. There was also a nightclub on the top floor. It is now the canteen of the Ministry of Social Protection.
Áras Mhic Dhiarmada was built at a time when public architecture mattered
Busáras was compromised from the start. What would become the first post-war office building in Europe was delayed and its design altered by funding issues, politics and heated and jarring debates. This is what is fascinating about the book. Beyond the important story of an intriguing building, Busáras transforms, via the writing of Ó Broin, into a symbol, and from there into a metaphor. I think of Winston Churchill’s line – that “we shape our buildings; then they shape us ”. I’m not sure Broin would approve the source, but the quote is appropriate.
“Áras Mhic Dhiarmada was built at a time when public architecture mattered,” writes Ó Broin at the beginning of the book. “These ideas and the debates they sparked concern us today.
“They offer important information about the choices we have before us and where those choices might lead us in the future.”
Two hundred pages later, in a chapter entitled Philosophy, he compares the Custom House of Gandon, Busáras, and the IFSC (of Burke Kennedy Doyle): three neighboring buildings whose architecture, by this reading, becomes a crossroads of choice civic. Do we remain nostalgic for a past where Georgian greatness was based on colonization and inequality? Can we opt for an idealistic egalitarianism? Or there is the neoliberal financial capitalism of today: in the words of Ó Broin, “a soulless cosmopolitanism in accordance with the desire of the economic and political elites to dissolve all forms of Irish in a Europeanism empty of meaning, devoid of of significant cultural or civic content ”.
It’s hard to disagree and yet, as some politicians and experts like to say, we are where we are. Ó Broin’s analysis of Busáras, a building that certainly deserves recognition and love, is the narrative that, through an act of community and political will, we could return Ireland to a lasting republicanism in which all people are cherished and valued on an equal footing. And yet, the history of the building’s construction and its subsequent neglect seems to suggest otherwise.
“We have never had a real social democracy in this state,” Broin said when I pointed out to him. “At some point in the 1950s, that post-war generation that was trying to meet the needs of the people in a democratic way just got lost. “Then, he said, when Ireland entered international markets,” the customer is no longer the public. […] But Busaras exists. For all exclusions, it happened, “he continues.
“What this tells you is that pragmatism and dogmatism don’t stop things. It constrains them, but it only constrains them to the extent that people allow it. “It is appropriate that” unconsciously this [Busáras] reflects my interest. It is the interface between the possible and the desirable. I tend to think that more is possible.
The flourishes and beauty of Busáras, the cinema and the nightclub, were about the idea of pleasure as a public good, and not, as Ó Broin would like to say, “pleasure as a path to the profit. […] Capitalism isn’t going to go away, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it dictate the terms of everything, ”he said, asking,“ Where are the politicians in government today, making the same arguments we saw in this brief period?
I suggest that the policy is easier when it is not tested by the parameters of the possible. Using a bad analogy, I wonder if it’s kind of like coming home and arguing with your mom about whether the kettle should be somewhere more convenient, and your mom says no, because it is. where it always has been. “Ahh,” he said with a smile. “When you are in government, you are the mother. You decide where the kettle goes.
The Dignity of Everyday Life: Celebrating Michael Scott’s Busáras by Eoin Ó Broin and Mal McCann is published by Irish Academic Press, € 35