On 6th April, Talking To My Father (2005), Sé Merry Doyle’s documentary about Architect Robin Walker will be screened as part of the 2017 Five Lamps Arts Festival.

Sé Merry Doyle makes documentaries about culturally defining moments in Ireland from the perspective of the human story or experience. Talking To My Father is as much about the father and son relationship as it is about Robin Walker, the influential modernist architect.

Robin Walker (1924-1991) was a key figure in Irish modernist architecture. He studied with Le Corbusier in Paris and worked alongside Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, returning home to Ireland in the late Fifties. He set up an archictectural firm with two of his contemporaries, Michael Scott and Ronny Tallon, fellow figures of significance in Irish architecture.

The documentary follows Simon Walker as he explores his father’s legacy. Like his father, Simon is also an architect; it’s his understanding and appreciation of his father’s work from both a personal and professional point of view that gives the documentary its spark. Simon revisists some of the building’s his father designed in person and in memory. The visuals are quietly stunning (with cinematography by Patrick Jordan), particularly the private houses he built in Kinsale and in Bothar Buí in Cork, and Simon’s eloquence adds to the beauty.

The portfolio of work examined in the film mainly dates from the 1960’s and early 70’s. In Ireland, modernist architecture peaked in the 60’s, which Sé frames as a reflection of Ireland’s nation building efforts. Economic development and the surrounding civic idealism of the time made for a rich period of cultural optimism which fused with the attributes of modernism – a sense of openness and lightness, and a new aesthetic that was simple, geometric and without decoration. The 1970’s however, brought major change – prompted by the oil crisis in 1973, the resulting economic instability and an erosion of the social and political consciousness of the previous decade. The cultural and ideological shift was at odds with Robin’s vision and ideals; he retired from design and took up writing.

Image taken from architectureireland.ie

Talking To My Father is all about personal connection. You do not have to know anything about architecture; the film is subtlety instructive in its discussion (visually as well as orally) of the features and ideas underpinning Robin’s work.

It explores the relationship between people and place, with Simon visiting Robin’s buildings and interviewing the people who inhabit them. Robin sought an organic intermingling of his buildings and the existing environment which they were to become part of. For example, he considered the large windows in horizontal bands characteristic of modernist design to be in keeping with the Georgian landscape of Dublin and the window as an enlightenment feature. In some instances, we find that Robin’s work and intentions have been altered and distorted and have come to represent something new. The restaurant in University College Dublin (UCD) which Robin designed is unrecognisable; the original use of glass and open plan design to represent unity and freedom has been removed. While other constructions have added minor alterations out of function – like the fully fronted glass gymnasium at Wesley College in Balinteer in Dublin which installed frosted glass in parts in order to give students privacy.

The idea of modernist architecture and the figure of Robin seems to offer a good counterpoint to the modernity presented in Alive Alive O: a Requiem for Dublin, Sé’s other feature which is part of this year’s Five Lamps Arts Festival programme. Both films are very much concerned with ideas of change and impermanence, as they explore the fit between a city and its people. Alive Alive O shows the impersonality and lack of values a State can employ when embarking on redevelopment while Talking To My Father examines how ideas of place, time and people can inform design.

As Simon reveals, Robin’s work is very conceptual; there are strong values at the heart of his designs so it is easy to see why Simon’s connection to his father’s work and his father as a person is blended. For Simon, his father is present through his buildings and he tells us that he see’s them as a form of his love for him.

We can see this in the passionate way Simon speaks about his father’s work and the need for its preservation – alongside arguments of integrity and innovation of design, and the upstanding condition of the buildings. This is a personal and intimate film, that carries a sense of loss as well as celebration.

It prompts the viewer to tap into our own relationships with architecture. We interact with buildings all the time; we are situated in place and time and coexist with our environments. Talking To My Father gently strives to instill an understanding and appreciation of architecture so that we can be critical of the spaces around us, as well as connected.

Talking To My Father

Thursday 6th April, 6pm Odeon Cinema Point Village

Tickets are €5 and are available on Eventbrite

Written by Marian Brosnan        Thanks to Sé Merry Doyle