Welcome, Guest  :  Login  |  Help  |  Contact Us


Remembering Dr. Ronnie Tallon (1927-2014)

Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Remembering Dr. Ronnie Tallon (1927-2014)

Dr. Ronnie Tallon, one of the leading architects in Ireland and co-founder of his firm, Scott Tallon Walker has died in Foxrock, Dublin on 22 June 2014. On 23 November 2010 Dr. Ronald Tallon received the inaugural RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture.


Below are comments by Shane O’Toole at the presentation of the James Gandon Medal to Dr RonnieTallon in the RIAI.

James Gandon shaped Dublin as no other architect, before or since. His monumental buildings define the popular image of our capital even today. In their time, they helped create the impetus for the city’s expansion to the east, signaled the decline of the medieval city, and confirmed the ascendancy of Georgian Dublin.

If it can reasonably be asserted by our greatest historians that the genius of Gandon and his clients made Dublin one of the most brilliant European cities of the age, then a claim no less grand can be made, two centuries on, for the inaugural recipient of the James Gandon Medal for lifetime achievement in architecture – Dr Ronald Tallon – for his partners in practice and for their clients. Not that Dr Tallon reshaped Dublin – no, today’s city is too amorphous for that to happen again – but his achievement is, I am sure of it, at least as substantial as Gandon’s.

More than any single architect, Ronnie Tallon created the image of modern Ireland, helping to usher in a new era and mould its evolving character with idealism. For more than half a century Ronnie has devoted his life to giving architectural form to the ambitions and institutions of our country, shaping, revealing and making solid the optimistic dreams of a modernising nation. His achievement has been truly great: he has practiced the difficult art of the simple and given a noble architectural face to his times. His work has ennobled us.

Ronnie was not alone in this mammoth undertaking, of course. Michael Scott and Robin Walker were enormous influences on his early work, as he is quick to acknowledge: “Robin with his very clear, analytical mind, and Michael with his broad commitment to quality – that nothing but the best was acceptable in life.”

They lived for architecture. “We had no hobbies other than architecture and the visual arts,” he says. “It was our total world, and we spent all the time searching for new ways of approaching it... We were searching for quality.”

Perhaps only the Abbey and Gate theatres can claim greater hegemony in the artistic and cultural life of the nation than Scott Tallon Walker. And even they are indebted for their architecture to this firm, whose origins date back more than 80 years. Seen from this distance, Ronnie’s and Robin’s early work – from 1960 until 1975, in particular, when Queen Elizabeth II presented the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture to Michael Scott for the work of the practice – defines the coming of age of our republic; it appears to be nothing less than the physical manifestation of Lemass and Whitaker’s radical plan for Ireland’s modernisation.

Each new project seemed to involve another innovation. Ronnie’s Kire factory in Kinsale, an early State-supported, American-owned enterprise, was the first in Ireland to use an exposed-steel structural frame. His flat-roofed, glass-fronted church at Knockanure, near Moyvane in County Kerry, pre-dating Vatican II, was the first completely modern church in the country. Robin’s Bord Fáilte was our first office building planned around a central service core containing stairs, lifts and toilets and the first to use fair-faced concrete as a finish, while his National Bank had the first Irish purpose-made curtain wall, since regrettably demolished.

Ronnie’s RTE studios had one of the first factory-glazed, demountable curtain-wall systems in the world. It could be, and was, re-used in new locations when the building was extended. This was also the first time that precast concrete columns and flat concrete floor slabs were used here, fast-tracking construction and facilitating efficient cable management at a time when off-the-shelf, raised-floor systems were not available. The list goes on and on, from the ingenious, upturned-table structure of the GEC factory, built on boggy ground in Dundalk, to the arcadian, pavilioned landscape of RTE, and from Lisney, on St Stephen's Green, Dublin’s first great modernist urban infill building, to the geometric assurance and pleasures of Goff’s bloodstock sales complex in Kildare.

Ronnie is not just the most prolific figure in Irish architectural history but the only architect to win not just one, but two, RIAI Triennial Gold Medals while still in his thirties. It is almost impossible today to imagine the scale of that precocious achievement. He is an unusual figure, in that he doesn’t teach, lecture or write about his work. But by the time he completed the serenely ethereal Carroll’s factory, outside Dundalk – perhaps the greatest of all his buildings – the dreamily daring Goulding Summerhouse and the weighty, composed Bank of Ireland headquarters in Baggot Street – now all protected structures – STW had evolved into one of the most interesting architectural offices at work in Europe.

From long before we joined the EEC, as it then was, when Ireland was still a morbidly introspective society, Michael, Ronnie and Robin were steadfastly internationalist in their outlook. They didn’t just want to be good at home. Perhaps it was the arrival of the Boeing 707 that made that dream possible. They benchmarked themselves against the legacy of Mies van der Rohe, who had recast the image of corporate America during the 1950s, and America's most successful practice, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, travelling frequently to Chicago to see the latest work there. Ireland did not see such ambition and relentless insistence on quality again until the rise of U2 a generation later.

The oil crises of the early 1970s brought the Irish economy and the idealistic architecture of STW to a juddering halt, however. Glass was out. Solid walls and postmodernism were in. It was a difficult period but they remained true to their ideals and discovered a new architectural voice. A particular highlight was the Papal visit in 1979, when Ronnie was entrusted with staging the centrepiece mass for one million people in the Phoenix Park, the largest gathering in Ireland for almost 150 years.

He guided the firm’s second generational transition during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, when, amazingly, he also personally oversaw the conceptual development of every project – and there were many; Ronnie was always a great work-getter! – that came into the office. Along the way, he pioneered radical environmental engineering concepts and rediscovered atrium buildings, memorably so at Wood Quay, where his ‘open’ design recast the ethos of local governance while acknowledging the historic importance of the city’s birthplace. Later, downriver, he reshaped the appearance of the Liffey quays.

He brought campus planning to Ireland at RTE, where he has been both master planner and architect for more than 50 years. He wrote the book on corporate headquarters, redefined the business park, notably at East Point, and built scores of buildings for half a dozen universities. He created a handful of glorious houses, championed the place of art in architecture and also collaborated with Michael Warren to create Tulach a’ tSolais at Oulart in County Wexford, one of the world’s most austerely moving memorials since Sir Edwin Lutyens defined the art 90 years ago.

Which brings me back to Gandon. Built to commemorate the 1798 Rebellion – which, incidentally, Gandon fled – a gleaming shaft of white concrete, chosen for its pallour of death, cleaves through a green hill, opening the mound to the sky. The memorial is split down the middle, just as the old feudal world of the eighteenth century is separated from our own democratic age, kept apart by the flood of ideas we call the Enlightenment, which elevated us all from subject to citizen.

Metaphysical, abstract, without apparent function and totally memorable, the chamber is not only a solar clock but adheres to the laws of harmonic proportion. Mathematical laws that Gandon himself would have understood. On plan, it is a double square. A cut through the chamber reveals the classical golden section: the ratio of its height to width equals the ratio of its width to the sum of its height and width. Ronnie calls Michael Warren’s two sculptures – gently curving tablets of 200-year-old Irish oak that make a zen shrine of the interior – “upturned hands, offering hope for the future.” We need that hope now more than ever.

I could talk about the 400-years-old Katsura-Rikyu, the Imperial Villa in Kyoto, and what it means to Ronnie, or the importance of The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura (or Tenshin, as he is known in Japan), written more than a century ago, in 1906. But there is no time. Ronnie has an Eastern sensibility, a discipline that transforms itself into the ‘Art of Life’, which underpins all of his best work. He has always believed that tomorrow, when it comes – whenever it comes – will be better than today. That is the only explanation for how he did what he did and does what he does. What Ronnie has is a vision, an inexorable belief in progress as a positive force. It is what makes him thoroughly modern – still more modern – than anybody else in this room.

“No Aviva?” rugby fans might ask. No, I say. Simply viva. Sempre viva.

Viva Ronnie!

Categories: Architecture

« Back to Latest News