The Twentieth Century Society

Review: On Seeing Only Totally New Things

Gavin Murphy (Royal Hibernian Academy, 164pp, €20/£25)

Available from RHA Gallery or

Reviewed by Christopher Heighes

This is a very beguiling book. At first it seems to be a standard gathering together of research materials and documentation relating to three exhibitions – one of which included an evocative film about the IMCO building, a lost modernist landmark in Dublin; a well-crafted monograph on the IMCO’s architect Oliver P Bernard; and some essays. But it is much more than that.

Gavin Murphy is an artist whose work engages with the nature of time, modernity and the mechanics of progress: with how the future both bewitches and frightens, how the past pulls and the present grips. He has crafted a six-section book that displays a great sensitivity to how material things, whether as artifacts, fragments in archives, or even a lost building, combine together with ideas and half-forgotten narratives to act upon us in an almost physical way, propelling us forward and at the same time pulling us back.

Murphy achieves this by a resonant arrangement of images and texts supporting core reflections on the IMCO building’s completion in 1939 and demise in 1974; its function as a cleaning and dyeing complex; and the extraordinary life of Bernard, the relatively unknown architect who contributed its landmark white tower. A front-to-back reading, while possible, is not the most rewarding way to encounter these things; chosen randomly, the sections ignite in a multi-layered, associational, almost textured way – here is stuff you want to get into, to sort through.

This is particularly true of the book’s longest section, which reproduces images from Murphy’s film Something New Under the Sun (shown at the EVA International biennial and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin). Images of a woman in a library and a modern office space; spines of books, ash-blue archive boxes, hands on a page, a pencil held to a line, light streaming though long windows… each image interleaved with a transcribed narration relating to Bernard, the IMCO’s demolition, the new science of dry cleaning, or Lewis Mumford musing on time and the tyranny of the clock. It is a testament to Murphy’s conceptualisation that the reader does not feel short-changed; the section still feels cinematic. The beautiful images subtly, and spaciously, conjure thoughts about progress, value and modernity, which are then usefully expanded on in supporting essays.

In The Become and the Set-Fast, James Merrigan jolts the reader by mentioning that Murphy’s film was shot in a high-rise office building across the road from the site of the demolished IMCO complex, knowledge that ‘allows the viewer to navigate to-and-fro between HISTORY and a PRESENT that struggles to surface from the rubble of modern progress.’ Ellen Rowley continues the meditation on what it is to be Modern by contributing a thoughtful overview of Irish inter-war architecture, suggesting that the lack of quality International Style buildings was due not to ignorant isolationism, but rather to a nationalist re-focusing on innovatively designed rural-based industrial buildings that should be considered ‘mechanistic masterpieces’ in their own right.

Gazing at the beautiful images of the IMCO building, with its streamlined form, curved glazed stairwell, clock tower and white facade, the radio-controlled collection vans and the vivid advertising material promoting ‘Tex-Tone super cleaning’, it is hard to imagine how such a significant building could have disappeared from the Dublin skyline. The book helps by explaining that modernity is by nature messy, and that attempts to outrun obsolescence lead to redundancy. In the case of the IMCO, the transfer of dry cleaning services to smaller retail outlets led to the building’s detachment from its original purpose; progress made it irrelevant and to many it became culturally and socially invisible. Two workers recalling life at the factory illustrate this disconnect: when asked what they thought of the place, one says: ‘I felt it was just a building that was there… Never said whether you like it…’ Their voices linger, but today the evidence has been lost.

Similar notions of value, ephemerality and loss arc through Murphy’s book-within-a-book about Bernard. A life led in constant momentum: traveller, ship-wreck survivor, camouflage and scenic artist; a man experienced in illusion, in the elimination of the inessential and in working in the moment – an architect of the ‘now’. He died young, and it is poignantly ironic that his most significant extant work, the Deco interiors at the Regent’s Palace and Strand Palace Hotels are foyers – threshold spaces that suggest something greater to come. Murphy, with his artist’s eye, ably reanimates his potential. Concluding the richly-researched monograph he carefully reproduces the back cover of Bernard’s diary and the dark blue marbled paper seems to ripple outwards to the reader – not just an end-piece, but also a space where the imagination can play.