Gibney, (John) Arthur (1931–2006), architect, was born 6 August 1931 in the Rotunda hospital, Dublin, the only child of John Gibney, a dentist, of 8 Orchard Road, off Clonliffe Road, Dublin, and his wife Margaret (née Green). After attending St Joseph's CBS, Fairview, he initially aspired to become a painter, and entered the National College of Art (NCA), Kildare Street. Despite winning the Taylor art scholarship of the RDS in 1953 and 1954, he had difficulty defining artistic standards for himself, and was attracted to the clearer discipline that he perceived as inherent in architecture. Transferring to the College of Technology, Bolton Street, he was awarded the travelling scholarship of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) in 1955, and another travelling scholarship of 100 guineas, provided by a paint manufacturer, in 1957. Graduating with a Dip.Arch. in 1958, he worked until 1960 as an assistant in the practice of the distinguished modernist architect Michael Scott (qv).
Stephenson Gibney and Associates
In 1960 Gibney went into partnership with his college friend Sam Stephenson (1933–2006). Their early work together was confined to designing furniture, interiors, and small houses. In November 1962 they won a major competition to design a headquarters building for the Electricity Supply Board (ESB); claiming a prize of £1,500 against forty-five other entrants, the firm of Stephenson Gibney and Associates would eventually earn £60,000 in fees for the execution of the scheme. The project involved demolition of a row of sixteen eighteenth-century townhouses in Dublin's Fitzwilliam Street – an important element of the elegant layout and thitherto unspoiled vistas of the Georgian streetscape – and their replacement by a large rectilinear modernist office block. The resulting controversy galvanised a small element of opinion to express volubly, for almost the first time in public debate, appreciation of the Georgian heritage of the city. Owing to delays caused in part by the controversy, the building was not completed till 1970. Efforts (regarded as feeble by many critics of the project) were made to harmonise the modernist design with its surroundings. The front elevation, designed by Gibney, is a series of fourteen, clearly articulated, four-storey bays, of the same parapet height as the demolished Georgian row; each bay roughly emulates the dimensions of neighbouring Georgian facades. The ground-floor brick (the upper floors are clad in brown precast concrete) and the vertically proportioned fenestration also vaguely mimic the Georgian.
The particularly poignant cause célèbre of Fitzwilliam Street was the first of many confrontations between preservationists and developers that marked the Dublin building boom of the 1960s and early 1970s, with city planners, corporation officials, and elected councillors sometimes on one side of the debate and sometimes on the other. It was also the first of many high-profile, and frequently contentious, projects for Stephenson and Gibney, at a time when rapidly changing commercial requirements and increasingly incautious urban development favoured a young and energetic approach to design. The bravura of many contemporary European exemplars was a significant influence on the work of their generation of Irish architects, as was the mid-century transatlantic willingness to erase and remodel landscapes and streetscapes. When such international forces combined with the disdain for much of Ireland's built heritage that was endemic among many politicians, officials, and ordinary citizens, the writing was on the wall for Dublin's under-protected and badly maintained older buildings.
Gibney would later express regret for the siting of the ESB project, stating that 'he agonised for years over the “moral issues”' at stake (McDonald (1985), 29), and admitted that it was the wrong location for a modern building. At the same time, he refused to accept that the architectural profession was responsible for the loss of so much of Dublin's Georgian heritage, and assigned primary blame to bureaucrats and politicians, arguing that an area on the perimeter of the city should have been designated for the construction of modern office blocks, as per the model of La Défense in Paris. More fundamentally, he identified a problem of collective imagination and will: the Irish, he argued, 'have no consciousness of urban values … [T]he Liffey divides Dublin into two mental zones, both populated by people who are basically suburban-minded. And the government … has always been dominated by politicians from the provinces who don't seem to understand what a city is all about' (Ir. Times, 3 February 1988).
By the early 1970s, Stephenson Gibney and Associates was the leading architectural practice in Ireland, employing some 130 staff. Where Stephenson was ebullient, outspoken and combative, Gibney was sober, reflective and reserved. Their contrasting personalities found expression in differing stylistic approaches to design. Stephenson tended to favour bold, dramatic, flamboyant gestures, sometimes bordering on the gratuitous. Gibney was more restrained, creating strongly modelled sculptural forms and solid, cubical masses. While his early influences were the two icons of international modernism, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, by the 1970s he was qualifying his appreciation of their legacy. In a 1973 interview (Plan (1973), 12–13), Gibney acknowledged that architectural trends were reacting against the purist rationalism and rigid formalism of high modernism, which had failed to address fundamental functional, social, and psychological issues. While asserting his reluctance 'to depart from simple architecture, from the rectangle', he expressed a preference for buildings in which the user felt 'important' (citing Kevin Roche's Ford Foundation building in New York as an exemplar) rather than 'anonymous' (citing Mies's Seagram building in the same city).
These stylistic predilections and tensions are especially evident in Gibney's two most important works of the 1970s, both of which hearken especially to Le Corbusier. He described his design of Merrion Hall (1973), an office block on Strand Road, Sandymount, Dublin, as 'an exercise in the geometry of the module' (ibid., 13). His design accentuates the geometry of the building's external modular precast concrete frame, in which are set recessed, ceiling-to-floor curtains of tinted glass. The initial tenants were three semi-state bodies – Irish Shipping, Córas Tráchtála, and the Irish Goods Council – who took the lease against government advice as the bayside site was prone to flooding. Though Gibney's design was commended in the RIAI triennial awards for 1971–3, in time the building developed serious structural defects because substandard concrete had been used by contractors.
Gibney's most acclaimed work was the headquarters complex of the Irish Management Institute (1974), constructed on a greenfield site in Sandyford, Co. Dublin. Conceived as a corporate acropolis, the design accommodates both office space, which is housed in a two-storey, peristyle, square temple-like structure around an inner courtyard, and a training facility, which is quartered in a cluster of cubical units placed in an irregular plan that follows the contours of the terrain; the two components are linked by a terraced podium, within which are a library, dining area, and sunken courtyard. The ground surfaces (terraces, steps, footpaths) are composed of grey in situ concrete, designed to encourage lichen growth and weather staining, thus imparting a weathered, earthy appearance; while the buildings are all of glistening, white precast concrete. The project won for Gibney the RIAI triennial gold medal, Ireland's premier architectural honour, for 1974–6.
Political connections, property speculation, finances
Lucrative property speculation, sometimes involving unprincipled profit-taking, was rampant in the 1960s and early 1970s, particularly in Dublin, and in its enthusiasm for redevelopment, the government frequently overlooked sharp practice and planning anomalies. Stephenson and Gibney were among the architects most favoured by developers, and were engaged in numerous projects that made substantial profits for clients and investors. The two architects enjoyed close relations with politicians and officials whose cooperation in planning matters was essential. Over the years both men provided large amounts of funding to Fianna Fáil. Gibney had attended the same school as Charles J. Haughey (1925–2006), and the two remained lifelong friends (Gibney designed Haughey's yearly Christmas cards).
Besides producing architectural plans, the two partners themselves dabbled in property speculation. In 1969–70 they were among a group of speculators who acquired the site near the Grand Canal occupied by the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in exchange for a site bounded by Winton Road and Appian Way, a new clubhouse on the site (designed by Stephenson), and £300,000. The scheme involved the demolition of four fine Victorian villas on Winton Road, three of which comprised the offices of Stephenson's and Gibney's firm, and the other the family home of another of the speculators, Senator Eoin Ryan (qv). Stephenson's grandiose redevelopment plan for the Grand Canal site encountered significant problems with backers amid the property crash of the mid 1970s, and was never realised. In 1972 Gibney was enlisted by Stephenson in a venture called the Grand Canal Syndicate, along with a number of businessmen and property journalists; the partners, whose identities were secret, engaged in property transactions for development purposes through a front company. Their cover was blown when an uncompleted land purchase in Co. Wexford led to a high court action (1976); another court case arising out of a demand for repayment of monies advanced to purchase the South County Hotel in Dublin, resulted in the granting of a decree to the merchant bankers involved for over £1.5 million (1979).
In the wake of these setbacks, Gibney suffered a period of considerable financial stress, and in later years claimed to have been close to bankruptcy. The so-called Ansbacher report (2002) – which resulted from an inquiry into an intricate tax evasion scheme contrived by financier Des Traynor (qv), involving bank accounts in the Cayman Islands – confirmed Gibney as one of 147 individuals who had beneficially owned funds in Ansbacher (Cayman) Ltd. The report revealed that Gibney initially held an Ansbacher account in the early 1970s (as did Stephenson) as back-to-back security on loans to finance Dublin property deals, acting on the advice of Traynor, who was a partner in some of the deals. It appears that a family trust, organised for him by Traynor, was later used to offset Gibney's substantial financial liabilities. In the late 1970s Gibney opened a second Ansbacher account, which held a balance exceeding £100,000 in 1997, and was active as late as 1999.
Arthur Gibney and Partners
Gibney and Stephenson dissolved their partnership in the mid 1970s, and Gibney launched a smaller practice, Arthur Gibney and Partners. During the building industry recession of the 1980s, when Stephenson moved boldly and recklessly into the London market, Gibney continued to practise modestly in Ireland, completing a number of small but worthy projects, including the Delmas conservation bindery attached to Marsh's Library (1988), and the Gallagher Gallery in the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), Ely Place (1989). With his reputation and contacts he was well poised to exploit the building boom fuelled by the buoyant economic climate of the 1990s. Among many other projects, his firm drew up the master plan for the main campus in Glasnevin of Dublin City University, and executed many of the buildings; these included the Larkin Theatre, which won an RIAI Dublin regional award in 1992.
Gibney acted as the firm's principal architect on two important overseas projects. For the Irish embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he employed the vernacular of international modernism with Middle Eastern inflections appropriate to the locale. The Ireland pavilion at the 1992 universal exposition in Seville comprised a partially glazed octagonal exhibition space intersecting an enclosed cylindrical drum for performances, and was situated beside a rockbound water feature traversed by a sail-festooned footbridge, suggestive of Ireland's situation as an island and maritime nation, while hearkening to the exposition's theme of Columbian discovery; the design won an RIAI overseas regional award (1993).
Much of Gibney's work over the years was in the hospitality sector, which often involved the conservation or restoration of existing structures. In 1979 he renovated a wing of the former Jurys Hotel on Dame Street, into the new Bloom's Hotel on Anglesea Street; a prominent feature of the thorough refurbishment was the conversion of the old hotel ballroom into a basement-level restaurant, grill room, and cocktail bar. In refurbishing the entrance façade of the Gresham Hotel, O'Connell Street (1999), he installed a glass and painted steel canopy over the portico, replicating the original 1920s portico that had been removed in an earlier refurbishment. Gibney designed the first Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud on James's Place, off Lower Baggot Street (1981); when Guilbaud moved his restaurant to the Merrion Hotel, Gibney once again executed the design (1998), sensitively employing space and light to create a comfortable, relaxed ambience. Another of Guilbaud's ventures, Venu, on Anne's Lane, was Gibney's last completed project, opened several weeks before his death (2006).
Gibney's most striking achievement in this sector was his reconstruction of the former, fire-damaged Merrion Hall of the Plymouth Brethren into the Davenport Hotel (1993). Cleaning and restoring the brick and stone exterior, including the fine neoclassical façade (whose rendering was replaced and painted a soft yellow), Gibney inserted a modern, 116-bedroom hotel with ancillary services into the shell of the existing structure; a subtle varying of the fenestration relates the eight-storey interior to the two-storey articulation of the façade.
In another work of reconstruction, Gibney headed his firm's design team that converted Dr Steevens's Hospital into the administrative headquarters of the Eastern Health Board (1992), accommodating some 400 staff. Originally built in 1721–33 to the design of Thomas Burgh (qv), Dr Steevens's was Dublin's first public hospital, and on its closure in 1987 was the oldest hospital in Ireland and Britain still in the same use, and a structure of considerable architectural importance. Gibney skilfully adapted the interior to a contemporary administrative function while retaining the original classical proportions and dignity. To improve access to modern motor traffic, the main entrance was altered from the eastern front (which, situated on a narrow lane, had never been seen to advantage), to the northern front, where a new pedimented limestone portico and steps, identically replicating the eastern entrance, were installed. The result is a dramatic classical elevation, fronted by an expansive cobbled and formally landscaped forecourt, facing a major roadway and rail station at the western approach to the city centre. The project won an RIAI Dublin regional award (1993).
Public service; professional bodies; personal life
From early in his career, Gibney served on committees of professional and public bodies, and as board member in commercial firms. He sat on a committee that advised the government on the design of postage stamps in 1963, and served on the board of censors in the 1960s. Co-opted to the Arts Council (1982–3), he was not reappointed by the Fine Gael–Labour government in January 1984, but subsequently returned to the body as a Fianna Fáil appointee (1989–93). Highly respected in his profession, and an expert networker, he was a father figure to younger architects. A fellow and long-serving council member of the RIAI, comfortably topping the poll in yearly council elections, he served on many committees of the institute, and as juror in competitions. He served a two-year term as RIAI president (1988–9). A founding member of the Society of Designers in Ireland, and the body's president (1975), he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Construction Industry Federation and European Building magazine (1995).
With his early training as an art student, Gibney was renowned as a superb draughtsman, and was an accomplished amateur painter; he customarily took an annual early summer painting holiday to Venice, and exhibited watercolours of architectural subjects, including Dublin buildings of all periods. A member of the RHA, he was elected president of the academy for nine consecutive years, a singular honour for a non-professional artist. Winter holidays were devoted to Alpine skiing trips; he was founding president of the Ski Club of Ireland. He was awarded a Ph.D. by TCD (1997) for a thesis on the construction methods and detail of eighteenth-century buildings.
Erudite, urbane, and self-effacing, Gibney lived unostentatiously for a professional of his standing. He drove a BMW Mini, preferring to spend money on fine art and vintage wines, and resided for many years in a converted mews house of his design at 47 Leeson Place, Dublin. He married (14 February 1961) Phyllis Burke, an artist in stained glass, who carried out a number of church commissions; they had one son. Suffering from cancer, Gibney died at his home 18 May 2006; the funeral was from University church, St Stephen's Green, to Mount Venus cemetery, Rockbrook, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. A medal award for architectural drawing was established in Gibney's memory in the RHA.