Stephenson, Samuel Francis ('Sam') (1933–2006), architect, was born 15 December 1933 at 80 Manor Street, Dublin, youngest among five sons of Patrick Joseph ('Paddy Joe') Stephenson (1895–1960), librarian, and his wife Mary ('Mamie') (née Kilmartin), whose family owned a thriving greengrocery in Stoneybatter. His father, a native of the Dublin north inner city, fought in the Easter 1916 rising in the Mendicity Institution under his former school friend Seán Heuston (qv) and in the GPO. (His own father, a coachman, was shot dead aged 50 by British military on the Friday of the rising while inadvertently breaking curfew to attend to horses under his care.) Active thereafter in Na Fianna Éireann and Sinn Féin, he served in various capacities in the Volunteers during the Anglo–Irish war, and was briefly involved in the Communist Party of Ireland. Opposed to the Treaty, he disdained to take arms against former comrades, and took no part in the civil war. (Sam Stephenson remembered a childhood home full of lively literary, artistic, and political discussion, but remarked that the prevailing leftist ideology exerted little lasting influence upon him, who 'would be regarded as an extreme capitalist' (Plan (1993), 22).) Pursuing a career in the city library services, Patrick Stephenson became Dublin city chief librarian (1949–60). A founding member (1934) of the Old Dublin Society, and sometime editor of the society's journal, Dublin Historical Record, as the society's president (1957–9) he was instrumental in launching the campaign to restore Kilmainham jail. He died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage (6 April 1960), four days before his anticipated retirement on his sixty-fifth birthday.
Education, marriage, and early career
Sam Stephenson was educated at Belvedere College, where he won a Leinster senior cup rugby medal (1951), and studied architecture at the College of Technology, Bolton Street. Awarded the travelling scholarship of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) (1956) – and thereby exempted from completing his 'testimonies of study', the RIAI thesis equivalent for a qualifying diploma – he combined his study of modern ecclesiastical architecture in France, Switzerland and Italy, with his honeymoon, travelling on a Lambretta scooter with his newly-wed wife, Bernadette Flood, a victualler's daughter, of 23 Terenure Park, Dublin, whom he married on 10 September 1956; they would have two sons and two daughters.
Returning to Dublin, Stephenson designed exhibition stands with a display company (1956–7), but was laid off amid the severe building-industry recession. Setting up in private architectural practice (1957), he secured little work, but attracted some attention with his remodelling of a city-centre public house, 'demodernising' the interior by removing the fashionable plastic and chrome fittings to create a more traditional décor. He did interior design on contract to the Brown Thomas department store on Grafton Street, remodelling his office-studio in the store's attic as a striking, showpiece Japanese interior (1958). His design of the Horseshoe Bar (1959) in the Shelbourne Hotel combined 'the intimacy of the Dublin snug with the sophistication of a swish London hotel cocktail bar' (McBratney, 62). He converted a mews coach house at 31 Leeson Close into his family home (1958), achieving a nicely judged allocation of the limited space; most remarkable was the double-height living room, with its exposed ceiling timbers, white mosaic floor tiling, built-in bar, and sunken 'conversation pit'. Stephenson's radical design, redolent of a chic modern urban lifestyle, shattered the staidly respectable conventions of the traditional Irish parlour (his mother-in-law, observing the roughly textured, whitewashed stone walls, remarked on the difficulty he would have hanging wallpaper). Featured in an illustrated New York Times magazine article on modern interior design, Stephenson's stylish home provided the setting for numerous parties and social occasions as his career burgeoned through the 1960s–70s.
Partnership with Gibney; buildings in concrete
In 1960 Stephenson formed a partnership with a college friend, Arthur Gibney (qv), with whom initially he continued to concentrate on small jobs, especially interiors. Their breakthrough came in November 1962 when they won a major competition to design a new headquarters building for the Electricity Supply Board (ESB). The project was already controversial owing to the ESB's intention to demolish a row of sixteen Georgian buildings on Dublin's Lower Fitzwilliam Street to make way for a modernist office block; preservationists, spearheaded by the Irish Georgian Society, vigorously protested the proposed destruction of a portion of what was the longest remaining uninterrupted Georgian streetscape in the world, extending some three-fifths of a mile (one kilometre). The controversy marked the first mobilisation of public opinion behind an effort to preserve a portion of Dublin's Georgian architectural heritage. In this, as in subsequent, increasingly bitter controversies, opinions were polarised by conflicting cultural attitudes towards the historical legacy of such architecture (the progress of many neighbourhoods from eighteenth-century townhouses of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy to twentieth-century slum tenements induced many to regard their preservation with indifference or hostility) and by conflicting versions of modernity; the zeal felt by builders and speculators to profit handsomely from redevelopment was a further extenuating factor.
Striding pugnaciously into the debate, Stephenson disparaged the 'antics' of preservationists, upon whom he called down 'a plague – bubonic, or other approved', and argued that the preservation of Georgian domestic architecture was 'physically impossible' owing to the shoddy construction of Georgian homes, which had never been intended to last longer than a lifetime, and that the reconstruction of such architecture was 'aesthetically undesirable' (Ir. Times, 17 June 1963). Though the Dublin city council, acting on the unanimous advice of its professional staff, refused permission for the scheme, the Fianna Fáil minister for local government, Neil Blaney (qv), overruled the council and granted full planning permission (on 30 September 1964, the day before a new planning act that limited such ministerial powers came into force). Aspects of the original design for the ESB building (which was not completed till 1970) were modified to harmonise with the neighbouring streetscape; the upper storeys of the façade (designed by Gibney) were clad with panels of brown precast concrete, while the ground floor was clad in brick as, in Stephenson's words, 'a gesture to the adjoining buildings' (Annexe (1981), 59). The controversy enhanced the profile of Stephenson's and Gibney's firm among developers, speculators, and financiers, by establishing their reputation for a hard-necked resolve to carry through a project whatever the obstacles and opposition. (In the early 1980s Stephenson designed a granite-clad rear extension to the ESB headquarters, which he punctuated with a brick-clad, turreted, pseudo-Georgian termination at Baggot Street corner.)
Prior to completion of the ESB project, Stephenson and Gibney designed and erected Dublin's first precast-concrete office block, Hainault House (1967), on St Stephen's Green South, occupied by First National City Bank. Four white concrete piers were placed before a recessed ground floor and supported a four-storey upper façade, which was composed of sixty-four prefabricated window units in a reddish-brown aggregate (installed in their entirety in a mere twelve hours), harmonising with the proportions and colour tones of the existing Georgian streetscape. The concrete units aged unsatisfactorily, and within twenty years were replaced with a cladding that was more structurally sound but less aesthetically pleasing. Stephenson's most monumental adventure in precast concrete was the Department of Agriculture building (1974), Kildare Street, an especially large edifice for its time, at 250,000 square feet (23,226 square metres) and a plot ratio of 5:1. Large precast units were employed throughout the facing, achieving a sense of scale to match the neighbouring Shelbourne Hotel and nearby public buildings, though no effort was made to harmonise with their styles.
Battle of Hume Street; buildings in brick
In a lecture at UCD school of architecture (c.1980), Stephenson classified his own work to that point under four headings, each defined by the dominant material that he employed in an overlapping chronological progression: concrete, brick, glass and stone. His movement from concrete to brick as his primary material in the early 1970s was initially impelled on him as a resolution to another heated row over preservation.
Contracted as architects on another development on St Stephen's Green, in 1967 Stephenson and Gibney submitted a planning application for two concrete office blocks of similar design to Hainault House, one at each corner of the Hume Street intersection. (Two of the existing buildings on the site were in possession of the state, and Stephenson exercised his political connections to broker a deal with Donogh O'Malley (qv), parliamentary secretary with responsibility for the OPW, whereby the state relinquished its rights to the developer.) In a reprise of the ESB saga, planning permission was refused by Dublin corporation because seven houses on the site were officially listed for preservation in the city's draft development plan, but the minister for local government, Kevin Boland (qv), upheld the developer's appeal, overruled the local authority and granted permission (July 1969).
Opposition to the scheme then assumed a militant character. In an effort to prevent demolition, architectural students from UCD and Bolton Street technological college initiated a six-month occupation of one of the buildings (December 1969–June 1970), supported by a disparate coalition of politicians, clergy, architects, intellectuals, creative and performing artists, housing activists, and trade unionists. Not alone were preservation concerns highlighted, but also the conversion of housing stock to offices amid a severe housing shortage, and the corruption of planning by wanton property speculation. An attempt to oust the occupiers and regain the building by a strong-armed demolition squad employed by the developer resulted in a stand-off. Alarmed by rumours that guns were being proffered to the preservationists by republican paramilitaries, the government intervened and brokered a compromise whereby the occupation was abandoned, demolition was suspended, and the developer was required to make a new submission for planning permission.
To secure the new planning approval, Stephenson radically altered his design. The existing Georgian houses were razed, and replaced by two brick-faced, mock-Georgian office blocks. Though the device was widely accepted as a satisfactory preservation of the Georgian character of the streetscapes, features of the design betray its pastiche character: the chocolate colour of the brick, the pitch of the roofs, the departures from certain nuances of Georgian decoration. Stephenson was almost alone in perceiving the resolution as an ominous precedent; accusing the planners of rendering a 'misguided Solomon's judgment', he warned presciently: 'Accept this as a reasonable way to redevelop Georgian Dublin and, within ten years, there won't be a genuine Georgian building in the city' (quoted in McDonald, 99). Georgian pastiche – the construction of a modern office or apartment block behind a mock-Georgian domestic façade – soon became a dominant Dublin architectural style, favoured by planners and developers as an easy resolution of preservationist concerns. Castigating the trend he had reluctantly engendered as a 'poor compromise and timid planning', Stephenson bemoaned: 'It is now becoming increasingly acceptable to the planners to put up anything behind a Georgian façade' (Annexe, 60).
In the most adventurous projects of his ensuing 'brick period', Stephenson avoided pastiche and explored the possibilities of harmoniously integrating modernist design into historical streetscapes. The finest example is the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) (1971), Burlington Road, Ballsbridge, one of the most attractive achievements of his entire career. A garden annexe to the institute's existing quarters in a converted Victorian house, the edifice, occupied by the school of theoretical physics, consists of two elements: a semi-detached, campanile-like brick tower containing the service spaces is linked by glass-enclosed passages to a five-storey brick-and-glass cube, which accommodates offices, laboratories, a library and conference room. The floors and roof of the cube are supported by eight perimeter columns of in situ concrete placed at the one-third and two-thirds points along each side; the lack of corner supports imparts a remarkable sense of lightness to the structure.
About 1970 Stephenson was among a group of speculators who acquired a highly coveted site near the Grand Canal occupied by the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, in exchange for a site in Ranelagh, on which the existing Victorian villas included the offices of Stephenson Gibney and Associates. As part of the deal, Stephenson donated his services to design a clubhouse (1973) for the tennis club on the Ranelagh site, employing brick for both interior and exterior in a design that he called 'an essay in brickwork' (Annexe, 59). Despite persistent problems with efflorescence, the building was commended in the RIAI triennial awards for 1971–3. Stephenson's inflated intentions for the Grand Canal site – he designed three twelve-storey towers comprising some 300,000 square feet of office space – came to nought when the backers withdrew as the projected air-conditioning costs for such a massive development became prohibitive amid the 1970s' energy crisis. More modestly, he converted a 300-year-old former Huguenot church on Bride Street into new offices for his firm (Molyneux House, 1973), appending a street frontage composed of a cluster of deeply sculpted, brick-clad vertical elements to the romanesque-windowed nave, which he partitioned into four storeys with simple finishes.
Stephenson was highly commended in the 1971–3 RIAI triennials for the Dublin International Airport Hotel (1972; latterly, the Clarion Hotel); his inward-looking design of three storeys turning around a sunken courtyard was conceived as a tranquil, cave-like retreat from the bustling airport environment. A monumental work in brick was the Fieldcrest textile factory (c.1980), a massive industrial acropolis situated on a hill overlooking Kilkenny city; the complex was subsequently redeveloped as a business and technology park.
Political connections; property speculation; financial affairs
Stephenson's career was vastly enhanced by his careful cultivation of political connections, which facilitated the acquisition of contracts and of planning permission for projects. Actively involved in Fianna Fáil, he was a founding member of Taca, the controversial party fund-raising organisation of some 500 businessmen, who secured privileged access to cabinet ministers in return for regular donations to the party. He designed the Fianna Fáil posters for the 1965 general election campaign, and stood unsuccessfully in the ensuing seanad election (receiving one vote). He was twice co-opted to fill vacancies on the censorship of films appeals board (April 1964–January 1965; September 1965–January 1970), where he contributed to the pursuit of a moderately liberal dispensation, which saw many reversals of bans imposed by the film censor. His close personal friendship with Charles J. Haughey (qv) began in the early 1960s and ended only with Haughey's death, persisting through the scandals of the 1970 arms crisis and the investigations of 1999–2001 into Haughey's finances. (When Haughey resigned from cabinet during the arms crisis and thus lost the use of a ministerial car, Stephenson for a time chauffeured him about.)
In the early 1970s, Stephenson became heavily involved in property speculation, content not only to design buildings but also co-owning the properties on which they were built, as well as other properties under development. In 1972 he formed the Grand Canal Syndicate, which engaged in property transactions through a front company. His partners included Gibney (with whom he held fifty-five per cent of the shares), and the property editors of both the Irish Times and Irish Independent. (Stephenson's cosy relationships with these two men assured favourable coverage for his various endeavours over many years, and helped establish his public celebrity.) The identities of the syndicate's shareholders became public in a high court action (1976) over the failure to complete the purchase of land for a projected shopping centre in Wexford.
Advised and often partnered in such matters by his firm's accountant, the financier Des Traynor (qv), Stephenson held an offshore bank account in the Cayman Islands, in which at one point he had on deposit some IR£150,000. The report published in 2002 of the inspectors appointed by the high court to examine the affairs of Irish depositors in Ansbacher (Cayman) Ltd identified Stephenson as a beneficial holder of an Ansbacher account, which was used as 'back-to-back' security against loans to finance highly profitable property deals in Ireland. When interviewed by the inspectors in 2000, Stephenson claimed to have incurred substantial losses amid the property crash of the mid 1970s, and to have quarrelled with Traynor over disposition of his family home, the title deeds to which were held by Traynor's bank. Stephenson eventually recovered the deeds to his house, but all his deposits in the Caymans were withdrawn to cover his bank debts. He claimed thus to have ended his relationship with Ansbacher before the offshore scheme became illegal.
Independent practice; buildings in glass
By the early 1970s, Stephenson Gibney and Associates was the largest architectural firm in Ireland, employing a staff of 130. In 1976 the partnership was dissolved, and Stephenson formed his own smaller practice, Sam Stephenson and Associates, retaining the Molyneux House offices. The practice was promoted as a multi-disciplinary consultancy, offering clients a complete service in a single package comprising planning, architectural design, engineering, project management, and cost control.
Stephenson's first building in reflective glass was executed overseas during his partnership with Gibney. He chose the medium for the Ireland pavilion at the 1970 world's fair in Osaka, Japan, to effect an optical trick, creating the illusion of greater size to the small structure. The building, rapidly constructed on a restricted site and limited budget, attracted some six million visitors during the exposition, and was designed as a maze, with a glass-clad steel frame and interior walls of rough deal. His first glass-curtained building in Ireland was the head offices of the Educational Building Society (EBS), Westmoreland Street, Dublin. In the first phase of the project (1975), Stephenson controversially demolished the terracotta façade of the existing EBS building at Fleet Street corner and installed curtain walls of dark mirror glass. To avoid disfigurement of his concept by applied signage, he placed the client's three-lettered logo in neon behind the dark glass on the sidewall; invisible by day, the letters shone through the glass by night. The generally adverse reaction to this 'ultra-modern intrusion' (McDonald, 176) into one of the city centre's major streetscapes induced the planning authorities to impose stringent requirements on the second phase of the project (early 1980s), which involved the EBS's expansion into the neighbouring three buildings. Stephenson retained the art-nouveau façade of the Paradiso restaurant (built as a photographer's studio in 1912) with its large oriel window as the strongly vertical centrepiece of his design, and flanked it with a modernist north wing, in which he was compelled to frame the mirror-glass windows with large polished-granite panels. Though he converted the restaurant interior into a five-storey atrium – 'the most exciting entrance lobby in the city' (ibid.) – his exterior is a bizarre, lopsided, tripartite chimera.
He was far more successful with the Bord na Mona building (1978), Lower Baggot Street, one of Dublin's finest modernist buildings (latterly occupied by the mobile telephone operator O2). The silvery top-to-bottom reflective glazing is set in a slender aluminium framing, and is punctuated by intermittent sections of granite cladding. The landscaping softens the hardness of these surfaces: a small garden set in a 45-degree angle of the façade is linked to the building by a lean-to pergola carrying climbing plants. A bronze sculpture of a turf cutter, executed by John Behan (1983), was formerly set on a podium in the granite surface beside the entrance. The building was commended in the RIAI triennials for 1977–9, and – ironically considering the preservationist controversies aroused by so many of Stephenson's projects – received a 'buildings in context' award from An Taisce (1984).
Stephenson used reflective glass extensively in the Westinghouse factory (1979), Shannon, Co. Clare, both to symbolise the advanced technology manufactured by the company, and to reflect in the building's sprawling horizontal surfaces the pastoral setting of the facility. He employed reflective glass in his redesign of the entrance area of the London Tara Hotel (1979), thereby imparting to the building a more 'heroic scale' (Annexe, 59).
Stephenson's two most famous, imposing and controversial buildings, the Central Bank of Ireland (1978) and the Dublin Corporation Civic Offices (1986), were both constructed with stone-clad façades. According to Stephenson, he was commissioned by the Central Bank to design a building of 'considerable civic importance' and not 'just another speculative office block' (Annexe, 60). His initial design (1967) envisioned a fifteen-storey Miesian skyscraper standing on a high-level plaza; the scale and style of his conception were influenced by its being projected as one element within a major city-centre redevelopment (eventually abandoned) that would straddle the Liffey, and include a transportation centre, hotels, office blocks and shopping malls. The proposed height of the bank was steadily reduced through engagement with the planning process, until in 1970 Stephenson radically reconceived the project, and designed a bulky eight-storey block with a strong horizontal emphasis based on a novel structural system. Rather than the conventional system in which the lower storeys of a building support the upper storeys and the roof, two internal service cores of reinforced concrete were erected to support the roof (which straddles and overhangs the cores), and the seven upper storeys were all suspended from the roof by steel trusses at twelve support points, which are visible on the façades. Stephenson thus erected an upside-down, inside-out building (loads borne from above rather than below; load-bearing supports situated on the exterior). The suspended storeys (which overhang the ground floor and part of the surrounding plaza) are clad in granite, with deeply-recessed, ceiling-to-floor glazing, thus imparting a boldly striped appearance; internally, the low window-head and deep recession reduce glare. To create the dimensions of the plaza, the existing Commercial Buildings (1799) was reconstructed at a 90-degree angle to its original position, and remodelled as an annexe to the bank.
As Stephenson and his engineers worked out the finer details of the load-bearing structural system, the design was altered; the increased parapet height and the change from a flat to a pitched roof resulted in an additional thirty feet (9.1 metres) in height over the approved 120 feet (36.5 metres). When the discrepancy was detected, construction was well under way; planning permission was withdrawn, and construction halted for eighteen months. In the ensuing debate, Stephenson put forward the dubious argument that planning permission was merely a licence to develop an architectural concept. Under an agreed compromise, the roof was left uncladded, thereby achieving a slight reduction in height; the skeletal, pagoda-like profile of the exposed load-bearing roof structure was both visually distinctive and structurally honest. When a copper roof was installed in the early 1990s, Stephenson ribbed it to express the structural elements.
'The most emphatic twentieth-century architectural presence' on the Dublin skyline (Christine Casey, quoted in Ir. Times, 26 April 2011), Stephenson's Central Bank has been more highly praised for engineering inventiveness than architectural aesthetics. It draws adverse criticism as an incongruously monumental and modernist intrusion in an area of the city that, since the bank's construction, has been officially designated for preservation as a cultural quarter. As befits a temple of the modern religion of finance, certain of its features bear comparison to those of a continental gothic cathedral: it looms colossally above and amid the Temple Bar district – one of the few sections of Dublin that largely retains its medieval street pattern – dwarfing all neighbouring edifices; the support structures left exposed on its exterior are analogous with flying buttresses; boasting an expansive front plaza, it presses hard against the narrow streets and buildings on its other three sides. Contending that his building was meant to be an imposing, domineering edifice on the same heroic scale as Dublin's great neo-classical public buildings, Stephenson was confident that time would vindicate his design, and posited that 'the dubious citizens of Dublin will learn to love it in time' (Annexe, 60).
Stephenson also executed the Central Bank's Currency Centre (1978) on a greenfield site in Sandyford, Co. Dublin, a facility for the printing and storing of currency notes. The design comprises extensive, high-security underground vaults, and a complex of surface buildings and gardens, modelled on an Italian hill town. Though sharply varying in function, the buildings are each in the same material (brick) and detailing, some looking into a courtyard, and some onto the Dublin mountains. The project was awarded the RIAI triennial gold medal for 1977–9. Stephenson in later years accused the institute of pusillanimity in honouring him for the Currency Centre rather than the more daring, but controversial, Central Bank, and claimed that he had been sorely tempted to refuse the award.
In 1969 Stephenson won a competition against five other shortlisted contestants to design the new Dublin Corporation Civic Offices on a sloping four-acre site beside the river Liffey at Wood Quay. His winning design envisioned four, square tower blocks of varying heights – one of five, two of seven, and one of ten storeys – disposed in a pattern that descended visually toward the river. The scheme aroused the greatest contemporary controversy and retrospective opprobrium of all of Stephenson's projects, because of the significance of the location and the ultimate design of the buildings. Covering part of the original viking settlement of Dublin, the site proved to be of considerable archaeological importance, as excavations unearthed not only artefacts but remarkably well preserved, in situ specimens of Norse and early Norman domestic, urban and riverine architecture, including a section of the medieval city walls. At intervals throughout the 1970s demolition and construction on the site were delayed (often owing to political pressure or legal action taken by concerned citizens) to allow excavations to continue. A campaign, led by historian F. X. Martin (qv), to preserve the archaeological site and relocate the civic offices (against which Stephenson argued the fittingness of situating the hub of civic government on the site of the original settlement), mobilised a large body of public opinion, and attracted 20,000 participants to a protest march in September 1978. A three-week occupation of the site (June 1979) by protestors included many prominent citizens (dismissed by Stephenson as 'publicity seekers', though he was privately dismayed that among them was the doyen of Irish modernist architecture, Michael Scott (qv)).
When a 1974 planning decision stipulated that the four tower blocks be clustered closely together on the eastern half of the site, to allow an amenity area on the western half, and unimpeded views of Christ Church cathedral from the quays, Stephenson responded with a sweeping redesign of the scheme. Whereas in his original conception each block had concrete façades, a flat roof, and spacious projecting windows, the redesign (May 1976) called for granite cladding, a chamfered roof, and considerably smaller, deeply recessed slit windows. The solid, monolithic, starkly brutalist design was relieved only by the bevelled edges of the blocks. Disputing renewed objections that his structures would overpower Christ Church, Stephenson insisted that the cathedral constituted a fifth element of his composition, standing on the highest part of the site, and that the simple, severe, prism-like outlines of the blocks were meant to contrast with the tracery of the cathedral. The redesign also included an underground city council chamber with a glazed, circus-tent roof at ground level just below the cathedral.
On completion of two of the tower blocks in 1986, the corporation declined to implement the remaining elements of Stephenson's design. Critics castigated the two completed blocks for their 'bunker-like' appearance, exuding not an image of open and responsive representative government, but of an overbearing, secretive, inward-looking leviathan. Stephenson blamed the failure to implement his design in its entirety for the extent of public and critical disdain. When in 1992 the corporation determined to complete the project, a fresh competition was conducted (from which Stephenson was excluded), won by Ronnie Tallon (qv). With city councillors divided, Stephenson was invited to present his proposals before the council, which then approved Tallon's design by a single vote, on the casting vote of the acting chairman. Tallon's building, completed in 1994, expresses an open, transparent expansiveness diametrically opposed to Stephenson's concept. The strongly horizontal proportions echo the rhythm of the Liffey quays, and mask the bulky verticality of Stephenson's blocks. Tallon also linked together Stephenson's blocks with footbridges encased within a glass-enclosed atrium, with the practical purpose of easing movement of staff between the buildings, and the aesthetic effect of softening Stephenson's hard surfaces.
The Civic Offices were Stephenson's last major Dublin commission. Developers, bureaucrats and politicians – among whom his services were once high in demand because of the perception that he possessed the strength of will to face down opposition and see through a project – were now increasingly loath to engage him in the belief that his reputation and outspoken public persona attracted controversy. In response, Stephenson cast himself as a misunderstood genius, identifying with James Gandon (qv), a great architect harried by the philistines and lilliputians of his day, his buildings appreciated only by posterity.
From the late 1970s, Stephenson did considerable work internationally, supplying architectural, engineering, and project management services for projects in Britain, Europe, North America, Japan and the Middle East. His Irish work included projects for the Industrial Development Authority: a pilot scheme for rural job creation in Roundstone, Co. Galway, for which he designed a complex of small factories, crafts workshops, and housing (1980); and an enterprise centre at East Wall Road, Dublin (1985). Desirous to exploit the building boom of Thatcherite Britain, in 1984 he amalgamated his firm of Stephenson Associates International with Stone Toms and Partners, a leading British architectural practice. For the remainder of the 1980s, he executed work in London and elsewhere in Britain, maintaining a home in Islington, and moving conspicuously in the London social orbit, including the circle around Princess Margaret. In 1991 the London-based firm of Stone Toms Stephenson was voluntarily wound up and placed in liquidation owing to liabilities. Stephenson moved his Irish practice to Bloomfield Avenue, Dublin, and then to Leixlip, Co. Kildare, from where he continued to work on low-key projects.
A member of the RIAI from the late 1950s, Stephenson was elected a fellow in 1985. He was awarded an honorary diploma in architecture by Bolton Street College of Technology (1972). He was a member of the Architectural Association of Ireland, the Old Dublin Society, Old Belvedere RFC, and the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, and served for a time on the board of Kilkenny Design Workshops. His recreations included cooking, opera and painting (he was an RHA member and exhibitor).
His first marriage having been dissolved, he married secondly (1991) Caroline Sweetman; some twenty-five years his junior, she was daughter of businessman Michael Sweetman (qv), and stepdaughter of solicitor and economist Alexis FitzGerald (qv). They had two sons, and resided in a Georgian mansion, Ryevale House, Leixlip. Short in stature, bearded, and meticulously dressed ('a dieting Peter Ustinov' (Heffernan, 36)), Stephenson was remembered as both the perfect host and guest: attentive, gregarious, and an enthralling raconteur. Colourful, cultured, and charismatic, he attracted a diverse assortment of loyal and lifelong friends. Suffering for some time from heart disease, he had a quadruple cardiac by-pass operation in 1991. In his last years he re-embraced the catholic religion and became a daily mass goer. He died suddenly 9 November 2006 after a heart operation at St James's hospital, Dublin; the funeral was from St Francis Xavier church, Gardiner Street, to Glasnevin crematorium.
Legacy and assessment
The most important Irish-based architect of his generation, Stephenson exerted a major impact on the appearance and character of the country's capital city. He executed a number of striking, conspicuous, landmark buildings, and initiated several architectural trends, especially in office-block design, erecting Dublin's first examples of blocks in precast concrete, brick-clad Georgian pastiche, and reflective curtain glass. He was the best-known Irish architect of the period, his fame arising not only from the importance of his buildings but from the controversies surrounding many of them, and his role therein as an articulate, impassioned and provocative controversialist. Not alone Ireland's leading practitioner of brutalist modernism, he was also the style's foremost public apologist, who held the public eye with the flamboyant aspects of his character and lifestyle. An illustration of the divided, but preponderantly negative, public opinion about his legacy is an Irish Times readers' poll of 1991 that selected the twelve best and twelve worst buildings in Ireland. The top three in the worst category were all Stephenson buildings (Civic Offices, Central Bank, ESB). However, one of these buildings (the Central Bank) was also fifth on the best list, the highest-ranked modern building.
In the judgement of Shane O'Toole, Stephenson was 'first and foremost, a great interior designer' (O'Toole, 70). From the beginning of his career, when they formed the bulk of his work, throughout his years of greatest success, he created interiors that were original, inventive and eclectic. In most of his architectural projects he also secured the contract for the interior design, thereby imparting a unified concept throughout the building, while indulging an activity for which he had a special flair and passion. In plan, scale, materials and decoration, his interiors bespeak a humane sensitivity for the practical and psychological needs of a building's users, which is evident even within his most unabashedly brutalist exteriors.
In a not dissimilar manner, Stephenson as an architect was more aesthetically pleasing as a 'miniaturist' than as a 'monumentalist'. His most satisfying buildings are small-scale structures – the DIAS, Molyneux House, Bord na Mona – all distinctly modernist, while harmonious in scale and finish with their built surroundings. Capable of a sincere humanism in such miniatures, he tended toward a cold and sterile pomposity when aspiring to the 'heroic' – an adjective he employed repeatedly when describing his more grandiose projects, and when praising the architecture of Albert Speer, whom he especially admired for his totalitarian ardour to remake entire cityscapes. These contrasting features of Stephenson's oeuvre may reflect an analogous dichotomy of his character, between the private and the public man. Among family and friends, and in intimate social settings, Stephenson was warm and generous, a man of considerable charm. In the public arena he could be combative, grandstanding and domineering, qualities that describe his buildings when he aimed not to integrate with an existing environment, but to obliterate or command it.