Modern architecture in Ireland reached a high point in the early ’60s and one of its most celebrated and influential figures was Robin Walker. Robin studied under Le Corbusier in Paris and later worked alongside Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. His return to Ireland in 1958 coincided with the emergence of an aspiring modern nation. Robin Walker became a key agent in this nation-building process.
A quarter of a century after his death, his son Simon Walker explores the legacy of his father’s life’s work in Talking to My Father. Director, Sé Merry Doyle’s allows Walker’s buildings to speak for themselves, taking us with Simon in his search for Robin’s architecture of place.
Grace Corry sat down with Sé Merry Doyle to discuss his documentary, which screens at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Referring to Robin and Simon’s relationship and how you wanted to represent that in the film, you said that you wanted to capture them as father and son and as architects – was it difficult deciding which relationship to focus on more, or which relationship was more relevant to the film?
Well to me the big thing was that Simon wanted to pay homage to his father, both as a son and as an architect, both being from different eras – Robin’s era was kind of the golden age of modernism in Ireland, Simon is living in a country that’s just coming out of bankruptcy and such. Really, I wanted more of the human story as a film, I didn’t want it to be solely based on architecture in that I was more interested in trying to discover Robin through Simon. So it was kind of a gentle narrative and we worked a lot on that; it was probably the biggest thing we did. It started with me trying to encourage Simon to tackle the boxes and boxes he had of Robin’s writings, and in the end suggested to him to write a letter to his father, and that letter in a way became the application to the Arts Council or at least the central part of it. So that dialogue was always a central part.
Your own interests seem to have been with documenting historically and culturally defining moments in Ireland. Were you aware of how prolific an architect Robin Walker was or how instrumental he was in modernising Ireland?
No, I wasn’t. It was funny that, because I had done a film for instance about James Gannon and Georgian Dublin and made Sculptor of the Empire on John Henry Foley who did the Daniel O’Connell monument in Dublin and the Prince Albert monument in London, so funnily enough this was an area I wanted to dig in to. Simon shares an office with me and I knew how highly regarded his father was but I didn’t know that he had been with Mies van der Rohe (Paris) or Corbusier (Chicago). He studied and worked with both of them and I knew then that he was an individual whose story was worthwhile.
Did you approach this documentary – such an intimate situation and a sensitive subject – differently to how you made Alive Alive O – A Requiem For Dublin where you’re representing several voices or a community voice, as opposed to capturing this quite private discussion between father and son?
I wanted it to be something for all of us, I didn’t want it to be the same as the film I made on Patrick Scott [Golden Boy] – in that case I wanted the individual but this one I was kind of playing with what has happened to Dublin and who looks after it. One of Robin’s great buildings was UCD, which was originally an open plan for the students and now it’s been kind of turned into a supermarket. All the space has been taken away. The new Ireland that was coming after World War II and stagnation and economic failure had new buildings going up all over the place willy-nilly, but again after the oil crash of ’74 that all went away. The film is about whether we are invited into the conversation with those buildings that remain from that time. Do we like them? Do they mean anything to us now? The film is saying no in most cases.
I suppose working so closely with Simon on such a personal project about Robin’s work requires a particular approach to achieve the right balance.
Yeah, well that was delicate, you know, I’m not a Sunday World type of film journalist and I wanted Simon to have a certain amount of control. Once Simon knew that I was making a creative documentary and that there would be no interviews or appraisal type stuff and that it was really just going to be his own journey, that relaxed him. He’s a great writer and we spent hours and hours talking and looking back through his father’s papers and some of that went right into his heart. It was a complicated narrative but a great journey from reading old notes to going and seeing these buildings which made for some great moments in the film, a lot of which surprised me. I invited Simon to go as far as he wanted to go and he did.
So, what’s next for Talking to My Father?
At the moment I’m developing a film called John Huston – The Great White Whale, which is about Moby Dick and Herman Melville and a notion that Moby Dick is God and whoever kills him is akin to the apocalypse. We’re in development with the IFB and we’re very excited.
Talking to My Father screens at the IFI on Tuesday, 24th March @ 6pm as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.