BLOG: MAKING TALKING TO MY FATHER – BY DIRECTOR SÉ MERRY DOYLE

My lat­est film Talk­ing to My Father was funded by the Arts Coun­cil’s — REEL ART Scheme and pre­miered at the Dublin Film Fes­ti­val 2015. It has now been invited to screen at the Amer­i­can Archi­tec­ture and Design Film Fes­ti­val and will have an exclusive the­atri­cal run at the Irish Film Institute from Friday October 16th (visit the film page for more information).

The film Talk­ing to My Father came about through an unusual set of events. The archi­tect Simon Walker  shared office space with my pro­duc­tion com­pany Loopline Film. Over the years we had end­less con­ver­sa­tions about the golden era of Mod­ernism in Ire­land and I wanted to make a film with Simon at the helm that explored this era. I filmed sequences with Simon explain­ing how archi­tec­ture and art was used by the gov­ern­ment of the day as a kind of brand­ing of mod­ern Ire­land. I intended the start­ing point to the time  Michael Scott erected an elab­o­rate pavil­ion for the New York World’s Fair in 1939 as a sym­bol of a new, mod­ern Ireland. Then I dis­cov­ered the film I actu­ally wanted to make was elsewhere!

Talking to my Father

Loopline Film offices in Lad Lane Dublin closed after our land­lord lost his shirt dur­ing the bank­ing cri­sis. One of the rooms in Lad Lane was rented by my friend the archi­tect Simon Walker. We found much smaller premises on Bag­got Street and when Simon moved in I saw that he had boxes and boxes of archi­tec­tural doc­u­ments relat­ing to the life’s work of his father Robin Walker.  He filled me in about Robins life as a young archi­tect, which included study­ing with Le Cor­busier in Paris and a stint work­ing along­side Mies van der Rohe in Chicago before return­ing home to Ire­land in the late Fifties to work along­side Michael Scott who later made him a part­ner in Scott Tal­lon Walker. Scott Tal­lon Walker were at the fore­front of Ire­land’s rapid expan­sion after years of aus­ter­ity and emigration.

As a part­ner in Scott Tal­lon Walker, Robin Walker became a key agent in this nation-building process. The film accom­pa­nies Robin’s son Simon, also an archi­tect, on an explo­ration of some of the most inter­est­ing and iconic pub­lic and pri­vate build­ings pro­duced dur­ing this rich period of cul­tural opti­mism and civic idealism. Simon, though a great admirer of his father’s legacy, also remem­bered with sad­ness the early sev­en­ties when his father with­drew from the world of archi­tec­ture and to some extent his family.

I was intrigued and began to think of how this might become a film. Our con­ver­sa­tions became the basis for a short pilot I made for a sub­mis­sion to the Irish Arts Council’s — Reel Art Scheme. For the pilot I sug­gested that Simon write a let­ter to Robin and this device worked so well that the film became a reality.

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The first film­ing took place in Bothar Bui the beau­ti­ful villa Robin built for his fam­ily on the wild Beara Pen­nisula in South­west Cork.  Simon’s sis­ter Sara looks after Bothar Bui and main­tains its upkeep by rent­ing it out. It is a very pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for artists and archi­tects and for a few weeks the Walk­ers, their many friends and an army of young chil­dren inhabit this paradise. The magic of this won­der­ful archi­tec­tural mas­ter­piece was cap­tured in all its glory by my long­time cin­e­matog­ra­pher Paddy Jordan.

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The thread of Simon’s let­ter was the con­duit for the film’s jour­ney into Robin’s archi­tec­tural legacy . As we began our jour­ney to film Robin’s work, Simon told how his fathers func­tional approach to archi­tec­ture did not appeal to some and con­tro­versy dogged his early build­ings like the ‘Opera House’ in Cork and his ‘Bord Failte Head­quar­ters’ in Dublin. In one scene Simon took his stu­dents to the now empty ‘Bord Failte’ build­ing and shed light on Robin’s intent to cre­ate har­mony between his cre­ation and the Geor­gian build­ings that sur­rounded it.

This core tenet of Robin’s approach to site is stun­ningly demon­strated in our sequence at ‘The Week­end House’ in Kin­sale. This mod­ernist mas­ter­piece stands on pil­lars over­look­ing Kin­sale Har­bour.  The house went through a period of decline until the Healy fam­ily bought it and set about restor­ing it to Robin’s orig­i­nal design. Iron­i­cally they chose Simon Walker to over­see the work and this led to one of the best scenes in the film.

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Simon’s journey unearthed many other magical architectural encoun­ters with his father’s legacy. He con­veys how Robin’s Open Vol­ume plan for the Restau­rant at UCD has been blocked up with par­ti­tions and his rad­i­cal plan for the stu­dents to sense free­dom in the build­ing is now sadly oblit­er­ated. The same image is con­veyed when Simon vis­its Robin’s Art Build­ing at Maynooth Col­lege. The build­ing once sat like a jewel on the land­scape but is now unloved and uncared for and can hardly be recog­nised as it is swamped by new ugly struc­tures all round. Robin’s clar­ity of design can still be seen in all its glory when we wit­ness Saint Columba’s Sci­ence Block and his cam­pus at Wes­ley College.

Robin’s with­drawal from archi­tec­ture coin­cided with the oil cri­sis of the early sev­en­ties when the ideals and ideas of the Mod­erns was aban­doned for a more spec­u­la­tive approach to pub­lic build­ings. Robin left the stage and con­cen­trated on writ­ing which are con­veyed through­out the film by read­ings from the actor Patrick Bergin.

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I designed the film as a lone jour­ney by Simon into his father’s life and I delib­er­ately avoided ‘talk­ing head’ inter­views and let the build­ings speak for them­selves. The orig­i­nal music com­posed by Stano and the haunt­ing sound­scape by Philippe Fau­jas fuelled the mag­i­cal atmos­phere of the film. We were also gifted to be able to fea­ture the great poet Sea­mus Heaney recite his poem An Archi­tect which he wrote after Robin’s pass­ing as a gift to  his wife Dorothy Walker. The film’s pri­mary focus was  to bring out the human story of Simon reach­ing across two eras to under­stand his father’s work and to mir­ror his own feel­ings about how today’s soci­ety is will­ing to let these build­ings dis­ap­pear as if they have no value.  I hope this film helps to high­light the impor­tant work that Robin and his con­tem­po­raries have con­tributed in Ire­land’s first major begin­nings in nation building.

Sé Merry Doyle

Talking to My Father is exclusively released at the IFI from October 16th 2015. Click here for more information.


The IFI is supported
by The Arts Council

Arts Council of Ireland