'Much of his work was very brave'

Sam Stephenson, the man behind some of Dublin's most renowned buildings, died on 9 November. Adam Maguire talks to leading Irish architects about his work


Sam Stephenson was one of the most talked about Irish architects of the last 40 years because of the controversy that surrounded much of his work. However amongst his peers, Stephenson is remembered in a very different context.

"The most generous man you could meet and great company," says Cathal O'Neill of Cathal O'Neill Architects. "[He was] fun, very bubbly, mischievous, with a twinkle in his eye."

Shane de Blacam of de Blacam and Meagher Architects agrees, describing Stephenson as someone who had a romantic spirit. "In recent years in Dublin he was kind, good company and always generous," de Blacam says.

However, she believes Stephenson's career was marred by what she calls huge upheaval. "I am not sure that it was the turbulence of postmodernism, as Sam claimed, because he didn't really build in that style. It may have been the excesses of business," she says. "In any event, he walked away from two most beautiful people, Bernie Stephenson and Arthur Gibney."

Dublin's Central Bank (Stephenson)Peter Carroll of A2 architects came to Dublin as a student and saw Stephenson as the only prominent architect in a city void of architectural progress. "When I came to Dublin to study there weren't many buildings going up... You have to respect his work, much of what he did was very brave. It had its failures alright, but in terms of structure it was very impressive," Carroll says. "Something like Central Bank had never been tried before."

While Carroll says he would not call Stephenson an inspiration, he believes his work will stand the test of time, unlike some more contemporary ventures. "The impact wasn't always positive but his buildings are better built than a lot of what's going up in Dublin today. Stephenson's buildings will probably always be there."

Cathal O'Neill says it may take some time to fully appreciate what Stephenson has created. "It's too early [to assess his legacy]. It generally takes at least 50 years to be able to assess architecture properly, and some of his work has been destroyed or changed. But he had a lot of contemporary popularity, and he had a great impact," O'Neill says. "Some of his best work was done in his earliest years, with his partner Arthur Gibney."

James Pike, founder of O'Mahony Pike Architecture and president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, says Stephenson and his partner Gibney became the architectural epitomy of the Ireland in the 1960s, at a time when most architects were leaving the country due to a lack of work.

"They set the pace for the next 20 years. It was a time of extraordinary change and they would have been in the vanguard, leading the pack," he says. "His style is not really in fashion these days, and it probably won't go down in history as one of the best periods in architecture... but he and Gibney found a base for the development of that national style that we see today." p