In this tribute by Varming Chairman, John Purcell, we celebrate the achievements of Seán Mulcahy, whose impressive engineering career spanned almost the entire second half of the 20th century, from the post-war years right up to the early dawn of the Celtic Tiger era.
A Tribute to Sean Mulcahy
Over that long period the practice and science of building services engineering in Ireland developed from its very humble beginnings to embrace a myriad of highly-sophisticated engineering applications. Seán played a major role in that transformation through his belief in providing sound engineering advice, embodying both a sense of design excellence and a spirit of innovation.
To gain some insight into the influences that moulded this belief, it is necessary to factor in Seán’s family history and his early career experiences. Seán was born in 1926 into an Ireland that was still emerging from a turbulent decade of social upheaval, armed revolt and a highly-divisive civil war. Seán’s father was very active in these events and continued in a prominent political role for many years.
Seán was the youngest of six siblings. While not blessed with robust health, as a child he had already begun to exhibit the characteristics of gentleness and creativity that would endear him to so many of his acquaintances in his later life.
He decided on a career in building services engineering as it seemed to him, back in 1947, that building services engineering might well be a rapidly-expanding field. Fatefully, his interest was drawn to a Danish building services consultancy practice, J Varming & Company, which had just opened a design office in Dublin. Seán’s decision to accept a position with this company was one which was to shape his engineering career for the following five decades.
Jørgen Varming became Seán’s first “boss”, his mentor, business partner and a life-long friend. They went on to discover that they shared the same vision and values, not only for buildings and engineering, but also for art and music.
Jørgen Varming shared offices with Michael Scott and Ove Arup in Scott’s Merrion Square Building in those early years and the newly-appointed young graduate was assigned some minor engineering design for the Busáras office building. However, he soon realised that his university education had taught him little about building services engineering and nothing about architecture. To develop the fundamentals of these skills,
Varming sent Seán to Copenhagen for a year, his first time out of Ireland, to work for a Danish electrical contractor. Seán returned to Dublin from Copenhagen in June 1949 a committed building designer and an architect, albeit one specialising in the limited field of building engineering systems. The design of the mechanical and electrical installations in Busáras offered opportunities for innovation and so it should not come as a total surprise that the fire-fighting installation included a basic sprinkler system.
As the years went by, the complement of local Irish engineers increased and gradually the Danish engineers returned to the Copenhagen Office. Seán was appointed partner in charge of the Dublin Office, resulting in a change of name to J Varming & S Mulcahy. Seán persuaded Brian Reilly, a college friend, to return from England and join him in the new set-up. This was another key relationship that endured for the remainder of their professional working lives.
Ireland in the 1950s was not in a good economic state and the prospects for maintaining their small consulting engineering practice were becoming daunting for Seán and Brian. However, rather than consider retrenching, Seán’s reaction was to expand. With such a plan in mind, he approached Jørgen Varming in Copenhagen and, in 1957, on Ove Arup’s recommendation, they set up in London, styled as Steensen Varming Mulcahy. A second SVM office was opened in Edinburgh in 1959.
Having been based essentially in London and Edinburgh for over 10 years, Seán returned to the Dublin Office in the late 1960s, a decade which had seen a strong revival of the fortunes of the Dublin practice now styled as Varming Mulcahy Reilly Associates.
In a talk recorded in 1982, Seán gave his views on how engineering services enable modern architecture. He related enthusiastically to the definition of Henry Wooton that “the qualities of a building are those of commodity, firmness and delight. The structural engineer identifies his particular role with firmness. The building services engineer, his with commodity or performance, and both engineers believe with some justification that the architect’s concern is often with delight”.
Seán admired how Reiner Banham – in his book, published in 1969, Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment – set out the truly essential role of engineering services in modern building design. Banham pointed out that the functioning of all large or tall buildings is utterly dependent on ventilation, on lifts, on plumbing and on communications. Banham hypothesised that the single unique distinction of success of modern architecture design resides in the performance of its engineering services.
Jørgen Varming passed to his eternal reward in September 1996. At his funeral in Gentofte outside Copenhagen, the pastor began his homily with the striking words “The light of a most shining person has been extinguished very quietly, having burned for a long, long time, and we are all left so very strangely in the dark.”
Many of us with Varming roots can relate to these words and will have experienced the same sensation on the occasion of Seán’s recent passing.
Happily, the torch lit by Jørgen Varming in Dublin in 1946 is enduring and has been carried forward by successive generations of Irish Varming engineers. Seán Mulcahy will always be recognised, and remembered, as the main torch bearer.