There’s a glint of colourful mischief in the eyes of Paddy O’Toole, a well-known player in Irish Architecture. That explains a lot about how he’s come to be where he is now, as managing partner of TOTP Architects on Mount Street, with a who’s who of blue chip companies for clients.
The choice of name for the firm, The O’Toole Partnership, which at first glance looks blandly respectable, but makes the acronym TOTP, struck me as familiar in a very different context entirely.
“Yes, it also stands for Top of the Pops…by coincidence. It did work alright, that is, there are still a few people who’d remember the show…and they have replays of course, with Jimmy Saville edited out these days,” he laughs.
“On a serious note, TOT has been our identity since 1982, originally Traynor O Toole, my first partner was Brian Traynor. When Brian retired in 2005 we rebranded as TOTA and in 2010 the new partnership TOTP was formed with my partners, Chris Ryan, John Dennehy, Ciaran Lynam and Donal Saunders.”
Setting up in private practice was an ambition early on in his career, though he says modestly it’s just another way of saying you’re unemployed when you’re starting out.
“When I started working, it was for Sam Stephenson, it was in a big office full of vibrant young people. He told me at the time that he had started his own business because he had no alternative — he joked that it was just a euphemism for being unemployed. I ended up as a director myself, but was let go during the recession in the 80s, so I took that idea.”
Accompanying his colourful tie is a bright yellow flower in the lapel of his beige suit, and stylish specs with blue frames and white arms. Clearly he’s a man for whom working in construction does not imply dressing in drab colours.
“During the recession we won a number of Healthcare projects in Qatar. I bought that tie in Doha in the museum of Islamic Art. I mightn’t be allowed wear it on a beach in France, he smiles. The colours are hanging on to youthfulness, “the Autumn is drawing across my skin” as Leonard Cohen would say.”
His sartorial mores certainly didn’t seem to hurt when it came to the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, during which he and his firm ended up working on the biggest of the big projects in the capital, including the most iconic symbol of the collapse — the giant docklands hulk which was originally planned to house the new Anglo Irish Bank headquarters. HJL are finishing the building now as the Central Bank HQ.
A painting of that building is hanging on his wall — a painting, with the word ‘Zeitgeist’ running across the centre.
“By 2007 we had 130 people working in the office and everything was flying, there was no end to it. That painting on the wall tells a lot about us. We won the project for Anglo Irish Bank’s HQ. Liam Carroll was the developer and he had done a deal to lease it to Anglo.
“Derville Murphy, former head architect in BOI, did the painting, Ghost of the zeitgeist reflected in the Liffey. It was emblematic of the time.
“We worked with a lot of the big developers: Paddy Shovlin, Liam Carroll, Bernard McNamara and all the rest. We were doing that building, we were doing BOI’s headquarters, Eversheds’ new HQ — well over a million square feet in docklands alone. And it all practically stopped in a couple of months.
“It had a cataclysmic effect on us. Then there was the really difficult thing, letting all the staff go. Like all the big practices we had to lose all our staff except a very small number and build it back up. All of them eventually got sorted out — they went abroad, some started their own practice.”
Like anyone who survived the crash, TOTP learned some salutary lessons, and his description shows that both the business and the market have changed radically.
“The big change now is we’re actually working for end users — during the Celtic Tiger it was the opposite, we were working for developers. We still do some development work, but only for a select few.
“It’s much more sensible. You have someone who has a building and wants to use it for their purposes. It’s a much healthier
They have a business, they know what they want it to do and feel like.
“For example one we’re working on right now, Teleflex in Athlone, it’s on site and will be finished in October. The building is designed for them, and built for them to operate a worldwide business.
He also explains that the focus on the interior aspect of a project has continued to develop, particularly with new technologies that are now available.
We’re working on the Jameson visitor centre in Smithfield — though ‘Brand Homes’ is what they call them now, not visitor centres. We’re fortunate to collaborate with a company called BRC, from Burbank in California. They’re really set designers, story tellers, it’s bringing in a whole multimedia effect to the project.
“There’s so much technology to enhance storytelling now. There’s a lot of technology, so collaboration with the people who develop and design that technology, to install it, plus the traditional interior design and fit out process is what the work is often about.
“Technology has changed building. They’re all talking about connectivity and hot-desking from home. The traditional cellular office is well shot now at this stage. Being anchored to one place, which was the traditional design, is gone. Which is interesting.
Names that have benefitted from the TOTP touch run from the likes of Beacon Hospital to Symantec, Dublin Airport Authority, Stena Lines and Dublin Port Company to the IDA and Cysco.
“We did one of Facebook’s first office fit outs — it was workspace, meeting rooms, and cafeteria. They had their own view, which was creating playful spaces. To a certain extent it’s deception, illusion. What they end up with is a workspace in which they can fit in a huge amount of people with colourful spaces, the slides instead of staircases and so on — I suppose you could say its keeping people childlike, keeping people youthful. There’s a lot of good things about it, but in the end it’s about places for people to collaborate, rather than sitting down in a traditional big office.”
Of course there were harder lessons the firm has had to come through too, which have ended up helping define some of his guiding principles for the business.
“When we got really big we started miscommunicating, so we got in a management consultant to try and help. And after two or three attempts to sort it out we had a big meeting in Dublin Castle.
“I said look there’s only three things that are important in this; getting the work, doing the work and getting paid.
“Getting paid is a big one — we ended up with three million worth of unpaid fees.
“You need to be able to get confidence in the seriousness and commitment of the other side. We’ve stopped working with developers who want you to partner — share in their profits or most tellingly share in their loss.
“These days we’ll do our due diligence and find out what they’re like. If they’re a pain in the ass we won’t work with them, and if they’ve got a track record of not paying we won’t work them.
“One of the noughties developers came back to me that I had significant debt with, which he had written off. He came back during the recession and said he had an idea for a city centre project, he had an overseas company interested in it. I said I would do a feasibility study, but it would cost 5k and he would have to pay up front. He rang back the following day to say he’d triple it if we could agree to get the work done first”
“So…which would I prefer, not to get paid €5k or not to get paid €15k? I’d already been burnt. I said no.”
So what makes TOTP run smoothly these days, after prioritising the core three principles, and after the recession, I ask.
“I really think everyone needed a kick in the arse — some a big one, some a nudge, but everyone got a kick in the arse, and we all needed it — we needed a reality check.
“I think back to the Ryder Cup at the K Club, I went down with Bernard McNamara in a helicopter. I don’t think I saw any golf. When we’re were leaving that night there must have been 30 helicopters in the field, the rotors spinning as the choppers were coming and going. It felt like the evacuation of Saigon.
“Everyone was coming back to Dublin, but think about it – you don’t land back at Doheny and Nesbitt’s, you arrive back in the mountains. You’d be quicker getting the bus. I remember everyone holding their hats and their ties in the rotor blade wind. It was a mad, mad time. It was OTT. If it had continued god knows how obnoxious everyone would be.
“We have an ethos which I champion in the office, to create with passion and fun, and fun is about enjoying your work and having a bit of craic doing it. People come to work and they’re encouraged to enjoy it.
“Life is looking up. We’re busy with great clients, and we’re having a bit of fun and we’re getting paid. Instead of having a theoretical fortune we’ve got a small income – which is real.”