More than concrete blocks: Dublin city’s twentieth-century buildings and their stories, volume I, 1900–40

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Dublin City Council/Four Courts Press/University College Dublin
ISBN 9781902703442

Reviewed by: Mary Davies

concrete-blocksThe population of Dublin city grew from just under 300,000 in 1900 to half a million half a century later, and More than concrete blocks is the first of three volumes commissioned by Dublin City Council Heritage Office to set out Dublin’s architectural history during this period. As editor Ellen Rowley reminds us in the introduction, the appearance of Dublin, even into the 1960s, was dominated by its Georgian building stock, set into eighteenth-century streetscapes laid out by the Wide Street Commissioners. The years 1900 to 1940, covered here, include the first two decades of Irish independence and coincide with the flowering of ‘International Modernism’—the architectural style we associate with white-painted, flat-roofed, functional buildings. The exploration of Dublin’s architecture in relation to both national independence and external architectural influences illuminates Prof. Hugh Campbell’s assertion in the foreword that ‘life-facts’ of buildings are as important as the ‘art-facts’; i.e. the story of how a building came about, and how it has been used over time, is as significant as its design.

The book falls into three parts. It begins with two overview essays by Rowley, covering pre- and post-independence. The main section is taken up by a series of detailed case-studies, describing ‘places which frame the different patterns of life: places for dwelling, places for worship, places for labour, places for resort, places for learning and so on …’. Here Ellen Rowley is joined by five other architect contributors—Natalie de Róiste, Merio Kelly, Shane O’Toole, Carole Pollard and Paul Tierney. Each study features plans, period images and recent photographs, and ends with ‘Facts and figures’ and ‘Sources’.

Tara Street Fire Station, for instance, built between 1897 and 1907, is included as an example of an early twentieth-century public building, one that revitalised a somewhat run-down area. Designed by the city architect, its design was both traditional and modern. The street image was traditional, featuring bright red Portmarnock brick and Skerries limestone. Inside it contained all the most modern equipment and facilities, including residential accommodation for the crews and their families. Built in the days of horse-drawn fire engines (the stables were given particular attention), much has now been demolished and the remaining portion has been converted into a city-centre hotel—providing accommodation of a different kind and offering less-disturbed sleep for its occupants. The tall tower remains a prominent landmark.

Twentieth-century changes in housing are heralded by the case-study of the Iveagh Trust Housing Estate in Bull Alley, completed by 1906 and ‘a formidable presence on the streetscape’. Following closely on the projects of the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company, this was part of an important improvement in working-class accommodation. On a larger scale, the Marino Housing Estate, built between 1919 and 1927, comprises some 1,400 houses with ‘great variety in materials, house types, roofline and streetscapes’. It is described as showing the influence of the UK’s Tudor Walters Report, which had recommended that post-First World War housing should be ‘Two-storied cottages, built in groups of four or six, with medium or low-pitched roofs and little exterior decoration, set amongst gardens, trees . . . and have such a distinct character that it is hard to mistake them for anything else’. The estate is seen as representing the purest form of a garden suburb in twentieth-century Dublin.

Equally important to the history of domestic architecture, Wendon, a short distance away in Glasnevin, is a Modernist family home built by a developer for his own use. Made of pre-cast concrete blocks, with steel windows and ‘a luxurious high-spec finish’, it may have been the first private house in this style in Ireland.
The greatest cataclysm in Dublin during the 40 years of this study was, of course, the damage to Sackville (O’Connell) Street during the 1916 Rising, and the lengthiest case-study deals with the rebuilding from 1917 and of Clery’s Department Store, 1919–22. Some 80 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged by fire, providing an unusual opportunity to rebuild in cohesive style. With a history back to the 1700s, the street’s early grandeur and great width had made it an emblem of Dublin’s status as the second city of the British Empire and it remains the most impressive street of the whole country. The decision taken to rebuild to an ‘unco-ordinated design’, rather than in uniform style, underlies its present character. Clery’s was rebuilt with London compensation, and because of fire hazards was constructed of reinforced concrete: its design reflects that of Selfridge’s in London, making it an equally important example of an early department store. As a social centre as well as a retail one—meeting under Clery’s clock was a long-time romantic tradition and its ballroom was thronged during the showband era—Clery’s is a fine example, albeit a sad one at present, of the conjunction of architecture and ‘life-facts’ that this volume sets out successfully to elucidate.

The great variety of buildings built during this period is encapsulated in the volume’s third section, the Outline Survey, which provides an image and brief history, arranged chronologically, for 98 structures. There is an extensive bibliography. But could we please have an index in subsequent volumes? Or, if not a full index, at least one of architects and builders?

This is a book densely packed with information. Architects will know and value it already; the rest of us should acquire it and contemplate with pleasure the buildings it describes.

Mary Davies was formerly the cartographic editor of the Irish Historic Towns Atlas series.


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