Hands off Dublin’s twentieth-century architectural heritage!

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Platform, Volume 26

By Ruth McManus

Recent suggestions that some of Dublin’s distinctive twentieth-century local authority flat complexes could be ‘de-listed’ as a prelude to demolition have generated a timely debate about the value that we place on our historic built environment. The discussion has been prompted by the proposed renewal and redevelopment of 109 apartment complexes owned by Dublin City Council (DCC). An initial report to the DCC’s Housing Strategic Policy Committee in March 2018 advocated ‘housing-led area renewal and estate redevelopment at increased sustainable densities, building on principles of community-based, tenant-led approaches to regeneration’. It acknowledged that the buildings were generally physically solid, well located and supported stable communities, but needed to be brought up to modern standards. Each complex would be considered on its merits, with options ranging from the refurbishment and amalgamation of existing units to adding new-build extensions or additional floors to blocks, adding new-build blocks within the site or, finally, phased demolition and rebuilding. Nowhere in the document was the word ‘de-listing’ mentioned.

In discussing the proposals, however, Brendan Kenny, deputy chief executive of DCC, stated that ‘Most of these complexes are not fit for purpose … In my view we should demolish most of them, maybe all of them.’ Such comments were inevitably controversial, given that a number of the flat schemes (including Marrowbone Lane, Chancery House, Henrietta House and Poplar Row) are on the local authority’s Record of Protected Structures and thereby legally protected. Kenny later backtracked and claimed (via Twitter) that ‘Dublin City Council has no plans to “knock jewels of old Dublin”’.

Some 6,391 DCC-owned flats are the subject of regeneration proposals. Those of greatest architectural interest were built in the golden age of slum clearance. Over twenty flat schemes were completed in the 1930s and 1940s, including Countess Markievicz House (Townsend Street), Pearse House (Hanover Street) and Mercer House. Some 1,002 flats were completed from 1932 to 1939 alone. All were designed by the city’s housing architect, Herbert Simms, whose work is belatedly receiving the attention and appreciation which it richly deserves.

Herbert George Simms was born into a working-class family in London’s Kentish Town in 1898. Having served in the First World War, he was awarded an ex-service scholarship to study architecture at the University of Liverpool. He came to Dublin in 1924 and became a temporary architect to Dublin Corporation in the following year. By the time he was appointed as Dublin’s first housing architect following the 1932 Housing Act, which placed increased emphasis on slum clearance, he was thoroughly familiar with the serious housing and public health issues facing the city. Rowley (2016) has observed that Simms had a strong ethical approach to public housing and town planning. He was diligent and determined. Leading a small team, Simms was responsible for the completion of 17,000 new dwellings for the working classes before his untimely death in 1948. These took the form of greenfield suburban estates, including Cabra West, Crumlin, Ellenfield, Larkhill (Whitehall) and Sarsfield Road (Ballyfermot), and distinctive city-centre flat complexes. It is the latter part of his legacy that has recently been threatened.

There had been strong opposition to the construction of flat blocks by Dublin Corporation, with a common refrain that flats would inevitably create new slums whereas suburban housing offered a fresh start in healthy country air. Flats were decried as ‘inhuman packing cases’ and, infamously, ‘breeding grounds for Communism’. Nevertheless, even those who preferred the cottage estates could remark on the attention to detail of Simms-designed flats such as those at Greek Street, where ‘considerable ingenuity [was] displayed’. The modern, elegant lines of the 1930s schemes looked to the future and were far removed from earlier grim ‘barracks of propertyless men’ which, it was feared, were ‘creating slums for the future’.

Dublin’s distinctive 1930s flat schemes are deceptively simple. Although they have been compared to both Dutch and English counterparts, the combination of elements resulted in a particularly Dublin type. Most are flat-roofed four-storey perimeter blocks, whose brick facades contrast with plain concrete courtyards behind. Access to the self-contained flats is by external stair towers and open galleries at the rear. Strong perimeter façades introduce an international Modernist flavour through their horizontal emphasis, with curved corners and balconies, overhanging eaves and decorative entrances. At the same time, these schemes use simple, familiar materials and respect the height of pre-existing buildings, enabling them to blend well into the Dublin streetscape. The flats combined functional and decorative elements, as seen in the beauty as well as the practicality of the curved sun balconies that offered light and fresh air to tubercular slum-dwellers.

The flat blocks designed by Simms and his team were not just of architectural importance. Their construction helped to retain population at the heart of the city, keeping communities intact and contributing to the continued vibrancy of urban life. This was facilitated by a policy of decanting residents from the slums to the new dwellings, then building further blocks as the remaining slum buildings were cleared (an approach echoed during Ballymun’s recent regeneration). Simms himself preferred central block housing rather than suburban schemes as a solution to large-scale slum clearance.

Above: Henrietta House—one of the George Simms-designed flat complexes built in the 1930s and now threatened with ‘de-listing’ from Dublin City Council’s Record of Protected Structures. (Ellen Rowley)

After three generations, most of the Simms-designed schemes can boast a well-settled community whose residents enjoy ready access to a range of urban amenities. Many of the flats are small, however, and have suffered from limited internal maintenance. Clearly, the protection of our architectural heritage should not be at the cost of providing decent homes—such an irony would not have been lost on the original builders of the flats. Deep retrofitting which is sensitive to the built heritage should be the desired goal, but this approach could be problematic. One of the issues that resonates throughout Dublin’s housing history is funding. The current local authority, like its counterpart following the publication of the 1914 Housing Inquiry (in the wake of the tenement collapses in Church Street the previous year), will inevitably require financial assistance from central government to achieve its goals. The report notes that the cost of deep retrofitting of complexes to bring them up to modern standards ‘can be as high as demolition and rebuild’. This is worrying in a climate where the government would prefer to announce the construction of new housing units rather than signalling commitment to a refurbishment project. It surely misses the point, however. Demolition would destroy our architectural and social heritage but also has significant environmental costs. The carbon impact of a new build as opposed to refurbishment ought to be factored into any calculations.

In Ireland we have a poor track record of appreciating and protecting our built heritage—or, indeed, our landscapes. In contrast to our rich oral culture, literature and music, we tend to have limited aesthetic appreciation, as witnessed in the littering of the Irish landscape with inappropriate one-off housing. Rushing to demolition is another example of the philosophy that newer must be better. We tend not to recognise and value our built heritage until it has already been lost. Twentieth-century architecture is only gradually beginning to gain the level of appreciation and recognition that has been afforded to the buildings of earlier centuries. Meanwhile, the piecemeal architectural destruction being wrought on the capital is rendering the city increasingly bland. We are stripping away our heritage and identity along with the varied building fabric of different eras, which provides interest and character to our streets. The very suggestion that buildings that have achieved recognition for their importance by being placed on the register of protected structures could be demolished is indicative of a narrow, development-focused mind-set.

The story of Dublin’s slum clearances is not just the story of Simms and his heroic efforts to provide adequate housing. The story has a wider context, embracing the role of city manager P.J. Hernon and many others who worked tirelessly to promote improved dwellings for those eking out an existence in pestilential tenements. It is the story of a city, a nation and its citizens. In remembering the struggles and successes of the past, we should be encouraged to do better and to address present challenges with a firm resolve. The proposed Renewal and Redevelopment Programme could ‘act as a dynamic catalyst for urban redevelopment’. It would be a terrible pity if, in the name of improvement, it also resulted in the destruction of a significant part of our social history and architectural heritage.


Ruth McManus is associate professor and former head of the Geography Department at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.


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