From the mid-19th century, Dublin’s population was exploding as thousands left their small unproductive farms in search of work. Matters only got worse after the devastation of the Great Famine in the 1840s.
Needing somewhere to live, they crowded into the crumbling Georgian mansions left behind by the ruling classes after the 1801 Act of Union, when they were taken over my speculative landlords. By the end of the century with with entire families living in one room and minimal cooking and sanitation facilities, the Dublin slums were considered as the worst in Europe. Facing a humanitarian crisis, Dublin Corporation had realised that somehow it had to provide accommodation for the poorest of the poor. From 1880, it began building, with mixed results.
When the Irish Free State came into being in 1924, it suspended Dublin Corporation. For the next six years, three commissioners took over managing an expanding city. Their top priority was keeping the city’s costs down and although some house building took place, most of it was aimed at the ‘artisan’ class who could afford higher rents, and even to buy their own houses. The slum problem remained.
In 1930, Dublin Corporation was re-established and one of its first acts was to appoint a housing architect.That job went to Herbert Simms, an Englishman already working in the council’s architects’ office.
Simms’ brief was to provide housing for the poorest of the poor by building apartment blocks in Dublin’s city centre as well as ‘cottage’ estates on the fringes of the city. From 1932 until 1948, Simms and his office would produce 17,000 such dwellings.
It wasn’t an easy task. His office was chronically short of money, materials and manpower. He was put under pressure by politicians, bureaucrats and religious leaders. He was forced to take short-cuts. Yet his best buildings were sturdily built with an elegance that makes them instantly recognisable. They have become as much a part of Dublin as its Georgian squares.
Herbert Simms: An Architect for the People by Lindie Naughton looks at the background to Simms’ work and also the problems he faced; many of which have carried over to this day. Then, as now, few politicians had any clear concept of how a city can and should work, with public transport critical, and areas for work, play and socialising within walking distance in the city itself – and not out in the outer suburbs and accessible only by car.
While Dublin grinds to a standstill, largely because of poor planning, and shoddily-built office blocks, shops and indeed housing erode what’s left of the city’s distinctive character, there is some good news.
Many of the Simms building are now protected, most notably Chancery House beside the Four Courts, which is rightly considered a gem of international modernist architecture. In the heart of the old ‘Monto,’ an area of Dublin with huge potential, St Joseph’s Mansions, now called Killarney Court, has had a sympathetic make-over, while work is due to start on Pearse House at the end of Townsend Street – one of the larger Simms projects.
There is much to be learned from Simms’ approach to public housing, and for those who want to explore the Simms buildings for themselves, there’s a full list in Herbert Simms: An Architect for the People, along with a number of current and archive photos.
Go out and explore them – and our city – for yourselves!
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