The flat pack: Pearse House then and now
An installation on city living at Pearse House Flats and an exhibition at the National Photographic Archive bring Dublin’s recent past a little closer
You hear the cliché, but what exactly is a “desirable residence”? Does the phrase conjure images of a period home, a modernist palace, a country escape, or a chic beach house? In 1930s Dublin, for many, it meant running water, two bedrooms for a family of 10 and a bathtub in the kitchen.
Living without these amenities is within living memory for some in Ireland but, for those of a younger vintage, an installation by artist Jeanette Lowe at Pearse House Flats, alongside an exhibition at the National Photographic Archive, brings the recent past a little closer. Award-winning photographer Lowe has a close connection with the Pearse House Flats – her grandmother was one of the first residents to be rehoused there when the complex was built to address slum conditions and the prevalence of TB. Bridget, nicknamed “Birdy”, brought up a large family in the flats, including Lowe’s mother, Anne.
With 345 units, it is the largest municipal housing structure in Ireland (there are 10,000 families living in flats owned by Dublin County Council), yet how many “outsiders” know anything about these buildings, or the lives lived in them, save negative headlines when trouble breaks out?
When social housing projects are unsuccessful, architecture often gets the blame for what can instead be a failure of policy, particularly when planners underestimate the time and conditions it takes to create a community, but in the decades since they were built, Pearse House has been home, successfully, to generations.
Herbert George Simms was the architect, born in London. He also worked as a town planner in India and travelled Europe to research his inspirations, particularly admiring schemes in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. At Pearse House, he created what is essentially a gated community, with flats on three storeys in a series of blocks.
In Ireland, we tend not to talk about class, imagining (wrongly) that we don’t have such structures or divides. Class however becomes clear when you look at various features of Pearse House. For a start, they’re called “flats”. Middle-class people don’t live in flats, they live in apartments. Even when the apartments are smaller, less well designed and built to a lower standard than the Pearse House Flats, they’re still “apartments”.
Shared space is another feature. The balconies at Pearse House double up as communal walkways. They also face each other so that residents call across to neighbours and children. Seating areas and communal washing lines run across the centre.
Inside the flats, individuality really comes across, and one of the fascinating aspects of the exhibition is the chance to see how different people have done out their interiors. One living room is relatively spare, a feature wall is balanced by plain paint and neutral curtains, although the room is dominated by the massive TV. Meanwhile another, belonging to a resident in her 90s who has lived there for more than 50 years, is full of family and religious mementoes.