Archives reveal recurrent nature of Ireland’s housing crises

Exhibition House and Home is a necessary resource for those interested in current issues

As the debate over the housing crisis carries over into another year – conducted chiefly at the level of a political blame game – the Irish Architectural Archive's exhibition House and Home offers a fascinating insight into Ireland's housing history.

The show marks the 40th anniversary of the archive, which began life as the National Trust Archive, founded by Nicholas Robinson and Dr Edward McParland at 63 Merrion Square – with Nick Sheaf as director.

They had published a paper arguing for the need of a national repository of photographic architectural material the previous year.

In a way, it is surprising there was no such repository at the time.


National monuments came under the responsibility of the Office of Public Works (OPW), but not the country’s architectural heritage.

McParland and Robinson had in mind buildings, that is, “man-made structures of all kinds, whether temporary or permanent”, throughout the whole of the island.

In retrospect, the need for such an archive was blatantly obvious.

But, it should be remembered that – in a post-colonial context – the apparently straightforward subject of a country’s built legacy is fraught with difficulties, contradictions and conflicted feelings.

It was quickly apparent that, not only did McParland and Robinson’s proposal make sense, it had been, if anything, far too modest.

The archive was immediately offered a vast trove of architectural drawings, including drawings “from the practice established in Ireland by AWN Pugin in the late 1830s”.

How could they say no?

So, its remit was extended to include drawings, from individual drawings to the entire archives of practices, which incorporated the considerable documentation involved in architectural projects.

Furniture salvaged

Alistair Rowan took the helm in 1981, as the archive adopted its present title and moved to number 73 on the square.

It eventually moved on to its current, settled home, at number 45 (incidentally the largest terraced house on the square) in 2004.

The building had been assigned to the archive in 1996, an enlightened decision on the part of then minister for finance Ruairi Quinn.

When they began, McParland and Robinson had one borrowed table, “an assortment of chairs salvaged from a skip, a kettle and a jar of instant coffee” – all of the above provided by the resourceful Sheaf.

Fast forward to the present moment and the archive holds an extraordinary 2.5 million architectural drawings and documents, half-a-million photographs, “25,000 items of printed matter and several dozen architectural models”.

This material extends from the 1690s to today. From zero resources it is in a position of relative security.

When it came to devising a 40th anniversary exhibition, the archive’s Colum O’Riordan recalls: “The problem was how do you broach such a mass of material.”

Two principles informed the shape of the show: “We decided it would be appropriate to show something acquired in every year of the archive’s history. A great deal of the material in the archive relates to housing, and the archive is located in a building that was a house.”

It was built late in the 18th century for property developer Gustavus Hume.

The breadth of the exhibition is tremendous. It includes an elevation drawing of No 9 St Stephen's Green from the 1750s by Joseph Jarrett, a plan and elevation of Carton, Co Kildare by Isaac Ware, Gandon's design for the entrance of Emo Court in Co Laois and Lucy Edgeworth's watercolour view of Edgeworthstown, plus a view of Maria Edgeworth's bedroom.

Appalling inadequacies

By 1895, the Dublin Artisan Dwellings Company, "a semi-philanthropic private enterprise" is in full swing.

A photographic reproduction of Charles Ashworth’s plan for a Type E Cottage – “the most common of all house types constructed by the Company” – at Rialto is on view, along with Robert J Stirling’s plans for Guinness Trust buildings in New Bride St.

Meanwhile, outside the city, the Board of Works had set about addressing “the appalling inadequacies of rural housing”.

Joseph Connelly's labourers' cottage, designed for Cashel Rural District Council around 1920, is a dwelling familiar throughout Irish towns.

Michael Scott's pioneering modernism is represented by intricately detailed 1933 drawings of a house for his friend Arthur Shields, the 1916 veteran who went on to a successful career as a character actor in Hollywood.

The design is close in every way to Scott's own, Geragh, at Sandycove, "probably the best-known modernist house in Ireland".

A glass case contains a copy of the Dublin Housing Inquiry: Verbatim Report of Proceedings from 1939.

Perhaps it is not that surprising to find that the same problems recur through time.

Common sense

James Larkin was one of those offering evidence and his testimony is a model of sound common sense.

Among the pressing concerns are the costs of building, “arguments for and against the Corporation using direct labour to build”, standards in older tenements and “recently completed housing schemes”.

The date, 1939, is alas all too relevant.

By the time the report was published, the world was at war and different priorities came to the fore.

Nevertheless, in the postwar era, there was much progress. Noel Moffett's drawing for Pearse Park in Dundalk is a boldly modernist scheme of low-cost, high-density, local authority housing.

The 1939 report came down against flats, finding them expensive, “unpopular with tenants”, unsuitable for “family life”, “lacking in privacy”, not to mention all those stairs to climb. But flats were tempting for planners.

Witness Desmond Fitzgerald’s utopian-seeming drawing for Dominick St Lower from 1957. Half the scheme, built in the early 1960s, “has recently been demolished”.

That, and the fate of the tower blocks in Ballymun (there is an elaborate model on view) suggest that the 1939 report had a shrewd grasp of public preference.

Meanwhile, Jack Fitzsimons' Bungalow Bliss – there is a 1971 first edition on view – was instrumental in the suburbanisation of rural Ireland.

The archive, O’Riordan notes, “is a non-contentious body which does not involve itself in issues of conservation or planning debate”.

But House and Home is a finely distilled, indispensable educational resource well worth close examination by any and all of those with an interest in current housing issues.

Those issues, as Dr Ellen Rowley points out, are not, in essence, new. They are even periodic.

More importantly, she suggests, in the urgency of the moment we should not forget the quality of the environment we create around us.

We have more talented, experienced architects than ever and, she writes: “There is something beautiful in fulfilling basic human need – shelter, dwelling, home.”

House and Home – 40 original architectural drawings, plus publications, models and photographs for mid-18th century to late-20th century residential projects in Ireland. Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin. Until March 31,