Remembering Herbert Simms, the man who rebuilt Dublin

Dublin’s first housing architect, who took up the post in 1932, did ‘heroic’ work

April 2nd, 2018: Herbert Simms is credited with designing 17,000 dwellings in Dublin and helping transform the city in the 1930s. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

A local government committee tasked with investigating the living conditions of Dublin’s lowest income families found private rented homes which were severely overcrowded, unsanitary, unsafe for children, and generally “unfit for human habitation”.

The report of the Local Government Board highlighted a failure of landlords to maintain their properties, a reluctance of the State to become involved in building social housing, and an overreliance on the private sector to house the city’s poor.

The report could have been written today, but was in fact published in 1914, commissioned by parliament in response to the worsening conditions of Dublin’s tenement slums.

The report Housing Conditions of the Working Classes in the City of Dublin concluded there needed to be better enforcement of the laws in relation to rented accommodation, but in addition, 14,000 new homes needed to be built to rehouse slum dwellers. Crucially this building programme needed to be undertaken by the State because the private sector had not stepped up to the plate to “any appreciable degree sufficient to grapple with the present needs of the city”, the committee said.

The report was published in February 1914, five months before the outbreak of the Great War.

The Free State government in 1922 did make a first stab at the problem, but its efforts were mainly aimed at providing housing for aspirant homeowners. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that there was a concerted effort at tackling the tenements. Two housing acts were published focusing on slum clearance, the second in 1932 coincided with the appointment of Dublin’s first housing architect, Herbert Simms.

A London-born architect, Simms had worked in Dublin Corporation for a short time in the 1920s before going to India to work as a town planner, returning to take up the housing architect post in 1932.

“It was a prime moment in the 1930s when Simms started his work, there was a real political will to do something about housing,” Dr Ruth McManus, senior lecture at the department of History and Geography in DCU says. “There were also campaigns in the newspapers. The Irish Press ran campaigns around the housing crisis and it was seen as a slur on the nation to have people living in such appalling conditions.”

The provision of housing was also tied into ideals of nationalism and nation building. “Providing people with good homes would make people better citizens,” she says.

Political good will

Simms sized upon the political good will and became the driving force behind a large-scale programme of housing construction, which dramatically expanded, and in some cases led, to the creation of new suburbs for Dublin.

“He was a quiet unassuming man who was able to achieve big things and drive forward a really ambitious housing programme in the 1930s which involved large scale housing schemes in the suburbs. Places like Crumlin most of Cabra built under his watch,” McManus says.

The development of the Garden suburb, taken from the Garden City model which emerged in Britain towards the end of the previous century, was an easy sell in the Irish context and the new “corpo house” was popular, but Simms had more ambitious, and more controversial projects in mind to solve the city’s housing crises with the construction of flats.

“Flats were a new solution very much inspired by what going on other parts of Europe. Simms realised not everybody would be able to afford to more to a suburban location and a lot of people needed to live in the city centre close to their place of work.”

Many of the schemes Simms got to work on, Pearse House on Townsend Street, Chancery Place near the four courts and Marrowbone Lane, off Cork Street, remain occupied today. Part of the reason theses flats still stand while later schemes of the 1950s to the 1970s have already been demolished, is the quality of their construction and the thought put into their architecture and their setting, architectural historian Dr Ellen Rowley says.

Ellen Rowley, architectural historian, in front of Herbert Simms most celebrated building: Chancery Park in Dublin. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Ellen Rowley, architectural historian, in front of Herbert Simms most celebrated building: Chancery Park in Dublin. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

“They have stood the test of time because of the materials used and because of the thoughtfulness of how they integrate themselves with the city, either creating new street fronts, or respecting the existing heights and skyline and footprints. “

While very different from the architecture which went before, they retained similar scale, she says.

“They are not as explosive in terms of the plots,” compared to what came later she says. “If you think of Dublin as a city of very small house plots, what happens in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, with the road widening schemes and later on with office buildings and skyscrapers, they explode the traditional urban grain – the morphology is completely compromised; these schemes don’t tend to do that.”

Flats at Chancery Place Dublin. Photograph: G&T Crampton Archive
Flats at Chancery Place Dublin. Photograph: G&T Crampton Archive

His earliest schemes, such as Chancery House, were the most successful in terms of matching the scale of the surrounding city Rowley says.

“The blocks from the 1930s are small enough and that’s probably really key. When Simms and his team move away and start to make bigger and bigger schemes, you lose that scale. You lose the scale of two, or three, or four families living happily alongside each other. Chancery House and Henrietta House are bijou schemes , they are really small; where as Marrowbone Lane has 112 dwellings.”

The success of those smaller blocks could be judged, not by the plaudits they receive today, but by the lack of attention they attract, Rowley says.

‘Ingrained in our DNA’

“These are the buildings that form our backdrop as Dubliners, a different type of backdrop to the Georgian square and Georgian terraces, but they have become ingrained in our DNA as citizens walking around, to the extent that we don’t notice them they’re such an everyday experience.”

Simms’s care over the design and interiors of buildings has also contributed to their longevity, she says.

“The one thing I can be sure of looking at archive sources was they used the best of materials. Simms continued to design and build through the second World War despite the massive materials shortage. In one instance, he refused to sign off on a terrace of houses because there wasn’t enough timber for skirting boards .”

Both McManus and Rowley concede that Simms’ buildings were not perfect, and many, if not most of those still in use don’t meet modern living standards.

“One of the failures with Simms blocks, and he probably would have acknowledged it himself, is the ambiguity between public and private space,” says Rowley. In many of the Simms flats, all of the outdoor space is shared, which can work in the smallest blocks, but not in larger complexes, she says

“The ones that become over-scaled, they were sharing too much public space, shared stairways and shared decks [landings].”

There was criticism too, even at the time they were built, of the size of the flats, with many considering them too small for families, says McManus.

“There were people saying we were only creating slums of the future, that the rooms were too small and that we need to be building more suburban houses. A lot of people didn’t like the idea of building central flats, there was an ongoing debate over 20, 30 years about that.”

Hanover Street flats, block. Photograph G&T Crampton Archive.
Hanover Street flats, block. Photograph G&T Crampton Archive.

However McManus says, the quality of what Simms built represented a considerable step up for most families.

He also looked at innovations such as rubbish chutes and “he thought about things like the need for a playground, all the things that would enhance everyday life for people living in the dwellings”, says McManus. “He is actually thinking of the lives of the people living there.”

Attention to detail

However, Simms attention to detail and the workload he took on, building 17,000 homes in Dublin in his tenure as housing architect from 1932 to 1948, would appear to have been his own undoing.

In 1945, the city architect Horace O’Rourke, who had been a buffer, Rowley says, between Simms and the city’s administrative and political entities including church authorities, retired and his role was not replaced. This left Simms effectively occupying both positions. In 1948 a new government announced it was going to ramp up housing production. The same year, aged 50, Simms took his own life, leaving a note saying he felt overworked and overwhelmed.

“One the reasons why Herbert Simms is so compelling because, was because he was so hard working and then had this really tragic end, this really violent end,” Rowley says.

“While we can turn around as architects and architectural historians and be superior, and talk about this ambivalence of public space and private space and that that design leads to ghettoisation. The reality is Herbert Simms was something of a hero, he and his team, in the context in which they were working.

“He comes along after two decades of massive problems with slums and really we have to consider the work he engaged in as absolutely heroic. He continued in this dogged and determined manner so that 70 years on after his life has ended we are all looking at him with massive respect.”

A conference celebrating the work of Simms will be held in Dublin later this year.

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