Council plan to demolish Herbert Simms housing would be monumental travesty

Razing of heroic architect’s Dublin social housing is advocated because schemes are considered old and decrepit

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


News that Dublin City Council officials are now advocating demolition of some of the most iconic social housing schemes from the first half of the 20th century, merely because they are now considered to be old or decrepit, is profoundly depressing.

Talleyrand said of France’s restored Bourbon dynasty in 1814 that they had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” and the same is sadly true of the grim reaper approach apparently favoured by Brendan Kenny, the council’s deputy chief executive and head of housing.

“There isn’t a hope in hell of getting Government funding to do refurbishment,” he said. “Most of these complexes are not fit-for-purpose in this day and age and they need radical change. In my view we should demolish most of them, maybe all of them.”

This type of loose talk echoes what used to be said of Georgian houses way back in the 1960s, when architect Sam Stephenson declared they were “never intended to last more than a lifetime” and it should be “clearly understood that they cannot be usefully preserved at all”.

Or what Desmond FitzGerald, former head of the UCD school of architecture, said of Molesworth Hall and St Ann’s School on Molesworth Street – designed by the great mid-Victorian architects Deane and Woodward – that they were merely “decrepit business premises”.

Amsterdam style

The irony, of course, is that the ESB headquarters in Fitzwilliam Street, which Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney designed, has now been demolished after lasting less than 50 years, while FitzGerald’s ghastly office block is unrecognisable after a top-to-bottom makeover.

But the idea that Dublin could lose superb schemes designed by the heroic social housing architect Herbert Simms is beyond belief – especially as the projects he realised in Chancery Place and Marrowbone Lane were heavily influenced by the 1920s “Amsterdam style”.

Although built as low-cost housing for the working class, the style is characterised by rounded corners, decorative brick elements, ornamental towers and other delights. Now nearly 100 years old, these blocks are as valued in Amsterdam as the “Dutch Billys” that line its canals.

Vienna’s most ambitious social housing scheme, Karl Marx Hof, was also built in the 1920s. Badly damaged by Austrian artillery crushing a workers’ revolt in 1934, the vast complex was repaired in the early 1950s and comprehensively refurbished between 1989 and 1992.

In Britain, as in Ballymun, few regretted the demolition of poorly maintained system-built tower blocks. But battles have been fought to preserve more notable examples of post-war social housing, such as the curved blocks of Robin Hood Gardens, with their “streets in the sky”.

A campaign by the Twentieth Century Society, supported by leading architects, failed to get this 1972 complex in Poplar listed for preservation, and much of it has already been demolished to make way for a mixed housing scheme, in which only 45 per cent will be “affordable”.

Target list

Simon Smithson, son of Robin Hood’s architects Alison and Peter Smithson, described its demolition as “an act of vandalism [and] a failure on the part of all those charged with protecting the nation’s architectural heritage”, in an interview with Dezeen, the online magazine.

The extraordinary thing about what’s been mooted for Dublin’s 20th-century social housing is that some of those on Brendan Kenny’s target list are on the council’s Record of Protected Structures – including Simms’s great schemes in Chancery Place and Marrowbone Lane.

The council now intends to overcome this significant obstacle by persuading city councillors to “delist” these blocks so that they could be demolished to make way for new apartment buildings that would meet modern standards. This would be a travesty of monumental proportions.

Neither would the five-storey maisonette blocks designed in the 1960s by then city architect Daithí Hanly, with their decorative mosaic panels and circular staircase towers, be spared from the wrecking ball, as the council appears to want to get rid of everything that’s over 40 years old.

Apart from the aesthetic argument for keeping the best of these blocks, there is a strong environmental case for refurbishment rather than demolition, as they all represent “embodied energy”; this would be profligately wasted if they were replaced by newer buildings.

The latest assault on Dublin’s architectural heritage is another instalment in the story of how the city council itself has abjectly failed to protect important 20th-century buildings, because its senior officials don’t want anything to stand in the way of generic “development”.

In doing so, they have chosen to ignore the findings of a still-unpublished major survey of our architectural heritage – commissioned several years ago by the city’s heritage officer, Charles Duggan – with the result that not one of the highlighted examples has yet been listed.

No doubt the Irish branch of Docomomo, an international organisation dedicated to documenting and preserving good architecture from the 20th century, will leap to the defence of Herbert Simms’s work. But it will need to do so urgently, as there is a bureaucratic juggernaut in motion.

Frank McDonald is a former environment editor of The Irish Times

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