Late last Thursday I asked Conor McCarthy to take some photos of our opening event in Wood Quay. It was a late addition to the oprganisation of what turned out to be a very full weekend which seemed to give people pleasure. While I am grateful to many who took photos of the various comings and goings on social media, there’s nothing like a professional photographer to capture a moment. Here are some of Conor’s photos:
Eoin O’Mahony opens the event
Nell Regan reads from her work on Simms
L to R: Nell Regan, Ellen Rowley, Lord Mayor Nial Ring, Pauline Williams, Eoin O’Mahony
If there is anything more depressing than a study of Dublin’s slums in detail it is a study of Dublin’s slum-dwellers…They look like people who have no healthy interests, no fresh and natural desires, nothing that the wildest imagination could call dreams; people who go through life as a narrow, burdensome, unintelligible pilgrimage; they have lost the capacity of sympathy, understanding and hope.
-From William Patrick Ryan’s The Pope’s Green Island, 1912.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the death of Herbert George Simms, Dublin’s pioneering Housing Architect. We have previously examined Simms in this piece on housing in 1930s Dublin. Much can be taken today from the work of Simms, who was responsible for the construction of some 17,000 new working class dwellings in his time in office, ranging from beautiful Art Deco flat schemes in the inner-city to new suburban landscapes. Speaking to a housing inquiry in…
HG Simms worked in a Dublin Corporation dominated by conservative councillors. As Donal Fallon has made clear at public lectures and elsewhere, Dublin of the 1930s and 1940s was a very conservative place, bound by Catholic sodalities, unscrupulous employers and a press often hostile to more progressive social programmes. In the 1932 election, when FF came to power nationally, Dublin Corporation had some radical councillors but it was by no means a hotbed of socialism. . Several independents (then as now) also sat as aldermen. Where then did the motivation to build an average of 1,000 public houses every year for over two decades some from? What kinds of political formations did Simms find himself constrained by?
Little is known about HG Simms’s political leanings. As a public servant for most of his adult life until his death, his opinions were privately held. Was he sympathetic to the plight of the working class of Dublin, many thousands of whom were living in tenement flats and sub-divided homes? Was he liberal in matters of housing policy, consumed by details and conscientious (as is clear from the 1:1 scale ballcock drawing of his I have seen)? There is scant evidence that he was a conscientious worker, alongside others, and that he took his job very seriously.
Biographical detail is slight. In distinction to now, a housing or city architect would keep his opinions to close to his chest, bury himself in the voluminous work and toil away. And of course it is easy to attribute such great architectural work to one person when in fact he worked with many others. At an informal continuous professional development session held at DCC’s City Architects office recently, a question was asked: “who was working with Simms on these plans?” It is often easy to attribute such great architectural work to one person but of course he worked with others in a workplace. A suggestion was made to source the salaries books of the time and find out a little more about how many he worked with. Work like this would be great to see in the public domain. Simms was not a lone worker but strived as part of a team to produce decent housing within his remit.
Then as now, although the regulations and procurement have changed, any plans for housing had to be planned, costed and passed before the councillors at their monthly meetings. The minute books (in the Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse St.) are lacking in detail, recalling only the decisions taken and noted amendments. But given the prevailing politics of the city and Ireland more broadly, where did political support for mass public housing provision come from? What politics supported this? I have been told that The Irish Builder is a ready source of the contemporary debates. Maybe someone has done some work on this already? The evidence seems to suggest that Fianna Fail saw it as part of their project to wrest control from Cumann na nGaedheal and others at city level, working with their constituents in individual wards to create a politics of better housing out of a city with a housing crisis arguably worse than we are currently experiencing.
Dublin was also changing rapidly with protectionism a central part of FF policy. The city would have had many vacant lots dotted across its extent, then much smaller than today. As much as they may not like to reflect upon it now, Fianna Fail was a mass party of working people, both rural and urban. Its class interests as a party were formed out of initial exclusion and sometimes persecution by the party that had ‘won’ the civil war. They spent a number of years building this mass party, aligned to the protection of cultural interests as well as building Ireland as a self-determined nation. It was out of a such a party that people like Frank Aiken and Sean Lemass would later make best use of an emigration crisis to reorient the economy toward foreign capital. When Simms was taken on in the early 1930s, his own role initially under Horace O’Rourke would have been to work to support the new politics of the ’30s, Catholic social teaching and all.
I am not an architect and hence am not aware of the cross-currents of style and various schools of design prevalent in Simms’s formative years but one thing he brought to Dublin housing was a distinctive European style. Simms was of an age that housing and community formation mattered: not just ‘housing units’ as we often talk of now, but housing as part of a better way of living in a city. He did not bring ‘European style’ to Dublin but understood that effective housing designs were being used across Europe, in Vienna, Rotterdam, London. In this way, he was not showing us natives how to ‘do European cities’ but was providing Dublin with a chance to create quality housing for all. This is the really neat political trick of Simms’s work of the time: he unself-consciously provided a basis for decent housing, publicly owned, and struggled hard to bring that vision about. Compromises were made of course: interior blocks were not rendered in the same way, later flat complexes were made smaller. He and his colleagues, in this way, were not a mythical vector of working class emancipation, but hard-working practitioners of an art who knew it was important. Nor was it slavish to the whims of its funders; it cast out a vision of the way public housing could be, realised some of it and burned itself out in the process. That they brought a set of councillors along with them over 16 years or so is evident across our city today.
Thanks to all who have volunteered and registered so far. The venues (Wood Quay Venue and the Robert Emmet Centre) are wheelchair accessible and we are arranging ISL interpretation. We hope it will also be a child-friendly space.
Friday the 19th October:
6.30pm – doors open and registration
7pm – Official opening by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Nial Ring and some introductions by Eoin O’Mahony, chair of the Simms120 committee.
7.15pm – Commissioned work by Nell Regan
7.30pm – Public lecture by Ellen Rowley: Simms’s legacy for Dublin – an overview
8.30pm – Q and A
Saturday the 20th:
9.30am – Doors open with coffee served
10am – Histories and futures of housing in Dublin city. With Joe Brady (UCD), Ruth McManus (DCU) and Mary Broe (MU).
11.00am – coffee
11.30am – Remembering Simms through community: Rhona McCord (TCD), Orla Hegarty (UCD) and the Oliver Bond House Project. Chaired by Mary Broe.
12.30pm – Housing After Simms: Rita Fagan and John Bissett (St. Michael’s Estate).
1pm – Provided lunch
2pm – Dublin city’s public housing in context: Michelle Norris (UCD) Philip Lawton (TCD) and Elaine Edmonds (Planning Consultant). Chaired by Erika Hanna.
3.00pm – Photographers and Artists respond to Simms: Jeanette Lowe (photographer), Pat Curran (painter) and Kieran Doyle O’Brien.
4pm – ‘More than concrete blocks’: Kelly Fitzgerald (UCD), Cecilia Naughton (DCC City Architects) and Jakob Hundsbichler (housing guide, Vienna). Chaired by Eoin O’Mahony (UCD).
Sunday the 21st (Robert Emmet Centre – space for approx. 60)
10am – Political Responses to public housing in Dublin: Cllr Eilis Ryan (WP) and Cllr Ciaran Cuffe (GP) and Aisling Bruen (Take Back the City). Chaired by Donal Fallon (DCC).
11am – Q and A and comfort break
11.30am – Fatima Mansions August 2005: a collaborative film by Kieran Doyle O’Brien and Tony May & Fountain (2016): by Glenn Loughran
12pm – Closing remarks and a tour with Joe Brady (UCD.
Pre-registration (online booking) is now closed. You can of course pay at the desk in the Wood Quay Venue on Friday evening or Saturday morning. Simms housing residents are given free entry. There are places available still and are €25.00 to cover the costs borne to make the conference happen.
Thanks to the design work of Deirdre White and the photographs of Paul Reynolds, we are pleased to show you our poster for the Simms120 events, running from October 19th to 21st.
For the poster and other imagery, we were keen to show the impact of and importance for Dublin city public housing designed by Simms. The distinctive curvature of many of his buildings are influenced by the Dutch architects of the early 20th century as well as Simms’s earlier work in England before his job in Dublin. We also wished to show that these public housing complexes are part of a living landscape of the city, under continuous change. People raise families, work out of and develop their communities out of these flat complexes and we wanted to reflect these in the poster.
Look out for these posters in your local library and elsewhere across the city soon.
We are now accepting your contributions for Simms120. We would be delighted if you could present a paper, share some stories or photographic and other artistic material under the general theme of public housing in Dublin today. This conference and the associated events are all about celebrating the work of H.G. Simms and looking at the legacy that he and his team at the Corporation left in Dublin city. It is hoped that this will reflect on the current housing situation in the city in a positive and challenging light. We hope you can come and contribute.
Last week, Mary Broe and I went to meet a community worker, Mairin, and speak to her about the Robert Emmet Community Development Project. By its own definition the CDP “is an active community based resource which embraces all members of this diverse community and adheres faithfully to the principles of community development.” In the short time that Mary and I had there, we could see that they’ve built on that diversity of the area and in particular the connections between the people who live in Oliver Bond house and the wider city community. This short post is about the geographies of those connections.
Oliver Bond House was Simms-designed and opened in the late 1930s. It is a massive complex of almost 400 flats which, it is estimated, has housed about 20,000 people since its opening. The shape of the blocks mirror the broad outline of the brewery and distillery that were present on the site until the early 20th century. When the Corporation decided to build this new housing, they built the blocks nearest the corner of Usher Street first and then the remaining blocks. It stands on one of the oldest sites in Dublin city but still houses a vibrant community of people with connections across the north and south side of the river as well as the near suburbs of Cabra and Crumlin. We tend to think of Dublin as divided simply between the northside and southside – but people’s realities are far more complex than this.
Not only do the people who live here have connections with local businesses and workplaces, they are an intimate part of the construction of Dublin of Dublin as a city. This is a city that has seen its fair share of problems over the last century or so but here is a location where people live in relative safety and security and little fear of the vagaries of private landlords that others around them have to endure. We met with some residents whose families have been here since its opening and some who squatted nearby flats when they became vacant because they wanted to remain. They were part of a broader struggle under the guise of the Dublin Housing Action Committee in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The topography of the complex might lead you to believe of course that this is a homogeneous and stable community of people, closed off from the surrounding city. The City Council, in attempts to limit joyriding and rat-runs through the area in the 1990s, made it a railing-laden and step-filled internal street with little or no permeability. Given its proximity to the Markets and Thomas Street areas however, nothing could be further from the truth. These two areas alone are connected with north Dublin and Fingal food producers and cattle markets that persisted until the 1950s.
Mary and I hope, through the work of Mairin and her team at the CDP, can help us bring some of these connections to the conference in October. They can build on the 80 year anniversary of the complex, celebrated only two years ago, and help all those present see that Simms-designed and other public housing areas are as real and as vital to the city as they were when the tenements were finally being torn down to give people decent housing.
Ellen Rowley, one of our main speakers at Simms120, is an architectural and cultural historian. Her new book Housing, Architecture and the Edge Condition Dublin is building, 1935 – 1975 has just gone into production. Ellen is an established authority on Dublin’s twentieth century housing stock and has written extensively on twentieth-century architecture in Ireland. As author and editor of More Than Concrete Blocks: Dublin City’s 20th Century buildings + their stories, she charted the individual buildings of some Dublin’s most well-known landmarks. It is part of an ongoing research and educational project into Dublin’s built environment 1900 – 2000 and commissioned by Dublin City Council and the Heritage Council of Ireland.
We are looking forward to hearing Ellen talk with us about Simms, the role of public housing and community building. We are hoping to speak with Ellen in advance of the October conference so check back later this month.
HG Simms died in 1948, this year marking the 70th anniversary of his death. In a recent lecture given in Dublin, Donal Fallon recalled how someone in the Irish Press took it upon themselves to publish the note that he left on his demise. For a society where death by suicide was looked upon as a source of shame and not tragedy, this seems like a strange move. In fact the note was also published in the Irish Times. What set of circumstances led to the text being published in full? What kind of message was the editor trying to send to the management of Dublin Corporation? Below is the death notice for for Simms as it appeared in the Irish Independent at the end of September 1948. For a private funeral, the publication of the note carried by him at the scene seems odd.
Below is a reproduction of some of that note which points to the tragic circumstances of the death of Herbert George Simms. A shorter article published the day after his death had some gruesome details of the incident and these are not appropriate to show here.
While the City Council has, more recently, marked the work of Simms on or nearby the public housing he designed, Simms’ work and life is rarely celebrated for the impact he had. This is partly the motivation for holding the events in October. We hope to assess the legacy of a man who clearly had a vision for public housing. The politics of the time are vastly different to today but the need for public housing to help foster a more vibrant and safer city has never been clearer.