Dr Ellen Rowley highlights the architectural significance of Henrietta House and other modernist flat blocks designed in the 1930s by Dublin Corporation in the new Housing Architect’s (Herbert Simms) department. The architectural achievements of this department, and of Simms as the guiding design force, have been largely overlooked; this is acutely evident in the area of flat block design due to the association in Ireland of block-dwelling with public housing and poverty.
Ellen is indebted to the pioneering research on Simms by Eddie Conroy (1997).
Through the 1930s, Dublin Corporation Housing Architect, Herbert Simms, took the dualistic approach to slum clearance of building both new urban blocks and suburban cottages. The flat blocks were considered essential architectural ingredients of the slum clearance project and from 1932 to 1939, twenty-one schemes comprising 1,002 inner-city flats were completed, establishing an internationally-derived but locally-relevant aesthetic for multi-storey dwellings in the urban setting.
The formal associations between the Dublin schemes and the housing projects of 1910s Amsterdam have been repeatedly noted; we know that a collective of Dublin officials took a study tour to Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 1925 so as to examine the Dutch Expressionist housing by Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer. Simms’ blocks such as Chancery Place (1934-35) display Dutch traits including building height (four-storey), horizontal articulation, street alignment, variously curved corners and expressionist detailing picked out in cement or concrete render on brick-faced public elevations.
Beyond superficial formalism the Dublin and Amsterdam blocks shared only the common dispositions as perimeter block housing. The Dublin blocks proposed a different form of access and circulation. While the Amsterdam models were entered from the street by internalised shared stairways, the Dublin flats were always accessed by decks from the buildings’ courtyards. (In 1926, whilst a temporary architect within Dublin Corporation, Simms was sent on a study tour to England where he may have visited such flat projects as the Peabody Fund’s Horseferry Road scheme, London, the first instance of the deck access circulation system.) This issue of circulation and access pushed Simms’ schemes away from the established approach of the Georgian predecessor or the Dutch model to introduce a wholly different flat layout, wide in plan and shallow in depth. With no front doors to the street, the Dublin urban block shifted its public activities to the empty courtyard which in turn worked as a surveillance mechanism and was enclosed by plain concrete facades rather than the decorative brick and render of the street fronts.
This is extracted from a DCC and Irish Architectural Archive publication of photographs of Dublin social housing complexes by Willem Heefer, 2011
Ellen Rowley holds The White Fellowship at The Department of the History of Art, Trinity College Dubiln and is An Assistant Editor of Vol IV, Art and Architecture of Ireland.
See an old image of Chancery House in this Dublin City Council Brochure about Simms: http://www.dublincity.ie/Housing/CityArchitectsDivision/Documents/Simms_Brochure.pdf