5 Great pub­lic hous­ing, by our finest ar­chi­tects

Ire­land has some world-class ar­chi­tects – ask them to de­sign pub­lic hous­ing for Dublin

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

Dublin is be­com­ing un­in­hab­it­able. For many peo­ple, es­pe­cially the young, it is im­pos­si­ble to find a place to live at a rent they can af­ford. For many oth­ers work­ing in the city, the only way to af­ford a home is to live in north CoDublin or Wick­low or Kil­dare or Meath or Louth.

This is bru­tally hard, es­pe­cially on young fam­i­lies: in 2016 there were 43,372 par­ents with preschool chil­dren who spent an hour or more com­mut­ing ev­ery work­ing day. Mostly, they were com­mut­ing to Dublin. One fifth of com­muters left for work be­fore 7am.

Even in a lit­tle place such as Der­rin­turn in Co Kil­dare, the cen­sus tells us that 113 peo­ple are on the road be­fore 6.30am. The city be­comes, for many of those who grow up in it, an im­pos­si­ble dream and, for many of those who work in it, a kind of half-place that sucks in their eco­nomic lives but will not al­low them to ac­tu­ally in­habit it. Dublin is just the most bor­ing, end­less road movie ever made.

And yet, if I walk around the part of city I grew up in, all of it it­self within walk­ing dis­tance of St Stephen’s Green, what do I see? Across the Grand Canal, on the South Cir­cu­lar Road, there’s the huge Player Wills fac­tory that closed 13 years ago, sit­ting empty ever since. Be­side it there’s the old Bai­ley Gib­son pack­ag­ing plant, also long closed. Both sites are in pub­lic own­er­ship through the Na­tional As­set Man­age­ment Agency and be­tween them they could have 600 houses.

Be­hind it there’s the old Boy’s Bri­gade foot­ball pitch, now owned by Dublin City Coun­cil. As I go along the South Cir­cu­lar Road to Dol­phin’s Barn, there’s an­other derelict site. When I walk down Cork Street to­wards the city cen­tre, there’s a big empty site at the back of Em­met Square and an­other just op­po­site it on the far side.

A lit­tle fur­ther on, there’s the old Don­nelly’s sausage fac­tory, the va­cant site now owned by an­other pub­lic body, the Health Ser­vice Ex­ec­u­tive. There’s a pri­vately-owned derelict site op­po­site it.

All of these sites are within a few min­utes’ walk of each other. All of them are within the fab­ric of the old city. They have roads, util­i­ties, bus ser­vices, schools, hospi­tals, shops, churches, pubs and restau­rants within easy reach. You could walk to most parts of the city cen­tre from here or cy­cle along the canal.

At a very rough guess, just in this small patch, at least 3,000 more peo­ple should be mak­ing lives for them­selves, grow­ing up, en­joy­ing the city, feel­ing at home. And this is not unique. As Olivia Kelly has re­ported, there are al­most 200 va­cant and/or derelict sites in Dublin city and county, most of them within the city it­self.

Golden pe­riod

Now con­sider some­thing else. Ir­ish ar­chi­tec­ture is in a golden pe­riod, its world­wide im­pact recog­nised by the fact that the most pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion in the field, the 2018 Venice Bi­en­nale, is cu­rated by Yvonne Far­rell and Shel­ley McNa­mara of Grafton Ar­chi­tects in Dublin.

And yet last year the Royal In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects in Ire­land did not award its Sil­ver Medal for hous­ing de­sign. Why? Be­cause there were too few el­i­gi­ble Ir­ish ar­chi­tects who had ac­tu­ally com­pleted a hous­ing project to make for a mean­ing­ful com­pe­ti­tion. Ad­mit­tedly the award is ret­ro­spec­tive, and the pe­riod in ques­tion was 2011 to 2013. But it is still shock­ing that the ar­chi­tects who are mak­ing great build­ings all around the world are an un­wanted re­source in their own coun­try and in many cases in their own city.

Let’s take Far­rell and McNa­mara as an ex­am­ple. They won the World Build­ing of the Year Award for their work on Univer­sita Luigi Boc­coni in Mi­lan. Their new univer­sity cam­pus build­ing in Lima in Peru seems, from pho­to­graphs, a work of breath­tak­ing beauty and vi­sion­ary scope.

But could they do the hum­bler job of mak­ing beau­ti­ful houses and apart­ments within the old tex­ture of Dublin’s streetscape? Of course they could: go and have a look at the sim­ple, el­e­gant block of 82 apart­ments on North King Street that they com­pleted in 2000 for Dublin City Coun­cil and Zoe De­vel­op­ments. Un­like so much of the devel­op­ment of the Celtic Tiger era, it is mod­est, thought­ful and re­spect­ful of its sur­round­ings. It looks in a way like it was al­ways there.

So why is this their only ma­jor hous­ing project in their own city?

We have the sites, we have the money (there is no prob­lem rais­ing fi­nance from, for ex­am­ple, the Euro­pean In­vest­ment Bank for high-qual­ity pub­lic hous­ing that will ap­pre­ci­ate in value over time) and God knows we have the need. What we don’t have is the vi­sion.

The va­cant sites tell their own story – devel­op­ment must wait on the whims of a com­mer­cial de­vel­oper; so­cial and af­ford­able homes can be sup­plied only as a by-prod­uct of mar­ket-led ini­tia­tives, and pub­lic hous­ing pro­cure­ment has to go through slow, te­dious pro­cesses in which hu­man needs and phys­i­cal beauty are equally low pri­or­i­ties.

But if we lack the vi­sion, we do have the vi­sion­ar­ies. Dublin has su­perb ar­chi­tects, many of them with a real com­mit­ment to the so­cial fab­ric of ur­ban life. And this is not a mar­ginal ques­tion: if we are to tackle the hous­ing cri­sis, we need to get over the prej­u­dice that pub­lic hous­ing is sec­ond best, that if we want to avoid cre­at­ing ghet­toes for the poor we can’t re­ally build it di­rectly at all.

So let’s make it beau­ti­ful. I’m not talk­ing about ego­is­ti­cal star­chi­tects be­ing let loose to in­dulge their high con­cepts with­out re­spon­si­bil­ity to the peo­ple who have to live in and with their creations. The good ar­chi­tects know how to start with real needs and build from there.

Pub­lic hous­ing com­mis­sion

Dublin at its best is the prod­uct of a vi­sion, that of the Wide Streets Com­mis­sion that made the city beau­ti­ful in the 18th cen­tury. We need a Dublin Pub­lic Hous­ing Com­mis­sion headed by one of our lead­ing ar­chi­tects and bring­ing to­gether plan­ners, coun­cil­lors and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to take over va­cant and derelict sites and reimag­ine them as ex­cit­ing places to live, both so­cially and aes­thet­i­cally.

In the lit­tle tri­an­gle I’ve de­scribed be­tween South Cir­cu­lar Road and Cork Street, for ex­am­ple, there is a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity, not just to house peo­ple, but to add vi­brancy and gor­geous­ness to a part of the city whose in­dus­trial base is gone. Piece­meal, de­vel­oper-led projects on in­di­vid­ual sites will give us pretty much what the city has too much of al­ready: pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive medi­ocrity. We are get­ting the worst of both worlds, pay­ing through the nose for hous­ing that lacks style, beauty and joy.

It doesn’t have to be like this – we should be build­ing pub­lic hous­ing so lovely that peo­ple who can af­ford not to none­the­less wish they could live in it.

Above: The Player Wills fac­tory on South Cir­cu­lar Road in Dublin, which has lain empty since it closed 13 years ago. Left: Grafton Ar­chi­tects build­ing on North King Street for Dublin City Coun­cil and Zoe De­vel­op­ments.PHO­TO­GRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL. IL­LUS­TRA­TION: FUCHSIA MACAREE

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