Hero who showed us ex­actly how to house the home­less

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - OUT AND ABOUT -

MOST peo­ple in Ire­land have never heard of one of its great­est ever pub­lic ser­vants. But we can be fairly sure ev­ery­one in the coun­try has seen some of his in­cred­i­ble hous­ing legacy. In his ca­reer as Dublin City Ar­chi­tect, Her­bert Simms presided over the con­struc­tion of 17,000 homes be­tween 1932 and his un­timely death in 1948. Within a year of be­com­ing hous­ing supremo he tre­bled the num­ber of fam­i­lies housed by the city coun­cil. He built not just flat com­plexes in a neck­lace around the city cen­tre, but he presided over hous­ing es­tates such as Cabra, Crum­lin and Bal­lyfer­mot.

For many – in­clud­ing my own fam­ily – his work meant the slums and ten­e­ments of the cap­i­tal be­came a thing of the past and served as a re­minder of the so­cial role of pub­lic bod­ies. More than any sin­gle per­son in the last 100 years, Simms made a con­tri­bu­tion to solv­ing the then hous­ing cri­sis un­equalled by any pub­lic ser­vant since.

He is in the news this week for two rea­sons. Firstly, his de­signs are so ro­bust and en­dur­ing that seven of the flat com­plexes he built in Dublin, mainly around the city cen­tre, are still stand­ing and lived in.

Long af­ter newer apart­ment blocks have come and gone, Simms’s dis­tinc­tive de­signs – from Chancery Place be­side the Four Courts to the many flat com­plexes around Pearse Street – are still stand­ing and hous­ing thou­sands. His de­signs were for com­mu­ni­ties. They were at­trac­tive with dec­o­ra­tive brick­work and ledges. There were en­closed green spa­ces for chil­dren to play and com­mu­nal ar­eas for peo­ple to meet and chat.

The other rea­son is that the city coun­cil is now propos­ing to de­mol­ish some of these flat com­plexes be­cause they be­lieve it would be cheaper to build new homes than re­fur­bish Simms’s work. But such is the preva­lence of his work, their unique de­sign and longevity that they are ‘pro­tected struc­tures’ of which there are rel­a­tively few in the cap­i­tal. His dis­tinc­tive de­signs dot the city cen­tre, while his other pub­lic build­ings in­clud­ing his bathing shel­ters in Clon­tarf, have out­lasted many ‘mod­ern’ struc­tures.

Simms’s legacy at this stage is as im­por­tant to the cap­i­tal as the Ge­or­gian houses, many of which were reck­lessly de­mol­ished in the of­fice block ma­nia of the 1960s and 1970s. That mis­take should not be re­peated.

Born 120 years ago in Lon­don, Simms came to Ire­land in the 1920s, rose to be­come City Ar­chi­tect by 1932 but died by sui­cide in 1948. His work rate, ded­i­ca­tion and de­vo­tion to duty took its toll. In his fi­nal note, he wrote: ‘I can­not stand it any longer, my brain is too tired to work any more. It has not had a rest for 20 years ex­cept when I am in a heavy sleep. It is al­ways on the go like a dy­namo and still the work is be­ing piled on me.’ He was only 50 years of age. Any­one who has met Bren­dan Kenny, the deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive of Dublin City Coun­cil, knows he is an honourable pub­lic ser­vant work­ing hard to sort out the hous­ing and home­less­ness cri­sis. Yes, he is right to in­sist that the flats be dra­mat­i­cally re­fur­bished for those liv­ing there. But he has been tasked with rais­ing the no­tion of raz­ing Simms’s flats. This should be taken off the agenda now.

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