It starts and ends with Herbert Simms: the extraordinary City Architect of Dublin in the early twentieth century, and for me his perfect building is Chancery House, a stone’s throw from the Four Courts in Dublin’s North Inner City. Chancery House is built from concrete and brick. It’s a four storey high L-shaped block of local authority housing that has stood the test of time. Open concrete stairwells rise up to front doors that are accessed from long concrete decks that run along the building’s interior court. You might not build like this today, but the open decks allow you to socialise on your own terms with your neighbours. Older people lean against the concrete on a sunny day and call down to friends and neighbours below. Parents can watch out for children, and doors are still left ajar so that you’re in touch with the outside world. Laundry hangs to dry in the open courtyard.
Simms came from London and studied at Liverpool before coming to a freshly created Free State in 1923. Political Revolutions and wars had taken place across Europe in the decade previously, and young architects were inspired by promises of a new world of proper housing for all. The modern movement in architecture was creating striking new housing in Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam. Working on a fraction of the budget that large cities could secure, Simms managed to build 17,000 homes in his 14 years working for Dublin Corporation.
Chancery House is one of his smaller schemes, and houses just 27 families. Unusually it contains a small formal garden that was refurbished in recent years. On a sunny day you can rest for a while on a bench and listen to the trickle of water from a small fountain, and the bell of the Luas tram a few yards away, as well as the constant drone of traffic on the Quays. The development was built by G and T Crampton, an old Dublin building firm that is still in business today. The scheme captures all the details of the Art Deco period, a curving roof cut is silhouetted against the sky, chevron railings and oval concrete columns mark the entrance. The outside walls are curved, just like the streamlined ocean liners that fascinated the famous French architect Le Corbusier. High above the street tubular steel railings echo the nautical theme and frame two generous balconies for lucky top floor tenants. Horizontal lines cut into the top floor plaster enhance the modern fresh feel to the upper floors.
If you’re passing by, walk up to the top floor balcony, there’s an extraordinary view of Dublin that few people see. To the east you gaze over Ormond Square where the great Johnny Giles, freeman of Dublin, kicked his first football. Further away lie the Georgian roofs of Capel Street. To the left lies the Corporation’s Fruit and Vegetable Market, soon to open its doors to the general public and allow retail as well as wholesale trade. To the north, the closed motor tax office stands as a monument to the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s. Simms sadly took his life in 1948, but his legacy of extraordinary housing schemes all over Dublin are a testimony to his genius and dedication to providing decent housing for the working classes of Dublin. Simms’ buildings were innovative, and well built. He had an eye for detail and a strong understanding of what was happening elsewhere in Europe. At a time when the need for Council housing is under question in the corridors of the Customs House, Chancery House and the legacy of Herbert Simms shows us that good decent housing is a worthwhile investment.
Ciarán Cuffe is a Green Party City Councillor and runs the MSc in Urban Regeneration at the Dublin Institute of Technology. You’ll find him on the Twitter machine @CiaranCuffe
Words: Ciarán Cuffe