Artsdesk: Do Something – Housing Unlocked


Posted 2 months ago in Arts & Culture Features

Eight architect-led proposals explore how to unlock housing potential in our villages, towns and cities.

At the beginning of Housing Unlocked, we are confronted by the following questions: “How do we build affordable homes and resilient communities? How fast can we deliver low carbon homes? Can we increase housing density at the edges of cities? How can we use untapped potential to solve housing problems in our towns? Can towns and cities find extra housing in iconic buildings, church sites and vacant shops? How might we optimise quality of life in a compact urban block?”

Given the breadth and impact of Dublin’s long-standing housing crisis, these questions are clearly relevant to the contemporary moment. The chief success of this exhibition, organised as a joint venture between the Housing Agency and the Irish Architecture Foundation, is that it not only manages to pose questions about housing and construction practices from a range of interesting, well-informed perspectives, but it also proposes actionable and simple solutions to the structural deficits in our housing market, which, to an outsider, seem deeply entrenched.

In fact, this exhibition is something of an outlier among the kind of shows we normally cover for the Arts Desk. By investigating solutions to concrete problems and showcasing the expertise of a range of creative engineers and architects who don’t identify as artists, Housing Unbound occupies a liminal position vis-a-vis art. The show is split into several installations that have been deftly arranged and developed by the curatorial team, but, although the language and format of its presentation belong to the art world, the content is probably better described as art-adjacent. That said, the impressive aesthetic of the installation materials, the conceptual imaginativeness of the research and their proposals, and the sheer urgency that underwrites the purpose of the show are all good reasons for our column to be devoted to this exhibition. Moreover, the venue for the exhibition is itself of interest for an art feature, insofar as it is located in the Science Gallery, which recently closed due to its lack of profitability.*

In her January statement, posted on the website’s homepage, Trinity Provost Linda Doyle wrote that the galley “had problems in recent years” and that “in its present form, with its substantial and growing debt, it cannot overcome those problems.” She continued that the closure “will not be the end of the gallery story,” but the Science Gallery “needs to be totally reimagined and work very differently from the way it does now.” I don’t know how this exhibition fits into the re-imagining that Doyle refers to, but whatever the status of that wider project, it is heartening to see a new exhibition taking place within the gallery walls.

There are too many installations to discuss in detail, but a selection should give you an idea of what to expect. On the ground floor you’ll find one of the most visually striking models in the show, prepared by architect and researcher David Lawless and Sophie Kelliher in collaboration with Michael Murphy and Niamh NicGhabhann. The inspiration behind their proposal “Thirty-Three Churches” comes from the fact that the Archdiocese of Dublin submitted a number of their church sites for potential re-zoning as residential units to the Dublin City Council Development Plan (2022-2028). Lawless and Kelliher examined one of these sites, St. Mary’s Church of the Angels in D7, and designed a layout that divides the church into a place for both worship and private dwelling. The plan reworks the space by lowering the central vault and then building the apartments above. According to their proposal, St. Mary’s can accommodate 10 one-bed and 10 two-bed duplex apartments, which is roughly equivalent to homes for up to 60 people. Domestic and religious spaces are traditionally at odds with one another, and the use of the existing architecture for both purposes is profoundly engaging, in equally aesthetic and conceptual senses.

Nor is this the only installation to draw attention to the possible adaptation of buildings in the wake of an institutional crisis: the architects Tom Cookson and Sarah Carroll are similarly intrigued by the closure of 103 regional branches of the Bank of Ireland, announced in March 2021. Their principle is simple: take all of those large ornate buildings, transform the upper levels into apartments, and turn the ground floor “banking hall” into a communal “covered free space.” According to their estimations, the adaptation of every closed BOI branch would result in 620 units, but that number would be drastically increased to 5200 units in the event that construction could take advantage of the “potential of backlands adjacent to, and behind, these bank sites.”

Two exhibits on the first floor jumped out at me. The first does not actually belong among the proposals; in fact, it technically doesn’t belong to Housing Unlocked at all. ‘Workers Villages’, also organised by the Irish Architecture Foundation, is beside the Housing Unlocked installations, but the exhibit draws you in so naturally that it feels like one curatorial ensemble. This exhibit is an historical exposition of the Bord na Móna villages designed by the architect Frank Gibney. As someone unfamiliar with Gibney, this ‘exhibition within an exhibition’ was eye-opening and a perfect companion to the proposals. Gibney, born in 1905, became a well-respected town planner that designed several villages for the semi-state body during the 1950s. All of these villages are held to be “beacons of sustainable planning and urban design” and “remarkable for their long-lasting use, distinct designs, incorporation of public space, density, walkability and liveability,” according to the IAF’s analysis. This ambition is what ties the exhibit so neatly into the goals of Housing Unlocked: Gibney is an historical benchmark for taking on large-scale, creative housing projects that resulted in a series of successful and socially productive neighbourhoods. 

Secondly, the proposal ‘Start Spreading the Mews’ presents an enormous map that analyses the wastefulness of Dublin’s ‘low-density’ suburban areas. Put together by architects Stephen Foley, Sara Acebes and researcher Stephen Wall, in collaboration with David Gaffney Rocha and Jordia Acacia, the size of the team speaks to the scale of the project’s research efforts. The heart of the proposal is that many suburbs, especially those built prior to modern regulatory requirements, are composed of dwelling plots that are unnecessarily large and that frequently connect to laneways at the back, many of which are obsolete. The team have analysed 64km of roadways within the M50 in Dublin and identified dozens of low-density housing zones that could be easily adapted. The method to encourage these adaptations is a little controversial: the proposal calls for “mew housing” to be exempted from requirements for planning permission. However, the architectural team is not advocating a free-for-all: they claim that new regulations could be drafted in addition to the policy on mew housing “to avoid issues relating to overshadowing, overlooking and loss of amenity for neighbouring residents.”

As is evident from this small selection, the show carries a number of imaginative and thoughtful ideas that unsettle the norms typifying Irish housing practices, in an effort to implement substantial changes. The reason for change is clear to everyone: a slow-rolling housing crisis that spans almost a decade. As enjoyable as this exhibition is for its combination of ingenuity, aesthetics and expert application of architectural theory, the burning issue that provides its curatorial impetus lends every installation a patina of urgency. As I left and walked back through Trinity College campus, the overall impression I had of Housing Unlocked was that it issued a single, insistent demand: that something – anything – must be done. 

Words: Tom Lordon

Photos: Ste Murray

Housing Unlocked is at the Science Gallery until January 21.

* According to a recent article in the Business Post, the Science Gallery is due to open in 2023, though no spokesperson has confirmed this at time of publishing.

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